Think Key 40:

Information Dodgeball

In today’s world, we’re constantly bombarded with information—more than we can easily process. This constant assault leads some to suffer from “paralysis by analysis.” Making a decision is difficult for many because of the barrage of pro-and-con information which they feel compelled to analyze first. Others make timely decisions, but all the information about alternative choices causes them great postdecision doubt -- what’s known as cognitive dissonance. To manage this doubt people focus only on information that confirms the wisdom of their choice. Think of it as a kind of “information dodgeball” where our opinions determine what is a fact rather than the reverse – what the Rand Corporation, a think tank, calls “truth decay.”

All of us play this game in one way or another. Although avoiding getting hit with unwanted information may save us short-term pain, it can have long-term negative consequences. At a public level Information dodgeball can erode civil discourse, disrupt valued relationships, create political logjams, and lower voter turnout (Kavanaugh and Rich 2018). In our personal lives it leads to uncertainty and anxiety. Colleagues and I have discovered people playing information dodgeball regarding such health behaviors as tobacco consumption and managing their cholesterol levels. It also occurs in hiring and voting decisions, and so much more. This Think Key explores a way of quitting the game.

Exercise
Please choose a social or political issue you feel strongly about, one that’s also very important to many other people who may not agree with you. It could relate to the environment, immigration, health, economics, etc.

Have one in mind? If not, take a short break, perhaps get a drink of water.

Have one in mind now? Great. Please answer the following questions.

 
  1. Does someone among your family, friends, or coworkers hold a position on the issue that conflicts with yours?

    YES     NO

  2. Do you and this person often exchange thoughts and feelings about the issue?

    YES     NO

  3. Is this person generally a thoughtful individual from whom you seek advice on other matters?

    YES     NO

  4. When you last exchanged thoughts on the topic in the past, was it a fruitful discussion?

    YES     NO

  5. Is it a discussion you would like to have again soon?

    YES     NO

  6. Do you discuss this topic primarily with people who are in general agreement with you?

    YES     NO

 

Basic Idea
It will help us think about your answers if we see how people in group settings such as adult education classes usually respond to these same questions. People are normally asked to raise their hands for “Yes” or keep them down for “No.” People vary in their responses, of course, but nonetheless a clear pattern emerges.

Most people responding to these questions indicate they:

  • Know someone in their social or work circles who holds a very different position on the issue
  • Feel this person is generally a thoughtful individual on most matters
  • Only infrequently exchange thoughts and feelings on the issue with this person
  • Did not find their last discussion with this person about the topic fruitful
  • Are not inclined to repeat the experience with this person again
  • Primarily discuss the issue with others who agree with them

Do your responses pretty much follow this same pattern? I am betting they do. Your decision about or position on the issue you selected is one you may have been nurturing for a long time, involves firmly held values and beliefs, and may even help define who you are as a person. Undoubtedly you have had experiences that are exceptions to the response patterns discussed above. However, our tendency to avoid evidence that contradicts a strongly held position is well documented, especially when that position is rooted in a cherished value and concerns a high- involvement issue like the one you chose in the exercise (Sapolsky 2017).

A high degree of involvement or intimacy with an issue produces a protective cocoon around our position on the issue. As discussed in Unlocked (Think Keys 17–20), we have limited attention “budgets,” or resources and cannot spend our attention constantly reevaluating matters we consider settled. As a result, we dodge information that might force us to do so. We prefer to “let sleeping dogs lie” or unconsciously think “what we don’t know won’t hurt us.” We prefer to spend our attention budgets on information that reinforces our positions and reassures us about the wisdom of our conclusions—which helps us justify avoiding information that challenges or casts doubt on our thinking.

Additionally, we may feel threatened by the possibility of discovering we are wrong (see Think Key 30 from Unlocked), having to admit it to others, and then coping with the often unpleasant and difficult adjustments in thinking and behaving that follow.

So What?
Sometimes our unconscious and unarticulated values cause us to take a position on some new topic without even realizing we have done so. Two authorities on values and social change, Donald Warwick and Herbert Kelman, expressed this possibility by asking:

Whose side are you on and do you know it? (Warwick and Kelman, 1973)

If we don’t notice we’ve taken a side, we’ll be even less likely to notice when we’re playing dodgeball with information that challenges that position or choice. The next time you are exploring the pros and cons of a choice ask yourself: Have I already taken a position?

There are other actions we can take to avoid playing dodgeball. One technique in group situations involves having people who on opposite sides on an issue state what they think is the most reasonable position of their opponents. Opponents may continue to disagree with each other’s position, but the simple act of articulating the other side’s position makes a group discussion more constructive. Apparently, even a brief visit to an opposing camp lessens tribal warfare. More civil conversations result.

Another constructive approach for managing conflicting positions in a group builds on a basic but overlooked idea:

Without similarities there can be no differences (Logan and Tandoc 2018; Zaltman and Zaltman 2008).

When we are defensive about our beliefs and values, we focus on the differences between ourselves and others and become blind to our similarities. (We may even become aggressive and attack others’ views, perhaps unwittingly following the belief that the best defense is a good offense.) Yet it is the presence of similarities that make the perception of differences possible in the first place. Basically, we can’t make a judgment about being different without using a shared, underlying dimension along which we are similar. Making sure that opposing parties understand these similarities and are reminded of them can help make both parties more open to information from the other side.

An example will help. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) was launching a major bipartisan commission on health disparities among US citizens. The commission was to consist of both Republican and Democratic policy makers. The RWJF was concerned that the two groups would not communicate constructively with one another, much like you and the person you had in mind in Part II.

The RWJF wanted to identify and reinforce key similarities shared by the two sets of policy makers while acknowledging significant differences. The differences expected to be stumbling blocks to a productive discussion were many. For instance, Democrats felt that unequal access to health care services in the United States was unjust and the result of social forces over which individuals have little control. Republicans saw unequal access as unavoidable. They also saw individuals and not society as a whole as having major responsibilities in creating the problem.

Using ZMET, a technique for arriving at insights through the use of metaphors, the RWJF found several common denominators. For example, both groups firmly believed that unequal access to health care was a significant problem. By making this shared belief salient at key points in the discussion, constructive conversations were possible while exchanging views that differed substantially regarding causes and solutions. The shared view became the dominant viewing lens for both sets of legislators.