Creating Common Good: Agree to Disagree

Essay by Eva Chiang, Managing Director of Leadership and Programming at the Bush Institute

As it turns out, research shows that disagreeing can be a good thing among people. But those disagreeing need to have a shared goal in mind – or at least some form of commonality.

Protesters gather in Chicago to protest the stay-at-home order in May 2020. (Kevin Kipper/Shutterstock)

It is clear that many Americans are divided today. I’ve written before about the growing distrust among and between Americans, and a 2021 Pew survey shows the U.S. has the highest perceived divides of any country measured. Recently, some have claimed that this division is here to stay.   

I disagree. 

As Keith Hennessey, the David Rubenstein Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute, points out, there are now two generations above voting age who have seen very little bipartisan policymaking — or, frankly, bipartisan anything. The oldest in Generation Z are turning 25 this year, and Millennials are between the ages of 26 to 41. These are generations born into a world that is full of technology and connectivity, and that is lacking good models of something I believe can bridge our divides: placing more value on disagreement.  

Using disagreement to bring people together may sound counterintuitive. But, as an educator, I’ve learned to look forward to — and in some cases even orchestrate — disagreement in my classes. I’ve seen that when students are permitted to respectfully disagree with one another, they push each other’s thinking, consider alternate viewpoints, and analyze the content in a much deeper fashion. This all makes my job much easier and the students’ learning much better. 

Using disagreement to bring people together may sound counterintuitive. But, as an educator, I’ve learned to look forward to — and in some cases even orchestrate — disagreement in my classes.

So, I wondered, can disagreement really make us better both inside and outside of the classroom? And if so, can we learn to get better at it? With those questions, I turned to the research.

Can disagreement have positive outcomes? 

It is not surprising that most people tend to choose to read, watch, listen to, and talk about topics that align with their views and beliefs. But it turns out that disagreeing more may lead to better outcomes. We can all think of famous examples where this led to a better world — the disagreement that led to the creation of the United States of America or the major disagreement between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates that led to more innovative technology. 

There is some data and research that demonstrates these outcomes. Starting in my field of education, there is a teaching tool called constructive controversy. This tool challenges learners’ thinking by presenting a problem, having students determine an initial judgment, and then setting up a cooperative environment where that judgment is challenged. 

This technique is different from debate because it’s not competitive. The end goal is to motivate students to use the uncertainty prompted by this process to learn more. This instructional tool has been found to be effective with young children all the way to adults, giving students better mastery of content, better ability to recall the material, and better ability to generalize their learning. This teaching tool also helps students see beyond their own perspective to understand the views of others. 

The end goal is to motivate students to use the uncertainty prompted by this process to learn more. 

Outside of the classroom, researchers from MIT and the University of Toronto present a research-based theory that providing criticism during brainstorming leads to more (and more creative) ideas. There is a catch here, though. Much like the findings in the study mentioned above, the environment within which the brainstorming is happening must be cooperative versus competitive. That makes sense. We’re more likely to feel that criticism is negative if we’re in a competitive space, so it’s probably not as helpful then. While criticism isn’t exactly the same as disagreement, there are some strong similarities here. 

And one fascinating 2016 study analyzed the conversations of scientists during the Mars Exploration Rover Mission to understand the role of “micro-conflicts” that arose. Micro-conflicts were small disagreements that arose among the scientists as they worked. It turns out that these disagreements helped the team uncover areas of uncertainty related to the mission. 

Verbalizing uncertainties is highly important in any problem-solving situation, but particularly when the stakes are high. Understanding where uncertainties lie allows the team to problem-solve the uncertainties, which could help prevent major, and sometimes life threatening, failures.

Two protesters hugging after an Arizona rally. (Johnny Silvercloud/Shutterstock)

Can we learn to disagree better?

 Despite the research showing that disagreeing can have positive outcomes, it can still be unpleasant. It turns out, though, that we may overestimate how unpleasant it might be. And, learning how to get better at disagreeing is tricky because of how we are wired. Our brains may just reject an opposing view before giving it much consideration.

And, learning how to get better at disagreeing is tricky because of how we are wired. Our brains may just reject an opposing view before giving it much consideration.

 As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, we aren’t as strategic as we’d like to think we are, especially when it comes to making moral judgments. Humans rely heavily on intuition, and these moral intuitions can be hard to change. That makes disagreeing difficult. Rational arguments alone won’t sway someone’s moral intuition, but coupled with personal interactions, there is hope.   

 Similarly, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out that humans’ thoughts are divided into two systems – one that thinks fast and one that thinks slow. Fast thinking helps us with voluntary, quick things we need to do, and it is in charge of our intuition. Slow thinking is what is most helpful in complex problem-solving, and it is where in charge of our strategic thinking.

 We spend more time thinking fast — even when we should be thinking slow. Like Haidt’s work, that means when we when disagree with someone, we are more likely disagreeing with their fast, intuitive thinking, and not their slow, strategic thinking.

 But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn to get better at disagreeing. It starts by understanding how we’re wired. And it’s also about being receptive to other viewpoints, and that can be taught. Disagreement can be better if there’s a shared goal or the people disagreeing have something in common.

Disagreement can be better if there's a shared goal or the people disagreeing have something in common.

 So, if we know there is value in having respectful disagreements, and we know we can get better at it, where does that leave us? The research suggests that we should: 

  1. Understand how we are wired, and with that, what it takes to changes someone’s — and your own — mind.
  2. Slow down. Our initial judgments are likely not made with the most strategic parts of our brain. If we slow down just a bit, we may be able to think more rationally about opposing viewpoints.
  3. Get personal. Rational arguments alone probably won’t be very successful in convincing someone. But getting to know someone on a personal level may make them see you and your viewpoints in a different light. And having a shared goal or something in common helps turn disagreements into something productive.
  4. Think cooperatively and not competitively. Getting someone to see your differing perspective is not a zero-sum game, and compromise is not a dirty word. If you can find a share goal, there is likely room to work with those you disagree with.
  5. Work on being more receptive. That doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your morals or values. We all know so little of the world, and what we know is filtered through our own biased lens. Given that, having someone who disagrees with us may sharpen our thinking.

Where is this work being done? 

In addition to research, we can the value of disagreement in practice. The Convergence Center for Policy Resolution is a nonprofit organization that intentionally brings together stakeholders who disagree on a social challenge. 

They have honed a technique where they select stakeholders who are open-minded, build the stakeholders into a community based in trust, and give that community tools and guidance on how to work past differences to create policy solutions. They take on tough topics like gun control, misinformation, and healthcare issues. These are issues where people are deeply divided, and yet convergence helps them come together to make real change happen. 

We see this in our own work at the Bush Institute with our leadership programs. We intentionally select a diverse group of participants for our Presidential Leadership Scholars program, a unique partnership that uses leadership lessons from George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Lyndon B. Johnson to develop leaders. While we select for diversity, the common traits we look for in outstanding applicants are humility and open-mindedness. While we’re proud of the curriculum that has been developed, we also know that a large part of the success of the program is that we work hard to set up a cooperative environment for our participants to disagree productively. 

I’ve outlined the many benefits of surrounding ourselves with divergent opinions. If we learn to value disagreement as well as learn to disagree better, then we won’t be as divided. But, I invite you to disagree. 

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