BEHAVIOR
April 7, 2020

Finding Common Ground

To combat the polarization that seems to come so easily these days, a group of psychologists decided to study their own disagreements.

In these contentious times, we could all use a lesson in how to get along with those we disagree with. Enter a group of social scientists, all of whom specialize in the study of stereotypes. The problem was they each had competing theories about how and why we form stereotypes, and those differences had only become more entrenched over the years.

Much of scientific theory is based on what happens in specific situations, so are people's attitudes. Take stereotypes. People may have one view on them during the day and an entirely different perspective when they're walking down a street late at night and a stranger appears.

A shift in attitude proved to be the key to ironing out their differences.

The five researchers had five separate conflicting theories on how people formed stereotypes. Instead of arguing and pointing fingers at each other, they decided to get together for one week in a hotel room in Amsterdam and try to figure out how they could reach a consensus, documenting their process and serving as their own case study in overcoming differences.

Focusing on a Shared Goal, Not Competition

Yes, strong coffee was involved, but that wasn't the important part. They found that what was crucial was attitude. They had to stop looking at each other as competitors and begin to see themselves as partners with a shared goal. They also had to view their partners as trustworthy and competent.

There was still a lot of work to be done, but this shift in attitude proved to be the key to ironing out their differences. They ended up agreeing that all five theories were valid under certain circumstances. For what they couldn't agree upon, they worked on designing future research that would give them definitive answers.

In a week, they had a draft of a paper.

“If people are willing to get in a room together and debate their differences, science can be improved,” said Susan Fiske, Professor of Psychology at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and co-author of the study. “Given that we've all been published in reputable journals, we never thought of it as one theory being right, or the other one being wrong. Instead, we thought there would be subtle differences in how these theories play out. After our week together, that's what we found.” In the end they were able to refine their theories and learn a good deal about how to work together even in the face of differences, something we could all do a little more of.

The proof that this approach can work is in their two papers. One paper on how stereotypes form has been submitted to a theory journal. The second, a practical guide on collaboration and how to reach consensus, is published in PNAS, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The idea that different perspectives can each be partly right may sound like fuzzy, touchy-feely thinking to some people, possibly suited to the social sciences but irrelevant to the so-called hard sciences. Yet physicists embraced this idea a long time ago, when confronted with the dual nature of light. Light behaves like a particle under some circumstances and like a wave at other times, and it became clear that neither perspective tells the full story.

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