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Private Higher Education
March 28, 2023

Psychologists describe “binary bias” as the tendency to process complex or substantial information by using two simple classifications such as good or bad, right or wrong, or truth or false. According to 2018 research published in Psychological Science, binary bias distorts how information is integrated into our thinking and, as a result, negatively influences our decision-making. Research also indicates that binary bias is one of the factors that cause discussions across differences in the classroom to degenerate into harmful conflict.

In a piece published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, and Caroline Mehl, Executive Director of the Constructive Dialogue Institute, discuss how complexity can be added to classroom practices to undermine binary bias and facilitate productive conversation about contentious subjects.

Haidt and Mehl are the co-founders of the Constructive Dialogue Institute, a nonpartisan organization that developed the AVDF-funded and evidence-based program Perspectives which provides online lessons on how to communicate constructively with those who hold different beliefs and values. Haidt and Mehl explain that while it may seem counterintuitive, highlighting the complex nuances of controversial topics helps students with opposing viewpoints to mitigate binary bias and find common ground.

Their research also indicates that adding such complexity to a debate allows students to understand and even maintain their core values and commitments, while also learning to understand why other students might have an alternative point of view.  This promotes one aim of the Perspectives program, namely, teaching participants how to recognize their own biases on certain issues and to be open to understanding more deeply the views of others.

Haidt and Mehl recommend facilitating a classroom environment where students feel comfortable engaging in complex discussions. They identify five strategies that improve student inclusion and conversation depth, which are required elements when adding complexity to group discourse. The strategies are setting norms to guide conversations, establishing trust before introducing divisive topics, using different techniques to foster complexity, modeling the behaviors that you want to see in students, and incorporating personal stories into discussions.

To read the full piece published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, click here.

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