BATH, United Kingdom — Depending on the setting and topic, debates and discussions often have the potential to break down quickly into full-on arguments. If you’re looking to have more civil, harmonious conversations in your own life, new findings out of the United Kingdom may be just what the doctor ordered. Researchers say taking a few moments to reflect on one’s values before engaging in conversation with others promotes more enjoyable and harmonious interactions.
This new interdisciplinary research, conducted by both philosophers and linguists at Cardiff University and psychologists at the University of Bath, reports that reflecting on personal life values before a debate can increase people’s willingness to listen to others’ ideas and converse in a civil dialogue.
The researchers studied a total of 303 people during this project. Participants entered into small groups, where they had to discuss the merits of charging tuition fees for education. Before the debates began, half of the participants had to write about the life values they personally consider important. The team then recorded, coded, and analyzed all subsequent discussions.
What do people value the most after self-reflections?
The most common life values study participants named included self-direction thought, or the freedom to cultivate one’s own ideas and abilities (chosen by 32 people); universalism-concern, which refers to one’s commitment to equality, justice, and protection for all people (chosen by 26 people); self-direction action, meaning the freedom to choose one’s own actions (19 people); and personal security, or the right to safety in one’s immediate environment (16 people).
The eventual analysis of responses and discussions revealed self-reflecting on values first helped inspire individuals’ intellectual humility, or their awareness of their own fallibility and openness to others’ views. In all, 60.6 percent who reflected on their values displayed more humility in comparison to the average person who did not complete this task.
In summation, study authors see their work as a source of hope and optimism at a time when opinions appear increasingly polarized. They believe that if people were to stop and reflect on their values beforehand, both online and real-world debates could be far more civil.
“We are often told that we live in a polarized world where having the ‘wrong’ view about topics will get you shouted down before you have had a chance to finish,” says co-study author Dr. Paul Hanel, who conducted the research at the University of Bath and is now at the University of Essex, in a media release.
“This research suggests that polarization might be exaggerated and that by pausing to reflect on personal values before engaging in these kinds of conversations, our interactions could become more harmonious.”
Does the media provide a true picture of public discourse?
Prior research conducted at the University of Bath in 2019 found evidence suggesting people tend to be much more united in their beliefs and values than media reports often suggest. That work is part of a wider project all about “Changing Attitudes in Public Discourse,” led by Cardiff University.
“The good news from this study is that the vitriol we often see perpetuated online does not have to be that way. By presenting participants with an opportunity to reflect on their values, we found a marked improvement in how they engaged with discussions,” notes study co-author Professor Greg Maio, Head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath.
“In the future, we would like to see if this kind of value reflection also works online, to encourage less arrogant dialogue among social media users. We would certainly be interested in sharing our findings with social media developers and others.”
“Our research shows that strategies promoting virtuous attitudes by means of value affirmation improve people’s ability to learn from each other. Ours is an intervention whose implementation in schools and universities can also make an important pedagogical contribution to students’ education,” concludes study co-author, Professor Alessandra Tanesini, a philosopher at Cardiff University.
The study is published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.