Listening to learn: Modeling the depolarizing impacts of learning goals during conversations in which people disagree
TWCF Number
Project Duration
September 1 / 2023
- August 31 / 2025
Core Funding Area
Big Questions
North America
Amount Awarded

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Kenneth DeMarree
Institution University at Buffalo

Guy Itzchakov
Institution University of Haifa

People find it natural to want to learn more about others with whom they agree. We connect easily in these comfortable and familiar settings. In contrast, when confronted with views that challenge our own, our gut reaction may be to disengage or oppose, closing ourselves off to new ideas. These kinds of interactions do not reduce polarization; they may even exacerbate it. Yet, despite the risks of increased polarization, such conversations also pose opportunities for mutual understanding and effective problem-solving.

When conversation partners argue or show disinterest, they create a climate lacking intimacy, social connection, and psychological safety, further widening the divide between disagreeing parties. A project directed by Kenneth DeMarree at SUNY RF and Guy Itzchakov at University of Haifa will test a new research model that suggests individuals who approach interactions with a learning goal in mind will engage in behaviors that enhance their own and their conversational partner's psychological safety. This fosters open-minded self-reflection and receptiveness to alternative perspectives, ultimately leading to reduced polarization for both people. The partner reciprocates these learning goals, reinforcing them and adopting a more open and receptive approach to listening and learning.

The researchers propose that the mindset held by conversation partners, particularly the goal of learning about each other's attitudes, is a significant and overlooked strategy for depolarizing conversations. They aim to demonstrate the depolarizing effects of learning goals on both attitudinal and social polarization. Attitudinal polarization refers to the extent to which one's beliefs become more extreme, less nuanced, and perceived as "correct," while social polarization entails negative evaluations of individuals, including conversation partners, with differing views.

To investigate this, the team will examine naturalistic conversations between two individuals who disagree on a topic. They will analyze how the presence of learning goals influences listening behavior, decreases polarization, and predicts psychological safety and open-mindedness.

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