The Internet is one of the greatest inventions in human history. It can be used to buy pretty much anything you could ever want, connect people separated by vast oceans, and watch those all-important videos of cats. But as long as the Internet has existed, people have used it to argue.
From fans of singers and celebrities battling it out to members of different political parties and factions countering each other, the virtual world has become an argumentative minefield. Now, research published in the journal Psychological Science has shown what many people online have probably already concluded: Arguing with people in person is far more effective than bashing the keyboard at each other remotely.
They found that by listening to someone voice their argument, or even better talking to someone face-to-face, it helps the person you are arguing with understand that you are “mentally capable”. This might sound ridiculous, but as the authors write, “‘I think’ is a fact; ‘you think’ is a guess.” One facet of dehumanization is the failure to understand that one group has similar mental capacities to your own. This allows them to treat the other group more as an object than a human being.
This, they suggest, makes people put any disagreement down to the other person’s “inability to think reasonably about the problem,” rather than simply putting it down to the fact that they may have a different way of thinking about the same problem.
The researchers wanted to test whether listening to someone voice their opinion on a polarizing topic, such as the 2016 US presidential elections, helped reduce this denigration and dehumanizing effect of the Internet, by making the listening party understand that the other person is “mentally capable” regardless of their opinion.
And indeed, they found that the “four experiments demonstrated that the medium of communication may moderate the tendency to dehumanize the opposition.” They think that because we cannot experience someone else’s mind directly, we have to use other cues to determine mental capacity and underlying feelings.
Such cues are absent from text alone, but can be picked up in audio and audiovisual media, even when the content of the opinion is the same. By removing such vocal intonations and cues, either electronically or if someone speaks in a monotone voice, the tendency to dehumanize starts to seep back in.
Perhaps rather than attacking other’s with differing views over message boards and social media (where let’s be honest we all lose), we should instead get out and actually talk to each other.