A Study Provides Evidence That Incivility Closes Minds

Name-calling and personal antagonism makes people emotional and more likely to double down on their preexisting beliefs:

In a recent study, a team of researchers from the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and several other institutions employed a survey of 1,183 Americans to get at the negative consequences of vituperative online comments for the public understanding of science. Participants were asked to read a blog post containing a balanced discussion of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology (which is already all around us and supports a $91 billion US industry). The text of the post was the same for all participants, but the tone of the comments varied. Sometimes, they were “civil”—e.g., no name calling or flaming. But sometimes they were more like this: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these products, you’re an idiot.”

The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn’t a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people’s emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.

In the context of the psychological theory of motivated reasoning, this makes a great deal of sense. Based on pretty indisputable observations about how the brain works, the theory notes that people feel first, and think second. The emotions come faster than the “rational” thoughts—and also shape the retrieval of those thoughts from memory. Therefore, if reading insults activates one’s emotions, the “thinking” process may be more likely to be defensive in nature, and focused on preserving one’s identity and preexisting beliefs.

Read More.

Maybe the atheists and so-called skeptics and rationalists who defend and unapologetically engage in this kind of flagrantly incivil behavior don’t mind these kinds of findings because they’re happy to further entrench their own side further in and alienate those they hate on the other side. But they’re not, in practice, cultivating habits of mind that are rational or conducive to critical thinking. They’re not making truth likelier to see. So they are not making either their own partisans or their enemies, whom they should want to persuade, any more likely to be able to think clearly, critically, or truthfully. They are subject to, and are actively cultivating, the very blind, irrationalistic emotionalism and tribalism about values, identities, and beliefs that the atheist and skeptic movements were supposed to curb and counter.

It’s very disappointing and frustrating.

Read more of my own criticisms of this behavior at this compilation of links I have finally rounded up.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://starkreal.blogspot.com/ Todd I. Stark

    The preprint PDF of the study in question is gone. Do you have a copy?

    Cited URL: http://lsc.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Anderson_JCMC_prepub.pdf

  • http://minorityatheistsofmi.org beautifulblackatheist

    This article hits home, many of us have been on the receiving end or have witnessed such horrific behavior. Thanks Dan!

  • jose

    Name names.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Name names.

      And evoke tribalistic, emotionalistic reactions? Counter-productive. I focus on behaviors, not people as much as possible.

    • JD

      Dawkins, Harris, the late lamented Hitchens, PZ Myers, and the organizers of the Kansas City Atheist Meetups.

  • Patrick

    I’d like to see the actual study, if possible. I can’t help but notice the usual elision between the claim that incivility entrenches, to the implied claim that civility convinces.

    My admittedly hazy recollection of political science courses from undergraduate is that what these sorts of studies actually show is that almost no one changes their mind, ever. The few who do typically do so through weird rationalizations and outright history-editing denials regarding their prior stated beliefs. This process generally takes months or years, and as a result is very hard to document.

    • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doemch

      I agree Patrick, I think that there is an underpants gnome step missing in the equation. I appreciate what Dan is trying to convey (and I try my best to emulate his approach where I feel it is appropriate, especially when visiting his yard) however I contend that sometimes I have no interest in “convincing” my opponent of anything, rather I believe that they should be marginalized and ignored. For instance, the people who have made a hobby of harassing, mocking and practically cyberstalking Amy Davis Roth or Melody Hensley or Rebecca Watson, I bristle greatly at the idea of treating them civilly. It seems evident that they cannot be convinced of the inappropriateness of their actions and I question the efficacy of treating them with kid gloves. And yes Daniel, I know that it is not necessary to be verbally abusive when calling out bad behavior. Thanks to you I’m trying to avoid doing that.

      But its hard, and I’m not completely sure its worth it… ;)

  • DR

    The problem with all such studies is that they only ever look at the immediate, short-term consequences of confrontation. They never look at how a sustained campaign of confrontation, especially coupled with more civil approaches, works at changing opinions. Simply put, if incivility didn’t work, the Civil Rights movement would have failed. Even though he was a champion of non-violence, Martin Luther King was not an accomodationist; he was confrontational through and through (read or listen to his speeches). And the LGBT movement would be nothing without the “in your face” attitude of a large segment of that population.

    Sorry, but the accomodationists who love to point at studies like that have to dismiss the evidence provided by pretty much every social change movement. And then they have to show how studies which look at the immediate, individual effects of single events have any bearing whatsoever on the behaviour of masses over long periods of time.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      DR, you present a false dilemma. One can be confrontational without being personally abusive and incivil. That’s not accommodationism.

  • mikmik

    Yeah, well, DR, I guess MLK and his supporters didn’t go around telling everyone that didn’t agree with them that they were stupid, or tell them to stfu, DID THEY?

    There is a huge difference between using determined non compromise, and swearing, slanderous, hissy fits.

    You are pleading a hasty generalization, by using one example, and an improper one at that, to make a sweeping implication that bullying and petulance are necessary to induce change. If you want to claim that “evidence provided by pretty much every social change movement,” is contrary to these studies, you will have to rely on a lot more than your opinion.-

    You see, that is a hallmark of the disingenuous radicals and windbags, giving copious amounts of ‘everybody knows this or that’ and/or making unfounded statements of opinion on which to base their conclusions. I do believe that is called circular reasoning, tautology, and etc.

    If you expect me to be swayed by your ‘explanations of what’s up with what,’ you will have to back up your silly claims. Your whole comment is nothing but expressed bias confirmation.

    I’ve been having it out with the hard core feminists about certain points they insist are relevant to almost every discussion on rape. I do nothing, AFAIKT, but point out their name calling, belittling behavior, and all around extremely ignorant ways of responding, and all that happens is that they insults and character assassinations get worse.

    You tell me what they are accomplishing:
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/taslima/2013/01/05/men-are-the-same-everywhere/
    and this one especially:
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/amilliongods/2013/01/08/so-sorry/

    It is not a matter of trying to change minds when one side becomes insulting. It is a matter of not engaging pointless slander. And believe me, I used to be one of the loudest and cutting of the throng.

    I got bored with it after a couple of months, thanks in no part to Dan Fincke’s articles. But I was already finding it extremely provincial, and deeply unsatisfying, to participate in the escalations of ignorance.

    It is so bad at a few, or more, of the militant atheist and feminist blogs and forums, that within one to two comments in opposition, or merely just mis-communication, gets immediate calls to fuck of, or STFU and go….

    It isn’t accommodation if you don’t partake in insults and hysteria, DR. That’s another fallacy they use – black and white, false dilemma thinking.

  • Laurent Weppe

    It really depends wether you need to convince the person or simply to beat said person into submission.

    Let’s take the exemple of the climate change denial.

    We know and have ample evidence, that global warming denialism exists because the fossil fuel industry bribed retired scientists so they lied about the issue.These lies were then repeated by politicians who were on the very same fossil fuel industry’s payroll, and the people who voted for these crooks or their allies decided to play dumb an pretended they did not see the blatant lies.

    Global warming denial is not a misconception: it’s a debunked lie which is still repeated by people who know better.

    In such a case, your goal is not to convince people: global warming deniers know that global warming is real: what you have to do is to force them to stop lying about it, and few things are more efficient to stop a lie than public shaming fueled by loud unapologetic expressions of scorn.

    Of course, one has to choose carefully when to express scorn: not every false claim is a lie, not every proclaimed belief is false (unless you want to pretend that the people who are in favor of helping the destitutes are wrong to want it because they came to that conclusion throught a different intellectual journey than you) and not every professed opinion differing from yours is a misguided belief. The relentless use of a rethorical pile-driver, as pleasant and cathartic its use is, is not a tool to be used in every situation

    The tribalistic pseudo-rationalists you target don’t care to distinguish between deliberate lies, misguided beliefs and reasonable opinions: they enjoy their pile-driver so much that they put everything and everyone in the same bag to be flattened by the pile-driver, thus adopting the neo-conservatives’ creed and behavior: “We’re smarter than everyone else therefore we’re right and anyone who disagree with us is either too stupid to recognize our genius and/or envious of our obvious superiority ergo they’re plebs deserving to be bullied into submission.“.

    And the thing is, I’m okay with that. Not that I don’t think that such absolutist approach is extremely hubristic and I daresay depraved, but if one is convinced that their tribe is the pinacle of human thought and everyone who disagree with their doxa is some subhuman trash at best worthy of being used as lackeys, then one should honestly express the contempt they feel toward everyone else, instead of hiding behind fake commiseration. Let the tribalistic atheists channel Ayn Rand and proclaim that they despise everyone who isn’t them, then let them rot alone in their corner, next to the tribalistic religous fundies proclaiming that their pantheon demands that they hate everyone who isn’t them.

  • M

    Another problem with the civility/incivility argument is that people set their own tolerances for incivility. Specifically on atheism, just telling someone “I don’t believe there is a God” can be so offensive and so shocking that they stop thinking. Should I stop self-identifying as an atheist? On feminism, saying “we live in a rape culture” makes some people very, very angry and defensive. Should we stop consciousness raising and education efforts because some people got upset? The first step to opening minds is sometimes being shocking and provocative. It creates a short-term mental block but sometimes a long-term gain.

    • B-Lar

      No need to cease efforts. You can try to tackle the problem in a slightly different way.

      A freind of mine is a teacher. If he explains something, and one of the kids doesnt get it, then he explains using a different analogy/method. He keeps going until he can see that the kid has got it. It doesnt matter what method of long division the kid uses as long as they can divide long numbers.

      Try “I have difficulty believing there can be a god” or “we live in a culture where rape is excused by victim blaming”. Still statements, but ones which invite discussion rather than argument and strawmanning, and furthermore, no need for the mental block.

      Instead of winding someone up and leaving them to stew until another person appears (who can actually convert that mental block into that long term gain that you mentioned), you can cut out the middleman.

      You dont need to concede or attack if you aren’t in a fight.

    • Droopy

      It seems like you’re approaching incivility and offensiveness as if they are the same thing. People will be offended by all sorts of different things and we ought not to be concerned with a lot of it. (For instance, I am offended by putting ketchup on chicken and waffles, but that is really nobody’s problem but my own). On the other hand incivility is clearly being cruel to people. “Dirty” words, insults, and the like are incivil. Shocking truths are not.

  • Goldstein Squad Member

    A coupel of us were on the fence, wavering if you will, when we ran into a couuple of atheist organizers in Kansas City.

    Their posts are still up on a local blog, and they called us “delusional”, “psychotic”, and worse simply for being believers.

    When one of them told us we would end up “in a ditch like Jimmy Hoffa” thats when I realized that all that stuff my dad had told me…about atheists wanting to eliminate believers if the had the power…could well be true.

    And it was clear that atheism offered no superior position on any of these issues.

    We are now in the theist camp, thanks to those atheists.

    So quit arguing for accomodation Camel…do you think Nietzsche would have toned it down?

    • M

      I’m sorry you ran into those people. That behavior is not appropriate in any way. There’s a big difference between shock/confrontation and just throwing ad hominem attacks or worse, making threats. A more appropriate confrontational tactic would have been signs saying things like “God is a psychopath”- still rude and confrontational and shocking, but not across the line into threats or drivel.

      I will say that as an atheist and (obviously) a somewhat confrontational one, I would like to see the demise of belief. I wish no harm on believers and I would never stop them from believing anything. I’d just prefer people to think about things through logic and evidence. I’m pretty sure that belief can’t survive that kind of examination and introspection but there’s a number of thoughtful believers who disagree so YMMV on that.

      I’m sorry you got turned off atheism by a bad experience, and I’m glad you’re here reading about it and continuing your logic/thought journey. You can be an atheist without being an activist, you know! All atheism means is a lack of belief in gods. The rest of it is entirely up to you. That’s why most of us also identify ourselves by other traditions and philosophies, like Humanism or Atheism+. Atheism doesn’t say anything about our politics or ethics and since atheists are people like all other people, some of them are jerks. I started hanging out here in the comments on Patheos because the atheist bloggers here are not jerks and tend to also care about the other issues I care about (feminism, LGBT activism, violence reduction, JT likes video games, etc).

  • Kodie

    The group in power dictates in what way they are willing to listen at all.

  • Hitchslapper

    This is actually really upsettingt…. as I’ve found, through experience, the best way to shut up an annoying god-pusher, is to curse at them! Dirty words turn their brains to mush……….

    • Kodie

      Have you never noticed that atheists can’t stand you either?

  • Droopy

    I try to keep my incivility limited to reddit.com/r/atheism. I consider that to be the place where people go to have their atheism supported and strengthened before they go out into the world with their irritatingly religious relatives or coworkers.


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