If you open up your Facebook feed right now and scan it for political posts, what will you see, people having rational, respectful conversations, or bomb-throwing insult-fests that just entrench everybody in their own opinions?
No bonus points for guessing the latter.
In our highly polarized times, just about everyone has experienced the fruitlessness and stress of online political arguments. Is the problem simply our divided culture and overheated rhetoric? Those certainly play a role, but according to new research, the medium itself might be a big part of the problem too.
Communicating via text, a new study finds, makes us more likely to dehumanize those who disagree with us, leading people to assume the other side is "crazy" or "dumb" and making productive discussion nearly impossible.
Your voice is your most powerful persuasion tool.
To figure this out UC Berkeley management professor Juliana Schroeder and University of Chicago behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley asked hundreds of volunteers to either watch, listen to, or read arguments about controversial topics like abortion, Donald Trump, and country music. They then asked them to rate their feelings about the people making those arguments.
To absolutely no one's surprise, people had lower opinions of those they disagreed with. Abortion opponents thought those making pro-choice points were dumb and/or crazy, and vice versa. Or, in science lingo, we tend to "dehumanize" those we disagree with, imagining them to be less thoughtful, engaged, and competent people than ourselves.
But while the study subjects had disparaging opinions of those with opposing views no matter how they received their arguments, volunteers showed more respect for those they disagreed with when they actually heard their voices. Apparently, it's harder to write someone off as a crank when you hear them speak as opposed to just reading their words.
Why did hearing someone's voice nudge people to listen with more respect? "This humanizing result was not simply the consequence of having more information about another person--seeing the supporter in a video did not change impressions," note the study co-authors on Quartz.
Instead, our voices seem to have a unique ability to convey our humanity. "In the same way that you know a person is biologically alive because their body moves, you know that another person is mentally alive because their voice also contains movement," the authors write. "Pitch rises and falls. A voice gets louder and softer. Speaking speeds up and slows down. These cues all reflect thinking as it is happening" and "convey the presence of a human mind."
What works for politics also works for business.
The research offers real guidance for anyone hoping to hold productive conversations despite stark differences in opinion. If you're trying to win over your Trump-supporting uncle, don't use Facebook or email. Chances are good that, on social media, you'll both just end up crouched in a mental bunker, viewing the other as irrational and thoughtless. Instead, screw up the courage to have a conversation face to face and you'll at least increase the chances of productive, respectful dialogue.
The same goes for professional disagreements. If you want a sympathetic hearing in which the other party assumes the best about you, then make your case in person.
Schroeder and Epley even tested this out in a follow-up experiment. "In other research, we find that the impact of a human voice extends beyond cases of political disagreement. Job candidates giving an elevator pitch are judged to be more mindful-more thoughtful, intelligent, and therefore employable-when potential employers hear the elevator pitch than when they read it," they report in Quartz.
So whatever serious conversation you need to have, close that laptop and brave a face-to-face conversation or a phone call. You'll radically increase the chances of getting (and giving) a fair and respectful hearing.