Friday, 10 May 2013

You’re only reading this because you agree with me

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Do you ever buy a newspaper?  If so, which one?

The paper you buy says something about your politics. People on the left are more likely to read a more left-wing paper – say the guardian, mirror or independent. People on the political right more often find they’ve bought the mail or the telegraph.

This is hardly news  (pardon the pun). But it does tell us something about human nature. We tend to like hearing views that we agree with and prefer avoiding ones that challenge us. What may surprise you is how strongly we feel this and how much effort we put in to read ‘the right’ opinions.

Scientists ran a study in the US where they gave volunteers a series of documents to read about abortion.  Some documents were more pro-choice and some more pro-life.  Both before and after the study they asked the volunteers whether they were more pro-life or more pro-choice.  Unsurprisingly, hardly anyone changed their position from reading the documents.

But that wasn’t what the scientists were interested in. What they were watching was how long each volunteer spent on each document. And what they found surprised them. You might have thought people would need longer on the views that were new to them – longer to get their head around a different opinion, longer to understand an alternative worldview. Not at all.  People spent much longer reading the documents that agreed with their existing view. The documents that disagreed with their view, they  tended to skip over. They dodged views that challenged them and instead looked for points that confirmed that their existing opinions were right.

Most interestingly of all, the volunteers weren’t aware they were doing this. They believed they had spent equal time on both views and come to a rational position. As a result they found it hard to imagine why anyone would take a different point of view.

This matters. Especially if you’re a charity who wants to bring people together from all walks of life.

Unless we’re careful we all will increasingly become like the volunteers in the experiment. As our country becomes more diverse by age, income and ethnicity, we will surround ourselves with people like us and opinions like our own. Which will then make meeting people who are different or who disagree even more of a shock.

If we want to prevent this we need to get more used to reading views and meeting people who are different. How could you start doing that today?

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