Month: April 2018

Why Ask Questions? By Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Scott Brummel, Joshua August Skorburg, and Jordan Carpenter

Why Ask Questions?

 By Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Scott Brummel,

Joshua August Skorburg, and Jordan Carpenter (Duke University)


Political polarization is rampant in the United States and around the world. This epidemic undermines community and social progress. Members of different political parties misunderstand, hate, and avoid each other. Our government does little to solve pressing problems.


This complaint is common, but what can we do about it? Love is all you need, the Beatles sang. That answer is too simple, but at least we should not hate everyone who disagrees with us. The real question, however, is what practical steps can we personally take to turn hatred into love or at least respect? People need to escape their echo chambers to encounter new perspectives, but how can we convince them to leave their friends for a while and listen to their enemies? The government needs to escape gridlock, but what can we do to make Congress act? It is easy to complain and hard to solve such large problems.


Although individuals cannot change the government or prevent trolling on the internet, we can improve our own beliefs and actions, and we can affect a few of the few people we meet. That achievement is limited but worthwhile. We can benefit from talking to neighbors with different views, even if we cannot talk to political leaders. We should not give up on reducing polarization in our own lives just because we cannot end it everywhere.


What can we do on a personal level to end polarization? First, we can stop abusing others by calling them crazy, stupid, ignorant, selfish, or ridiculous. Those labels are rarely accurate and hinder our own thinking as well as communication with others. Second, we can stop isolating ourselves and instead seek out people with conflicting political positions and listen charitably to them. It is usually not worth wasting time on rigid extremists on either side, but many moderates are willing to listen and learn as well as teach.


But how can we start a conversation with political opponents? One strategy is to assert your position and let them assert theirs. Bare assertions rarely work with adversaries, however. It is better for each side to give reasons why they hold their positions, but even reasoned arguments can turn people off when injected too early.


A better strategy to get communication going was illustrated by a television discussion many years ago (before YouTube!) between a biologist and a creation scientist. Many biologists disdain creation scientists, and they deserve it, but showing disdain will not fertilize fruitful exchange. If a biologist acts like a know-it-all, creation scientists will counter with their own claims and authorities, so then the discussion goes nowhere. This biologist was smarter than that. She simply asked questions: What do you believe? Are these beliefs based on scientific evidence? Which experiments have you done? How did you control for these confounds? How does that process work? Were your results replicated? Were they published? Which kind of journal? How did opponents respond? What more research is going on now? These questions were asked in a tone of voice that suggested curiosity instead of contempt. As a result, the biologist never came across as aggressive while many problems for creationism became obvious to the audience. The creationist was not convinced, of course, but careful listeners could not have missed the point.


This incident convinced me of the power of questions. If we want to understand and communicate with opponents, especially on controversial issues, it is usually more effective to ask questions than to assert truths.


Admittedly, not every question succeeds. How can we tell which questions produce desired outcomes? Our current project tries to tackle that issue empirically. In our first stage, we asked online participants which questions they would pose if they wanted to win a conversation or refute an opponent (such as “Do you realize how stupid you are?” or “Don’t you care about innocent children?”). We asked other participants which questions they would ask if their goal was to understand an issue or to be respected and liked by an interlocutor (“What do you think we can agree about?”).


In a second stage, we asked a separate sample of participants to identify which of the goals listed above was intended by provided questions from our first stage. One initial lesson from this research is that questions intended to make people like the questioner (such as “Where did you grow up?”) usually do not increase understanding of the opposing argument, whereas questions that are seen as seeking information (such as “Could you please explain your position to me so that I can make sure that I understand it properly?”) do seem to lead to increased understanding. Another lesson is that people who are asked questions often misconstrue the intentions of the person who asks the question. Our future research will try to figure out which kinds of questions are misconstrued and why, so that we can make positive recommendations about which questions lead to mutual understanding and fruitful dialogue.




We hope eventually to build our findings into a training program for middle and high school students. The goal is to help students build good habits of questioning in the right ways at the right times in order to increase respect and to reduce polarization. Successful programs will depend on strong empirical evidence, so we will need to continue our research. In the meantime, we can all learn to assert less and ask more, and we can try our best to introduce the right questions into the right contexts. These skills can enable us to start constructive conversations with political opponents, so we can each personally do our little bit to start to solve some small part of the big problem of polarization that is tearing our society apart.


Measures of self-rated improved understanding of the issues among people who answered questions emerging from each of the four manipulated motivations.  Participants felt like they learned little about the issue from answering questions intended to engender across-the-aisle liking and respect.

Measures of self-rated improved understanding of the issues among people who answered questions emerging from each of the four manipulated motivations.  Participants felt like they learned little about the issue from answering questions intended to engender across-the-aisle liking and respect.



Midpoint Forum: Talking About Faith and Politics

On April 25, 2018, Humility and Conviction in Public Life and CTForum hosted its Midpoint Forum “Talking About Faith and Politics: Navigating our difference with humility and conviction,” at the Wadsworth Atheneum museum in Hartford.  With an introduction by Philosopher, Project co-PI, and director of the UConn Humanities Institute Michael Lynch, and moderated by John Dankosky, the editor of the New England News Collaborative, the lively conversation included some of the nation’s leading thinkers about the intersection of religion and politics. The panel, political commentator and former presidential advisor David Gergen, educator and founding director of Resetting the Table, Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, and founding director of the Interfaith Youth Core, Eboo Patel, discussed a wide range of topics from intellectual and religious diversity on college campuses and humility amongst our political leaders, to the type of religious diversity intended by the founding fathers.


 Rachel Wahl: “Risky Talk: Public Deliberation Across Deep Divides”

 Rachel Wahl

“Risky Talk: Public Deliberation Across Deep Divides”

April 19, 4:00-5:30 Babbidge Library, UCHI Conference Room

Rachel Wahl is  an assistant professor in the Social Foundations Program, Department of Leadership, Foundations, and Policy at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. She is also a Fellow and member of the Council Trust at UVa’s Institute for Advanced  Studies in Culture and an affiliate of the University of Connecticut’s Human Rights Institute. Her research focuses on how state officials respond to human rights efforts to prevent torture as well as on learning through public deliberation between people  on opposing sides of political divides.

  Description: Trump voters and Clinton voters. The police and people of color.  Supporters and critics of immigration. The deepest divisions have roiled the American political landscape, cutting so deeply as to include fundamental questions about whose lives matter. Often these divides seem to foreclose any possibility of mutual  understanding.  Yet calls persist for a more civil civic culture where competing views are exchanged. Many people worry however that such civility will cloak continued oppression by dominant groups. Others may feel it is a waste of energy better spent on political  resistance. But what actually happens when deeply divided groups sit down together to talk?
This presentation will report on findings from two studies: one  of deliberative dialogue in the most challenging circumstances, occurring between groups who occupy unequal positions and concerning the highest of stakes: police and communities of color. The second study examines deliberative dialogue between university  students who voted for opposing candidates in the 2016 presidential election. The presentation examines whether and how people learn from each other in these exchanges, as well as the political and ethical implications of asking people to learn from their  adversaries through deliberation.


Associations Between Religious Convictions and Intellectual Humility by Liz Mancuso

Associations Between Religious Convictions and Intellectual Humility
by Liz Mancuso


Most people hold convictions in life. Convictions, by definition, involve firmly held beliefs that are often associated with behavioral commitments. My recent work has focused on how convictions and associated commitments relate to intellectual humility. Intellectual humility can be defined as a nonthreatening awareness of one’s intellectual fallibility (Krumrei-Mancuso & Rouse, 2016). This definition assumes the intellectually humble person understands that his or her cognitive faculties are not perfect and that his or her knowledge, perceptions, and beliefs are therefore sometimes incorrect. This is paired with an attitude of acceptance, whereby the person does not feel defensive about his or her mental fallibility.


It is most fitting to study intellectual humility in the context of convictions that are of greatest importance to people. This makes religious convictions a particularly relevant domain, because they offer so much in the way of finding meaning, coping with life’s struggles, terror management, and so forth. My research has been examining whether it is possible to be intellectually humble and simultaneously deeply committed to religious beliefs.


Some may assume intellectual humility to be incompatible with firm commitments. Yet, research has indicated that intellectual humility is unrelated to conformity, social confidence, or low self-regard, and has small, positive links to self-confidence (Krumrei-Mancuso & Rouse, 2016). This suggests that intellectual humility is not associated with modifying beliefs on the basis of social influence or to fit others’ standards and suggest that intellectual humility, therefore, may co-occur with convictions. Yet, this has rarely been examined with regard to specific convictions, such as religious beliefs and commitments.


This line of research has resulted in two particularly interesting findings so far. First, in addition to the emergence of small negative linear relationships between religious variables and intellectual humility, curvilinear relationships are emerging as well (Krumrei-Mancuso, 2018). For example, in the case of religious belief salience, prayer fulfillment, and religious fundamentalism, U-shaped links are suggesting that extreme scores at low and high levels of these religious variables tend to be associated with higher levels of intellectual humility compared to moderate levels of these religious variables. A possible explanation for this finding is that those with moderate levels of religion may be masking their ambivalence about their worldview with a façade of overconfidence that presents as a lack of intellectual humility. Alternatively, these findings could reflect a developmental faith trend, whereby individuals who move from no or very low faith to more substantial levels of faith may initially be encumbered by a more closed-minded approach, whereas those who continue to progress still further into more mature faith move toward greater intellectual humility as they shift away from black and white thinking, gain more appreciation for paradox and mystery, and experience greater acceptance of others (Fowler, 1981). Notably, a number of previous studies have found conceptually similar curvilinear relationships with religious variables and other outcomes such as prejudice toward outgroup members (Batson, Schoenrade, & Ventis, 1993; Gorsuch & Aleshire, 1974) and mental wellbeing (Galen & Kloet, 2011). Taken together, these findings suggest that individuals toward the middle of the continuum of religion may fare the least well on a variety of outcomes, including intellectual humility.


Second, and perhaps more important, is the finding that the links between religious variables and intellectual humility can be almost fully accounted for by right-wing authoritarianism (Krumrei-Mancuso, 2018). This holds in both cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses. Although religious participation, religious belief salience, prayer fulfillment, and religious fundamentalism initially seem to be associated with slightly less intellectual humility, controlling right-wing authoritarianism erases all of these links except for a small association between religious participation and less intellectual humility.


Right-wing authoritarianism is characterized by obedience to authority, conformity to conventional norms, and intolerance of deviance. Previous research has emphasized that right-wing authoritarianism and certain forms of religiosity can promote one another through a mutual emphasis on obedience to authority, conventionalism, and perhaps even feelings of self-righteousness or superiority (Hunsburger, 1995). Yet, right-wing authoritarianism is not religious in nature. The suggestion of the current research is that, for the most part, it is not religious conviction itself that is associated with decreases in intellectual humility, but rather, that sociopolitical attitudes about authority, conformity, and conventionality are associated with less intellectual humility. This parallels a theme in previous research about the links between religion and prejudice, as well (Hunsberger, 1995).


Thus, the emerging picture is that intellectual humility may function independently from many religious beliefs, behaviors, and experiences. It is possible that religious convictions co-occur with openness to improving one’s knowledge and beliefs. Although further research is needed, it seems that intellectual humility, involving an appreciation for the tentative nature of one’s personal knowledge, need not conflict with religious conviction.






Batson, C. D., Schoenrade, P., & Ventis, W. L. (1993).  Religion and the individual:  A social-psychological perspective. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Fowler, J. W. (1981). Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the

            quest for meaning. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Galen, L. W., & Kloet, J. D. (2011). Mental well-being in the religious and the non-religious:

evidence for a curvilinear relationship. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14(7), 673

  1. doi:10.1080/13674676.2010.510829

Gorsuch, R. L., & Aleshire, D. (1974). Christian faith and ethnic prejudice: A review and interpretation of research. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion13(3), 281-307. doi:10.2307/1384759

Hunsburger, B. (1995). Religion and prejudice: The role of religious fundamentalism, quest, and right-wing authoritarianism. Journal of Social Issues, 51(2), 113-129. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.1995.tb01326.x

Krumrei-Mancuso, E. J. (2018, in press). Intellectual humility’s links to religion and spirituality and the role of authoritarianism. Personality and Individual Differences, 130C, 65-75.

Krumrei-Mancuso, E. J., & Rouse, S. V. (2016). The development and validation of the Comprehensive Intellectual Humility Scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 98, 209-221. doi:10.1080/00223891.2015.1068174





SEWing Circle Featured Speaker: Jennifer Saul

Jennifer Saul Professor of Philosophy

“Dogwhistles and Figleaves: Techniques of Racist Linguistic Manipulation”

April 5, 4:00-5:30 Babbidge Library, UCHI Conference Room

Jennifer’s primary interests are in Philosophy of Language, Feminism, Philosophy of Race, and Philosophy of Psychology. Her most recent book was Lying, Misleading and What is Said: An Exploration in Philosophy of Language and in Ethics (Oxford University Press 2012). Currently, she is working on racism in political speech. In 2011, she received the 2011 Distinguished Woman Philosopher Award in Washington, DC; she has also been chosen as Mind Association President for 2019-20.

Abstract: Until recently, it was widely believed that explicit expressions of racism would doom a political candidacy in the United States. Yet nonetheless racism was a frequently used tool that won many elections. This talk examines one of the methods, the dogwhistle, that allowed such racist electoral victories. It then turns to the present day, in which explicit racism is proving remarkably successful. Here I explore a different linguistic technique, the fig leaf, which I take to have enabled this success.

Working Group