Too beyond the pale to listen to? Do you have a price?

A recent article in Vox, titled and sub-titled respectively “Motivated ignorance” is ruining our political discourse: Talking with a political opponent is almost as unpleasant as getting a tooth pulled,” explored the results of a new study published in the Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology.

One of the good points the article reports on is the following:

This is a key point that many people miss when discussing the “fake news” or “filter bubble” problem in our online media ecosystems. Avoiding facts inconvenient to our worldview isn’t just some passive, unconscious habit we engage in. We do it because we find these facts to be genuinely unpleasant. And as long as this experience remains unpleasant, and easy to avoid, we’re just going to drift further and further apart.


Largely, the partisans were unfamiliar with [others’] viewpoints. So it’s not the case that people are avoiding learning about the other side because they’re already familiar. What’s going on here is “motivated ignorance,” as Matt Motyl, one of the study co-authors calls it…. “People on the left and right,” the study concludes, “are motivated to avoid hearing from the other side for some of the same reasons: the anticipation of cognitive dissonance and the undermining of a fundamental need for a shared reality with other people.”

This doesn’t surprise me. Though it also doesn’t describe me or a lot of the people whose company I enjoy the most. I find it fascinating, at least in many contexts, to get to talk politics with persons who have different views from my own.

It’s not that I like conflict – I definitely don’t. The fact of the matter though is that most of my political discussions aren’t so heated. I ask a lot of questions, try to learn something, and back off if persons get too irritated. If they ask me about my own views, I am happy to share them – along with reasons I hope will connect with them.

So, should everyone be like me? My gut reaction is to say “No, I think this kind of approach isn’t necessarily for everyone.” I think we all sometimes need persons who are highly informed, who care about us, and also don’t handle us with “kid gloves” when they are certain we are wrong. At the same time, I think those who are in positions of leadership (like parents, for example!) need to have both of these qualities in some measure – and be able to continue to cultivate them.

So, what can make things better? A couple key things come to mind.

First, undoubtedly, deeper reflection on the things that make all of us human beings. We are all, inescapably, moral creatures who feel strongly about what is right and wrong. Simply put, this is our existential situation. This is why, for example, a recent Ph.D. dissertation on Martin Heidegger, for example, argues that his “Being and Time is an ethics in the same way Nicomachean Ethics is an ethics” in spite of his having “nothing positive to say about post-Enlightenment moral theory.”

Second, if you both get angry easily and also want to be able to listen to others different from you, be strategic when it comes to getting started. Don’t jump right to someone with different views from you who is widely seen as being more extreme. Start small, and work your way across the spectrum incrementally (if you get irritated easily, don’t just jump into any podcast on my iTunes list). Eventually, you can explore the larger range of issues, even exploring the fringes and finding out better what makes them tick – and what makes them continue to be human (and I find people at the extremes often tend to agree with one another about things that the “middle” tends to downplay or ignore).

At the same time, even though the title of this article says talking with a political opponent is its topic, it actually reveals that even listening to a political opponent is too painful for many… Hence the article starts:

If you ever thought, “You couldn’t pay me to listen to Sean Hannity / Rachael Maddow / insert any television pundit you violently disagree with here” — you are not alone.

Covering the study, it talks about how participants were encouraged to listen to those they disagreed with:

Two hundred participants were presented with two options. They could either read and answer questions about an opinion they agreed with — the topic was same-sex marriage — or read the opposing viewpoint.

Here’s the catch: If the participants chose to read the opinion they agreed with, they were entered into a raffle pool to earn $7. If they selected to read opposing opinion, they had a chance to win $10.

You’d think everyone would want to win more money, right?


A majority — 63 percent — of the participants chose to stick with what they already knew, forgoing the chance to win $10. Both people with pro same-sex marriage beliefs and those against it avoided the opinion hostile to their worldview at similar rates.

“They don’t know what’s going on the other side, and they don’t want to know,” Jeremy Frimer, the University of Winnipeg psychologist who led the study, says.

Why is this surprising though? Why only three dollars more? And for a chance to win three dollars more? I suspect that people would be much more willing to do this were they offered more money. Maybe the real interesting question here, good for a follow-up study, would be “what’s their price”?

And if that suggestion offends you (it kind of does me to) also note this: if you  care about someone you think is really wrong, you might just try to enter their world — to the degree that you are able — in an effort to pull them out.