Given this groupish nature and strong belief systems, will we demonize non-believers?
Dividing into teams doesn't necessarily mean denigrating others. Studies of groupishness have generally found that groups increase in-group love far more than they increase out-group hostility. Dividing into groups increases social capital and trust, it's generally a good thing. But when it crosses the line from "we disagree with you" to "you are evil," then people begin to believe the ends justify the means and all hell breaks loose. That's where we are now in the U.S. where politicians and their consultants will do all kinds of devious, underhand, sometimes illegal things to help their party win and to damage the other party. They think that if you're fighting Satan, it's OK to break the rules.
Where can we see this demonization in action?
In the U.S., something called Oppo Research, or "opposition research," is a huge business, and some of it is illegal. You go through dumpsters, tap phones—try to get anything that will destroy careers. This is terrible stuff. Who would want to go into public service now? There are lots of highly paid people trying to destroy you, and if they have to lie or make up stuff to do it, they will. But these people think they're ultimately doing good.
What's the solution? Understand the moral motivations of the other side?
Yes. In my moral psychology class where I work with students for 14 weeks, I always find that the students don't change their politics—they don't become more centrist—but they stop demonizing others and actually become interested in listening to the other side.
What about extreme groups like the Tea Party?
Liberals have difficulty understanding the Tea Party because they think it is a bunch of selfish racists. But I think the Tea Party is driven in large part by concerns about fairness. It's not fairness as equality of outcomes, it's fairness as karma—the idea that good deeds will lead to good outcomes and bad deeds will lead to suffering. Many conservatives believe the Democratic party has been the anti-karma party since the ’60s. It's the party that says, you got pregnant? Don't worry, have an abortion. You got addicted to drugs? Don't worry, we'll give you methadone. It's the party that absolves you from moral irresponsibility.
The Tea Partiers don't hate all government: just government they see as subverting karma, subverting moral responsibility. This hatred is, I think, a derivative of their love of proportionality. They're perfectly happy with social security, a retirement scheme which Franklin D. Roosevelt deliberately portrayed as a form of fairness, you pay in and you get out.
Has your research changed what you think about politics?
I got into this as a partisan liberal, who was trying to help Democrats overcome decades of cluelessness on moral psychology. While trying to understand conservatives and libertarians, I've realized they are right about a number of things. So if you just let one team—liberals, conservatives or libertarians—run everything, they're going to screw up because they don't have a full tool kit. My highest hope for my book is that it will help people get some perspective on moral disagreements. We're all morally motivated (apart from 1 percent who are psychopaths). Each side sees truths about how to run a good society which the other side can't see, so we need everyone's insights.
This article originally appeared in New Scientist.