Families arguing over deep divisions face a long and unpleasant summer, according to a recent news story telling the sad tale of Kristia Leyendecker and the opposing views held by her siblings and other relatives. As you may know from your own experience, people on opposite sides of an argument can go on for hours, days, months, or years without ever acknowledging the value of the other person’s claims.
Perhaps you’re as unfortunate as Kristia. You might have an ongoing disagreement with a person in your social circle. No matter the occasion, the two of you inevitably find yourselves locked in a no-win battle of opinions. Each of these interactions leaves you feeling frustrated and annoyed. You may eventually calm down, only to have the same scenario repeat itself on the next social occasion.
When you stop and think about it, have you ever wondered whether your entrenched opposition to someone else might be counterproductive? Could there be a germ of truth in the viewpoints that run counter to your own? What might the other person know that could benefit your decisions about the issues?
Why Disagreements Can Get in the Way of Growth
In a recently published paper, University of Pennsylvania’s Cory Clark and colleagues (2022) outline the numerous problems created by disputes among opposing behavioral scientists who refuse to recognize each other’s research contributions. Noting that “scientists are humans,” the U. Penn authors observed that “We take it as axiomatic that scientists are constrained by the same cognitive biases, limitations, and tradeoff calculations as me mortals” (p. 3).
The problem that results from their all-too-human cognitive tendencies is that when scientific findings are communicated outside the domain of academia, the public may be misled or confused because they don’t know who to believe.
As an example, the authors cited the so-called “Mozart effect,” a term coined in 1993 to refer to “the transient enhancement of performance on spatial tasks in standardized tests after exposure to the first movement “allegro con spirito” of the Mozart sonata for two pianos in D major (KV 448)” (Pietschnig et al., 2010, p. 314). Attempted replications of this phenomenon failed to support the original research, but the term hung around anyway. Other non-replicated effects that Clark and his colleagues cite include the “power pose,” “mindset,” and “ego depletion.”
When one scientist disputes the claim of another, they tend to argue asynchronously, publishing studies and studies that disprove the original, which lead to further refutations of the criticism, and so on. Through this process, the opposing parties rarely communicate directly in real-time, at least in the published literature. They may sneer at each other in scientific meetings, but as far as the words they write on paper, there is little evidence of direct interaction.
Now think back on the longstanding dispute you may have in your life. Each of you may complain to a third party who gets dragged into the situation, providing arguments and counterarguments over heated text messages or emails. Convinced that you’re right and the other person is wrong, you don’t even stop to think about a possible germ of truth in their assertions. However, like the sparring scientists, is there something you’re missing by rigidly sticking to your interpretation of facts?
An 8-Step Roadmap for Resolving Disputes With Your Enemies
As dim as the prospects may be for scientists to try to bridge their differences, the U. Penn researchers believe there may be a path forward. Not only would such a move resolve the tensions experienced by these “human” scientists, but it would help advance the scientific enterprise. Indeed, the authors note that “most scholars agree that the goal of science is to build knowledge about empirical reality and pursue truth by testing predictions and explanations against data” (p. 4).
That path, Clark et al. proposed, involves adopting eight simple and non-so-simple steps to create teams of “adversarial collaborators.” Although designed specifically to apply to scientists embroiled in longstanding rivalries, their general principles are easily translated into practical tips anyone can adapt to their situations.
Step 1: Consider the temperament of your adversary.
Is this a person with enough humility to be willing to shave off the rough edges of a disagreement? In other words, could they admit it when they’re wrong?
Step 2: Find a trusted, neutral third party to help negotiate compromises.
Why not get that person you’ve been texting about your adversary to sit down with the two of you at the same time? A neutral person could be just what you need to help start to see common ground.
Step 3: Figure out what the disagreement is about
You and your so-called adversary may, surprisingly, be on the same side more than you realize. It’s possible that resentment has built up over time, drifting far from the initial dispute’s actual content. Get the facts straight on where each of you stands.
Step 4: Set out the claims on both sides of the issue.
Sometimes a good old-fashioned “pro-con” list of points can help clarify not just what the disagreement is about but on how the evidence actually stacks up. You can both be prepared to present your sides of the case as long as you agree on the above steps (or have that third party present to help out).
Step 5: Strive for “achievable, incremental progress.”
This step, taken directly from the U. Penn study, seems like wise advice no matter what the context. You can’t expect to wash all the problems of the past away in one or two sittings, so aim to have the distance between you reduced a little by little.
Step 6: Be flexible.
In any collaboration, whether with friends or adversaries, there are times you have to give someone else’s strategy a try. When this happens, not only can you get closer to a common goal, but you can also model the type of behavior that you hope the other person will adopt as well.
Step 7: Make your goals explicit.
In the so-called “Open Science Framework,” intended to make all aspects of scientific inquiry more transparent, researchers “preregister” their hypotheses so that they can’t simply shape the findings after the fact to fit their favorite theories. In an informal counterpart of this process, you and your adversary can use a similar method of providing each other with clear expectations of where you hope the dialogue might lead.
Step 8: If all else fails, agree to disagree.
There’s no reason to let a disagreement in one sphere of life bleed over into another. Clark et al. advised adversaries to give each other the space to write their own separate opinions if they are not able to come to a consensus. By voicing your final positions, you may similarly be able to let those “bygones” remain “bygones.”
Learning From Your Enemies: Final Thoughts
The U. Penn research team enumerated a list of ways in which adversarial collaborations could ultimately improve not only the respect that scientists with competing views can have for each other but also change some of the scientific establishment’s most “perverse” (p. 7) norms . If arguing with your adversary has now taken the form of an expectation of what will happen when the two of you communicate, these ideas for collaboration could have the effect of rewriting those rules.
Clark and his fellow investigators initiated just such an effort at their university, which now supports nine projects involving nearly 50 scholars assigned to collaborative teams. Ultimately, the hope is that such efforts can tackle some of the 40 “zombie ideas” in psychology that are “so vague as to render them unfalsifiable.” Wondering what these might be?
Here are some tantalizing examples: “What causes fake news acceptance? Is social media harmful to children? How reliable are eyewitnesses? Can grit be cultivated?” And my favorite: “How much can personality change?” Imagine what would happen if researchers could actually come to an agreement about how to settle these matters by working side by side with their adversaries.
To sum up, there’s no need to maintain your rigid dislike of someone who doesn’t agree with you. Allying with your adversary can help bring greater fulfillment as you gain the courage to learn from your differences while you explore your commonalities.