Democracy and Social Identity

Helping to pave the way for democratic renewal in the United States and abroad

The Problem

The rising trend of authoritarianism in recent decades is reflected in high levels of extreme political polarization, which interferes with the ability to forge political compromise as a result of perceived threat, motive misattribution, meta-misperceptions, and collective blame.

These dynamics have a corrosive impact on national capacities to solve consequential collective problems and actualize both electoral and democratic ideals. Still, we tend to misdiagnose drivers and symptoms of democratic decline, overestimating the role of mass polarization and underestimating that of social identity and identity-based conflict.

To meet this moment, there is an urgent need to better understand the psychological forces that shape our fears, anxieties, outrage, and distrust of each other. Coupled with traditional methods for strengthening democracy through structural reform and civic engagement, and understanding of the psychology of what drives us apart can expand our collective imagination for how to build social cohesion and democratic legitimacy.

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Beyond Conflict
198 Tremont Street, Suite 453
Boston, MA 02116

Our Approach

Our research and programming are organized around three psychological underpinnings of democracy: (1) political tolerance; (2) support for the protection of civil liberties across all social identity groups; and, (3) public interest in participating in the process of government. Applying insights from, and developing innovations based on, brain and behavioral science is essential to resolving our current civic health crisis.

To address these multifaceted challenges, Beyond Conflict combines relevant and rigorous applied research together with practitioner insights in a way that directly informs national-level policymaking and grassroots programming. We do this in a three-stage process: Diagnose, Design, and Redefine.

DIAGNOSE

In partnership with leading social scientists, we investigate the intersections of social identity, trauma, and sacred values to identify the drivers of toxic polarization, rising support for authoritarianism, and deepening social division. In addition to isolating the drivers, we test innovative approaches to intervention to determine scalable approaches for strengthening democracy at home and abroad.

DESIGN

We are currently designing interventions to determine how best to reduce social identity threat, competitive victimhood, and declining social trust to increase openness to cross-group dialogue and deliberative democracy measures that are essential to strengthening the psychological underpinnings of democracy reducing the inclination toward authoritarian practice. 

REDEFINE

As we seek to better understand how we compel adherence to democratic norms and reduce popular willingness to violate those norms, our work aims to offer up alternative frames with which to analyze the drivers–and accordant solutions–of democratic decline and rising populist sentiment.

Upcoming Projects

America’s Divided Mind

Following the release of the America’s Divided Mind report, Beyond Conflict expanded its focus on identity-based polarization into a multi-pronged initiative to explore the range of psychological drivers of social division that threaten American democracy. This initiative includes support for a robust program of applied social science research designed to inform practical approaches to cultivating an enabling environment for transformational change and democratic renewal in the U.S. Current research explores how to meaningfully reduce levels of identity threat in a way that increases the effectiveness of cross-group dialogue and negotiations, and unpacks how social identity conflicts impact an individual’s willingness to adhere to democratic norms.

Contested Histories: Memory and Repair

In partnership with the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation, among others, Beyond Conflict is spearheading a multi-year U.S. initiative focused on historical memory and repair. This interdisciplinary effort aims to identify the principles, processes, and best practices for dealing with public memorials and symbols of contested histories, ultimately producing a context-specific, evidence-based process for use by community leaders, institutions, historical commissions, and elected officials. The initiative will lead among the first-ever national conferences on contested histories in the US, in addition to producing an interactive digital resource hub, and provide strategic support for communities seeking additional guidance on conflict resolution at the nexus of contentious public memorials.

Movements for Social Change

Translating insights from clinical psychology, social psychology, and peacebuilding, this initiative explores how trauma—acute, chronic, and intergenerational—impacts the strategic and tactical choices of social movements. This includes efforts to expand understanding of the role of collective action in collective healing. In partnership with Humanity United, Beyond Conflict is also distilling learning from brain and behavioral science to develop evidence-based guidance for use by advocates globally to inform their messaging strategies concerning their movement’s overarching goals and chosen approach.

Psychological Underpinnings of Democracy

Beyond Conflict has constructed a novel, evidence-informed framework for increasing the effectiveness of democracy strengthening initiatives globally by focusing on the psychological underpinnings of democracy. A practical resource guide that translates the framework for use in programming will be developed for utilization by individuals and organizations planning, funding, and implementing related efforts.