Change My View’s most important lesson is one that applies beyond its moderated walls, one that anyone who has tried to engage in a productive political argument likely already knows. If you want to convince, meet people where they are rather than where you want them to be. “People respond better if you don’t start out guns blazing, accusing them of being dumb or nefarious,” Weeks says. “The most important thing you can do is listen to people,” says another moderator, Brett Johnson, a project manager in Houston who is 36. “If people feel heard and understood, they are more likely to listen to what you have to say.”
Some of the arguments on Change My View make use of a strategy called moral reframing, a concept studied by the Stanford sociologist Robb Willer that relies on a person’s ability to empathize and understand the point of view of someone who holds different values. Moral reframing means appealing to the morality of the person you are trying to convince rather than your own. Most people have a hard time doing this without being coached, even though it can be an effective means of shifting deeply held beliefs. This “moral empathy gap” is why it is difficult for those with differing political views to understand each other.
Willer says that two factors contribute to the moral empathy gap: information and inclination. Increasingly, Americans don’t have access to or don’t seek enough information to fully understand the opposite side’s positions. Their news sources may represent only one slice of the political spectrum, or they live and work in communities that are overwhelmingly red or blue. The second factor is inclination. How motivated are we to try to bridge the divides between us? What really widens the moral empathy gap is not attitudinal polarization—that is, how the public generally feels about policy—but affective polarization, which measures how much political groups dislike one another. While both types of polarization are getting worse, and have been for some time, affective polarization is getting worse faster, Willer says.
This is why places such as Change My View are so important; the forum is proof that some people are still willing to engage in good faith with “the other side.” Willer says he thought Change My View was an interesting thing to study because it showed that normal people could reach their political counterparts if they wanted to. “It’s not just political strategists … a motivated or clever or empathic person can change somebody else’s mind on something. It’s a reassuring thought,” he says.
Turnbull, Change My View’s founder, says that one of his goals with the forum is to encourage people to change the way they look at admitting that they’ve encountered a perspective or a fact that they didn’t know about before, one that has the potential to alter their opinion about an issue. “People feel that changing their view is somehow losing … that it’s this embarrassing thing,” he says. “We are trying to change that perspective.” To an impressive extent, he has succeeded. Johnson says that this attitude is what initially intrigued him about Change My View when he came across it three years ago. “I found it to be a unique place,” he says. “Most places on the internet, most places in the world, they reward you for being right. But this was a community that celebrates being wrong.”