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How to Get People to Be More Civil

Brief reflection on personal values can make people more open-minded.

Key points

  • We recently published research that suggests a subtle way in which we might be able to increase our own humility in debate.
  • Reflection on values, and shared values, may help to reduce polarization.
  • Rather than avoiding discussions because they might become stressful or upsetting, it may be time to think of what matters to us.
Source: Drawlab19/Shutterstock

If we want to make a positive difference in the world, it is difficult to go through our social lives with only light chatter. Sometimes we need to discuss serious topics, and this can get uncomfortable.

The trouble arises when we talk about important issues like climate change, health care, abortion, and so many more topics. It can happen when we talk to colleagues, friends, or family. Who hasn’t felt a sense of relief at the end of "awkward" conversations with someone who has very different views from us, during a party, family holiday, or work gathering?

Sometimes, part of the awkwardness is that the other person is just too arrogant. Other times, we may worry that we overdid it in the conversation. Perhaps we didn’t listen enough or got too pumped up about our own ways of seeing things.

We recently published research that suggests a subtle way in which we might be able to increase our own humility in debate and, perhaps, help the entire discussion have a more constructive tone. The technique is simple: Take a few minutes to consider the values that are important in your life, and then contemplate reasons why you cherish the value most dear to you.

In our experiment, we asked people to look at a list of human values (such as freedom, equality, wealth, family security) and to rate their importance. The participants then chose the value most important to them and wrote reasons why the value matters. In this way, participants had a chance to affirm the value and potentially build up a way to feel good about themselves in the face of any threats to their self-concept.

Groups of two or three participants were then invited into a room to debate an important topic, the use of tuition fees to pay for university education. An additional debator was an aid to the experimenter and was there simply to provoke debate from time to time. We recorded the 15-minute debate and later analysed each participant’s contribution to calculate an index of their humility in the debate. This index gave higher scores to participants who showed thoughtful engagement with points made along with less emphatic assertiveness and less indiscriminate agreement (which signals servility instead of humility).

We found that the simple value-affirmation task was effective in increasing the humility we coded from the discussions. Additionally, we found that participants felt more empathic and grateful when they reflected on their most important value. Prior research had found that this type of task can increase open-mindedness to ego-threatening information, but this new evidence suggested it could go as far as influencing actual discussion behavior.

For many years now, scholars have been worried that society is becoming increasingly polarized and that it's happening at the worst possible time—a time when we need people to agree on ways forward to tackle major challenges facing our world, our freedoms, and ways of life. There is no silver bullet, but values-affirmation may be one technique to include in our arsenal of methods. Rather than simply avoiding discussions because they might become stressful or upsetting, it may be time to build up our inner resources by thinking of what matters to us, and then dive straight in.

Of course, there are other ways which debates, even about controversial issues, might become more civil. For example, one important factor that contributes to perceptions of polarization in the first place is believing that people belonging to a disliked group have different values, beliefs, and personalities. However, in our previous research, we found that groups of people, such as women and men, people with different religious denominations, people from different countries, or people with different education levels, are substantially more similar than different in their values and beliefs. We also found that highlighting those similarities to people can increase their motivation to engage with each other and, as a recent large experiment found, reduce anti-democratic attitudes.


Hanel, P. H. P., Roy, D., Taylor, S., Franjieh, M., Heffer, C., Tanesini, A., & Maio, G. R. (2023). Using self-affirmation to increase intellectual humility in debate. Royal Society Open Science. DOI: 10.1098/rsos.220958

Hanel, P. H. P., Maio, G. & Manstead, A. S. R. (2019). A new way to look at the data: Similarities between groups of people are large and important. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 116, 541-562. DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000154

Voelkl, J. G. et al. (2022). Megastudy identifying successful interventions to strengthen Americans’ democratic attitudes.

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