Immeasurable harm has resulted from an inability to appreciate that opposing views can be reasonable and coherent.
A major cause of such harm is this: partisans lose touch with the views of others and dismiss contrary perspectives as foolish or biased.
These propositions are from the authors of a 2015 study [Fn. 1].
The authors propose that such harm can be remedied in mediation-type contexts by having partisans articulate an opponent’s viewpoint—with accountability: i.e., the opponent will either endorse or reject the accuracy of that articulation.
The authors conduct four separate studies. The following is a summary of each.
Participants, who had never met before, came into the lab in pairs. Each was led to believe that the other held opposing views to their own on an important social issue. The pairs were then divided into two groups:
Accountability Pairs. Some pairs were asked to to articulate, in writing, the view held by their partner—they were also led to believe that, (i) their partner would be reading what they wrote, and (ii) they would be seeing each other again; and
No-Accountability Pairs. Other pairs were asked to articulate, in writing, their own view—they were also led to believe that, (i) there would be no disclosure to the partner of what they wrote, and (ii) they would be seeing each other again.
Here’s what the authors found: accountability to the other person, for accuracy in articulating the other’s view, results in a significant moderation of one’s own position.
The second study ran like the first, except that each person was informed that the other’s opposing views are strongly-held.
Second study findings are the same as the first: accountability to the other person, for accuracy in articulating the other’s view, results in a significant moderation of one’s own.
The third study is like the first two, with an exception: they were told to articulate their own view, which would be evaluated by experts—not by the partner.
The third study found that, without accountability to the person holding the opposing view, efforts to engage in perspective taking are unlikely to produce an attitude change.
The fourth study asked participants to articulate an opposing view, with the understanding that it would be evaluated by unknown persons who held a contrary view.
The fourth study found that articulating the perspective of an unknown person holding an opposing view does not change anything.
The Study’s Summary and Recommendation
The authors offer the following summary:
The first two studies show that polarization can be decreased by, (i) articulating the opposing view held by a specific, known person, and (ii) providing accountability from that person for an accurate rendering;
Studies 3 and 4 show no evidence of depolarization in the absence of accountability to a specific, known person holding a contrary view. Moreover, writing from the perspective of an unmet other, even with accountability, does not have the same effect as real interaction; and
The need for real contact and accountability is critical.
The authors of the study recommend that conflict mediators could ask disputants to attempt to write from each other’s perspectives, with the understanding that those efforts would be shared.
Here’s a huge thanks to Professors Heyman and Christenfeld for their research efforts, which have significant implications for mediators in day-to-day practice.
Footnote 1: The study is by Professors Gail Heyman and Nicholas Christenfeld of the University of California, San Diego, Department of Psychology. It is titled, Seeing the Other Side Perspective Taking and the Moderation of Extremity, and is published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (February 2015).
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