Saulsman: A plea to apply empathy when discussing opinions

Over the summer, while we were tanning and surrounding ourselves with like-minded friends, researchers at our beloved Case Western Reserve University were finding out why some people are so confident in the accuracy and truth of their opinions. In an article published in The Daily titled, “Studies help understand why some people are so sure they’re right,” the author explains these findings and relays them to readers.

Anthony Jack, associate professor of philosophy and co-author of the study, made a conclusion concerning the experiment: “Emotional resonance helps religious people to feel more certain—the more moral correctness they see in something, the more it affirms their thinking. In contrast, moral concerns make nonreligious people feel less certain.” In other words, what confirms one person’s beliefs may shatter another’s.

In a discussion, formal or informal, we are always so quick to assume that our opinion is right. Many writers and philosophers have beaten me to the punch when it comes to this conclusion. Despite knowing this, many people still approach an opposing view with hostility and energy that could be conserved and put towards something useful. I will reiterate that we do not really pay attention to why another person feels the way they do or why he believes what he believes.

Think about it. During a discussion, how often are you actively listening to the other person speak? How often are you nodding or making eye contact yet not fully grasping what the words mean coming out of the other person’s mouth? Not very often, I presume. Instead, your mind is racing with thoughts of examples that could better express your opinion than the last thing you said. And, even if you are listening, how often are you understanding why the other person feels this way? In how many circumstances are you exercising empathy in order to fully grasp why this person fully believes something you find ridiculous?

I met a friend here at CWRU. I’ve known her only since late August. Since then, she has unintentionally brought to my attention a humbling virtue. Through her responses to my comments regarding others’ actions, she taught me to never assume something about why anyone does what they do. For example, to a certain person, saying a comment in a certain tone of voice is his way of communicating. Perhaps he knows nothing better. Who am I to say that whatever he believes is best is wrong? What if my way is wrong? What if I was taught that red was blue and the rest of the world knows it to be red? Who is wrong? Who is right?

In a discussion, or perhaps an argument, we are so quick to assume that we are right. We believe this with such ferocity that we become agitated with the other person. We refuse to understand why a person holds their beliefs to be true. I have seen this in my Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship class, and in the common room of my residential building. I have heard this expressed in my own words as well as those of the people walking behind me. I become so frustrated towards the hostility that, ironically, I become hostile. I avoid discussions because of this, and that’s a shame. We should not avoid conversations in fear of being judged, misunderstood or berated.

The comments I’ve presented here are not original. They may seem juvenile, but they must be heard and absorbed. They will not solve the great debate between conservatives and liberals or between cat people and dog people. But I hope they remind people to take a step back. Take a step back and remember that this person is a human whose psyche has chosen to prefer something over the other. Stop being so hostile. Agree to disagree.

Courtney is a first-year student majoring in psychology. And maybe sociology. And maybe cognitive science. One of her talents includes not being able to decide what she wants to do in life.