Imagining a controversial issue as a debate or dialogue between two sides helps people apply deeper, more sophisticated reasoning, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science.
“Envisioning opposing views leads to a more comprehensive examination of the issue,” said psychology researcher Julia Zavala at Columbia University, first author of the study.
“Moreover, it impacts how people understand knowledge — constructing opposing views leads them to regard knowledge less as fact and more as information that can be scrutinized in a framework of alternatives and evidence.”
Many students, and even adults, have difficulty writing a persuasive or expository paper, as they are unable to consider challenges to their own perspective. Prior research has shown that peer-to-peer discussion can help students overcome these issues, but opportunities for these kinds of discussions are not always available.
The study assessed whether students could reap the benefits of this kind of dialogue in a solo writing assignment.
Zavala and study co-author Deanna Kuhn asked 60 undergraduates to participate in a one-hour writing activity. Some of the students were randomly assigned to create a dialogue between TV commentators discussing two mayoral candidates. The participants were given a list of important issues that the city was facing and a list of actions proposed by each candidate to solve these problems.
Other students were given the same information about the city and the candidates but were asked to write a persuasive essay highlighting the merits of each candidate instead. Finally, students from both groups were asked to write a script for a two-minute TV spot, promoting their preferred candidate.
After reading the writing samples, the researchers found that students who had constructed a dialogue included more distinct ideas in their writing than did participants who wrote an essay. Compared with the essays, the dialogues also included more statements that directly compared the two candidates and more statements that connected the city’s problems to the candidates’ proposed actions.
In the subsequent TV script, students who had previously written a dialogue made more references to city problems and to proposed actions, included more statements that linked a problem with an action, made more comparisons between the candidates, and offered more statements that were critical of the candidates’ positions, compared with students who had written an essay.
Notably, students in the dialogue group were also less likely to make claims in their TV script that lacked supporting evidence. Only 20 percent of students in the dialogue group made one or more unsubstantiated claims, compared with 60 percent of the students in the essay group.
“These results support our hypothesis that the dialogic task would lead to deeper, more comprehensive processing of the two positions and hence a richer representation of each and the differences between them,” said Kuhn.
“Everything possible should be done to encourage and support genuine discourse on critical issues, but our findings suggest that the virtual form of interaction we examined may be a productive substitute, at a time when positions on an issue far too often lack the deep analysis to support them.”
Findings from a another experiment revealed that students in the dialogue group also showed a more sophisticated understanding of knowledge. For example, some of the students in the essay group seemed to approach knowledge from an absolutist perspective — interpreting knowledge as a body of certain facts that exists apart from human judgment — none of the students in the dialogue group did so.
“The dialogue task, which took no more than an hour to complete, appeared to have a strong effect on students’ epistemological understanding,” said Zavala.