How to Transcend Political Difference: Make Everyone Sit Still

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In this season of government shutdown, it’s worth thinking about the mystery of political polarity. How intractable is it, really?

red blue chairs1 How to Transcend Political Difference: Make Everyone Sit StillImage source: castandcrew (Etsy)

The U.S. has famously divided into red and blue states whose citizens vote Republican or Democrat, and have little tolerance for the other side’s point of view. Many other nations are beset by similar polarities.

But recent research suggests that a “Just do it!” culture heightens this tendency. The psychologists William Hart and Dolores Albarracin conducted a series of experiments showing that when people’s minds are attuned to the idea of action, they become more close-minded.

Here’s a description of the first study, from Miller-McCune:

“72 undergraduates were asked to consider the question of whether hate speech should be banned from college campuses. They read about a specific case and then expressed their preliminary position, knowing they would have the opportunity to read more information on the subject.

The students were then instructed to complete a simple word test during what they were told was a “brief break” from their experiment. All were presented 12 words with missing letters; they were asked to fill in the letters and complete the word.

For half the students, eight of the words were action-oriented, including “motivation,” “doing” and “active.” For the other half, eight connoted inaction, including “still,” “pause” and “calm.”

Participants were then asked how strongly they held their beliefs on the hate speech issue. Afterward, they were given a chance to consider new, relevant information, in the form of 12 thesis statements that either supported or opposed their viewpoint.

The researchers found the participants with action concepts on their minds held firmer beliefs and were more likely than the others to choose statements that were consistent with their own opinions. Those who completed the words connoting passivity were also prone to this bias but to a significantly lesser degree.”

This is but one study of 72 undergraduates. But it’s an important clue, because we live in a society that regards inactivity as a moral failing. Yet if sitting still – if that dreaded condition, passivity! — opens minds, then we could all use a little less action and a little more contemplation.

What do you think? Have you noticed any particular conditions that give you an open mind – or a closed one?

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15 Comments »

15 Comments

  1. Mike Villeneuve on 08.10.2013 at 11:29 (Reply)

    I really like this. I like that it brings to light that passivity or “sitting still” is not the moral failing that society often views it to be. It seems too many people are often too busy, action oriented, or just in constant motion that they could really benefit from slowing down and truly considering the views and opinions of others. Maybe then we would all be a little more accepting of one another.

  2. Zach on 08.10.2013 at 11:50 (Reply)

    Interesting concept and one that could benefit from a lot more research. A lot of young people nowadays don’t identify as a stalwart Republican or Democrat, so perhaps testing politicians or older adults in the same way that the undergrads were tested here may result in different research outcomes.

    Personally, I think having firm beliefs is key to solving political issues. The U.S. was founded on deadly compromises… the Compromise of 1850 postponed but helped lead to our Civil War. Politicians have compromised on the welfare state, the warfare state, etc. and look where that’s gotten us – tons of debt, lots of enemies around the world, and a general nationwide dissatisfaction with politicians. Also, the shutdown only affected “non-essential” personnel, so people are still able to get what they need. Compromise with the shutdown would mean raising the debt ceiling once more, and would probably mean raising it again and again until the country collapses.

    But, the two-party system itself is incredibly ineffective. To truly harness the power of the people, more points of view should be brought to the table more publicly (Green Party, libertarianism, etc.). Being closed-minded is a problem, but be open to *learn* something.

  3. Sally Petersen on 08.10.2013 at 12:16 (Reply)

    As a member of the Quiet Nation — those who have read and appreciated your book — I appreciate your take on the current Washington stalemate. I’d rather the illustration didn’t use the idea of “passive” as the opposite of action-oriented, however.
    I think that to study, to think, to pause, to remain calm is action, just of an internal sort. Sometimes it takes great strength to keep from jumping onto the bandwagon. The few remaining moderate Republicans illustrate that it is possible, however, to step back, consider, and stand against the flow.

  4. Chionesu on 08.10.2013 at 17:58 (Reply)

    Emotional self-control, personal integrity, intellectual honesty and clarity would be great starting points for resolving differences in general. The first element I mentioned (emotional self-control) opens the door for the latter. Open-minded people tend to display this while more close-minded people show the opposite (ever try to reason with a close-minded person?)

    Unfortunately, our culture has become such that it breeds shirking self-restraint and embracing an uncritically thinking mindset. This type of social environment has become a pernicious disease in all too many areas of discourse (and disagreement).

    Concerning being “open-minded” or vice-versa: differing viewpoints should not have the expectation of being given equal credibility prima facie. Just as if I make an assertion which needs arguments to back it up in order to (hopefully) persuade others to take me seriously, so do others’ assertions and rebuttals. If those arguments/rebuttals are shown to be lacking, then the opponent who refuses to acquiesce to such shouldn’t be labeled as close-minded but instead discerning. Close-minded persons won’t even engage in the conversation.

    My 2-cents…

  5. Prudence Debtfree on 08.10.2013 at 19:09 (Reply)

    We live in a society that values a stubborn holding on to one’s views. I never considered this in light of society’s value of extroversion – but it fits. How refreshing to consider reflection, questioning, doubt, and being open to changing one’s opinion as positive attributes. I have often considered these attributes in me as being signs of weakness. Now I realize that they are signs of introversion. And I will allow myself to look upon them them as signs of strength.

    1. Susan Cain on 08.10.2013 at 19:32 (Reply)

      Prudence, you’ll be excited to know that I just did an interview with Martha Minow, Dean of Harvard Law School (which I’ll air soon). She talks about her love of ambivalence and shades of grey — and how these are her source of strength. She made a convincing case for the value of doubt and questioning. So good!

      1. Prudence Debtfree on 09.10.2013 at 19:25 (Reply)

        Thank you! I’d like to know when your interview with Martha Minow will air.

    2. Red Dog on 08.10.2013 at 21:12 (Reply)

      If you steadfastly hold to your views, you are resolute and stand by that which you know and/or believe to be true or of value. In fact, by definition, if you do so, you are a bigot.

      Being self-assured or uncompromising in one’s principles is often an indication of one who has firm principles and values. This has been derided by those who seek compromise and appeasement (“reaching out, across the aisle”) as being politically expedient. Concession is in the realm of, and the coin of politics, not of ethics.

      I’m very introverted. I’m also very resolute and secure in my beliefs and in the principles I hold that help guide my life. I also don’t mind being labeled as a bigot – in fact I would take being called that as a compliment. :-)

      But rather than ‘stirring the pot’ and descending into the cesspool of politics and current events, can we realize that being resolute (or intractable or bigoted) in whatever you might believe has absolutely nothing to do with being introverted or extroverted?

      To paraphrase Ecclesiastes: there is a time to keep your mouth shut and a time to open it. There is no inherent virtue in always doing only one and never the other. ;-)

      1. Prudence Debtfree on 09.10.2013 at 19:23 (Reply)

        Thank you! I’d like to know when your interview with Martha Minow will air.

      2. Prudence Debtfree on 09.10.2013 at 19:39 (Reply)

        Hello Red Dog. I feel pretty resolute and secure in my beliefs too. I’m also, like you, a fan of Ecclesiastes : )
        There are times when I reconsider my stand on an issue, and it has nothing to do with “reaching out, across the aisle”. It has to do with new information that is presented to me – or a persuasive argument that I am unable to counter. Although it is certainly possible for introverts to be intractable in their views (as you say you are), I do believe that it is typical of introverts to consider different points of view and to accommodate new information. We like to think and to mull things over.

        1. Red Dog on 09.10.2013 at 21:43 (Reply)

          I would not describe myself as a “fan” of Ecclesiastes. You can call yourself that if you please. I won’t mind. Younger folk use different terms to express themselves. :-)

          I am well past being middle aged. I have heard and know all the political arguments by now and they are largely variations on the same theme that has been in play by both major political parties for many decades in recent history. If you have yet to discover and understand them, I’m sure you will over time.

          Questioning is good and doubt is good. Being chronically or perpetually uncertain or undecided is not.

          BTW – if you are truly prudent and debt-free, that is admirable.

  6. Manga Therapy on 09.10.2013 at 10:32 (Reply)

    I think it’s best to think and act at the same time. Act in small steps and then think while acting and move from there. You can’t think too much and you can’t act too much, so why not in the middle?

    1. Red Dog on 09.10.2013 at 21:23 (Reply)

      Because being in the “middle of the road” is what people do when they don’t know why they are on the road – and often they don’t know where they are going, either. Better to pick one lane of the road and stay in it.

      Thinking and acting at the same time is the essence of multitasking. Unfortunately, despite having the ability of rapidly switching between the two, which is actually a chimera, you can only focus on one thing at a time.

      Think it, say it, do it. That’s being decisive.

      Doing otherwise is vacillation. It amounts to being adrift on the sea of life with neither a compass nor a rudder – going whichever way the wind blows. (BTW – that’s what politicians do: they moisten their finger, stick it in the air, see which way the political currents are presently blowing, and act accordingly to benefit themselves.) They “go with the flow”. Just as toilets do…

  7. David Seruyange on 10.10.2013 at 09:53 (Reply)

    It’s difficult to place the context of the current political rifts in one dimension. I agree that stillness and contemplation are very much not the norm but it seems that the biggest problem has to do with how rooted politics have become in individual identity. Identities that used to be religious or geographic have eroded and now people identify with one team (red) or the other (blue). It is often with the same paradigm as a sports team as a zero sum game.

    I come from an evangelical background where reflection and introspection are supposed to be a part of daily life. But my observation is that this has not led to any openness – at least in the incredibly red state (South Dakota) where I live.

  8. Jim Bradrick on 13.10.2013 at 09:39 (Reply)

    You asked – What do you think? Have you noticed any particular conditions that give you an open mind – or a closed one? Yes I have. I’ve noticed that the practice of meditation fosters, in me at least, a more open mind and tranquil disposition. I’ve also found that I’ve become less preoccupied and worried about the future, more aware of the present AND focused on how to make the present the most enjoyable experience possible. My new motto is now “the journey is MORE important than the destination.” Thanks for an incredible post.

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