Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Uyboco: Why arguing on social media doesn’t work

“STUPID,” “mindless,” and “idiot” are some of the words we hear when we come across arguments in social media like Facebook or Twitter.

In the many years that I’ve been on social media, I see these words (and some more colorful ones) a lot and have been on the giving and receiving end of them in my own arguments. I rarely argue now though. People will believe what they want. And to those whose opinions I really care about, I can always approach privately or have a cup of coffee with them to discuss things in a less hostile atmosphere.

A recent study by Schroeder, Kardas and Epley published in the journal of the Association for Psychological Science underlines the importance of the human voice, and why its absence tends to dehumanize the opposing party. The idea for the study came when one of the researchers had the experience of reading a politician’s speech in the newspaper, and then hearing it replayed on the radio a week later. When he read the speech, he thought the politician was an idiot, but when he heard the same speech, he thought it was actually quite reasonable.

They then conducted four different experiments on 300 people, by letting them read articles or hear speeches on various polarizing topics and getting their reactions to these. The results were the same in most cases. Respondents tended to have a negative impression of those they disagreed with, but these impressions were softened when they heard voice clips or watched videos of the same.

The research concludes with the idea that a person’s voice gives a humanizing aspect to the ideas behind it, that “a person’s speech communicates his or her thoughts and feelings... beyond conveying the contents of a person’s mind, a person’s speech also conveys mental capacity, such that hearing a person explain his or her beliefs makes the person seem more mentally capable—and therefore seem to possess more uniquely human mental traits—than reading the same content...These results suggest that the medium through which people communicate may systematically influence the impressions they form of each other. The tendency to denigrate the minds of the opposition may be tempered by giving them, quite literally, a voice.”

This explains why it is so easy to dismiss opposing arguments on social media, especially if one doesn’t personally know the other person. It’s so easy to think of the other person as stupid, idiotic, bobo, or tanga (oh and remember that whatever you think of the other person, he thinks the same of you too). Continuing the argument usually degenerates into name-calling and ad hominems rather than debating the issue itself.

I experienced such a few years back when I would go into heated arguments about religion on Facebook with a childhood friend. I had not seen this person for a long time as he has moved to a different part of the world. At first our exchanges were friendly, but as we got into deeper disagreements, I got more vicious. There were times that I would read what he wrote and I would literally be seething and would think unflattering thoughts about this person. How could he think that? What kind of reasoning is that? A monkey would have better logic, and so on. I would be so affected that I would rush my lunch or dinner so I can get back to my computer to type out my reply.

Of course, the saving grace was that I knew this person. I knew his background, his family, and a bit about his life. I knew he had the best intentions and so on, and despite our not communicating verbally, these were the humanizing aspects of our arguments. If I relate it to the study, it was because I knew this person that I somehow “heard” him speaking even though I was reading the words, and after a couple of years of back and forth, we finally decided to stop arguing on Facebook because it was going nowhere.

So the next time you see an idea worth arguing about, resist the urge to punch an angry reply on your keyboard, and invite that person to coffee instead. You’ll have a much better day, I promise.

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