New research shows how we interact makes a huge difference.
You’ve seen it happen dozens if not hundreds of times. You post an opinion, or a complaint, or a link to an article on Facebook. Somebody adds a comment, disagreeing (or agreeing) with whatever you posted. Someone else posts another comment disagreeing with the first commenter, or with you, or both. Then others jump in to add their own viewpoints. Tempers flare. Harsh words are used. Soon enough, you and several of your friends are engaged in a virtual shouting match, aiming insults in all directions, sometimes at people you’ve never even met.
There’s a simple reason this happens, it turns out: We respond very differently to what people write than to what they say–even if those things are exactly the same. That’s the result of a fascinating new experiment by UC Berkeley and University of Chicago researchers. In the study, 300 subjects either read, watched a video of, or listened to arguments about such hot-button topics as war, abortion, and country or rap music. Afterward, subjects were interviewed about their reactions to the opinions with which they disagreed.
Their general response was probably very familiar to anyone who’s ever discussed politics: a broad belief that people who don’t agree with you are either too stupid or too uncaring to know better. But there was a distinct difference between those who had watched or listened to someone speak the words out loud and those who had read the identical words as text. Those who had listened or watched to someone say the words were less likely to dismiss the speaker as uninformed or heartless than they were if they were just reading the commenter’s words.
That result was no surprise to at least one of the researchers, who was inspired to try the experiment after a similar experience of his own. “One of us read a speech excerpt that was printed in a newspaper from a politician with whom he strongly disagreed,” researcher Juliana Schroeder told the Washington Post. “The next week, he heard the exact same speech clip playing on a radio station. He was shocked by how different his reaction was toward the politician when he read the excerpt compared to when he heard it.” Whereas the written comments seemed outrageous to this researcher, the same words spoken out loud seemed reasonable.
We’re using the wrong medium.
This research suggests that the best way for people who disagree with each other to work out their differences and arrive at a better understanding or compromise is by talking to each other, as people used to do at town hall meetings and over the dinner table. But now that so many of our interactions take place over social media, chat, text message, or email, spoken conversation or discussion is increasingly uncommon. It’s probably no coincidence that political disagreement and general acrimony have never been greater. Russians used this speech-vs.-text disharmony to full advantage by creating Facebook and Twitter accounts to stir up even more ill will among Americans than we already had on our own. No wonder they were so successful at it.
So what should you do about it? To begin with, if you want to make a persuasive case for your political opinion or proposed action, you’re better off doing it by making a short video (or linking to one by someone else) rather than writing out whatever you have to say. At the same time, whenever you’re reading something someone else wrote that seems outlandish to you, keep in mind that the fact that you’re seeing this as text may be part of the problem. If it’s important for you to be objective, try reading it out loud or having someone else read it to you.
Finally, if you’re already in the middle of an argument over Facebook (or Twitter, or Instagram or email or text), and the person on the other side of the issue is someone you care about, please don’t just keep typing out comments and replies and replies to replies. Instead, make a coffee date so you can speak in person. Or at the very least, pick up the phone.