How to Open Minds: A Conversation with Professor Jonathan Haidt

Source: NYU Stern

By Chris Ren

“What is the capital of Madagascar?”

This is one of the first questions that the web app Open Mind posed to Stern freshman cohorts last September. The correct answer is Antananarivo, but accuracy was not the focal point here. The real point of asking this question is to introduce students the concept of intellectual humility.

Open Mind defines intellectual humility as “a trait that helps [to] improve our thinking and reasoning by allowing us to acknowledge the limits of our knowledge [and] come to terms with being wrong.” Step two of the Open Mind platform, which all Stern freshman cohorts completed, aims to teach students the value of being intellectually humble and of learning from each other.

But the Open Mind platform goes beyond simply showing people that their thinking can be wrong. Open Mind in its entirety is an interactive web-app that takes users through a five-step journey meant to reduce extreme partisanship. It teaches skills such as talking to those who disagree with you, spotting psychological biases that make us over-righteous about our beliefs, understanding how different moral systems relate to one another, and creating constructive disagreement for difficult conversations. Co-founded by Stern professor Jonathan Haidt, the system was originally conceived as a response to the growing politicization of academics.

“As cross partisan hostility has increased, many organizations and institutions are becoming all on the left or all on the right…if that happens in any institution that needs to find truth, then it is failing because people don’t challenge each others’ confirmation bias,” explained Haidt.

Haidt’s original solution back in 2016 was to give students a curated reading list of the best thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum. However, as he (quite accurately) notes, “students are deluged in reading; you have way too much reading.”

Instead, Open Mind’s other co-founder, Caroline Mehl, who was working with Haidt on some of his research, suggested that it should instead be a more dynamic system. “The most basic psychology of rewards tells us that small actions that are greeted by some effect are much more rewarding than…the turn of a page. So, if we put in periodic questions and you get points for them, even if the points are meaningless you have much more of a sense of progress,” Haidt explained.

Haidt, Mehl, and current innovation director, Raffi Grinberg, had made a basic version of the system for use on college campuses by late 2016. But after President Trump’s election in November that year, Haidt saw a need for the platform beyond the classroom, voicing “since then, political polarization has spread so quickly through high schools, religious congregations, and corporations…even my rabbi at Central Synagogue said its become very difficult to talk about many issues because of the political tensions…so we’re now expanding the app so that it can work in almost any organization.”

Whether one looks at last year’s Berkeley riots or the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, polarization and political violence are undoubtedly at the forefront of national discussions. Many scholars continue to worry about the issue following recent incidents like the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, the Kentucky Kroger shooting, and the mail bomb threats against Democratic political figures two weeks before the 2018 midterms.

Haidt understands the gravity of the situation. “So far you can count the number of violent episodes on two hands,” said Haidt. “There may be more, but I think we’re getting much closer and closer to widespread violence.”

The Open Mind team thus intends to make the platform as widespread and accessible as possible. “Our goal is to reach millions of people and provide them with practical skills to improve the nature of public discourse and heal our national divisions,” said Mehl.

But a crucial aspect of this strategy is to target entire communities and organizations, rather than individuals. Our hypothesis,” explained Mehl, is that the effects of the program will be far more powerful at scale – when an entire campus completes the same training and can reference the same shared frameworks and vocabulary when engaging with controversial and challenging ideas.” Currently, the system is still being tested within different communities, though initial results on the effectiveness of the platform seem promising.

Outside of user survey feedback, Mehl states that the team has already, “begun to conduct behavioral…and randomized-controlled experiments to measure [Open Mind’s] effects.” She adds that initial results are encouraging, with “approximately 70% of users … less affectively polarized after completing the program and about 60% of users [reporting] increased intellectual humility.”

Open Mind’s growing reach also calls for optimism. After the main version launched in November of last year, more than 260 college classes, 40 high schools, and 30 organizations in more than 15 countries have started using the system. “Our hope is that by next September it’ll be done as part of freshman orientation at dozens of universities,” said Haidt.

While the overall effectiveness of Open Mind is still undetermined, one thing is certain: schools and organizations across the country are taking, and will continue to take, concerted efforts to restore civility. Future graduating classes will more than likely see increases in Open Mind integration with each successive freshman orientation. As more data is collected and the system is further expanded, students will hopefully learn to rise above polarization and maturely engage in controversial discussions.

As Professor Haidt succinctly put it, “if the speech dynamics at Stern are better, then you’ll get a better education, you’ll be better at talking to people who are different from you, and we think that you will take that with you for the rest of your life.”

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