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Book Notes: “Why Are We Yelling?” by Buster Benson


Why Are We Yelling? The Art of Productive Disagreement by Buster Benson (2019) is an attempt to come to grips with the hyper-polarized discourse in contemporary America. I first heard about the book while listening Wondery’s The Next Big Idea podcast where the author was interviewed by Rufus Griscom and was compelled to pick up a copy.

Benson’s core idea is that instead of viewing disagreements as a negative phenomenon, we must reorient our thinking to view disagreements as a positive phenomenon and approach them with a growth-mindset. The bulk of the book walks the reader through the various obstacles and solutions to what he calls “productive disagreement” (disagreements which result in beneficial outcomes and personal growth from the participants). Internal anxieties and cognitive biases, for instance, are big impediments to honest inquiry. By understanding these obstacles, we can consciously avoid the instinctive reactions we have to differing ideas or opinions and, instead, be much more thoughtful and open to learning from the experiences of others.

To bolster his ideas and better convey his framework, Benson uses a number of very specific and highly relatable examples throughout his book (such as a debate about gun control). These real-life case studies are much appreciated as a complement to Benson's abstract theories.

Despite the strength of the underlying ideas, I found the book unwieldy to read at times. My biggest problem being that the chapters were simply too dense with content. The book would benefit from shorter, more succinct chapters rather than long meandering ones. Better copy-editing would have helped as well. These are minor complaints. This was an informative and immensely practical read with a positive message–one that is increasingly pertinent in our current political and cultural climate.

Pros: The ideas are thoughtful, provocative and novel. Good balance of the practical and abstract.

Cons: The writing, while not poor, is not the book’s strong suit. The structure and organization of the book can be challenging at times.

Verdict: 7/10

Notes & Highlights

Introduction: Three Misconceptions

  • Most of us approach disagreements as negative phenomena: “as things to battle and destroy.” Instead, we need to learn the art of “productive disagreement” which requires a shift in mind-set.
  • Misconception 1: Arguments are bad. “Disagreements are a sign of group health, not pathology, and cultures that allow the airing of grievances in a way that addresses them productively are more likely to create successful relationships, businesses and communities.”
  • Misconception 2: Arguments change minds. “We can really change only two things: our own minds and our own behavior.” “Sometimes our attempts to change minds can actually have the opposite effect, making people dig in their heels even deeper in their current belief. It’s called the backfire effect.”
  • Misconception 3: Arguments end. “Arguments have deep roots and will always find a way to grow back again.
  • Think about disagreements as belonging to three different groups: head, heart and hand. “The three realms are: anxiety about what's is true (head realm of information and science), anxiety about what is meaningful (heart group: preferences and values) and what is useful (hand group: practicality and planning).”
  • Each realm “has its own rules for validation...what works to resolve a disagreement in one realm will not work in the other two.”
  • A fourth realm: the shadow. The shadow realm is disagreement with a projection of our own fears and imaginings. Projections involve our worst stereotypes about a thing and make productive disagreement difficult. “The Antigone to arguing with a projection is to always know whom you’re disagreeing with.”
  • The fruits of productive disagreement: security (by removing a threat/misunderstanding), growth (by helping us better understand reality), connection (by forging trust with others) and enjoyment (through collaboration with others).
  • Disagreements don’t have to end in mutual destruction. Aim for them to result in mutual improvement.

Chapter 1: Watch How Anxiety Sparks

  • “Anxiety is a signpost pointing out our personal beliefs and expectations.” (personal expectations include hopes, dreams and disappointments about the world)
  • Examples of expectations falling short of reality: Someone hates something you live (e.g. a book, movie, song, food, place); something fails that you put a lot of effort into, a core belief you hold is challenged unexpectedly.
  • “When you depersonalize a position in an argument, it becomes possible to imagine having other positions, in the same way that you might walk around a room and try sitting in different chairs.” (Author plots different opinions on a 2x2 grid to lay out the various positions on an issue)
  • “We are complicated creature, and our reactions to things are rooted in long histories and complex emotions...personal circumstances inevitably inform our default positions even when they feel purely logical after the fact.”
  • “Anxiety sparks when a perspective we value bumps into another perspective that challenges it in some way.”
  • Pay attention to these sparks of anxiety in order to learn how we’ve learned to react automatically in certain situations. Some of these reactions will be legitimate, but many will not be.
  • “It’s not unusual to routinely feel anxious when other people do completely harmless things that don’t align with our preferences.”
  • The vertically sliced bagel meme on Twitter as an example of a minor disagreement. Consider the type of disagreement. Is it meaningful to slice a bagel a certain way. Or do you want to focus if it is useful to do so. Is this a question of personal values and preferences (meaningful) or is it a question about goals and utility (useful)?
  • This anxiety is also known as cognitive dissonance. Reference from Wikipedia:
“Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. This discomfort is triggered by a situation in which a person's belief clashes with new evidence perceived by the person. When confronted with facts that contradict beliefs, ideals, and values, people will try to find a way to resolve the contradiction to reduce their discomfort.
  • Familiarity and updating your perspective with new information is one way to reduce cognitive dissonance. Remember to approach the issue with empathy vis a vis the head (facts), heart (opinion) and hand (usefulness) framework.

Chapter 2: Talk to Your Internal Voices

  • The further a conflicting perspective is from your own, the larger the cognitive dissonance. Author uses the example of vaccination, a potentially polarizing issue in which our position impacts our impression of other holding an opposing view (e.g. demonize someone holding a truly unacceptable position).
  • “Visualize the cognitive dissonance from both sides, even if you don’t believe both sides are reasonable.” Visualizing will help you understand the spectrum of opinions. When visualizing you can graph the spectrum of opinions linearly and attempt to capture, in words, the sentiment held by each opposing endpoint.
  • “When both sides think the other side demonizes them, it justifies demonizing them back.”
  • Demonization is a byproduct of System 1 thinking (Kahneman): fast, cheap, instinctual responses. Contrast with System 2 thinking: slow, deliberative, logical thinking (which requires more energy/effort).
  • “Our internal voices are automatic, filled with emotional and urgent declarations often related to safety. They make use of stereotypes and group labels to categorize threats and opportunities and our relation to them.”
  • “Four internal voices”: a template for automatic thinking and modes of conflict: 1) The voice of power; 2) The voice of reason; 3) The voice of avoidance; 4) The voice of possibility.
  • The Voice of Power: Resolution of disagreements through strength, force and escalation. This is an expensive mode of conflict resolution.
  • The Voice of Reason: An appeal to reasons to shut down debate. Examples: a higher authority (religion, laws), science, the greater good, common sense, tradition, convention and raw strength. The Voice of Reason is an upgrade to The Voice of Power because it avoids the use of force.
  • The Voice of Avoidance: Just ignore or avoid participating in the conflict altogether. The obvious problem with this is that it doesn’t fix the problem.
  • The Voice of Possibility: “Use any spark of disagreement as a jumping-off pint to find the source of dissonance..investigate other perspectives with deep curiosity until we’re no longer surprised by the fact that the differences exits, even if the differences remain in conflict.” Determine how to make progress towards shared goals with existing constraints.
  • The stoic philosophy of “the obstacle is the path” encompasses the Voice of Possibility.

Chapter 3: Develop Honest Bias

  • Optimal decision-making process if we didn’t have cognitive biases: Look => Orient => Leap/Act.
  • Cognitive biases are the shortcuts we use to save time and energy when making decisions.
  • “Limitations to our own cognitive abilities prevent us from being able to look, orient, or leap with perfect objectivity.”
  • Examples: Availability heuristic considers the options that come to mind easily (rather than the best alternatives). In-group favoritism results in us giving the benefit of the doubt to people in our group vs. those outside (e.g. attended same college, same political party, etc.). Loss aversion causes us to value what we already have more than what we don’t have.
  • Despite their shortcomings, biases are essential ways to efficiently filter massive amounts of information and stimulus we must constantly process.
  • Biases solve the following 3 conundrums: 1) Problem of too much information to process; 2) Problem of ascribing meaning to information; 3) Insufficient time and resources to process information.
  • Examples of strategies for the conundrum of too much information: Use context to inform what is important; use ideas that we have recently been exposed to; amplify the bizarre (boost important of unusual or surprising details); notice the new and different; pay attention to the parts we think we’ll need later.
  • Examples of strategies for the conundrum of ascribing meaning: Fill in gaps with generalities, guesses and stereotypes (turns sparse data into meaningful stories); favor the familiar, assume our experience is the objective view of reality; simplify mental math and probabilities; be overconfident.
  • Examples of strategies for the conundrum of insufficient time and resources: Stick with it and complete the things we’ve already invested in (sunk cost); protect existing beliefs (since changing them is costly/time-consuming); do the safe, less risky thing.
  • To be right more consistently: identify where your thinking is wrong or flawed.
  • Steps to developing honest bias:
I will try to accept my bias, which means I’m willing to:
1. Acknowledge my limitations and unique perspective.
2. Invite diverse perspectives to the table.
3. Listen generously when others point out my blind spots.
4. Be willing to accept the discomfort that this inevitably brings as a welcome gift.
  • “Instead of saying, ‘I know I’m right!’ Say, ‘I’m not seeing what you’re seeing. Can you help me get there?’ Instead of getting angry, get curious.”

Chapter 4: Speak for Yourself

  • “Things go off the rails precisely when people stop speaking from their own perspective and try to speculate about other people’s perspectives…use “I feel” statements instead of “You are” or, even worse, “You feel” statements…”
  • Per the previous chapter on cognitive biases, we often use shortcuts to “fill in the gaps” and create stories via stereotypes and generalizations about others to complete our informational story. It is critical to remember what information is being supplied externally via others and what information is being fabricated internally by ourselves.
  • “We’re just not that great at representing the perspectives of other people when they differ from our own.”
  • The solution to this problem is to speak only for ourselves and to have others speak for themselves.
  • Strive for good faith interactions: “Good faith—from the Latin bona fides—is a sincere intention to be fair, and honest regardless of the outcome of the interaction.”
  • Use the “Voice of possibility” to learn and understand the viewpoints of others before reaching conclusion. The additional information will give you greater empathy and perspective in understanding an opposing viewpoint.
  • Stop viewing productive disagreements as having an easy or quick resolution. Instead, view them as fruitful learning processes.
  • “The pursuit of resolution in a situation like this [a productive disagreement] can often be wishful thinking. We know our own minds are never changed in a single conversation, so why should other people’s minds be?”
  • Don’t ask people to give their opinion about what others should do. This approach is flawed. Instead, ask to tell you what they themselves should do.
  • “Speaking for yourself means avoiding two common bad habits: speaking for other people and speculating about the perspectives of groups of people.”
If I say, “If you don’t vaccinate your kids, it means you prioritize your children over mine,” I’m speculating about what your behavior reveals about your internal thoughts.
If I was trying to speak only for myself, I’d instead say, “I vaccinated my kids because I thought it was the best option for my children. What are your motivations for not vaccinating your children?” This leaves an invitation for you to reveal something about yourself that I’m not able to imagine on my own.
  • “The opinion columns of large and small newspapers and online publications are filled with speculation about groups.”
  • “This kind of speculation…leans very heavily on our uncharitable generalizations about people we don’t understand and then inflates them to the size of an entire community. We’re bad at speculating about what a single other person is thinking, and we’re terrible at speculating what an entire group of people is thinking.”

Chapter 5: Ask Questions that Invite Surprising Answers

  • “One of the best tools to balance impatience for a quick answer with the desire to actually land on the best possible answer is asking great questions.”
  • “The ‘What is real?’ Question is the most black-and-white category and therefore becomes a go-to when we want to double down on certainty and confidence. Some of us have even grown to believe it’s our duty to tell people they’re wrong when they believe something our own identity group finds unacceptable. The internet gives us endless opportunities to fulfill this duty by presenting many more perspectives from a much broader cross section of the world.”
  • Ask big, open-ended questions in order to uncover unexpected, unprompted information.
Great questions create space for surprising answers to fill them. If we ask questions that can only yield answers that we already expect, we’ll never be surprised and we’ll never find a new wandering path through the world. But if we ask open-ended questions that have no predetermined answers, we can take steps farther and farther away from where we started.
  • Example: Narrow, binary question “Do you think ghosts are real?” vs. a more open question “What experiences have led you to your current beliefs about ghosts?”
  • A good question needs to provoke an honest answer from the other person.
  • The four fruits of disagreement: security, growth, connection and enjoyment.
  • When security is the sole goal of a disagreement the outcome may not be productive. Questions and answers may be used to attack and defend existing positions/opinions.
  • Some useful questions that can be used to make any disagreement productive:
What formative events in your life brought you to this belief?
What’s really at stake here?
What’s complicated about your position here that people don’t usually notice?
If what you believe was proven conclusively true to its staunchest opponents, what would happen?
What would have to be true for you to change your mind about this?
What other possibilities might we be missing that would change how we each thought about this?
Imagine a world where this is no longer a problem. How did we get there?

Chapter 6: Build Arguments Together

  • “If your motivation is to win an argument and claim the fruit of security, the best strategy is to pick the weakest opponents from the crowd. My favorite term for this bad habit is nutpicking—we pick out the nuttiest nut we can find on the opposing side, because they’re the easiest to tear apart. They can then do the same for our side, and the cycle never ends.”
  • Nutpicking is a sign that both parties are engaged in unproductive debate.
  • Instead of looking for the weakest opponents, seek the strongest. They will help you find the flaws in your argument and ultimately strengthen your ideas. “Our opponents are better equipped to identify the flaws in our arguments…use this quirk of the mind to make your argument stronger!”
  • Author describes a potluck event he hosted to discuss the gun-control debate with people from diverse backgrounds and opinions on the topic. The key takeaway was on the importance of face-to-face interaction, honest conversation and the sharing of food (breaking of bread). “Food is an essential ingredient in the art of productive disagreement.”
  • Collectively consider the “monkey’s paw” issues for any resolutions considered: these are exploits and loopholes and ways in which a proposal can unexpectedly backfire in the worst possible way.
  • Problem brief vs. traditional essay as a means for building a collective argument.
A traditional essay makes a single case and puts all its weight behind it [using the voice of reason].
A problem brief collects the best proposals that attempt to answer the open question. That means it might have two or five or a hundred different proposals, each with supporting evidence and proposed actions, each a result of collaboration between supporters and opponents [the voice of possibility].
  • “When writing a traditional essay or having a traditional disagreement, you might be incentivized to hide your argument’s flaws and to exaggerate its strengths, but when you build arguments together, that isn’t necessary or rewarding.”

Chapter 7: Cultivate Neutral Spaces

  • In Japanese culture, spaces designed to build relationships (e.g. a table for eating) has wa. A space designed to facilitate the flow of ideas, like a creative workspace, has ba. A space made for serendipitous encounters and interruptions, like a park, has ma.
  • “These different ‘personalities’ that different environments acquire can help us understand an often unacknowledged factor in our disagreements. The physical space that disagreements occur in influences the voices we listen to, the dynamics of the conversation, how people participate, and even who participates.”
  • The three things to consider about the spaces in which disagreements occur:
1. Ideas: Does the space encourage or discourage diverse perspectives from being shared? Which voices are most welcome in this space? Does it have any preference for conflicts of head, heart, or hand?
2. People: Is anyone able to enter and exit this space of their own free will, or are there consequences and/or restrictions in place that limit who can enter and exit?
3. Culture: How are past and present interactions in this space remembered in the future? Are there any biases that favor or disfavor certain participants or ideas?
  • Note that a space does not have to be physical. Virtual spaces should also be considered in the above contest. For instance it is important to understand the role that a social media space imparts to interactions and disagreements.
  • Beware of contributing to a pattern of provocation => reaction when asking a question. Provocative questions will push the dialogue to the voices of power, reason and avoidance. Neutral but open-ended questions will foster the voice of possibility.

Chapter 8: Accept Reality, Then Participate in It

Three questions to help us unpack difficult topics:
1. What is the difference between accepting a dangerous idea into the room and endorsing it?
2. Should we be willing to hear ideas that we don’t endorse? If so, why?
3. Can we invite ideas that we don’t endorse into the room in a productive way?
  • “The key is to remain open to the possibility that speakers don’t actually think what you think they think…let them speak for themselves and look for the pieces that surprise us. Those pieces are the new information we otherwise lose out on.”
  • “When we find an idea unacceptable before seeing it for what it really is, we just fill it in with our worst predefined stereotypes.”
  • “Unproductive disagreement is currently the greatest existential threat to our civilization and future prosperity. If we can’t even get to the point of talking productively about our problems, it’s only a matter of time until they bring us down.”
  • “We can begin to address this problem by committing to having more productive disagreements above fighting for any one thing. We can each commit to leading by example rather than passing the buck to an imagined adversary.”

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