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The Learning Curve

Moral reframing: How to work with, not against, our tribal tendencies 

People underestimate their opponent’s capacity to feel basic human sensations. We can short-circuit this impulse through moral reframing and perspective taking.
Democrat elephant faces the Republican donkey
Credit: Victor Moussa / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Our tribalist mindset pushes us to dehumanize those we view as ideological opponents.
  • According to social psychologist Adam Waytz, moral reframing can help us bridge these divides more empathically.
  • When paired with perspective-taking, it can help us rehumanize our image of others, even if we ultimately disagree with them.

Tribalism is easy to spot in today’s world. We see it when a politician posts an incendiary tweet. We see it in history books and on the nightly news when whole groups of people are treated as subhuman. We even see it in the social battle lines drawn around the most frivolous of things, such as team colors or preferred cinematic universes.

But take stock of these examples, and you may notice a trend. Most of them are external, the result of someone else’s poor judgment or lack of empathy. Tribalism is far more difficult to spot when it occurs within us, and it can happen in our minds as readily as it does on Twitter or at the stadium.

As social psychologist Adam Waytz pointed out in a Big Think+ interview: “Tribalism is certainly a basic human tendency — to unite around people with the shared values, shared beliefs, shared identities. We see a lot of tribalism that then can feed dehumanization because when we have a group of close, connected others that we’re surrounded by, oftentimes the salience of a common outgroup, or common enemy, becomes clearer.”

The reason is that our tribal tendencies are hardwired into our mental makeup. Neuroscientists can scan our brains to observe our social networks light up when engaging with our ingroup — as well as how those same areas stay dark when engaging with outgroups. Thankfully, Waytz noted, there are ways to better manage our tribal tendencies, and one is to work with them.

A woman stands in the cold in a red jacket.
Research shows that people deny basic feelings and emotions to their ideological opponents, such as how cold they might be standing outside. (Credit: Alexey Demidov/Pexels)

The politics of dehumanizing outgroups

One of the most obvious examples of tribalism is politics. The politics of fear do more than gum up the legislative works; they cause people to see each other in dehumanizing terms.

Waytz points to research by Ed O’Brien and Phoebe Ellsworth to support this. In their research, they asked participants to estimate how thirsty people would get if they ate salty crackers or how cold they would be standing outside. When people analyzed these basic human sensations in ideologically similar people, they did relatively well. But when asked to do the same across party lines, they greatly underestimated the other’s capacity to feel.

“So at a fundamental level, you’re denying even the most basic mental processes to someone who’s ideologically different from you,” Waytz said.

In his studies, Waytz and his team have shown that progressives and conservatives tend to view each other as driven more by hate than love. This is an extension of the attribution bias — in which we tend to explain others’ behaviors as the result of their character while explaining our behavior as the result of situational forces. 

For example, when Republicans stage a walkout to break a legislative quorum, Democrats may complain that the move is spiteful, immoral, or a clear flouting of protocol. But when Democrats stage a similar walkout, they are more driven to explain the strategy as necessary given the circumstances. Of course, Republicans play the same word games.

“When it comes to moral judgments, we think we are scientists discovering the truth, but actually, we are lawyers arguing for positions we arrived at by other means.”

– Jonathan Haidt

Moral reframing

According to Waytz, one way to close tribal gaps is by a process called “moral reframing.” Drawing on work from psychologists Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer — themselves building on the moral framework research of Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham — Waytz notes how different sides usually approach a disagreement from two distinct foundations. 

Returning to progressives and conservatives, the former tend to be driven by questions of equality and harm, while the latter tend to be driven by a sense of purity and loyalty. Knowing this, we can soften disagreements and bridge partisan divides if we acknowledge the other side’s concerns and frame the issue within their moral perspective (at least initially).

To make help moral reframing stick, Waytz recommends a three-step process:

  1. Identify the values that the other person cares about.
  2. Reframe the issue in terms of their values.
  3. Communicate that message clearly, emphasizing that you get where they’re coming from.

For example, Waytz said, consider the contentiousness surrounding environmentalism: “If you reframe the issue of pollution in terms of a value that conservatives resonate with – say, sanctity and purity, that pollution is actually making the country less pure or less sanctified — conservatives are much more likely to get on board with the idea that we should be doing something about the environment.” This approach won’t send diehard conservatives running to join Greenpeace anytime soon. But it could move discussions beyond a point where compromise is viewed as synonymous with losing.

Rehumanizing the other

Haidt offers an apt analogy for why ideological debates often fail: “When it comes to moral judgments, we think we are scientists discovering the truth, but actually, we are lawyers arguing for positions we arrived at by other means.”

We often approach members of outgroups like prosecuting attorneys ready to argue our case. But to understand others, we need to build a case from their perspective. 

Waytz calls this complement of moral framing “perspective-getting,” but it is sometimes called “steel-manning.” Both ask us to see an outgroup’s silent values, understand their data points, and be willing to fairly grasp their arguments.

A more formal approach to this would be Rapoport’s rules. Named for Russian-born mathematician and biologist Anatol Rapoport, these rules are a guide for perspective-taking. 

Start by describing the other person’s perspective as clearly, vividly, and justly as possible. Then mention anything learned from the other perspective alongside points agreement. This may not create a sense of complete tribal cohesion, but it can at least formulate a Venn diagram of tribal connection. Only after these steps are complete can areas of disagreement be discussed.

Importantly, taking another’s perspective doesn’t mean we need to agree on everything. It simply means we’ve taken the time to internalize another’s worldview and try it on for ourselves. 

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As Waytz points out, this can help us rehumanize our tribal opponents in two ways. First, it’s difficult to continue dehumanizing someone whose values we can empathize with. Second, it allows us to reframe disagreements in terms the outgroup can respect. And that can help us overcome deadlocks that would otherwise remain at an impasse for healthy dialogue.

Learn more on Big Think+

With a diverse library of lessons from the world’s biggest thinkers, Big Think+ helps businesses get smarter, faster. To access Adam Waytz’s lessons for your organization, request a demo.


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