Take a look at the comments section on your favorite news website. Some topics generate a lot of discussion among participants. Other topics may be widely read, but people don’t feel compelled to say anything. What drives people’s desire to talk about a topic?
Obviously, the topic of the story matters a lot. Some stories may be interesting, but people don’t care enough about them to want to register their opinion. A story about an ongoing drought, for example, might get a lot of readers, but people might not feel compelled to express their views. Other topics generate a lot of excitement, but there is little diversity of opinion. When the local sports team wins a game, people might be thrilled, but everyone agrees the victory was wonderful, and so there is little to spur continued discussion.
But, some topics generate controversy. The topic generates passion, but people differ in their opinions. In this case, there is ample room for continued conversation. You might think that the more controversial the topic, the more discussion it generates.
A paper in the October, 2013 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research by Zoey Chen and Jonah Berger examines the way that controversial topics affect people’s willingness to talk about them. As they point out, controversy has two effects. On the one hand, the energy that a controversial topic creates spurs people to want to talk about it. On the other hand, as a topic gets more controversial, it also leads to increasing discomfort in talking about it. After all, when a topic is highly controversial, it can lead to difficult conversations.
To demonstrate this dual impact of controversial topics, the researchers first examined all of the threads that were listed on the website Topix.com over a two-day period in 2011. Independent raters looked at each topic and rated how controversial it was. There was reasonable agreement between the raters. Then, they counted the number of comments given to each article. Articles that were not controversial at all had few comments. Those that were moderately controversial had more comments on average than those with few comments. Interestingly, the articles on the most controversial topics had fewer comments on average than those that were moderately controversial. This observation is consistent with the idea that highly controversial topics create discomfort, which makes people less willing to talk about them.
Next, the researchers performed a series of laboratory experiments. In one study, participants picked a topic and then listed three subtopics related to it that varied in their level of controversy. They were asked to imagine that they had to have a conversation with someone on-line about this topic. Some people were told that the hypothetical conversation would be anonymous, while other people were told that they would have to disclose their identity during the conversation. They rated how likely they were to have a conversation on the topic and also how comfortable they would be to have the conversation.
When people thought that the conversation would be anonymous, they were most interested in engaging in conversations when the topic was moderately controversial than when it was either not very controversial or highly controversial. When people were told that their conversation partner would know who they were, then they were most willing to talk about non-controversial topics, and less interested in talking about more controversial topics. This pattern reflected people’s level of discomfort. As the topic got more controversial, people rated themselves as being more uncomfortable talking about it.
One final lab study examined how the relationship between the conversation partners affected the willingness to discuss the topic. This study found that when people were going to talk about a topic with a close friend, then they were actually more willing to talk about highly controversial topics than less controversial topics.
Why does this matter?
Conversation on controversial topics really matters. An important impact of conversation is that it actually makes conversation partners more similar to each other following the discussion. This happens, because when you discuss a topic with someone, you have to understand and represent their point of view before you respond to it. You have to synchronize your world view with the other person in order to talk to them. Ultimately, these conversations help people who have different views to really comprehend how people could believe something that is different from their own perspective. These conversations can actually help to moderate people’s most extreme opinions.
If people are not willing to have difficult conversations, then it can lead to increasing polarization of beliefs. This is particularly true when people enter an echo chamber and only controversial topics with people that they agree with.
If we want people to engage in conversations about controversial topics, then, it is important to find ways to reduce people’s discomfort with the topics. Increasing social distance between people by keeping conversations anonymous is one way to do that. Perhaps by promoting these conversations, we can start broader explorations of the topics that are most polarizing and create more understanding among people.