Building somewhat on yesterday’s post, last night I was involved in a discussion of cell phones. But we were not debating the likelihood of cell phones causing cancer, nor the problems of texting. Instead, I was watching two friends try to convince each other that their respective cell phone choices – an Android vs. an iPhone 4 – was the better phone.
After a relatively long debate, I stepped in to point out that each were unlikely to change each others’ mind – and in fact that research, such as that I pointed to in yesterday’s post about the ability of corrections to backfire, would lead us to suspect that they would ultimately polarize and each become more firmly convinced of the rightness of their own choice. One of the debaters, however, countered this point, suggesting that the discussion could only expose them to new ideas and to develop their own understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of each.
This is a good point. Deliberation theorists would like us to believe that exposure to others’ views can be a very good thing, letting us come to know our own arguments better while also exposing us to knowledge of others’ views. But in what circumstances is this reasonable exchange more likely? And how can we reconcile this with the inevitable knowledge that people become attached to their viewpoints, especially once they’ve committed themselves to a particular course? Indeed, it is this commitment and inability to change which is at the heart of cognitive dissonance – because we don’t want to admit that we are wrong, especially when a decision is hard to revoke.
In my opinion, cell phone ownership is likely to belong in the latter camp. Cell phones tend to be very expensive and are often coupled with extended contracts with one service or another that can be difficult to break. Thus, if someone admits that the other phone (one that they didn’t select or that isn’t available through their provider) is better, they are stuck with something that they can’t get out of, at least not without significant cost. This is true for most of the major decisions in life – cars, politics, and firmly-held issue positions, for anything that we are likely to debate about we are also likely to have a committed opinion on.
But in this discussion, little was at stake. Both participants acknowledged their biases and the slim likelihood that they would change their mind. So is this the only way such debate can work? When both sides acknowledge that they are unlikely to be persuaded, but are open to new information? And of what value is that information, then, if people remain ultimately committed to the same course of action that they started with? Finally, can we use this idea – of a conversation to inform but not persuade, where each side can make small concessions without admitting an entire decision is at fault – to better develop open political debate? Because something is needed to prevent the instant polarization and the inevitable gridlock that characterizes so much of the political debate in our country today.