ON THE AGENDA | APRIL 28TH, 2016 | Allison Rizzolo

With Dialogue, People's Opinions Can Change and Do Stick

At the very moment we need more dialogue and engagement on views different from our own, we're encountering fewer and fewer natural opportunities.

Photo: Olivia Chow via Flickr.

I have a distinct memory of listening to the This American Life segment, "." I was cleaning my kitchen, nodding along to the story of how a group of canvassers and researchers found that a simple 20-minute conversation could change someone’s mind about controversial issues like gay marriage and abortion.

In our work, we've often seen how dialogue between people with different perspectives and life experiences often leads to a shift in thinking. It was exciting to hear this phenomenon broadcast on an immensely popular national platform.

I ran over to my computer as soon as the segment was finished and emailed my colleagues, telling them to listen to the episode.

If you followed the story, you know that shortly after the segment aired the study was found to have been falsified.

Still, we knew in our bones that the sort of opinion shifts described in the segment can and do occur. Engaging in dialogue – which is more of a personal exchange rather than debate – with someone who has views and experiences different from your own causes both you and your conversation partner to examine perceptions and assumptions. It humanizes those different views and experiences and softens tightly-held or extreme opinions. Often, such experiences cause people's opinions to shift more quickly than they would otherwise. And these opinion shifts tend to hold.

To get academic on you, we call this process the public learning curve. As people advance through the public learning curve, their less stable, more top-of-head opinion evolves into a more stable, considered public judgment.

We were pleased, though not surprised, when the original canvassing study was repeated and found to hold with some differences in findings.

A new group of researchers repeated the study in Florida, where 56 canvassers went door to door engaging in a 10-minute conversation about attitudes toward transgender individuals. The study, a randomized trial, found that these conversations substantially shifted negative attitudes. These effects persisted for 3 months.

The study's results hold great promise for our rapidly changing yet increasingly polarized society. In an which found that Democrats and Republicans are more polarized than they've been in decades, the Pew Research Center found that polarization is not confined to political parties. There are also growing ideological divisions along educational and generational lines.

Unfortunately, at the very moment we need more opportunities to engage with people whose views are different from our own, we are encountering fewer and fewer. We need more reliable and trustworthy research to better understand (and discuss!) what is on the line when such opportunities for dialogue among diverse citizens become more and more rare. Break up a couple of spells now often performed for good or bad purposes.


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