At the core of many participatory policymaking schemes and civic engagement strategies is the exercise of public deliberation. What do contemporary currents in psychology and neuroscience have to say about the mental and social processes that shape our ability to deliberate and, ultimately, to reason? The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his team at CivilPolitics summarize the implications thusly:
"Moral psychology has undergone a revolution since the late 1990s. The field used to be focused on moral reasoning, leading researcher to examine the conditions that foster better deliberation. (See for example ongoing projects on deliberative democracy, which reflect this 'rationalist' orientation). But social psychologists in the 1990s began to question the power of reasoning and other 'controlled' conscious processes. They have emphasized the importance of 'automatic' and often unconscious processes, which often include emotion. They have also emphasized the importance of social norms and environmental factors in shaping behavior. (See this short review of the field, by Haidt). This perspective leads to a very different approach to the pursuit of civility. At CivilPolitics, most (but not all) of us believe that direct appeals to people to behave civilly will have very limited effects."
But do these findings extinguish all hopes for constructive public deliberation? Quite the opposite. In his latest book, Haidt reaffirms the power of reason, but stresses that such reasoning must be interactive. As the New York Times puts it: "It has to be other people’s reason engaging yours. We’re lousy at challenging our own beliefs, but we’re good at challenging each other’s." Haidt compares us to neurons in a giant brain, capable of “producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.” Therefore, it would seem that carefully structured group deliberations may provide just the means for transcending the cognitive and motivational biases that constrain our individual reasoning, provided effective facilitation and broad representation. Alas, with users often veiled in anonymity, it would seem that the web lacks the primary drivers of social empathy and etiquette that are fundamental to fostering constructive dialogue.
For more on Haidt's research into morality and politics, watch his TED Talk.