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The study of conflict shows that divided people can come together when they talk

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  • Deliberative democracy
  • Institutional reform

One of the most famous experiments in social psychology took place in Robbers Cave state park, Oklahoma, in the early 1950s.

It split a group of boys into two groups and showed how these random groups became hostile to each other.

It’s often mentioned as an example of how easy it is to create conflict. But people forget that in the original experiment, the boys learned to work together.

At the moment, it feels like society is very divided. Politics is driving us apart. But we can still find common ground. To do that, we need to come together and talk.

Not just every 5 years for an election, but regularly. We call it ‘everyday deliberation’ and the RSA is working with Engage Britain to make it happen.  

What was the Robbers Cave experiment? Why doesn’t it show conflict is inevitable?

In the ‘Robbers Cave experiment’, a summer camp for boys was set up by a team of psychologists (led by Muzafer Sherif). The boys were split into two groups – named the Eagles and the Rattlers – and invited to participate in activities that were deliberately designed to create hostility.

Following a Tug of War won by the Rattlers, flags were burned, cabins were raided, and boys from both sides engaged in vandalism and food fights.

Much has been written about this study since, including some of the dubious methods employed by the researchers. Very often the focus is on how easy it is to engineer enmity.

But this would be to misunderstand the study's full sweep.

At the end of their period of hostility, the water supply was deliberately cut off by the researchers. It became apparent to both the Eagles and the Rattlers that they could only overcome the set-back by working together and collaborating.

So, the real story is how tribal barriers can be broken down under the right contexts. And the importance of the contextual environment in influencing how we engage with each other. 

The country is divided. But there’s more that unites us than it seems.

The Robbers Cave study took place in the 1950s. But its conclusions resonate with us today.

Brexit is said to have divided the country.

Like in the experiment, some people on either side of the divide dislike the opposing side intensely. And we’re all capable of interpreting the same information in radically different ways depending on which side of the divide they stand.

But the latest research also shows that there are many more issues that unite people across the divide. We find widespread similar concerns like the funding of health and social care or tackling poverty, and growing consensus on a range of social issues like same-sex marriage. 

So we can also say today is like the lesser-known happy ending of the experiment.

That bringing people together to discuss and deliberate on important issues helps them to empathise with individuals from different backgrounds. That empathy helps people form views that prevent needless division.

And this is why the RSA is partnering with a new organisation called Engage Britain to promote the concept of ‘Everyday Deliberation’.

Everyday Deliberation – let’s use technology to talk to each other

Everyday Deliberation is the idea of bringing people to together on a regular, even daily, basis to discuss important issues.

Why? We think doing this regularly might help to change political culture – make it more about deliberation and not division.

How? New developments in technology, which allow us to take deliberative democracy to the next level.

Interest in deliberative democracy is growing. It can be really useful in tackling complex policy problems. One of the best-known forms of deliberative democracy is the Citizens’ Assembly - a randomly selected group, chosen to reflect the wider population, which meets to talk about a problem or policy idea and makes recommendations.

Citizens’ Assemblies hold huge promise. But we now also have the online platforms to include a larger number of people in the conversation, on a bigger number of topics. We think this can have a real impact.

To try and make this happen, the RSA is partnering with Engage Britain. They are a new organisation whose mission is to bring people together to tackle the UK’s most complex policy challenges.

The RSA and Engage Britain will be exploring how these new approaches might enable us to use these online deliberative methods to support the development of Everyday Deliberation. We hope you’ll join the conversation.


If you’re interested in exploring these ideas with us, please get in touch at PublicServices@rsa.org.uk 

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  • Here's a good practice checklist for anyone (considering) commissioning, conducting or evaluating a citizens assembly or citizens jury approach to deliberative & participative democracy. It's also designed to challenge on a few common blind spots! 


    https://medium.com/@PaulVittles/a-transparency-audit-checklist-for-citizens-assemblies-citizens-juries-and-other-deliberative-472651539e73


    In the past 12 months, we've seen several examples of intensive f2f deliberation at the expense of wider participation; massive investment in one f2f jury or assembly among 25-110 citizens. I would agree that we need 'everyday deliberation' AND we also need 'everyday participation' (as was argued at the #NotWestminster event in Huddersfield last week), with all of this underpinned by a philosophy and practice of 'everyday connection'. 


    This widens our perspective, eg. while I sat watching presentations at ClimateAssemblyUK focused on measures to 'get to Net Zero Emissions by 2050' such as car-sharing, I thought 'that's part of the tackling loneliness agenda'. Let's think laterally and join up, not get into new 'deliberative silos'!


    The checklist I drafted was (partly) intended to help those planning what they might be thinking is 'a deliberative event' to facilitate a wider conversation with wider participation, for a healthier democracy and society. 

  • This was a brilliant read! Thank you for articulating this. I'd love to know more on how I may engage.

  • Yes we need to unite not divide. Sadly the 'Deliberative Wave' with its hype of one particular f2f Citizens Assembly model plus the ignorance & prejudice displayed towards online deliberative & participative democracy has been very divisive, and has not served democracy well over the past 12 months. 


    Good to read (above) that The RSA is wanting to explore the role of 'everyday deliberation' online. Has The RSA finally seen the light on digital democracy? 


    I have designed and facilitated 180 online forums (average duration 4-6 weeks), and run several continuous online forums so when I'm repeatedly told by those who claim to be advocates of deliberative & participative democracy that "it can't be done online", I know that's not true! 


    I followed the recent 'Innovating Local Democracy' events which I thought, once again, displayed ignorance of and bias towards online methods. Then, independently, I saw this article from Jonty Bradley (from leading online engagement platform provider Bang The Table/Engagement HQ). A highly recommended read:


    https://bangthetable.com/blog/putting-innovation-in-local-democracy/


    I'm also keeping a list of all of the digital democracy tools that could have been used to enhance #ClimateAssemblyUK (which, despite a budget of £520K is just one face-to-face forum with no online channels and no opportunities for participation for those not lucky enough to be among the 110 selected to take part (which were NOT a 'random sample' btw!).

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