In a previous post, I shared about the problem with debates as the sole means of resolving differences in opinions. To summarize, while useful in many instances, debates can stir up heated emotions and result in harsh confrontations that leave all participants more set in their opinions. I suggested that collaborative truth-seeking might be a better approach in cases where debates are more likely to fail – when participants have deeply held beliefs, when there are strong emotional triggers around topics of discussion, and also where previous debates about a specific topic have not succeeded.
Collaborative truth-seeking is an opportunity for us to to change our mind based on evidence. But for collaborative truth-seeking to work, we need to bring to the conversation a willingness to learn and a desire to be sensitive to others’ emotions. We must also avoid arousing emotions in ourselves or others that will prevent us from working toward solutions. Mastering these traits can help us develop greater social sensitivity, which correlates with higher group performance.
Starting with Trust
The process of collaborative truth-seeking starts with establishing trust, which will help increase social sensitivity, lower barriers to updating beliefs, increase willingness to be vulnerable, and calm emotional arousal. To establish trust during collaborative truth-seeking, share weaknesses and uncertainties in your own position, describe your biases around your position, and talk about your social context and background as relevant to the discussion.
So how might the folks that I mentioned in the last post establish trust and acknowledge their biases? Let’s take the example of sharing about biases and social context. Michael, who thinks Against Malaria Foundation does the most good per dollar to address global poverty, might share that he had relatives who died of deadly diseases, and is thus predisposed to favor health-oriented interventions. Sheena, who believes GiveDirectly does more good per dollar than AMF, can share that she grew up poor and was lifted out of poverty by generous philanthropic support, making her inclined to favor interventions that lift people from poverty over health interventions.
Staying in Collaborative Truth-Seeking
After establishing trust, here are techniques that can help you stay in collaborative truth-seeking mode.
Self-signal to yourself that you want to engage in collaborative truth-seeking, instead of debating by reminding yourself of this aspiration throughout the discussion. Try to empathize with the person holding a different perspective by considering how, why, and where they views originated. Recognize that they feel that their viewpoint is correct. Be prepared to calm your own and others’ emotions, and watch out for defensiveness and aggressiveness in particular, in yourself and the other person.
Go slow in your discussion, and take the time to fully listen and think. Consider pausing, and have an escape route to process complex thoughts and emotions if you can’t deal with them in the moment. Before you start the discussion, have a shared understanding with your collaborator(s) that all should feel free to pause and pick up the discussion later: for instance, you can say “I will take some time to think about this,” and/or write things down.
Echo by paraphrasing the other person’s position to indicate and check whether you’ve fully understood them. Be diplomatic: when you think the other person is wrong, avoid saying “you’re wrong because of X” but instead to use questions, such as “what do you think X implies about your argument?” Use charity mode by being more charitable to others and their viewpoint than seems intuitive to you. Try to support your collaborator by improving the other person’s points to argue against their strongest form – after all, the goal is not to win, but to figure out the best perspective on the situation, the one most strongly supported by the evidence. And on that one, be passionate about wanting to update your beliefs, maintain the most truthful perspective, and adopt the best evidence and arguments, no matter if they are yours or others.’
Be concrete by describing your points using examples as close to our sensory experiences as possible to help ensure shared understanding. Be clear to make sure the semantics are not a barrier to understanding via defining all terms. In fact, consider tabooing terms if some are emotionally arousing, and make sure you are describing the same territory of reality. For maximum clarity, use probabilistic thinking and language, to help get at the extent of disagreement and be as specific and concrete as possible. For instance, avoid saying that X is absolutely true, but say that you think there’s an 80% chance it’s true. Add what evidence and reasoning led you to believe so, for both you and the other participants to examine this chain of thought. Confirm your sources by looking up information when it’s possible to do so (Google is your friend). Something to consider is that when people whose perspective you respect fail to update their beliefs in response to your clear chain of reasoning and evidence, update a little toward their position, since that presents evidence that your position is not very convincing.
A couple of final strategies to use. First, use the reversal test to check for status quo bias. So if you are discussing whether to change a specific numeric parameter – say increase by 50% the money donated to charity X – state the reverse of your positions, for example decreasing the amount of money donated to charity X by 50 percent, and see how that impacts your perspective. Second, use CFAR’s double crux technique. In this technique, two parties who hold different positions on an argument each writes the fundamental reason for their position (the crux of their position). This reason has to be the key reason, so that if it were proven incorrect, then each would have to change their perspective. Then, look for thought experiments that can test the crux. Repeat as needed. If a person identifies more than one reason as crucial, you can go through each as needed. More details are here.
For example, let’s take the technique of being probabilistic. Michael might state that he has 75 percent confidence that AMF is better than GiveDirectly in addressing global suffering, based on what he knows now. However, if Sheena provides him with new information – for example regarding GiveDirectly’s basic income experiment and its potential consequences – he might update his perspective to say that he now has 70 percent confidence that AMF is better than GiveDirectly, due to Sheena’s beliefs about the benefits of basic income support.
Engaging in collaborative truth-seeking goes against our natural impulses to win in a debate, and is thus more cognitively costly. It also tends to take more time and effort than just debating. It is easy to slip into debate mode even when using collaborative truth-seeking, because of the intuitive nature of debate mode. Likewise, using collaborative truth-seeking to resolve differing opinions on all issues holds the danger of creating a community oriented excessively toward sensitivity to the perspectives of others, which might result in important issues not being discussed candidly. After all, research shows the importance of having disagreement in order to make wise decisions and to figure out the truth. Of course, collaborative truth-seeking is well suited to expressing disagreements in a sensitive way, so if used appropriately, it might permit even people with emotional triggers around certain topics to express their opinions.
Taking these caveats into consideration, collaborative truth-seeking is a great tool to use to discover the truth and to update our beliefs, as it can get past the high emotional barriers to altering our perspectives that have been put up by evolution. Since we all share the same goal, effective giving venues are natural places to try out collaborative truth-seeking to answer one of the most important questions of all – how we can do good most effectively to alleviate global poverty.