Psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, recently used ridiculous-sounding questions to gain a better understanding of why we disagree with others so often during some of the most frustrating societal arguments.
Some of the questions included, “Is a penguin noisy?” and “Is a dog more similar to a chicken or an eagle?”
The study revealed that people’s concepts and associations with even very common words vary significantly. Additionally, people often overestimate just how many other people have the same conceptual beliefs– or mental grouping “shortcuts” that we create to understand similar events, objects, or words.
According to the researchers, this discrepancy is at the root of nearly all heated arguments and debates– whether they be at the family dinner table, in a classroom, or in a courtroom.
“The results offer an explanation for why people talk past each other. When people are disagreeing, it may not always be about what they think it is. It could be stemming from something as simple as their concepts not being aligned,” explained Celeste Kidd, the study’s principal investigator.
To help curb these misunderstandings, Kidd advised people to probe further– gaining clarification by asking questions as simple as, “What do you mean?” This can prevent debates from spiraling unnecessarily.
Now, disputes about the meaning of words are not a modern issue. For decades, we have seen debates about Constitution interpretations, religious texts, and in high school and college classroom discussions about subjects like philosophy and women’s studies.
Cognitive psychologists have also studied how and why people perceive and describe the world using different words. And it has been widely accepted that our own lived experiences impact how we view the world and subsequently approach issues or challenges in different ways.
Still, though, exactly how widely these approaches vary has not been well-studied.