autonomy, competence, relatedness

If we seek diverse or divergent views, will the opinions of others change our minds? A recent study seems to indicate that paying attention to views opposed to our own may actually harden our existing perspectives.

“In a study that was published last month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, my colleagues and I [Christopher A. Bail, Duke University] did just that. We surveyed more than 1,200 Twitter-using Republicans and Democrats about their political views. Then we paid half of them to follow for one month a bot we created that retweeted messages from elected officials and other opinion leaders from the other political party.

Instead of reducing political polarization, being exposed to opposing ideas increased it. Republicans who followed a Democratic bot for one month expressed social policy views that were substantially more conservative at the conclusion of the study. Democrats who followed a Republican bot exhibited very slight increases in liberal attitudes about social issues, but those effects were not statistically significant.” —New York Times 2018-09-08

But the exact opposite happened with B.J May. In his article ‘How 26 Tweets Broke My Filter Bubble’ May wrote that following people different from him on Twitter enabled him to see the world beyond a workplace that he described as, “All men, all heterosexual, all white”. He decided to follow Marco Rogers’ advice to use “Twitter as a way to understand viewpoints that diverge from your own”. At the end of his experiment May turned this into a permanent practice.

“Every one of my opinions on the issues at hand had been challenged, and most had shifted or matured in some way. More importantly, however, was this: The exercise had taught me how to approach a contrary opinion with patience and respect, with curiosity and an intent to learn, with kindness and humanity.” —B.J. May

We trust people we know. But we can also get to know people through social media, if we listen and take the time. May’s reflection was directly linked to his engagement with others, often fully so. It hurt to learn.

Most importantly, May wanted to learn. The people in Bail’s study were asked to learn and paid to do so. Their motivation was extrinsic. It was not their idea to follow people from the other end of the US political spectrum. This study reflected the mass education system, where students have no control over the curriculum.

It’s a question of being open to understanding others in the first place. If we are not open to change, we won’t change. If we consider Self-determination Theory before trying these experiments, we would likely know the results of such a study in advance. People are motivated by autonomy, competence, and relatedness. In this case, the participants were likely disengaged, as they had no autonomy in creating the study. Since this was a politically-focused study, it’s a good idea to understand that self-determination ensures democracy — not doing what others tell us to do.

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