Research Statement

How does ideology bind people together in cooperative, trusting communities? How might ideology make people happier and healthier? How does ideology blind members of groups to the concerns and perspectives of members of other groups? I seek to answer these questions using a variety of methods, and then to apply this knowledge to reduce conflicts between groups, promote pro-social behaviors within communities, and promote individual mental and physical health.

Why and How People Create Ideological Enclaves

People gravitate to similar others. This has been observed in segregation by demographic identities, such as race and ethnicity, and by occupational and personality characteristics. I have shown that it occurs by morality and political ideology. With my collaborators, I have discovered that political and religious radicalization is driven, in part, by the construction of ideologically segregated enclaves (e.g., Motyl & Pyszczynski, 2010; Motyl, Rothschild, & Pyszczynski, 2009; Pyszczynski, Motyl, & Abdollahi, 2009). In these communities, people are exposed to fewer alternative ideas, which increases the likelihood of attitudinal polarization and dehumanization of people in other communities with different ideologies (Goldenberg, Heflick, Vaes, Motyl, & Greenberg, 2009; Pyszczynski, Henthorn, Motyl, & Gerow, 2009).

I hypothesize that this process of ideological and moral segregation is occurring in the United States. In one set of studies including two different national samples of participants (Motyl, Iyer, Oishi, Trawalter, & Nosek, 2014), we found that Americans living in communities where their values were in the minority felt like they belonged in their community less than those whose values were in the majority. Furthermore, when Americans perceive that they are moral misfits in their community, they are more likely to migrate to a new, better-fitting community (see also Motyl, in press). In a series of experiments, I led people to think about how their values did not fit with their community's and found heightened desires to migrate to a more ideologically-fitting community. In analyses of World Values Survey data, I found that people were more averse to having neighbors with dissimilar ideological identities compared to neighbors with dissimilar demographic identities (Motyl & Iyer, in preparation). Thus, it appears that moral similarity is an important consideration in choosing where to live and whether one feels a sense of belonging in one's community.

The emergence of ideologically-segregated communities is complicated because people's ideologies are not necessarily visually evident. Research on stigmatized identities suggests that ambient cues in a physical environment affect whether people feel that they belong and whether they choose to remain in a given setting. In the context of moral ideologies, political scientists and sociologists have documented that liberal and conservative communities are qualitatively different. For example, conservative communities tend to have a higher gun store to bookstore ratio than liberal communities. Thus, I found that ambient cues of a community's ideology (e.g., the ratio of gun stores to book stores, religious iconography) influence how people select and navigate their communities. In a series of studies relying on diverse methodological approaches (e.g., Google Street View, naturalistic observations, vignettes), my colleagues and I found that people felt that they belonged less in communities with ambient cues indicative of values incongruent with one's own (Motyl, Iyer, Trawalter, & Haidt, in prep). My future research will examine how ambient cues may negatively affect people's behaviors towards members of other groups, cognitive style, and their mental and physical well-being.

The Benefits of Living in Ideological Enclaves Emile Durkheim found that socially integrated Catholic communities had lower suicide rates than their less socially integrated Protestant neighbors. He explained that this negative outcome for the Protestant communities was due to moral confusion, unclear social norms, and weakened social connections. Thus, living in communities with coherent moral worldviews, clear social norms, and where people feel like they belong should engender more positive outcomes (Iyer, Motyl, & Graham, 2013). My current research documents that people living in communities where their values are in the majority tend to report fewer chronic health problems and depressive symptoms, and greater satisfaction with life (Chopik & Motyl, 2013; Motyl & Oishi, 2013). This suggests that ideological-moral migration may be creating communities where people adhering to the values of the ideological majority are happier and healthier.

In addition to negative health outcomes, moral misfits may experience negative cognitive consequences. These misfits perceive more threat in their environment, and expend cognitive resources to cope with that threat. This leaves misfits with fewer cognitive resources to engage in open-minded thinking, leading them to be more close-minded and dogmatic in specific contexts. My dissertation research examined this possibility. In two large, national datasets, I found that moral misfits - on the political right and left - are less open-minded than people living in communities where their values fit better. In addition to these correlational data, I conducted experiments in which I induced participants with the experience of being a moral misfit and examined how this impacted their cognitive performance using various behavioral measures (Motyl, in progress). These findings suggest that the widely-reported findings that people with right-wing ideologies are more rigid should be recast; rather, people who are ideological misfits (e.g., as conservatives are in most colleges and liberals are in law enforcement fields). In related work, my colleagues and I have found that threat leads to increased dogmatism (Vail, Arndt, Motyl, & Pyszczynski, 2012).

In addition to the intrapersonal outcomes, moral homogeneity may have positive consequences for interpersonal relationships and intragroup functioning. Organizational behavior research suggests that moral diversity typically undermines work group productivity, decreases trust, and increases anxiety. Therefore, if people are migrating to communities where there is less moral diversity, they may be more productive, more trusting of their neighbors, and more cooperative and prosocial. To test this, Rachel Riskind and I created a social climate database with information on all 34,000 census blocks in the United States (Riskind & Motyl, 2013). By looking at the religious affiliations and Presidential vote percentages of these communities, I create indices for moral diversity and misfit scores of specific individuals in the large datasets I have access to. Using these types of data, I will examine how moral diversity affects community-level charitable giving (e.g., blood donation) and civic engagement. Additionally, I will see how the degree of misfit affects how cooperative and prosocial individuals are are using diverse methodological approaches including charitable donations and economic games. Together, these findings will clarify how moral migration may benefit intragroup functioning.

The Downsides of Living in Ideological Enclaves While the individual and intragroup effects of ideological segregation are generally positive, the intergroup effects are more negative. Extensive past research shows that intergroup contact is an important ingredient in developing more positive intergroup relations. Moral migration leads to intergroup segregation, which reduces intergroup contact. This segregation fosters increased intergroup dehumanization, hostility, and support for violence (Crawford & Motyl, 2013; Motyl & Pyszczynski, 2010; Pyszczynski, Rothschild, Motyl, & Abdollahi, 2009). My colleagues and I find that cues of differing moral values and threats to one's own moral values leads to increased existential anxiety, perceived threat, and increased support for using extreme military actions against outgroups (Vail, Arndt, Motyl, & Pyszczynski, 2012; Vail, Motyl, Abdollahi, & Pyszczynski, 2011). Thus, despite the positive effects of moral migration on individuals and intragroup functioning, it may have negative consequences for intergroup relations.

Strategies for Calming Moral and Ideological Conflicts These negative consequences, however, are not inevitable. To demonstrate this, I have tested various interventions to combat this tendency. For example, I led participants to consider basic human experiences that are shared by all people, regardless of group identity, and found that this reduced implicit and explicit hostility towards outgroups (Motyl et al., 2011). In another set of studies, we reminded fundamentalist Christian Americans, fundamentalist Muslim Iranians, extremist Palestinians, and right-wing Israelis of the global effects that climate change might have, and found that they became less hostile and violent towards one another (Pyszczynski, Motyl, Vail, Hirschberger, & Abdollahi, 2012). Finally, we infrahumanized violent behaviors by suggesting that violence is instinctual and animal-like, and this led to reduced support for militaristic responses in international conflicts (Motyl et al., 2010; Motyl et al., 2012). These studies all provide possible routes to improving intergroup relations, but do not specifically address the apparent trade-off between positive individual and intragroup effects and negative intergroup effects. My future research will examine this trade-off. I will examine how individuals and groups can thrive without causing increased intergroup conflict.

Conclusion My research is motivated by a desire to understand why people with differing values struggle to communicate with one another in a civil way, and to understand what consequences this struggle has on intergroup conflict, intragroup cooperation, and personal well-being. In order to understand these factors, I use diverse methods and study diverse populations in order to understand how psychological factors vary across different real-world contexts. Ultimately, I hope to communicate these findings to policy makers who might be able to apply them. In the past, I worked with the Center for Homeland Security Studies and shared this work with international organizations including NATO (e.g., Pyszczynski, Vail, & Motyl, 2009). Currently, I am Co-Director of, where my colleagues and I propose ways in which we can cultivate a more civil and respectful political environment. I intend to continue communicating these findings to policy makers who may use them to understand and resolve conflicts around the world.

To view my publications, visit my publications page.