Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Viewpoint tolerance through curiosity

Polarization isn't necessarily problematic. Strictly defined, it refers to the divergence of political extremes. In fact, a wider variety of opinions may actually be a good situation. Things start to go south when a tribal us-verus-them mentality takes over, giving rise to an uncharitable view of the other side. This thinking is especially common among the shouting classes:

Those that disagree with me must be stupid, evil, or both.

Not only is this incorrect, but adhering to this position is actively bad for society. It prevents finding common ground and encourages wild policy swings as power is transfered from one uncompromising faction to the next. The same facts can generate different viewpoints, each deserving of a spot in the marketplace of ideas, even if we personally disagree with them.

With Debaters, Antonio and I tried to bring people that disagree together. Sadly most people don't want to converse with the other side whom they perceive to be their mortal enemies. The problem must be approached more obliquely, taking into account human nature. This post is about using quizzes like this one to lure people into learning more about the other side by appealing to a powerful emotion: curiosity.

Metaquiz format

I'm calling it a metaquiz, since it asks both about the test taker's own knowledge and derived viewpoints, as well as their guesses about how well the other side did on the same quiz. Interestingly, the only fuzzy thing here are your own beliefs. Knowledge about other people's beliefs is factually verifiable.

1. What do you believe about the issue?
2. What do you know about the issue?
3. What do you know about the other side?
     Evil: what does the other side believe about the issue?
     Stupid: what does the other side know about the issue?

Why would anyone do this?

In one word: curiosity.

According to the research in this survey paper, being a curious person ("trait curiosity") doesn't correlate strongly to other traits like IQ, age, and sex. Instead, it is situational context that can pique curiousity ("state curiosity"). This is good news for me, since anyone can become curious about anything.

On the flip side, curiosity about something requires that you be interested in the pertinent topic, and usually increases with knowledge. Loewenstein explains curiosity in terms of an information gap. The more you know about a subject, the more you know what you don't know. The novice is proud of what he knows even if it is small in the absolute sense, relating closely to the Dunning–Kruger effect. Gaining expertise, the novice learns more about the scope of the domain, and shifts to thinking in terms of what they don't know yet. This reveals a gap that they strive to fill. This news is not so good, but Loewenstein suggests curiosity inducing stimuli, which I hope to take into account in designing the quiz:

  • Directly questioning is itself curiosity inducing, especially with a guess and feedback cycle found in quizzes. A study showed that the more immediate the feedback, the higher the curiosity.
  • The nature of a good quiz is that you will sometimes be wrong. If you are wrong about a fact related to the topic, you may learn about an information gap which will increase curiosity about the topic. If your expectation about the other group is violated (ie. violation of expectations), curiosity about that group increases.
  • If you see yourself as knowledgeable about a topic, you may be curious about how much you really know about it. This can be viewed in terms of what Loewenstein describes as the "competence motive", the desire to master your own environment.
  • Loewenstein brings up the example of someone laughing aloud as they read a newspaper article. This posession of information by someone else is also curiosity inducing. What does the other side know?
  • The Zeigarnik effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. The last part of the quiz (what does the other side think) requires a critical mass of responders, which means that results will take some time to produce. This may serve to increase curiosity.

A metaquiz about climate change

To test this format, I decided to pick a specific topic to reduce the scope of questions. Climate change is a good topic for several reasons.

  • Pro: the topic is increasingly polarizing along party lines, most recently after the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
  • Pro: it is well grounded in science, which means there are plenty of hard facts that can be verified and serve as a baseline of truth.
  • Con: climate change consistently shows up last in terms of topics that the US public cares about.

I put together a quiz following the template above, which first surveys your climate change-related beliefs, then quizzes you on climate knowledge, and finally asks you to guess what the other side believes and how they did on the quiz.

If participants do poorly on the "other side" section, they may begin to wonder: "maybe they're not all stupid?". Then, if it turns out that they have incorrectly stereotyped beliefs of the other side, they might wonder "maybe they're not all evil?". If participants do poorly on the quiz itself, they may learn something about climate change, which isn't such a bad thing either.

So if you have a few minutes, please try the climate metaquiz and send it to everyone you know, especially friends (or enemies!) on the opposite side. Dziękuję!