Saturday, May 18, 2013

A left-brained approach to getting along politically

It's become a truism that we live in a world increasingly segregated by viewpoint, rarely talking civilly and substantively about politics with those with whom we strongly disagree.

One of the few proposed "remedies" is the open-ended discussion session. Get groups of people with opposing viewpoints talking to one another about how they feel, and they will become more open and respectful towards those with widely differing opinions, moderating their own views along the way. It turns out, however, that such open-ended discussions have the opposite effect, with those on opposing sides digging in and becoming even more entrenched:

Rather than adopting a middle ground, continuing discussion and debate often result in more extreme positions. In such a condition, consensus building is difficult and temporary when it is achieved at all because individual group members tend to shift away from an average attitude rather than toward it.
A recent study finds that a more analytical "left-brained" approach to be more fruitful. The best way to get someone to question and moderate their views, as it turns out, is to ask them to explain in detail how it is that a policy that they either support or oppose actually works. In response to such questions:
They become more moderate in their political views — either in support of such policies or against them. In fact, not only do their attitudes change, but so does their behavior. In one of our experiments, for example, after attempting to explain how various policy ideas would actually work, people became less likely to donate to organizations that supported the positions they had initially favored.
Interestingly, asking people to justify their position — rather than asking them to explain the mechanisms by which a policy would work — doesn’t tend to soften their political views. When we asked participants to state the reasons they were for or against a policy position, their initial attitudes held firm. (Other researchers have found much the same thing: merely discussing an issue often makes people more extreme, not less.)
Why, then, does having to explain an opinion often end up changing it? The answer may have to do with a kind of revelatory trigger mechanism: asking people to “unpack” complex systems — getting them to articulate how something might work in real life — forces them to confront their lack of understanding.
Reviving our country’s civil discourse, in other words, means constantly asking one another for detailed explanations of "how.” Back in the pre-pc, pre-Constructivist Dark Ages, this was routine, particularly in school settings. In my experience, it was what distinguished the best teachers and classmates. With the decline in both the analytical essay and the multiple revisions-feedback loop, I wonder how often today's students--let alone today's adults--are ever asked to flesh out the practical ramifications of their opinions. Indeed, in an age in which even asking someone for a specific example of what they're talking about can totally derail a conversation, many people seem to find it downright rude when their personal opinions are met with anything other than reflexive, unconditional respect--however vacuous this often must be.

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