Sep 29, 2021

Listening and Learning: Changing Mindsets and Emotional Responses to Promote Human Flourishing (video)

How do the complexities of our social interactions and the stories we tell ourselves and each other interfere with or enhance our capacity to flourish?

By Templeton Staff

For this installment of our series exploring the distinct challenges and opportunities related to the study of human flourishing, awardees from Templeton World Charity Foundation’s Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing meet for a webinar with Dr. Dawid Potgieter, Director of the foundation’s Programs in Discovery Science. The focus is on the stories we tell ourselves and others, the importance of listening well, and the role of emotions in promoting societies that flourish.

This panel features awardees Dr. Brie Linkenhoker, Worldview Studio; Dr. Netta Weinstein, University of Reading and Dr. Guy Itzchakov, University of Haifa; and Dr. Jordan Mansell, University of Western Ontario.

Because we’re social primates who’ve developed language, humans rely on narratives to create social cohesion and allow us to plan together.

"Stories are powerful because they create this cascading effect," says Dr. Linkenhoker. "They order what we attend to and how we make sense of it, and what we expect, but they also shape our range of what we think is possible for ourselves as individuals and in the world. They shape our expectations." When our experience deviates from our expectations, emotions arise. "Especially if our experience undercuts our expectations—we’re very disappointed," she explains. "This dissonance doesn’t feel good."

Worldview Studio’s network of university-based collaborators aim to, through science and design, better understand the stories we tell ourselves, and explore how these stories form; influence behavior, well-being, and achievement; differ across cultures and generations; and change with meaningful intervention from families, mentors, and media. Dr. Linkenhoker references an observation from political scientist at Stanford, Margaret Levi, "The sign of a healthy society is one in which we can agree on the same facts but disagree about what they mean."

When discussing how she and her team have been working to connect science to society, Linkenhoker emphasizes the importance of understanding how stories, especially scientific narratives are generated. "We trust the stories that come from science if we’re scientists. We give special meaning to those stories because we believe in the process of science and we see that the data that come from our scientific processes fit into the larger theories that we have about the way the world works, but they’re still stories," she reminds us. "If you don’t come from that background and you don’t understand or you don’t see the power of science as a way of knowing as being important, then you don’t put the same weight on those stories as someone who comes from a different worldview."

In exploring the influence that stories have on human emotions, our panelists offer insight into the link between the stories and the increased polarization that we see in society today, and how to use listening to reduce discord and encourage pro-social attitudes and behavior.

Dr. Netta Weinstein, University of Reading and Dr. Guy Itzchakov, University of Haifa are building a deep and scientific understanding of what listening is, when and why it matters to the well-being of people, and in what circumstances. Dr. Weinstein observes that a good listener is "a social agent creating meaning and value," who is as important as the speaker, and reminds us of the importance of conversation as a dialogue. She describes the mindset needed to establish the practice of deep listening. "A really good listener creates the space for someone to express themselves and to explore aspects of themselves without disruptions and without immediate judgments." Vulnerability is needed to give and receive that quality of listening. Defensiveness must be dropped. "In an ideal circumstance [the listener] sets aside some of their own reactions, attitudes, and biases," and even if they don’t agree with everything that’s being said, a good listener conveys respect for the speaker.

Weinstein’s partner in this research team, Dr. Itzchakov, cites fear of change as one barrier against listening well. "People, even sometimes subconsciously, fear that if I really listen to someone I might have to change, and this change can be threatening for me." He also points out that "often people try to match the story of the other person to their story" or "change the story so everyone will have the same perspective," resulting in what he thinks of as a "boomerang effect," increasing attitudes of polarization. Good listening is not about this, says Itzchakov. It’s about forging connection, whether it’s between people from different parts of the world or people at opposite ends of a political spectrum. Good listeners shape healthy conversations by asking questions that benefit the speaker. A practical tip Itzchakov offers towards this mindset is to think of questions that could help the speaker delve deeper into their thoughts and experiences rather than asking a question leading them to a specific answer that aligns with your view.

Prejudice is a significant barrier to human flourishing in democratic societies.

Dr. Jordan Mansell, University of Western Ontario along with a large interdisciplinary research team, based at Western, but also including nine researchers in multiple universities in Canada and the United States, studies emotion as a psychological system influencing prejudice. "Prejudicial attitudes have negative social and economic consequences for the victims of discrimination," says Dr. Mansell. He outlines some of the factors affecting the internal dialogues and emotions that can lead to “the erosion of core values and equality on which democratic institutions function” and to polarization. “Individuals who experience prejudice discrimination in their daily lives have lower levels of personal efficacy,” explains Mansell. “They’re significantly less likely to participate in public life; have poor health outcomes; lower levels of educational attainment and career development. Prejudicial attitudes also influence how we perceive public officials, elected representatives, as well as the performance of government. This damages the stability of social and economic development and this diminishes interpersonal connections." However, Mansell continues, "a growing body of literature that suggests that the narratives we choose to process our emotion, the kinds of stories we often adopt or dispose of, can have long-term consequences for our health and well-being.” Positive mindsets, including interpreting negative events with a positive viewpoint, are associated with positive life outcomes, goal attainment, personal efficacy, and confidence. Dr. Mansell and the team are using their research to develop better anti-racism programs, including interventions aimed at reappraisal of negative emotions.

For the third installment of this series, four awardees from Templeton's Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing initiative explore the relationship between adversity and flourishing with Bonnie Poon Zahl, TWCF’s Principal Advisor for the Big Questions in Classrooms.