In an age of Brexit, Trump and Covid-19, disagreements can feel acute. But are there ways to make the debate more civil – and more useful?

Remember the good old days, when you could have a heated-yet-enjoyable debate with your friends about things that didn’t matter that much, not really – like whether the pop chart should count streaming or not, or whether you could be a true Manchester United fan if you didn’t come from Manchester? 

How things have changed. 

Now, all the disagreements feel deadly serious. Like when your colleague pronounces that wearing a face mask in public is a threat to his liberty. Or you’re on your way to meet friends when you see that one them has just tweeted that, actually, all lives matter. Before you know it, you’re feeling angry and forming harsh new judgments about your colleagues and friends. Let’s take a collective pause and breathe: there are some ways we can all try to have more civil disagreements in this febrile age of culture wars, Brexit, Trump and Covid-19. 

‘Coupling’ and ‘decoupling’ 

The first is to consider how much you, and the people you are disagreeing with, are inclined to ‘couple’ or ‘decouple’ the issues that you think about from wider political and social factors. 

The decoupling concept originates with psychologist Keith Stanovich, who used it to describe the ability to think about hypothetical concepts separately from how things are in the real world. More recently, Swedish writer and data analyst John Nerst has developed the decoupling concept as part of ‘erisology’ (his project to study disagreement), where he uses it to describe the contrasting ways that people approach contentious issues. Those of us more prone to ‘coupling’ see them as inextricably embedded in a wider matrix of factors, whereas those more prone to ‘decoupling’ prefer to zoom in and consider an issue in isolation. 

To take a crude example, a decoupler might be prepared to consider in isolation the very specific empirical question of whether a vaccine provides a degree of immunity to a virus; a coupler, by contrast, would immediately see the issue as inextricably entangled in a mesh of cultural, political and social factors, such as pharmaceutical industry power and parental choice. Crucially, Nerst believes we can often end up arguing past each other by not appreciating this fundamental difference in perspective.

We should be a lot more careful with interpreting people's intended meanings beyond what they literally say – John Nerst

“To make sense of the world, we cut, slice and classify it in different ways, sometimes casting two things as fundamentally the same, or part of the same greater thing, while at other times considering them to be distinct,” he says. “Knowing that people do this differently, and one is not necessarily more correct than the other, means we should be a lot more careful with interpreting people's intended meanings beyond what they literally say.” So, the next time you find yourself in a debate that’s overheating fast, it could be worth stepping back to check that the other person hasn’t zoomed in or out from the original issue to a level that’s different from where you’re at.  

‘Paradoxical thinking’ 

The second approach you could try is the “paradoxical thinking” technique being developed by psychologist Boaz Hameiri, now based at Tel Aviv University, as a way to moderate people’s views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

The philosophy behind this approach is based in part on “motivational interviewing” – a form of therapy that helps people find the willingness to change and overcome addictions and other problems. The basic idea is that rather than confronting someone’s beliefs head on, you present them with such an extreme, absurd version of their own beliefs – for instance, through leading questions – that they willingly reconsider and soften their original position.

Deterring a smoker might involve subtly reinforcing their own doubts about the habit, says Boaz Hameiri

Deterring a smoker might involve subtly reinforcing their own doubts about the habit, says Boaz Hameiri

The founders of motivational interviewing call this a kind of “psychological judo” that causes the therapy client to question their own assumptions. For instance, a therapist confronted by a client who is a heavy smoker and who distrusts the link between smoking and cancer might deliberately go along with that perspective and take it even further, proclaiming that there is clearly no link whatsoever (in the hope the client looks again at their own milder scepticism). 

Hameiri advises using this approach with caution in everyday life, saying: “There's reason to believe – with some anecdotal evidence – that once people know your views about an issue and why you're now using this paradoxical thinking approach, it is more likely that they will resist this attempt to challenge their views.” 

However, if you think you can do it subtly, it might just work and avoid a more direct clash of views. For instance, if you’re having an argument with someone opposed to the use of face masks, Hameiri says you could try over-egging the notion that the threat of Covid-19 has been exaggerated, by asking a leading question like: “So, why do you think that the coronavirus pandemic is a complete hoax and people all around the world are conspiring to get you to wear a mask?” 

The role of facts 

A key impetus for Hameiri’s paradoxical thinking approach is the well-established finding that most of us are deeply wedded to our beliefs, especially concerning moral and social issues, such that when we’re presented with facts that contradict our beliefs, we often choose to dismiss or derogate those facts, rather than update our beliefs. A classic example of this was published in the 1970s when researchers showed that people against the death penalty tended to dismiss findings supportive of it, whereas those in favour appraised the exact same findings favourably. This study, and many others like it since, have bred a loss of faith in the power of facts to persuade, only exacerbated by the “post-truth” era of populist politics. 

But as a third approach to civil disagreement, perhaps you shouldn’t be too hasty in entirely abandoning facts when seeking to make your case.

People were more likely to change their mind when confronted with more evidence-based arguments

A new study, unusual for being based on real-life online debates, suggests that facts do make a difference, at least in the long run. J. Hunter Priniski and Zachary Horne at Arizona State University analysed 500 discussion threads featuring more than 100,000 comments on the Change My View subreddit – a forum where users post their views on an issue and invite others to persuade them to change their mind. 

The pair found that regardless of the kind of topic, whether social and moral in nature or not, people were more likely to change their mind when confronted with more evidence-based arguments. “Our work may suggest that while attitude change is hard-won, providing facts, statistics and citations for one’s arguments can convince people to change their minds,” they concluded. 

Just be nicer?

Finally, it’s easier said than done, and the call might have lost its power through overuse, but let’s all try to be more respectful and supportive of each other’s positions. We should do this not just for virtuous reasons, but because the more we create that kind of a climate, the more open-minded and intellectually flexible we will all be inclined to be.

Taking time to listen to an opposing viewpoint can go a long way to fostering more civil dialogue

Taking time to listen to an opposing viewpoint can go a long way to fostering more civil dialogue

Consider, for example, a study published in 2018 by Harry Reis at the University of Rochester and colleagues, that showed people were more inclined to various forms of “intellectual humility”, including a willingness to entertain alternative viewpoints, when they felt that the people around them were supportive (for instance, they agreed with statements like “Today, my friends tried to see where I’m coming from” and “Today, my friends really listened to me”). 

“When we show respect and understanding to others, and do so in a way that is convincing and authentic, and not just lip service,” says Reis, “people are more willing to be open.” The respectful approach isn’t a panacea, so don’t raise your hopes too high. “Of course, some people can't hear the respect and understanding, which will only convince them to be more closed-minded and less humble,” adds Reis, “but in general, responsive listening promotes openness.” 

Cultural changes always have to start somewhere. If we all commit to trying to persuade a little less, and listen a little more, and if we accept we might just sometimes have got it wrong, then hopefully, collectively, we can start having more constructive disagreements – even in 2020. 

Dr Christian Jarrett is deputy editor at Psyche magazine. His next book, about personality change, will be published in 2021.

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