Project details

The problem

The public sphere around media outlets offers many examples of dysfunctional behaviours that undermine the quality of public discourse. This is particularly the case with online public comments sections on news sites that attract thousands of people every day.

One possible avenue for improving public discourse in this area is to overcome the barriers that prevent people from engaging in open-minded, intellectually humble discussion of socially, culturally and politically divisive issues. The Scholio project aims to explore, through a large-scale field experiment, how representation-centric collaborative platforms and empathy inducement can promote more reason-based, intellectually humble dialogue in online news comments.

New platforms and treatments

Representation-centric collaborative platforms support structured interaction through the development of visual representations of dialogue.

There is evidence that knowledge representations:

  • encourage participants to clarify their thinking and to make it visible to others
  • foster information and knowledge awareness
  • provide resources for conversation and
  • function as a ‘convergence artefact’ that expresses the group’s emerging shared understandings.

The visualisation of competing positions and arguments may be particularly suited to fostering more reasonable and less strident dialogue on controversial and contentious issues.

Researchers have shown that inducing empathy through perspective-taking instructions can lead to lower attribution bias, better outgroup evaluations, increases in helping others, less prejudice, and reductions in everyday bad behaviors. There is evidence that predispositions to empathy can increase tolerance when citizens are exposed to rationales for dissonant views, and can lead deliberating groups to demonstrate more open-mindedness, mutual respect, and commitment to continued deliberation. These findings suggest that empathy can encourage intellectually humble public discourse.

The experiment

This project is novel in its ambition to explore the potential of representation-centric platforms and empathy inducement to improve the intellectual humility of dialogue in online news commentary. The field experiment will recruit ordinary citizens who usually read online news and randomly assign them to experience different online news environments.

The representation-centric platforms, Deliberatorium and Pol.is, have been chosen because early pilots suggest their potential to cultivate intellectually humble dialogue, and they are designed to promote different forms of discussion. Deliberatorium is more restrictive in its requirements of relatively dispassionate reason-giving; Pol.is more open to a broader range of dialogue types and potentially a more emotional understanding of the perspective of others.

The experiment will investigate the role of empathy by randomly assigning half of the groups to receive perspective-taking instructions aimed at inducing participants to be more open to people and ideas with which they disagree.

The project will also field-test a set of measures for investigating intellectual humility in online environments.

We thus test the ability of the online platform (environment), a psychological intervention (individual instructions), and the interaction of the two, to promote intellectual humility.

Outcomes

While the project will produce high quality social scientific knowledge on how intellectual humility can be encouraged in online news comments, it also aims to develop a scalable model for how news media institutions, and others, can incorporate comment platforms that promote reason-based, intellectually humble dialogue.