There are certain resolutions that are easily made and easily broken: lose weight; drink less; be mindful. They all seem a cinch compared with the challenge of our age: think less tribally. Try meeting people who disagree with you. Try to understand both sides of the argument. Most of us instinctively feel that this is desirable. Each of us has something to learn from others. And even if we do not, even if the other side of the argument is utterly wrong, how are we to persuade them if we are not on speaking terms? And yet bursting our own bubbles is infuriatingly hard.
Here’s one obvious approach: use social media to follow people with opposing opinions. If you see what they are saying, you can ponder their arguments and try to see the world from their point of view — at the very least, you can understand how best to convert them.
To investigate this idea, a group of social scientists (Christopher Bail, Lisa Argyle and others) recently recruited several hundred people with Republican or Democrat leanings, and gave them a small financial incentive to follow a Twitter bot for a month that would expose them to the opposing point of view. Republicans followed a liberal bot that would retweet 24 messages from elected Democrats, left-leaning media outlets and non-profit groups; Democrats followed a conservative bot.
But the Twitter bot’s efforts at fostering understanding backfired. Being exposed to opposing views on Twitter pushed people away from the centre ground. “Republicans who followed a liberal Twitter bot became substantially more conservative post treatment,” write the researchers. Democrats moved further left — although their moves were not as large nor as statistically reliable.
This is a disappointing finding, but not entirely surprising. Some earlier research has found evidence of backfire effects in other contexts — perhaps because we find contrary views or inconvenient facts discomfiting and may immediately recall or invent reasons to demean or dismiss them. And Twitter is hardly the venue for a deep meeting of minds.
Still, the conclusion is clear enough: if our aim is to find common ground or at least to foster mutual understanding, simply being exposed to the comments of our political opponents will not do it. It leads to aggravation, not understanding, and it is as counterproductive as it sometimes seems.
What, then? Cass Sunstein, an academic who has served in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, makes an intriguing suggestion in his new book The Cost-Benefit Revolution (US) (UK). He points out that we can protect ourselves from certain cognitive errors by translating arguments into an unfamiliar form — perhaps a second language, or perhaps a mathematical abstraction. When you see the argument thus rephrased, you are forced to stop and think. Your response is less emotional.
I am persuaded that this exercise would slow me down and force me to think more with my brain and less with my gut. But it would not be easy to force myself to apply a cost-benefit framework as I pondered the appeal of a hard Brexit, say, the benefits of GM food or the winners and losers from restrictions on abortion. Alas, I doubt the prescription has broad appeal.
So we are back to trying to appreciate the other side’s point of view by talking to them, and that probably means talking to them respectfully, attentively and at some length. To understand what is going on in the head of someone who sees the world very differently from me — say, an evangelical Christian, a diehard Trump fan, a Corbynista or a hard-Brexiter — I would need to spend proper, quality time with them. And they would need to spend proper, quality time with me.
Unless one of us had the patience of a saint (and it would not be me), that would require some other social glue. If we could first spend time together as friends, neighbours, colleagues or teammates, we might later have a chance to talk in depth about politics and values. Starting with politics is likely to lead nowhere.
Occasionally — rarely enough that each instance is memorable — I have sat and respectfully disagreed with someone for hours: listening to them, understanding their viewpoint, presenting my own ideas and searching for common ground. Without exception, these heart-to-hearts have been preceded by months of friendship built on some other shared interest or experience. You can have a civil debate with a political enemy, but it really helps if the political enemy is a friend in real life.
It is sobering, then, to ponder the enthusiasm with which various activists on both sides are keen to make everything political. I do not object to anyone, on any side, who believes that there are deep political issues more important than entertainment, sport or music.
But the cumulative effect of the polarisation of everything is not healthy. Paradoxically, a vibrant, thoughtful politics needs some parts of life that are free of politics, free of the idea of them-and-us. Otherwise we stop listening to each other. We often stop thinking entirely.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 14 September 2018.