A basket of deplorables, lowlifes, morally corrupt, socialists, communists, idiots, zealots, and nut jobs. The short version of a long list. This is the political language commonly found across the United States. In the not too distant background of these labels are stereotypes, class divisions, racism, and misogyny, which magnifies the intensity of the words.

Strong and vindictive language has always been present on the American scene but has gained outsized purchase in recent years. During Obama’s eight years and the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, many conservatives felt ignored, mistreated. and abused. During Trump’s four years, liberals felt a harsh and cruel assault on the country’s institutions and all they hold dear. Two sides at each other’s throats. In this environment, are the calls for unity in any way possible?

Psychological research done over sixty years ago by social psychologist Muzafer Sherif and others may provide some insight into what might bring us a little closer together.

In their study, 11-year-old boys were sent to a remote summer camp and divided into two groups. During the first week, the researchers created an atmosphere of strong bonds within each group and intense competition between groups. Animosity, both physical and verbal, between the two groups grew. Increasing contact between the two opposing groups only increased the hostility.

Later, formerly opposing groups were forced to work together on common goals. The result was that prejudice and tension between the groups eased. In short, acceptance and cooperation were achieved, not through education or contact, but by working on a common goal.

Beyond formal school settings, the effect of education is limited. This is especially true politically when differences of ideology are extreme, when the different parties are otherwise not socially engaged and when parties are in separate information silos. These are the current characteristics of our political environment.

When habits or ideologies are very hardened, education is not only of little value, but it can be counter-productive. Research on reversing discrimination illustrates this finding. In a meta-analysis of 985 studies examining anti-bias interventions, commonly required in major corporations, Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev found little evidence that these programs reduced bias. If anything, such educational interventions activated stereotypes rather than eliminated them.

Columnist Anne Applebaum, writing in The Atlantic Magazine on the topic of our national discourse, suggests we cease the argument and change the subject, when possible. She goes on to cite that this counterintuitive advice comes from experts who have studied long-standing and deep-seated conflicts such as in Northern Ireland before the 1998 peace settlement and other century-old struggles. Divisions characterized by hatred and intense fear between sides. Rather than pushing opponents to sit down and wrestle out solutions, the experts recommended and found that opposing parties should work on something constructive together.

The recommendation rests on the idea that constructive activities that benefit all parties reduce general animus. In focusing on an external goal, parties working together simultaneously allow other mutually agreeable characteristics to seep into their perceptions. People may continue to disagree, but the heat between them lessens and assumedly they can become more cooperative over time.

There are qualifiers to this working-together for increased unity approach. The greatest resistance will come from those most extreme, who are locked in on personal identity and ideological grounds. The most extreme are also most likely to be energized by their own exclusionary box of information. A second awareness is that the working-together for increased unity is a long-term effort, not achievable in a fortnight.

Finding common activities to engage our partisan citizens will be very challenging. There are a few areas such as building the country’s infrastructure and increasing employment, where common cause can be found. If our leaders truly want to facilitate political healing, finding and promoting such common activities appears the wise and patriotic thing to do. Preaching unity, alone, is unlikely to have much effect.