How to Ask Questions (2017-2018)

Background

In current culture, people usually discuss controversial moral and political issues only among like-minded people who do not press challenging questions. In fact, calling on people to justify their moral, political and religious views, especially in contexts where others might disagree, is widely regarded as impolite, even insulting. Moreover, asking people about their views can spur rationalizations and polarization that cause disagreements to become even more entrenched.

However, some evidence suggests that people who are regularly called upon to answer the right kinds of questions will exhibit greater intellectual humility and will be more likely to participate constructively in public discussions. The crucial question, then, asks which questions are the right questions for encouraging humility and cooperation.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project will identify a range of questions, drawing on existing literature including questions not only about effects of and reasons for policies but also about causes of one’s beliefs, the strength of one’s arguments, how many others agree, and evidence, arguments and thought processes of opponents. The project team will investigate which of these questions increase humility and which raise barriers to constructive discourse, such as defensiveness, rationalization and polarization.

The team’s goal is to test the hypothesis that, if students are trained in a culture that encourages people to regularly ask themselves and others the right questions, then they will become better at understanding their own or others’ points of view and, hence, at navigating an ideologically diverse world.

Team members will first map out the various kinds of questions, drawing on philosophical work on argumentation, justification, reasoning and rationalization. They will then use surveys and questionnaires to examine how asking various kinds of questions affects people’s confidence in and commitment to their own views as well as their attitudes toward others who disagree. The team will use MTurk to reach a large and diverse population as well as in-person surveys on campus and in the community (including at the North Carolina state fair) to provide additional confirmation of our results. The focus will be on developing a battery of questions through which people can learn to engage thoughtfully and critically with diverse perspectives.

The team will visit the Right Questions Institute and will consult with the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind. This project is associated with the Moral Attitudes and Decisions lab in the Kenan Institute for Ethics.

Anticipated Outcomes

Presentations and at least two academic papers reporting empirical findings and/or the philosophical issues they raise, coauthored by student team members

Student Opportunities

Undergraduate and graduate students will help formulate questionnaires and administer them by programming web surveys and distributing in-person questionnaires. Students will then analyze data and develop written and oral presentations of the team’s findings for audiences both off and on campus (such as papers in professional journals, articles in campus papers, talks at professional conferences and on campus).

The team will include approximately two postdocs, two graduate students and four undergraduates. The most relevant majors or backgrounds will be in psychology, education, political science, public policy, ethics or philosophy, although many other disciplines would be relevant.

Timing

Fall 2017 – Spring 2018

Team meetings will take place on Thursdays from 11:30-1:00 p.m.

  • Fall 2017: Develop questionnaires; first round of online data collection; preliminary analysis of online data collection; in-person data collection
  • Spring 2018: Analysis of in-person data collection; visit SAGE Center for collaboration; begin writing up results into papers and presentations

Crediting

Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding

This Team in the News

Philosophy Student Explores Healthcare Ethics, Political Disagreement

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Jordan Carpenter, Trinity - Philosophy; Kenan Institute for Ethics*
David Malone, Trinity - Program in Education
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Trinity - Philosophy*
Jesse Summers, Kenan Institute for Ethics; Duke Social Science Research Institute*

Graduate Team Members

Aaron Ancell, Graduate School - PhD in Philosophy

* denotes team leader

Status

Active