daily californian logo


Apply to The Daily Californian by September 8th!

The paradox of disagreement

article image



We're an independent student-run newspaper, and need your support to maintain our coverage.

APRIL 13, 2023

UC Berkeley is often portrayed as homogenously liberal, but college statistics website Niche suggests these perceptions of campus’s political leanings are misaligned with reality.

The statistics report that 85% of UC Berkeley students described the campus as “liberal” or “very liberal,” but only 57% of individual students associate themselves with the Democratic party. The reluctance of people to listen to dissenting opinions may reinforce this false understanding.

However, disagreement can be instructive and transformational. Research from UC Berkeley professors sheds light on why we disagree and how it can refine and strengthen one’s beliefs.

Why do we disagree?

Campus psychology assistant professor Celeste Kidd recently published a study about a principle called “conceptual misalignment.”

“More often than not, when two people are thinking of the same concept, they are not actually thinking of exactly the same concept,” Kidd said. “What you’re imagining when I say a particular word — controlling for the context — is different from the thing that I’m imagining.”

For example, when presented with the word “penguin,” some people may imagine it to be heavy, while others imagine it to be light. This fundamental difference in how the two people imagine a penguin will impact how they discuss the topic. Kidd said it may affect, for example, how two people use a penguin in a metaphor.

Kidd added people combine all their experiences and knowledge to come to conclusions. The different lived experiences and knowledge each person has can cause the differences in how they imagine a concept.

“Concepts are complicated. They integrate not just one or two dimensions,” Kidd said. “They can be many dimensional and also change according to the context.”

Conceptual misalignment helps explain why disagreements can be so frustrating. However, there are additional reasons why someone might disagree with others.

Campus education professor Michael Ranney investigated the nature of explanation and understanding for many years, with a focus on why certain people do or do not accept the reality of climate change.

Ranney identified several reasons why people may disagree with climate change, even when faced with overwhelming evidence.

“It turns out only one in 300 people can actually explain the physical chemical mechanism of why Earth is getting hotter, even though it’s quite easy to explain,” Ranney said. “If people just know why we’re getting hotter, it increases their acceptance that we should be worried about it.”

He added that financial, personal and social stakes may all contribute to climate change denial — for example, someone with a personal stake in the oil industry being more hesitant to accept climate change.

Similarly, many people may refuse to seek out climate change data because they have been misled or because they are overconfident in their opinion.

“One of the more profound difficulties is that people don’t ask themselves ‘How could I be wrong?’” Ranney said. “They don’t try to disconfirm their own opinion.”

Ranney added people often resort to Type 1 processing, which is more quick and intuitive, rather than Type 2 processing, which is slower, more rational and self-reflective.

Additionally, misalignment in understanding data can cause disagreements on major issues, such as abortion and immigration, Ranney said.

“Turns out people have really bad estimates for what the base rate is for how many people are immigrating to the United States or how many abortions are being performed,” Ranney said. “If you ask people what they think it is, and then you ask them what they’d prefer the number to be, and then you tell people what the number is, they’re often shocked and they may change their preference.”

Ranney said he personally has changed his view on issues such as capital punishment when exposed to statistics that he had not previously seen.

Herd mentality can also play a role in entrenchment, according to Ranney. He noted people are likely to follow the majority opinion without considering its ramifications rationally. A 2022 UC Berkeley psychology study corroborates this, finding that people were more likely to agree with a belief if they knew other people agreed with it too.

Campus freshman William Rumelhart, an opinion writer for the Berkeley Political Review, said social media reinforces many people’s views, despite the diversity of opinions at UC Berkeley.

According to Ranney, a lack of empathy for and a dehumanization of the opposing side can also limit willingness to listen to and consider their thoughts.

“Turns out we’re genetically pretty similar, and so most people would rather do good than evil,” Ranney said.

The effects of disagreement

Campus developmental psychology doctoral student Antonia Langenhoff studies how disagreement can be a benefit to individuals, especially children.

“Kids will pretty much all of the time tell you ‘I’m super sure about this,’” Langenhoff said. “But adults are also super overconfident. Some people have said that this is the biggest problem of our current society; that people are so overconfident and always think they’re better than they are.”

Disagreement is not limited to discussions with those who hold polarly opposite beliefs to our own, Lagenhoff noted.

Someone who grows up surrounded by a diversity of opinions may be more adept at recognizing the value of dissent and discussion, Langenhoff added.

“Disagreement is often perceived as this super negative thing,” Langenhoff said. “In certain contexts and under certain circumstances, disagreement can be super helpful and beneficial.”

Her work shows that when faced with disagreement on an opinion, children are more likely to rationally reflect on their current opinion and revise it. The implication of this finding is that disagreement makes people reevaluate their opinions and may result in learning something new.

The group that faced disagreement was more likely to investigate the information deeply in order to determine if their initial opinion was correct. In other words, disagreement increased the childrens’ curiosity for evidence compared to agreement.

“Disagreement might help young children, and arguably also adults, to sort of make more rational decisions,” Langenhoff said. “We call this ‘improving their epistemic practices.’”

Langenhoff noted that when a belief is integral to one’s identity, or informs their relationship with a community, one may be more hesitant to question themselves and may have adverse reactions to disagreement.

Rumelhart said a major issue on campus was that students do not just disagree with opinions, but also seek to prevent them from being expressed at all.

“The most visible expression of not wanting to be exposed to other points of view is when we have a big controversial speaker come to campus,” Rumelhart said. “The reaction to that has been not only ‘I don’t want to go to that’ or ‘I want to protest that’ (but) that somehow I cannot coexist on a campus with the knowledge that someone is expressing views that I don’t like.”

Rumelhart added that preventing people from expressing their views denies the dissenting party an opportunity to learn, making them a “prisoner” of their own knowledge and assumptions.

However, Rumelhart stressed that this was not true of many people on campus. He said many people, especially in English classes, were able to engage in discussions and reach common ground, noting that sharing a common foundation of facts was paramount in achieving this goal.

The importance of disagreement

Langenhoff stressed that the exchange of diverging opinions is important for society to progress.

“We find people who think similarly to ourselves, and we find people who have the same world views as we do, and Berkeley is a great example of that,” Langenhoff said. “It would be better, maybe, both for us here in Berkeley and also maybe for other people that have very different world views, to talk to people who have different beliefs more often than we actually do.”

She noted the benefit of talking to people with different beliefs more often.

Avery Arbaugh, political director for the Cal Berkeley Democrats, attested to this and highlighted the conversations between students with differing opinions.

“Talking to students on Sproul, I see a pretty wide range of opinions on politics coming from a wide range of perspectives, more so than we might assume given Berkeley’s reputation,” Arbaugh said in an email. “Berkeley students are able to form their own opinions and engage with others as well as any other group, even if the end result is our community leaning left.”

However, Utkarsh Jain, former vice president for the Berkeley College Republicans, said he did not see most students willing to express their opinions. He alleged that the vocal minority of students that do are largely unwilling to engage with opposing viewpoints.

Rumelhart added that an obstacle toward achieving discussion is that people have to actively seek out opposing views rather than being exposed to them.

Disagreeing with people who have slightly different beliefs from our own may prompt us to self-reflect and learn something new, Langenhoff added.

“Part of the university’s goal, and as a student, their goal should be to have discussion, to face different viewpoints,” Jain said. “As long as we continue to have dialogue and are open to hearing other people’s opinions we can have a more peaceful and inclusive environment.”

Jain added that such discussion and exposure to people with different experiences shapes a person’s viewpoint and personality. Arbaugh agreed, adding that challenging your beliefs allows you to refine those same beliefs, but differentiated between “good faith disagreement” and “propagandistic hate.”

Arbaugh noted the way an argument is framed can be just as impactful as the debate itself on the outcome of the discussion, adding that political actors who frame debates using hateful language are driving a communication barrier between different parties and preventing thoughtful discussion.

Jain said the framing of many issues can cause political debates to diverge into a philosophical realm.

“Some people would say that truth’s meaning would be their own life experiences and that’s all that matters. Others would say that truth is objective reality. (They say that) what you see in front of you is what’s the truth,” Jain said. “There are differing viewpoints on the word truth itself which is quite ironic.”

Overcoming the pitfalls of disagreement

To overcome this issue, Kidd suggested taking pause to make sure both parties in the discussion are on the same page. She noted that paying attention to subtle verbal clues from others can often reveal conceptual misalignments and prevent confusion before it occurs.

Kidd added that, in her observation, experts often suffer from this problem more than students, as students are more likely to ask clarifying questions and less likely to be overconfident.

Kidd’s study has wide-ranging implications for the way we interact with others. Kidd noted the importance of staying humble and recognizing that a disagreement we have with someone may be based on a fundamental conceptual misalignment rather than a true difference of opinion.

In addition, the researchers found that people expected others’ interpretations of certain concepts to align with their own far more often than was actually the case.

“The most important part of this paper is not just the observation that there’s more than one concept in the population for most things,” Kidd said. “The most important finding is that people don’t know that.”

Arbaugh emphasized the importance of classroom discussions, noting that academic settings removed the “hyper-polarized” vocabulary surrounding many issues and allowed students to discuss ideas on their merits, using a common language.

This shows how when done productively, disagreement can not only be useful, but even essential.

“Our strength as a species is the fact that we can communicate with one another. We have languages,” Kidd said. “It might not be a perfect system but it’s still pretty incredible.”

Contact Ratul Mangal at 


APRIL 13, 2023