- Education and Science
Self Affirmation: How to Talk to People Who Disagree With You
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.