KUT Host Art Markman: Get Out of Your Opinion Bubble

Art Markman, co-host of KUT’s Two Guys on Your Head and a professor of psychology and marketing at UT, says you should talk with more people who are not like you.

Chances are, you live in an opinion bubble. When was the last time you talked with someone who had very different beliefs from you about key issues like politics, religion, and work? Often, when you encounter people whose opinions you know differ from your own, you avoid talking to them about hot-button issues. That bubble is a significant contributor to the polarization of our society.

After the last election, people on both sides talked about how they simply “couldn’t understand” how someone would vote for the other candidate. Not only does this make it hard for politicians to think about solutions to hard problems, it turns off a lot of people from the political process at all (as evidenced by the fact that only about half of registered voters participate in presidential elections).

There is a simple way to start reducing this polarization, though. Talk to people who are not like you. That means reaching out across the variety of lines that keep us in our bubbles—politics, race, religion, and wealth.

Decades of research in developmental psychology demonstrates that people learn a lot of what they know from other people. After all, it’s hard to find the time to do your own basic research into science, technology, history, politics, and consumer products. Instead, you develop many of your beliefs and opinions based on the interactions you have with people around you.

Because of the internet, you also have a tremendous amount of control over who you listen to and interact with. You can select websites and podcasts to get news. You can curate your Twitter feed and select your social circle on Facebook. You can email people near and far.

Paradoxically, because of that ability to choose, many people surround themselves with messages that reinforce what they already believe. They watch and listen to news programs whose slant is consistent with their existing biases. They develop a social network of like-minded people. As a result, these individuals have their prevailing view of the world reinforced daily.

So, what value can a conversation have?

Research from my lab explored the effect of conversations on the way people think about information.  In our studies, we had people building LEGO models together (because we needed something complex that people did not have established categories about). People who built models together thought about the LEGO pieces more similarly afterward compared to the people they did not work with.  That is, conversation with a particular person made someone think more similarly to that person.

This might seem like a far cry from topics like politics, religion, or economics, but the mechanism is the same. In order to understand what someone else is talking about, you have to wrap your head around their worldview. Even if you completely disagree with their viewpoint, for one moment, the two of you have a shared representation of the world.

That means that when you have a conversation with someone who is very different from you in some way, you spend some time taking on a foreign worldview. And that changes you—whether you are talking about LEGO, or the state of the world.  And if enough people converse with enough other people, a shared understanding of the world eventually grows.

There are two benefits to these kinds of conversations. The obvious one is that conversations can help to moderate people’s extreme views. Taking on another person’s perspective for a while helps you to recognize that there may be more ways to think about a problem than you had considered before.

The less obvious benefit is that it helps to humanize the opposition. Psychologists have spent a lot of time studying how people treat members of their own group (called the ingroup) versus how they treat members of another group (called the outgroup). It is easy to split the world into “us versus them,” particularly when it comes to political issues. You think about the members of your ingroup as more thoughtful and having purer motives than members of an outgroup.

When you talk with someone else, though, you broaden your definition of “us and them” for a while. Now, your conversation partner becomes a member of your ingroup. It is easy to treat the opinions and beliefs of members of an outgroup abstractly. You may naturally assume that they reached their opinion thoughtlessly or without taking into account the really important factors that you grappled with to reach your opinion. When you have a conversation with someone else, though, you come to appreciate that their beliefs usually involve just as much thought and contemplation as your own. They have simply come to a different conclusion.

You can do your part to help create more shared understanding. Invite someone who thinks differently than you for a cup of coffee. Seek out opportunities to talk with people from different backgrounds. Take a class on a topic you know nothing about in order to find a new social group. Get in a conversation with someone experiencing homelessness.   Polarization may be a big problem nationally, but it will only be solved locally.


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