3 Ways Thoughtful Debate Can Broaden Understanding of Complex Problems

 

Can thoughtful, respectful debate change people’s opinions?

Minerva’s reimagined commencement ceremony, Consequent, is intentionally designed for graduating students to demonstrate the critical thinking they have nurtured during their four-year education, through thoughtful debates on complex matters. From May 17–20, 2021, nearly 200 professionals from across industries and geographies joined the 180 graduating students for 60 conversations on provocative topics. The student moderators administered two polls at the beginning and end of each discussion, to see if people would change their minds on some of the most challenging questions humanity faces today. 

In recent times, the tension of individualism vs. collectivism is a particularly salient concern, as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, where our personal decisions affect others as a matter of life-or-death. The pandemic has given rise to numerous debates about the power we give to our governments and other institutions and our relations to those within and outside of our communities. Here, we share data from three session topics that relate to the relationship of the individual versus the collective, as well as highlights from the major arguments made that may have influenced people to change their minds.

Session 1: The Unpopular Vote: Choosing between idiocracy and paternalism

The merits and drawbacks of populism are hotly contested as populist leaders in the United States, Brazil, and India implemented lax pandemic policies, giving people the freedom to make their own decisions on pandemic precautions. Power to the people is a tenet of democratic society, but can this go too far? The key angles to the debate included:

  • Is voting a right or a privilege? Should citizens need qualifications to vote, such as age, education, or other criteria?

  • Should citizens have increased influence on issues that directly affect them?

  • How far removed should voters be from government decision-making? Comparisons were made between different types of elections and electoral systems (such as referendums, direct democracy, federalist systems, and the US electoral college) with focus on their effect on representation.

Over the course of the conversation, the percentage of participants who agreed or strongly agreed that populism is inevitable in a democracy decreased, from 42% of participants to 24%. The percentage of participants who remained neutral, seeing both sides, increased from 22% to 35%. This could be due to the examples of democracies from around the world that participants referenced, that others may not have been familiar with.

Poll A: Populism is an inevitable effect of a democracy. 

                                  n=50                                                           n=49

On the question of whether populism places important decisions in the hands of the uninformed, the percentage of participants in agreement or strong agreement decreased from 35% to 26%, while the percentage in disagreement or strong disagreement increased from 33% to 40%. The conversation highlighted the importance of citizens having agency over decisions that affect them, regardless of qualifications.

Poll B: Populism places important decisions in the hands of the uninformed.

                                 n=49                                                             n=47

Session 2: TMI: Is the trend toward increased sharing a net positive or negative for personal freedom?

Concern about data privacy heated up in new ways during the pandemic, as countries debated the use of data for the collective good, including purposes such as contact tracing and flagging misinformation. At the same time, people flocked to social media for connection while physically separated from others, sharing increasingly on “social entertainment” sites such as Tiktok and Twitch. The central questions raised were:

  • Are we more comfortable with tech companies or governments having access to our data? What kinds of guardrails or regulations do we want in place for how each type of institution accesses and uses our data?

  • What are the ethical questions related to consenting to give access to one’s data? Should we have to opt in, or is it enough to be able to opt out?

  • What are the implications when institutions use surveillance data to make inferences about people that may be incorrect?

The percentage of participants who were neutral, or saw both sides, on the debate about whether loss of privacy is worth safety and protection fell from 43% to 30% over the conversation, suggesting that the debate helped people take a side.

Poll A: The loss of privacy that may occur by regulation and oversight is compensated by the gain in safety and protection of communities.

                                    n=46                                                         n=47

On the question of government surveillance, the percentage of the group that agreed or strongly agreed that government surveillance should be restricted rose from 59% to 67%, indicating distrust of government usage of private information.

Poll B: Restricting government surveillance is a key goal when defining online privacy laws.

                                   n=49                                                           n=48

Session 3: Normalizing Narcissism: By becoming more self-aware have we become self-involved?

In the age of influencers and the “personal brand,” the ability to define one’s own identity can be empowering, or it can foster self-centeredness and even narcissism. The core issues in these sessions included:

  • How is identity construction, and the respect given to others’ identities, culturally specific? Is narcissism more prevalent in societies that tend toward individualism? Are there gender differences in narcissism and what explains those differences? 

  • Do we have to accept others’ identities, or just respect their right to define them?

  • Can there be benefits to narcissism, e.g. promoting oneself in professional settings? What are the negative effects of the opposite end of the spectrum (echoism)?

There was little change over the course of the session in participant’s opinions about accepting people’s self-defined identities, with slightly over half (56%) of the group agreeing or strongly agreeing at both the beginning and end of the sessions. This could be explained by the fact that most Consequent participants, particularly Minerva students, have a lot of experience with people different from them, so their tolerance and understanding of differences is well-established.

Poll A: Collective acceptance of self-defined identities is crucial to fostering healthy individuals and mutual understanding.

                                       n=50                                                          n=48

On the question of whether self-actualization can go too far, the percentage of participants disagreeing or strongly disagreeing decreased from 35% to 24%, while the percentage who were neutral increased from 21% to 29%. There was significant discussion about the wording of the question, and what “self-actualization” looks like.

Poll B: Self-actualization can go too far, creating a generation of individuals who think that everyone should adjust their behavior to cater to their desires.

                                    n=48                                                           n=49

Conclusion

Thoughtful and respectful debate is a pillar of democracy, and ensuring young people understand its principles is crucial for societal function. While debate does not always lead to people seeing different perspectives or adopting different views, we have identified a few factors that might lead to a change in opinion.  

  1. Having the right cognitive toolkit: Moderators and student participants were armed with foundational concepts and habits of mind from their Minerva education that enabled them to thoughtfully approach the questions. Over their four years, they learned how to interact with complex systems, negotiate and persuade, and resolve ethical problems. They also learned how to use evidence to evaluate claims and justifications, and break down problems into their component parts. 

  2. Acknowledging complexity and remaining open-minded: Consequent participants came into the conversation knowing that there are no easy answers to the questions at hand. In fact, the explicit purpose of the event was to explore these questions, not answer them. The off-the-record nature of the conversations may have created an environment where participants felt more comfortable revising their opinions.

  3. Intentionally creating intergenerational conversation: Consequent is a unique event, bringing together senior leaders and college students who may rarely commingle in this way. The students gain wisdom from those with extensive life experience, while the professionals hear fresh ideas from the younger generation. This mutual, intergenerational respect and curiosity makes participants more inclined to listen and absorb new perspectives.

Perhaps if we approach all complex problems armed with the right toolkit and actively seeking different viewpoints, we can develop more nuanced understandings, resulting in better collaboration and more creative solutions.

Isabel Sacks is the Manager of Strategic Communications and Thought Leadership at Minerva Project.
 

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