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Open for Debate

The Human Ingredient Needed for Productive Disagreement

1 July 2019

My last post argued that engaging in disagreement outside of one’s own group works as an antidote to beliefs that are oversimplified and therefore inaccurate.

But disagreement cannot do this alone. By itself, it can even prompt us to be less receptive to refinements to our view – especially on topics that matter to us, such as politics, religion, or ethics. For beliefs about these topics help us find meaning and navigate the world, so exposing them to challenge is scary and throws up our psychological defenses.

What is needed to unlock the benefits of disagreement? The answer is: something that makes it feel less threatening. I’ll look at two knee-jerk tendencies that enhance the sense of threat, and see how to manage them.

The first is a tendency to perceive certain people or beliefs as significantly different from oneself. The second is a tendency to experience fear at someone or something we perceive as different.

These knee-jerk tendencies feed each other. Perceiving things as different strengthens the belief that they are different, and this belief primes us to perceive them as even more different. Similarly, fearing something that we see as different builds a conviction that perceived difference is scary, priming us to experience even greater fear of it.

What we get is a simplistic lens on reality that zeroes in on the categories of different/same and scary/safe. Other categories, or shades in between categories, drop from our radar.

These knee-jerk tendencies serve an important function, helping us stay safe when a significantly different person or thing really does warrant suspicion (as many in our evolutionary past surely did). But they also overshoot: Once we start perceiving and fearing difference in some places, we look fearfully for it everywhere – even imagining or exaggerating scary differences where they are not.

So if disagreement is to help us see the world more accurately and thus with greater nuance (as I argued in my last post that it can), we must regulate these knee-jerk tendencies. We must move beyond their automated responses and evaluate each situation, and each person, on their own merits. This may reveal genuine differences between us and our conversation partner, and these differences may be genuinely scary. But it might instead reveal that apparent differences, or reasons for fear, are overblown. And this is the most likely outcome, because (as we saw) the knee-jerk tendencies nourish themselves through a psychological feedback loop that can spin free of reality.

So how can we regulate these tendencies? We can seek out things that clearly fail to correspond to what they prime us to think. Consider an example: If you have a knee-jerk fear of dogs, you will tend to see them as frightening and then be more afraid of them. But if you make an effort to expose yourself to friendly dogs, you may undo your fear and free yourself to evaluate each dog individually. The same applies to our two knee-jerk tendencies. We can short-circuit them by seeking counterexamples in the people with whom we engage in disagreement.

This means, first, seeking similarities with our conversation partners. Some things that we thought were significantly different may, on closer inspection, turn out not to be – such as shared values or interests. Second, we might seek things about our conversation partners that, although they are significantly different, are not scary (perhaps they are interesting), such as hobby or cuisine. This can chip away at our tendency to react with fear.

With our knee-jerk tendencies weakened, we will be cognitively freed to develop alternative modes of perceiving our conversation partner. This puts us in a position to discern what is genuinely (as opposed to superficially) different about them, and whether those differences really give us anything to fear.

But how can we do this? Our knee-jerk tendencies are deep-rooted and automatic – they are not within our direct conscious control. The answer is that re-attuning them requires emotional skill. We must cultivate empathy, curiosity, and interpretive charity. The key to this, in turn, is treating and viewing our conversation partner with respect. Respect is an alternative way of perceiving someone: not through simplistic categories, but with an eye toward seeing through all categories to the individual him- or herself.

Seeing and treating each other with respect can put you and your conversation partner at ease. It signals that each is on the other’s side and that you are willing to take each other seriously. This helps de-fuse both knee-jerk tendencies. First, it gives you something in common – your respect itself – that can outweigh perceived differences; this positions you and your conversation partner as allies rather than rivals. Second, respect fosters trust, and trust soothes fear.

Respect also reinforces itself: Respecting your conversation partner makes it easier for them to respect you – which further facilitates your respect for them.

So respect can re-attune your perception of your conversation partner and theirs of you, to make it more accurate. As it short-circuits your knee-jerk tendencies and their distorting lens, it opens up space for you to perceive each other as you are, in all of your realistic complexity.

Respect is not about ignoring differences and whitewashing the potential for conflict. Rather, what it does is compensate for the disrespect that our knee-jerk reactions foster. After all, these tendencies prompt us to see our conversation partner as a set of categories, not an individual. Respect tilts the balance back to center.

So mutual respect is an antidote to the knee-jerk tendencies that keep disagreement from fostering understanding. Respectful disagreement can help us see our conversation partner, and through the conversation the world at large, more accurately.

Photo: Shadows by Katherine Dormandy