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Changing Attitudes

Reducing arrogance in debate

19 May 2017

In many Western democracies, public opinion seems to have become bitterly divided over increasingly divisive topics like immigration, Brexit, and the qualities of Donald J. Trump. People whose convictions are strongly opposed to each other treat discussions as duels or shouting matches. We are now used to observing debates where participants are quick to resort to insults and are aggressive or patronizing, constantly speaking over each other. This pugilistic approach to discussion does not further understanding. After all the shouting is done, hardly anyone has changed their mind; if anyone has, they are unlikely to have gained any good reasons in support of the novel opinion, or that undermine the older conviction. Many in the audience may simply be put off by the whole affair.

We may agree that this is not a satisfactory state of affairs but what can be done about it? One thing we may try to encourage people to be less arrogant.

Our project brings together philosophers, social psychologists and experts in the analysis of the verbal and non-verbal aspects of communication to test the hypothesis that arrogance is an expression of defensiveness. Arrogant people may perceive many situations as threatening and respond to them by adopting a fight response. Hence, they are aggressive, prone to anger and to shouting others down. We plan to recruit over the next few months over one 100 community members, to ask them about their attitudes toward a number of topics, and to ascertain whether their attitudes are defensive. We shall also find out about their levels of self-esteem. Subsequently, we will ask them to debate controversial topics in small groups. After an analysis of the recordings of the debates, we shall explore whether those participants that were shown to be defensive and have high self-esteem exhibited arrogant behaviours.

If this hypothesis is shown to be correct, we can lessen arrogance by helping people become less defensive. Counterintuitively, perhaps, we can make arrogant people who are already full of themselves less arrogant by making them reflect on what they care about and why those things are worthy of being valued. Reflection on the importance of the things one cares about should contribute to strengthening a sense of self-worth. Paradoxically, therefore, we aim to make arrogant people less full of themselves by making them feel good about themselves. We will keep you informed about our research progress and related topics in these pages.