Researchers expand study of intergroup conflict, partisan division, and bridging divides

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Americans have grappled with health concerns, economic uncertainty, and varying degrees of isolation. Those circumstances can intensify challenges for how people engage with each other. Professor Kurt Gray and other scholars at the UNC Center for the Science of Moral Understanding are taking those challenges head on — studying what drives people to turn away from each other and testing the tools that empower them to come together. And UNC-Chapel Hill is announcing plans to expand its work:

[A new $1.8 million] gift will be used for scientific research, course development and support for other center initiatives. Gray said he and his team of postdoctoral and student researchers are focused on building upon their previous successes.

“We are expanding the scope and diversity of our initiatives, making the center into a central hub for groundbreaking research, scholar development, and for bridging science and society,” he said. “We are also developing collaborations with partnership organizations who have ‘boots on the ground’ including BridgeUSA and Soliya, both leaders in bridging divides in college students.”

In its first year, the center worked to establish the nascent field of moral understanding, which draws on elements from social psychology, moral psychology and political science, all of which are relevant for understanding intergroup conflict and moral divides. In addition to building an internal research program, Gray and his team have funded creative new scholars doing research across the country, and they are building an online collaboration network to further catalyze the science of moral understanding.

Moving into its second year, Gray is developing an undergraduate course that will be offered in spring 2022. It will provide undergraduate students with a scientific framework for understanding moral divides and provide practitioner-tested tools to help guide civil discussions about hot-button issues, including politics and religion.

The stakes are high. And the work is timely too. As Americans prepare for Thanksgiving — whether they’re planning to connect through virtual methods like Zoom and FaceTime or to meet in-person following public health guidelines — at the top of many minds this year is the recent election. To share findings about why holiday conversations are challenging, the center is convening other scholars to host “Talking Politics Over Turkey: Why It’s So Hard and How To Do It Better,” a discussion designed to help each of us build the capacity for respectful engagement across all types of difference. The panel will be moderated by Center Director Kurt Gray and consist of NYU Professor Jay Van Bavel; Berkeley Haas professor Juliana Schroeder; and Essential Partners co-executive director John Sarrouf.

Learn more about the work of path-breaking scholars like Gray, Schroeder, and others through the Charles Koch Foundation’s “Courageous Collaborations” initiative.

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