Other People and their Terrible Habit of Differing Opinions

Other people eh? What are they like! Everything would be so much easier if everybody else shared my worldview – aka ‘common sense’ – and just stopped being daft. I’m afraid I’m guilty of having this thought, usually when watching the evening news, and it’s pretty typical human behaviour. We surround ourselves with people who think the same way and share similar attitudes and values. Rather than ‘live and let live’, the further someone’s worldview is from our own, the harder we find it to bridge the distance. The gulf of understanding that can exist between people is probably most keenly felt on the subjects of politics and religion, which explains why it’s considered good manners to avoid both in polite conversation. Unfortunately, such a rift can turn into a ‘who can shout the loudest?’ competition, and you don’t have to look far at the moment to see a global epidemic of divisive ‘with us or against us’ thinking. It’s all a bit bloody annoying really.

Is it really so awful to encounter viewpoints that differ from our own? Apparently it is. A recent article in Pacific Standard Magazine, ‘Why We Shut Ourselves Off From Opposing Viewpoints’, shares findings from the University of Winnipeg that liberals and conservatives are ‘similarly motivated to avoid exposure to one another’s opinions’. The research team led an ingenious experiment that gave participants the option to either:

  1. a) read statements that supported their position on same-sex marriage and then answer simple questions to confirm an understanding of the arguments. On completion, participants would then enter a draw to win $7.00, or;
  2. b) read statements that opposed their position on same sex marriage, and then answer simple questions to confirm their understanding and be entered into a draw to win $10.00.

The result? 64% of same-sex marriage supporters went for option a), and 61% of those who oppose it also went for a) – both would rather miss out on cold hard cash than read opposing viewpoints. It’s not just the big issues either; research has also demonstrated the same effect when discussing beverages (Coke vs. Pepsi), airplane seats (aisle or window), and even seasons (spring vs. autumn). Personally, I’ve never had much time for pepsi-drinking, window-sitting, autumn-loving weirdos, and now I know why. It shocks me that we are so petty as a species, and that the need to have our opinions validated is so deeply rooted.

The motivations behind this behaviour are twofold: participants who chose option a) wanted to maintain ‘a shared reality with the speaker’; and avoid cognitive dissonance, ‘the psychological discomfort that arises from simultaneously holding two opposing beliefs’. I have written previously about comfort being the enemy of innovative thinking (Are You Sitting Uncomfortably?) and how group dynamics, including the pressure to conform, can shut down creativity (Groupthink: The Evil Twin of Collaboration). When I think about the homogenity of museum professionals, and museum educators as a subset within that group, we have a particularly high mountain to climb if we are to genuinely meet audience needs and interests.

If I imagine a quasi ‘Logan’s Run’ scenario, where all thirty-something brunette women with MAs in art history/museum studies just disappeared off the face of the Earth, our museum learning departments would be decimated. But as a small sample of the museum-going public, audience demographics wouldn’t be much changed. In other words, it’s very easy for us to avoid conflicting worldviews because we are surrounded by people who are very similar, and yet we are not a representative sample of the public we serve. It is exactly this reassuring familiarity that needs to be disrupted if we want to be innovative in our programming and engage a broad and diverse audience.

The good news is that although the majority chose to stick with their fellow same-thinkers, a healthy 36% and 39% of participants chose option b). These individuals were more receptive to alternative worldviews (or maybe they just wanted that extra $3.00). I will always prefer The Guardian to The Telegraph or The Sun – not much of a surprise there – but this does nothing to challenge or extend my understanding of other people and their motivations. It doesn’t take much to step off the beaten path and increase one’s exposure to different worldviews, it’s just a case of doing it.

PS – The Pacific Standard Magazine article that I have drawn on for my post includes a link to a 2009 article by the same author, Tom Jacobs, titled Morals Authority. It is an absolutely fascinating summary of research into why liberals and conservatives have seemingly insurmountable differences, originating from very different moral and ethical starting points. Well worth a look.
IMAGE SOURCE: http://www.mustardweb.org/michaelpalin/

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