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These days, it’s hard to imagine befriending people with different politics than your own. But these two men did it using a tried and true practice.
How to Do This Practice:
1. Think of someone whom you might be at odds with — perhaps they have different political beliefs, or they’re not part of your ethnic or religious group, or they have arguments with
2. Take a moment to imagine yourself as this person, seeing the world through their eyes. Recall a moment you shared with this person and think how you, as this person, experience that shared situation. What does the world look like from their point of view?
3. Try to imagine how it feels to be them as vividly as possible. Ask yourself questions such as, what emotions are they experiencing? How might that feel in their body? How might their feelings in the situation differ from yours?
4. If you’re in a debate with this person, try taking their side and formulate an argument on their behalf. You might understand more nuances about their views.
5. If you have the time, you can even try to imagine a day in your life as this person.
Today’s Science of Happiness Guests:
Mark Urista is a professor of communication at Linn-Benton Community College in Oregon.
Anthony Lusardi and Steven Olson are former students at Linn-Benton Community College.
Learn more about LBCC Civil Discourse Club: https://tinyurl.com/5becxpba
Dr. Cynthia Wang is the clinical psychology professor at Northwestern University. She’s also the executive director of the Dispute Resolution Research Center at the Kellogg School of Management.
Learn more about Cynthia and her work: https://tinyurl.com/56kebcvw
We’d love for you to try out this practice and share how it went for you. Email us at email@example.com or using the hashtag #happinesspod.
Learn more about the Bridging Differences Initiative: https://tinyurl.com/5n6j5e3t
Eight Keys to Bridging Our Differences: https://tinyurl.com/ywaay6ux
Help us share The Science of Happiness!
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This episode is supported by Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, as part of the Greater Good Science Center’s Bridging Differences initiative. To learn more about the Bridging Differences initiative, please visit: https://ggsc.berkeley.edu/what_we_do/major_initiatives/bridging_differences
Anthony Lusardi I can’t remember if it was fall or winter, but it was definitely cold out. I remember that, my friend and I were walking to class and we came across this art piece
Mark Urista It was located in the building where all of our college’s writing classes occur in a very public location.
Anthony Lusardi And then it dawned on me what we were looking at. This isn’t just something that’s artful anymore. This is now passed from art and now into something that is trying to convey something else.
Steven Olson It showed an explicit scene, with genitals and things of that nature
Mark Urista I mean you could see the penis in the anus. And if you think it was shocking to just hear that, folks, imagine what it was like to actually see it very large on the wall in this building. I have speak with my progressive friend and colleague and I know they were talking about this was very bold and it was something that would affirm and empower the LGBTQ community
Steven Olson I don’t find explicit art, especially offensive. And I find it as, as most things in art, something to engage with and to think about.
Anthony Lusardi It was really intense and it was quite unsettling.
Steven Olson There is this ideological friction
Mark Urista But there was nothing to bring people out of their echo chambers and start to have discourse
Dacher Keltner It’s so easy to forget that people from the other side of a divisive issue are just that, people. Just remembering that simple fact can feel like a challenge and so disagreement can escalate. I’m Dacher Keltner, welcome to The Science of Happiness. Today I’m going to hear from people who disagreed on whether a sexually explicit piece of artwork should be displayed at their university. And we hear from the professor who was the catalyst for bringing them together. We’ll also delve into how they did it, and the science behind one of the most important techniques they used — the practice of taking someone else’s perspective.
Cynthia Wang We often dismiss people more than we should, and perspective taking seems to be an important way to reassess the situation and come from a more constructive place where people are more willing to engage with others.
Dacher Keltner More, after this break. Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner. Today we’re exploring how we can address divisive issues in ways that create understanding and bridge differences, rather than drive people apart. Our guests are Mark Urista, a professor of communication at Linn-Benton Community College in Oregon, and two of his former students there, Anthony Lusardi and Steven Olson. Anthony and Steven fell on opposite sides of a campus controversy, and Mark helped create a bridge between them.
Here was the issue: A very graphic work of art depicting two men having sex was hung in a central location on their campus. Some students, like Anthony, were really upset by it, and wanted it taken down. Others, like Steven, were opposed to the idea of censoring art. Mark, Anthony, and Steven, thank you all for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
Mark Urista It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you.
Steven Olson Yeah. Thank you so much.
Dacher Keltner So Mark, the art department decides to showcase this really provocative work of art. And the location they choose to hang it up in is a hallway that every student in a writing class has to walk through to get to class. What was the atmosphere like on campus when that happened?
Mark Urista So I think it’s really important to emphasize the location of Linn-Benton Community College. We’re about 70 to 80 miles south of Portland, Oregon, and the most defining feature in terms of the story is that we serve two counties. I often refer to Linn-Benton Community College as Red County, Blue County Community College. And as you can imagine, this artwork exhibit created quite the controversy on our campus. What I was noticing, though, amongst my colleagues and among students was that people were speaking openly about the artwork in their own echo chambers. But there was nothing to bring people out of their echo chambers and start to have discourse about the various layers and dimensions that people had of this artwork.
Dacher Keltner Yeah, Anthony, how about you? How did you react to the art when you first saw it?
Anthony Lusardi It was quite unsettling. I thought to myself, okay, how is this allowed here in the first place? And I didn’t want to share that opinion immediately with my friend. I thought to myself, okay, if I share this, I’m obviously a prude or I don’t understand how the progression of things work and, you know, this collegiate environment. so I was just, I kind of kept my mouth shut. but I’m still very shocked inside. And I still felt like there was something I had to say, but I just didn’t want to say it.
Dacher Keltner Steven, how about you? How do you initially react to it?
Steven Olson I came across it by actually seeking it out because it was a piece of conversation, as you could imagine, for me personally, I wasn’t immediately off put by it, but it did make me think like, you know, given the culture of our campus. And I knew like right off the bat, this is not going to go very well.
Anthony Lusardi Mark had pulled my friend and I aside and he said, Hey, what do you guys think? What’s this all about? and he says, we should make this a debate. We should make this part of our class. You guys should do this as a project.
Mark Urista We flip a coin right before the debate occurs in class, decide who argues in the affirmative and who argues in the negative. Anthony and his friend Brandon both had to prepare arguments for both sides of the proposition.
Anthony Lusardi I was gathering some arguments or some perspectives. I guess that’s a better word. Arguments are not exactly what we were looking for. We were just looking for perspectives from people. Why should we have this here? Why should we not have it here based on these values? And we gathered some conversation beforehand. A lot of the sentiment I got was, I’m so glad this is happening and I can’t wait to be there. It wasn’t so lonely. I felt like we were the pioneers and there was no one else that was going to really be interested in this. But it was not that at all. And that feeling dissipated so quickly when I was engaging with these perspectives, a lot of them would share in a very heartfelt way without all of the the tropes from whatever party you’re from. It came down to the personal level, I feel this.
Mark Urista There was a lot of perspective taking. It seemed like all the students who participated genuinely wanted to understand the thoughts of people who clearly disagreed with them on this controversy. Yeah, I think that’s a key principle for doing bridging work is you have to sincerely want to understand more than you want to persuade.
Steven Olson Having Anthony and everybody there with the intention of like, we’re not here to point fingers and throw stones. We’re just here to really speak to the value of this, right? Of having the artwork up or explain the perspective of somebody who wouldn’t want it up.
Anthony Lusardi You start to get those nuances and the thinking happening and the conversation occurring.
Steven Olson You’re discussing a conversation from multiple viewpoints without the idea that something has to necessarily be done in that moment. It builds up the kind of richness or it provides, like the multiple perspectives from either side that gives that topic more roundedness.
I came into university and came to higher education after my service in the military. And interestingly enough, I’ve had probably the place I’ve had the most conversations that are about controversial topics from multiple perspectives is the military. For example, when I left Southern Oregon, where I grew up, you know, I really hadn’t interacted with anybody of many different races, political spectrums, creeds. When I started serving with other people, I had medics who were gay. I had machine gunners who were black from the Deep South. Because there’s that intimacy between all of us, like none of us feel afraid to state what we think. Right. And have that conversation. So I got to it was kind of like a reminiscing feeling with students of like this is kind of what that multiple perspective kind of togetherness looks like, right? That, you know, we can walk away from a conversation about something heated and have an appreciation of the other side ultimately, so it was really cool to see that kind of start to get fostered and those wheels start to turn.
Anthony Lusardi I think that I was very nervous, I am not going to lie. One of the biggest fears I had was being categorized or pigeonholed as you’re a homophobe or you don’t understand art or you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re just coming from this, “take it all down” perspective. And I think that I was scared of that when I went into it. I started off with let’s take it down and not really encourage that and foster that discussion. That artwork should always be pushing. So I think that was my personal moral shift that I had taken from that debate. But that was only available to me after I had gone through and listened to and put myself in the other shoes.
Dacher Keltner Anthony, one of the things that you seem to have expressed and it’s interesting, is just almost a liberating quality to having this debate of allowing people to speak their minds when they felt like they couldn’t or. And I’m curious what it felt like for you.
Anthony Lusardi It’s kind of like, you know, this elation after you’re done and you feel like this is this weight off your shoulders, you’re done with it. And then you’ve expressed everything. So at first it was sort of disappointing, to be honest. Like, I thought I would have this with every friend I would have. And it turns out that’s not the fact because not everyone wants it. And you know, maybe you’re not ready for it. You know, you have some stuff you need to address and you’re not ready. And so it’s not going to always be this perfectly set up argument from both sides. But the true treasure from that is that you’ve now been able to carry a conversation in a structured, empathetic way and carry that to wherever you can guide others.
Dacher Keltner Yeah.
Steven Olson The reason to do it is the opportunity it creates in your life to do and to be more right. You know, interact with people who are outside of your normal sphere. Right. Interact with people in agriculture or interact with people in sports or, you know, expose yourself to more because it adds a little bit more to you every time, right. If you don’t, you’re really just taking away from yourself. If I would have just stayed, Sergeant Olson, I wouldn’t be the person I am now. And I think that evolution is important for everybody.
Dacher Keltner We definitely need it. Well, Steven, Anthony and Marc, thank you so much for the bold conversations you guys created for your campus and giving us some lessons about perspective taking of the people who are different from us and all the underlying similarities there. So thanks so much for being here.
Steven Olson Thank you so much.
Dacher Keltner What really strikes me about Steven and Anthony’s story is that it’s such a rare outcome in recent history, where politics has gotten so contentious.
Cynthia Wang We tend to view others with opposing moral leanings as, you know, almost alien. We dislike and we distrust them. We tend to think they’re immoral. So you can see all these negative stereotypes abounding and discrimination, just assumptions about the other side.
Dacher Keltner More on the science of how to overcome these tendencies, up next. Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner.
We’ve been talking about bridging differences, and how two community college students and their professor did the seemingly impossible – they had a genuine, civil discourse around a really divisive issue. A lot of us find it really difficult to engage with someone whose worldview is really different from our own.
Cynthia Wang Contact between different people in different groups is actually crucial for overcoming things like prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination
Dacher Keltner But it’s kind of a catch 22.
Cynthia Wang We often avoid the very people that would help us overcome these stereotypes and truly connect with each other
Dacher Keltner Cynthia Wang studies reveal how we might do that, how to build trust across divides. She is a clinical psychology professor at Northwestern University. Cynthia wanted to find a way to get people over that hump. So she ran a study in Singapore focused on a local youth demographic called Ah Beng
Cynthia Wang So Ah Beng in Singapore are stereotyped to be like hooligans. They’re stereotyped to be uncivilized, uneducated, and even at times violent.
Dacher Keltner She brought 116 college students into her lab and one by one, showed them a picture of Ah Beng.
Cynthia Wang It was a young man with spiky hair and tattoos. And then we asked them to write an essay about him.
Dacher Keltner Each person got different writing instructions. Some were told to write the essay as objectively as possible. And some were told to write an essay about a day in the man’s life, from his perspective.
Cynthia Wang Looking at the world through his eyes and walking through the world in his shoes
Dacher Keltner And another group were instructed to write an essay about the man, but to really try to suppress any stereotypes they might have of him.
Cynthia Wang And after people were done, we told them they were about to meet the person in the photograph they had just seen.
Dacher Keltner They were led to an empty room with eight chairs in it.
Cynthia Wang And on that first chair there was a motorcycle helmet typically worn by ah bengs. So it implied that this is where the man was sitting. And we said, hey, he must have stepped out briefly and then told participants to take a seat and wait for him to come back. And once the participants took their seats, we carefully took note of exactly what they said.
Dacher Keltner Some participants sat in a chair right next to the motorcycle helmet, while others sat a little bit further away.
Cynthia Wang And the big question is, did anything we did encourage people to break through their natural inclination to avoid contact with somebody different from them? Perspective takers sat the closest to our imaginary participant
Dacher Keltner But the people who were told to try to suppress any stereotypes they had about the Ah Beng actually sat the farthest away.
Cynthia Wang When we actually try to suppress our thoughts about something, they often become even more ingrained in our minds. And I like to bring up this example. And I want all of the people listening right now not to think of a white elephant. And of course, immediately what pops into our head. Well, a white elephant. And you really cannot get it out of your head. right?
Dacher Keltner Next, Cynthia wanted to see if the benefits of perspective-taking would extend to all people in that same stereotyped group, not just the one specific person they wrote about. So she conducted a similar study. Except this time it was people in the UK, looking at a photograph of an unhoused person.
So I think these results really show the importance of taking the perspective of people Who you’re part of, who are part of these negative, negatively stereotyped groups, or who you might be trying to avoid because it really draws you closer to them. In this time of disconnection, whether it’s driven by the politics or, you know, the last couple of years, I know for me, the disconnection driven by COVID 19, trying to take the perspective of others might be one step in the right direction to start rebuilding trust and starting to overcome the perceived differences that we have.
Dacher Keltner On our next episode, we’re joined by Amy Schneider the most successful woman to ever compete of Jeopardy, Amy Schneider. We explore the power of mindfulness to change how we feel in the present moment, and how that can totally change the course of our lives.
Amy Schneider was realizing that after there’s, you know, a good chance that I would lose my first game, you know, two out of three people do. But like, don’t let the fear of failing distract you from it. Like, enjoy it, if it is only this one episode, don’t spend it being miserable and afraid let it be what it is.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. You can find more resources for bridging differences in our show notes. And also at bridging differences do org. Email us at happiness pod-AT-Berkeley dot E-D-U, or use the hashtag happinesspod. We love hearing what you think about our happiness practices , and how these stories impact you.
Today’s episode was supported by a generous grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, as part of the Greater Good Science Center’s Bridging Differences initiative. Our Executive Producer of Audio is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Sound designer Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios. Our editor in chief is Jason Marsh. And our associate producer is Zhe Wu. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.