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Open for Debate

Reflection on values makes conversations more fruitful

29 May 2023

People often find it difficult to listen to the views of those with whom they disagree. For example, in the UK, oftentimes members of the same family consciously shun discussions of controversial topics such as Brexit. In the USA, Democrats and Republicans are equally motivated to avoid engaging with each other. This animosity is at least partly driven by perceiving the other group as being overall more different to the own group than they actually are. In fact, research has shown that in the USA people tend to overestimate the differences on average by a factor of two across many variables such as attitudes towards women or minorities (of course, for some variables the difference is substantially larger than for others).

Animosity makes compromises much harder to reach, even when they are needed for democratic decision making. Researchers have proposed different ways to get people to show less hostility towards, and engage more openly with, members of opposing groups. For example, it has been shown that reminding people that they have more in common than they think with members of groups they dislike, can diminish people’s hostility towards those groups. More recently, some researchers have argued that receptiveness to opposing views  and intellectual humility lie at the heart of healthy debates.

Intellectual humility, for instance, is the disposition to own or accept one’s own intellectual shortcomings out of a genuine desire for knowledge and truth. It is about developing an increased awareness that one does not have all the answers and that it is possible that one’s views might be mistaken. Intellectually humble attitudes make one more open to appreciating other people’s views, without being uncritical. In politics, intellectual humility facilitates willingness to learn about opposing political perspectives.

By recognizing and embracing one’s own limitations, individuals are more likely to engage in active listening and adopt a curiosity-driven mindset that allows them to better comprehend and appreciate diverse viewpoints (Krumrei-Mancuso & Rouse, 2016). This mindset mitigates dogmatism and rigidity in discussions and promotes an environment conducive to collaborative problem-solving (Leary et al., 2017). By fostering intellectual humility, individuals can contribute to more civil, productive, and inclusive discourse across various domains, from politics to intergroup relations, ultimately paving the way for more informed decision-making and social progress.

In our recent research, we tested whether we can experimentally enhance intellectual humility. For this, we used an approach called value-affirmation, whereby people reflect on one or two cherished personal values. Previous research has found that a brief period of reflection on personal values may increase the sense of self-integrity in the face of perceived threats, and, consequently, this reflection makes people more thoughtful and open-minded in response to persuasive text that challenges their views.

In our experiment, we invited participants in groups of 2 or 3 to the lab. After completing a range of psychological questionnaires, half of the groups were asked to reflect about their most important value (e.g., freedom, equality), and explain in writing the significance that their chosen value has in their lives and how it informs their behaviour. Afterwards, participants took part in a 15-minute audio- and video-recorded group discussion about the pros and cons of raising student tuition fees to pay for university education. A confederate – someone who, on behalf of the experimenter, pretended to be a participant – challenged the participants’ statements if there was a risk of them agreeing too quickly with each other..

The recordings of participants’ debates were later analysed by linguists from our team for conversational markers that would indicate high or low intellectual humility. They coded contributions to discussions along several dimensions including tendencies to dominate the floor, to engage with others’ opinions, or to boost one’s own convictions as certain, obvious, and unchallengeable.

As expected, participants who reflected about their most important value engaged in the discussion in a more humble way compared to participants in the control group. For example, they showed themselves more supportive of other speakers even when they disagreed; they avoided dominating discussions; they showed a reduced tendency to treat their own opinions as self-evident and not up for debate. Additionally, participants reported feeling more empathic, giving, grateful, and humble.

In sum, our research demonstrated that intellectual humility in debate can be enhanced through a relatively simple intervention. Put numerically, 60.6% of participants in the value-affirmation condition showed more intellectual humility in debate than the average person in the control condition. This finding, and to some extent the concomitant effect on prosocial emotion, promises to improve the quality of discussions on controversial issues. Nevertheless, more evidence needs to be collected with different populations and topics before we can be confident that this approach is widely beneficial. We hope the current evidence is sufficient to provoke future research including studies on whether these results replicate on social media.