May 16, 2021 Leave your thoughts

The Communicative Power of Personal Experience

People often complain that when they disagree with others over serious moral issues such as abortion rights or immigration limits, there seems to be no way to reach out and bridge the divide. It is difficult to find a mutually appreciated starting point that helps the disagreeing sides respect each other, perceive each other as rational human beings capable of reason and show willingness to engage with one another.  

In a new paper, Emily Kubin and her colleagues have proposed a very practical solution and supported their claim with evidence from 15 different studies. Here in this post we briefly describe their solution and go through 2 or 3 of the studies but we suggest you read the original paper. Kubin and colleagues’ key advice is this:

When in disagreement over a difficult moral issue, SHARE A MEMORY OR STORY OF YOUR OWN PERSONAL EXPERIENCE OF HARM with those you disagree with. This will make them respect you more, see you as more rational and increase their willingness to interact with you.

Importantly, Kubin and colleagues also show that talking to people about facts and giving them numbers and statistics is less likely to succeed in bridging the divide between you and them. To see good examples of facts and personal stories, here is a table:

In one study, they analysed 300,978 comments left under 198 videos in YouTube that talked about abortion, a very controversial moral issue. Half of the videos emphasised facts (numbers, statistics, …) and the other half described a personal experience (e.g., people telling stories about their abortion). Comments for the second group of videos were much more positive and supportive (see blue bars in Fig 1).

Figure 1. Emotional Scores for videos that explained facts (red) or described personal history (blue). Bigger numbers on the X axis mean more positive comments.

In another study, experimenters went to public places in Chapel Hill or Durham (NC, USA) and – without revealing that they were doing an experiment – engaged with passerbys about sensitive moral issues such as gun control. Once the passerby had expressed their  opinion, the researcher would then take the opposite stance and offer either (1) facts and numbers or (2) a personal story of a harm relating to the moral issue and the conversation then continued between the two sides. Subsequent analysis of the recorded conversations showed that people in second group (i.e., those who heard a personal history of harm) found the researcher as more rational and respectable.  

In yet another study, they gave people newspaper articles with which they disagreed and asked them to assess the articles for how rational it was and how much they respected the author. For example, if the participant supported gun control, she was given an article the opposed gun control. They chose 4 op-eds from New York Times, two pro–gun control and two pro–gun rights—and one of each of these emphasized either facts or personal experience. The results showed that authors who had shared personal experience were respected more and seen as more rational.

This paper offers a number of very practical guidelines for how to talk to people who disagree with us in sensitive moral issues. Perhaps the best strategy would be START with a personal story and THEN once you have established an engagement, continue with facts and statistics (if you must).

Bernard Trebacz, Argument of the scholars

ps. For those interested, there is an interesting relationship between these findings and the famous feminist slogan “The Personal is Political” on one hand and the religious history of direct experience and testimony in evaluation of miracles.    

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