Extremes and Nuances

Posted on Friday, June 5th, 2009 at 11:07 am by Nick in prototype | 1 Comment

I’ve been thinking about the earlier iteration of the tool we’re developing – specifically about incentives to help each other have more meaningful conversations even if we disagree with each other. The ideas behind the Think Tank that is yet to be named suggest (at least to me) some other options that we may want to explore in the future.

One of the important components of the Think Tank’s work is the requirement that participants acknowledge their perspectives openly. We have talked about doing this kind of thing in our designs – having people declare their perspectives and then pairing them up with someone who disagrees with them – effectively tying the fate of each person to someone who they disagree with. We could take this further by selecting multiple topics. By having people choose a side on 3-4 topics and then having their opinions declared throughout the conversations, we might create a situation where partnerships across divisive subjects could be more organically created.

For example, one might  declare their perspective on several topics and then enter a chatroom where the moderator starts a discussion on only one topic. Each person could be fully identified throughout the discussion:

Sally (pro-choice, against charter schools, for stronger border controls): I think its important that we invest in our public schools rather than make them compete against each other.

Jim (pro-choice, for charter schools, for stronger border controls): That works in theory, but what about the kids who are in school now? Why should they have to go to bad schools just because we believe this utopian idea of “public schools?”

By declaring our opinion on more than one topic, its possible that we’ll get people to think in more complex ways about the other people in these discussions. Knowing that someone is going to be an ally in a later discussion might make us less likely to say something belligerent to them in the current discussion.

We also might be more willing to listen to someone who we agree with on some topics, or even weave our thoughts on these topics into discussions on other topics, which could create a more nuanced over-all discussion.

Going deeper, forcing people to declare their own opinions and have them shown in extreme terms might be an ongoing reminder that such descriptions fail to account for subtleties in our views. By holding up that mirror, we may be able to get people to think twice before judging other participants. And as these conversations proceed, they will hopefully be reminded of this. For example, while Sally is “pro-choice” she likely has complicated feelings on the topic, and when these more subtle thoughts are expressed immediately after her “pro-choice” declaration, it may nudge participants to put less weight on other people’s labels.

Cass Sunstein (one of the authors of Nudge) has a new book out called Going to Extremes which discusses how we are pushed toward more extremist views when we are surrounded by people who agree with us. Is it possible that declaring these views in an extremist manner in a discussion might push us in the other direction?

One Response to “Extremes and Nuances”

  1. # On June 17th, 2009 at 10:22 pm Jeremy wrote:

    Yes, the problem with extremist, polarizing positions is that the subtleties and complexities that characterize many of us are de-emphasized at best or totally obliterated at worst. It’s possible that declaring our positions on a range of positions could facilitate the discovery of common ground where none was assumed to exist. The experiment seems fairly straightforward to implement. What such declarations do in mediated interactions is to construct more complex identities that can compensate for the lack of embodiment.