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Self Affirmation: How to Talk to People Who Disagree With You

Updated on August 21, 2016
Virginia Matteo profile image

Virginia loves learning languages and travelling, and is interested in a range of social issues.

In an era of divisive political strategies it may be more important than ever to understand why our opponents behave like they do. Why can't they listen to reason? Why did Brexiteers support such an ugly campaign, based on racial prejudice, misinformation and deceit? What is so appealing for some people in Drumpf? And why, on earth, can't Deomcrats and Republicans have a decent conversation without hatred? In this article I aim to explain the notion of identity, and how our beliefs are linked to it. And, more importantly, I'm going to give some helpful tips on how to have a frutiful conversation with someone who holds completely different beliefs from yours. Of course you are not going to be able to always convince someone, but you may at least try to make him/her listen to you.

Psychology studies suggest that identity is extremely precious to us. We create narratives in which, not surprisingly, we emphasize our good side, downplaying at the same time the bad one. What we are saying to ourselves is: “All right, I may not be perfect, but I am as close to perfection as it gets. I am basically a good chunk of a person.” But what do we do if the daily influx of information challenges the positive concepts we’ve created? What if, say, I value the fact of being a good student and receive a bad grade? Or what if the political party I strongly identify with is discovered to have been involved in a corruption affair? It has been the subject of several psychological studies, listed by Sherman and Cohen in their work ‘The Psychology of Self-defense: Self-Affirmation Theory’. The reasonable way of dealing with it would be to adapt ourselves to the information. To improve the way you study or change your mind about the party. Right?

Wrong. Much more common reaction would be to curse the teacher for being too stupid to appreciate the hidden value of our work. And to say that the whole corruption affair was concocted by the party’s enemies. Why? Because the information is perceived as a threat to the image of a good student/the party’s follower we had created. But are we really a bunch of self-loving, obstinate individuals incapable of breathing the same air as people who disagree with us?

Psychologists Sherman and Cohen in their study assume that no, that it is possible to diminish the effects of cognitive bias (bending information value to previously held beliefs). In order to study the conditions which make change possible they advance so-called self-affirmation theory, which is based around the idea of identity I have talked about two paragraphs above. Imagine yourself, your identity as a map. For clarity’s sake, let’s say every region is a different value, a distinct aspect of yourself. When something threatens the status quo of a region, this usually means war; you mobilize the army and go into battle against the information. You fire at it, you deflect and crook it to fit your vision of yourself. However, sometimes it is possible not to fight the information. When you affirm one region of the map, you are able to change the order of another. To put it in less abstract terms, if a musician gives or just remembers giving a particularly good performance, that means (s)he affirms his or her value as a musician. Now, our musician, self-confident, proud, and frankly in near euphoria, is able to revise his or her views on abortion. What happens is that after a self-affirmation exercise changing one’s mind about something is no longer perceived as a threat to identity; that is when we assert one value, we assert the global image of ourselves. It doesn’t mean of course that our musician will turn from a wild proponent of abortion into a wild opponent, it simply means that (s)he is more predisposed to weigh pros and cons in a more balanced way. The musician most probably won’t disregard interlocutors purely on the grounds of them having a different opinion. Sherman and Cohen conducted a whole series of experiments in order to confirm this theory. If you are interested, you can find them in ‘The Psychology of Self-defense: Self-Affirmation Theory’.

So the moral is: be nice and respectful. See the person behind the ideological veil.

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    • Virginia Matteo profile image
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      Virginia Matteo 12 months ago

      Thank you, Kathleen!

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 12 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Thanks for referring me to this thorough hub. Good work. I hope other people who answer my question read this one also.

    • somethgblue profile image

      somethgblue 13 months ago from Shelbyville, Tennessee

      Oh, I almost forgot back-links rule, copy the URL for this article and post it on all social media sites you know, here are some you might not know . . . Google +, Digg, PinIt and LinkIn, you have to drive folks here get your friends to post it as well.

    • somethgblue profile image

      somethgblue 13 months ago from Shelbyville, Tennessee

      Your new I get it, so allow me to provide some helpful hints to make this article shine, this is not criticism.

      1.) Provide a link in the text of this article for The Psychology of Self-defense: Self-Affirmation Theory’ by copying the URL address (highlighting it & pressing control or command C), opening up the text capsule, highlighting the title 'The Psychology of Self-defense: Self-Affirmation Theory’, going to the tool bar in edit mode and clicking on the chain symbol. It will open up a window where you can paste the copied URL (control or command V), viola, hit save on the edit capsule and you have created a link in the text.

      It looks professional and even though it will take readers away from your page, most folks do so after reading the article.

      2.) We need more information, too short, surely you have more to tell us. You are a good writer, so prove it too us and write. But we don't need science or convincing we all know we suck at communicating. So give us YOUR opinion, my Google works fine, if I want another's opinion on the subject matter I can search for it myself.

      What works good (ooops well, also, proof reading is a must) is to use bullets or numbered items, again this is provided in your text edit capsule tool bar. Simply type out your points and highlight them then hit the bullet symbol or number symbol,BOOM BABY, your cooking with gasoline.

      3.) Use at least three text capsules so you can then have subheads, use words from the title of the article for your subheads, such as Learning To Understand. Then provide us with the steps we need to do this.

      4.) The paragraph that starts with Wrong could be a new text capsule but would work much better as a Call-Out capsule, that go in between two text capsules!

      5.) The Self Affirmation Theory needs some explanation, if you want you can explain it in a separate text capsule, then save it and hit the little arrow symbol it will move it to the right, open it back up and click on the color squares on the text edit tool bar and boom, add some colored text . . . now were getting somewhere.

      6.) Yes, you want folks to read the entire article but let's face it most people scan information on the internet so make it scan friendly, break it up, add some bold text, italicize a section, have some fun girl! Bust Loose!

      7.) Do you have any related articles, add a link capsule and fill it with related articles, they don't all have to be yours . . . you could add my Cognitive Dissonance article and I might even add this article to one of mine . . . gee do think that could possible drive more folks to your article . . . I bet it would.

      Feel free to delete this comment after using some of the suggestions and welcome to Hub Pages, you're going to love it!