5.9 Editor's Pick
April 9, 2021

Want to build your Empathy muscle? Practice Disagreement.

Disagreement tends to be relegated to coffee shops, airports, and Facetime.

Usually, any disagreement that happens in close quarters leaves at least one of us bitter from the encounter.

There always seems to be at least one person in each group who seems to like to disagree—and others usually try their hardest to stay away from them. We’ve mystified disagreement so much that we have vilified the idea of sharing our different opinions with one another as something wrong and never right.

Disagreement is so taboo that, culturally speaking, most people tend to joke about how family gatherings should not be where we argue about religion or politics. Social media platforms have become a breeding ground for echo chambers—spaces where the voices you share your opinions with end up sounding just like you.

Workplaces have long been haunted by a top-down model of male-led patriarchy where it’s practically unthinkable to disagree with your boss for fear of losing your job. There are certain pubs in the U.K. that are so entrenched by group-think that to enter into one that supports a team you don’t endorse is to put your safety in danger. There are similar bar cultures like this across America.

So, what is at the heart of why we struggle to disagree in a healthy manner?

Keep your enemies closer.

In social psychology, we refer to this phenomenon as the “ingroup/outgroup” dynamic. In simple terms, it’s the way we all find out who is most like us—who is part of our proverbial “safe group.” It happened to us all in high school—from the jocks to the nerds, and the goths to the princesses, we relied on labels to keep us safe.

This dynamic is so ancient, we can see it repeating itself throughout history. From our Paleolithic cave-dwelling ancestors to class and caste systems in places like feudal England or India, there is a tendency to think of others who are not like us as enemies. This might seem like a hyperbolic statement, but it takes less energy for our brains to identify an enemy than to determine who is worth our time.

There are quite a few biases we rely on to inform our behaviors and even fears when it comes to how we perceive others and even objects as a threat. One bias is referred to as the negativity bias.

Negativity bias is the dispensation toward always seeing the negative in outcomes, moments, and even relationships. It’s not just that we think bad things are always happening around us, it’s also the bias that drives our focus to fixate on those bad things for far too long.

The negative bias is our tendency not only to register negative stimuli more readily but also to dwell on these events. Also known as positive-negative asymmetry, this negativity bias means that we feel the sting of a rebuke more powerfully than we feel the joy of praise.”

Understanding this in the context of why we avoid disagreement clarifies one of many reasons why we just don’t like to disagree with our BFFs. We are attempting to avoid the “sting of a rebuke” from someone we think values us. This is also why it’s harder to also fail in front of someone whom we value. We take it harder because we care about their opinion of us.

There is something else that fits into the negativity bias like a puzzle piece. It’s from the field of psychology and anthropology, and it’s referred to as agency detection. Don’t let the phrase intimidate you; it’s simply a way to explain how we try to determine threats in our environment.

Agency detection is an evolutionary hangover from our ancestors who had to be hypervigilant that the wind blowing in the bushes was just the wind and not some violent threat waiting to devour them. It’s also why some people believe in aliens, why others believe that dragons exist at the end of a flat Earth, and why some believe in ghosts and bigfoot—it’s our brain’s way of ordering events around us that just don’t make sense, but could be a possible attack.

Think about that for a minute…our brain interprets someone else’s different perspective as an existential threat to our lives. Most people fear disagreement because they fear the fallout, the opinions of others, what they might lose, or quite possibly what others might think of them.

But what if we have misunderstood disagreements?

What if there was a positive side to disagreeing? What if we could rebuild our society as a place where we can disagree without our egos feeling attacked?

According to neuroscientific research, when done right, disagreement can actually boost our self-confidence and even lead to perspective-taking—which is the moment when we begin to see from someone else’s perspective and value it as an equally important worldview.

When people disagreed, their brains became less sensitive to the strength of others’ opinions. After a disagreement, the posterior medial frontal cortex could no longer track the partner’s confidence. Consequently, the opinion of the disagreeing partner had little impact on people’s conviction that they were correct, regardless of whether the disagreeing partner was very sure in their assessment or not at all.”

What this research demonstrates is the importance of the way disagreement works in the human brain and how it can be a positive contributor to building self-confidence on an individual level.

Many of us have a hard time disagreeing because we lack the confidence to share our own perspective on a topic. But, according to the research, we are meant to disagree. In fact, evolutionary psychology argues that the reason we all have different perspectives, much like a kaleidoscope, is because we’re meant to foster the practice of empathy—seeing through the eyes of a fellow human.

There is also another valuable claim to explore, which is a theory from the famed Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget. He found that perspective-taking is another important reason for disagreement. Seeing from the perspective of another person could construct a new society where disagreement can lead to empathy, rather than leading to violence, indifference, or even war.

Perspective-taking is the humble and celebratory stance that invites someone who does not look like us, think like us, or even value the same thing as us to challenge us to become better versions of ourselves.

So, the next time you get the chance to disagree and share your worldview, do it!

When we come to a place where can integrate this new way of seeing disagreement, where we want to see through the eyes of another person, we begin building a culture of compassion and empathy, and, most importantly, a more inclusive future.

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