Civinc’s mission is to ‘burst bubbles’ by enabling people who think differently to safely exchange ideas and perspectives, with the goal to increase mutual understanding and provide actionable insights. The method that lies at the heart of this mission centers on facilitating anonymous, one-on-one chat conversations between participants that have contrasting beliefs and/or backgrounds. The concept has shown to live up to its promise, with remarkable demonstrated impact in terms of boosting mutual sympathy and understanding between participants, and having a moderating effect on their views (for an overview see here).
What are the secret conceptual powers that underpin such impact? Below you’ll find 5 core principles that help explain it.
- The Power of Anonymity
The environment of the Civinc platform is designed for users to express their authentic opinions, even if these deviate from ‘the norm’. That is why participants are always anonymous when engaging in discussions, and why data cannot be traced back to individual users. The anonymity is a central feature of the Civinc method, precisely because it allows participants the freedom and safety to share their own views, without fear of any repercussions and reprisals.
Beyond such considerations, the anonymous character strips participants of the biases that are an intrinsic part of the human psyche. We like to organize and simplify the world around us in order to navigate it more efficiently. This is only natural, but the generalizations that come with this inclination can quickly lead to irrational, self-reinforcing and harmful stereotypes. In an anonymous setting, however, users are not presented with any of the characteristics that normally trigger biases in other settings, such as gender, tone of voice, skin-colour, apparel, etcetera. ‘Freed’ from our biases and fear of reprisals, ‘the power of anonymity’ provides the foundation for truly authentic exchanges.
- The Power of One-on-One
During Civinc sessions participants are matched in one-on-one chats, where they discuss with a single counterpart at any one point in time. Participants can switch partners and start a new conversation, but the format always remains one-on-one. The reason is that this setting stimulates individual thinking, void of the (polarizing) pressures that are inherent to group settings. In a one-on-one conversation there is no ‘audience’ that spectates, and thus no pressure to ‘perform’ for any onlookers. This takes away any perverse inclination to conform to the group/social norm.
With people from ‘your’ group watching over your shoulder, the cost for deviating from the group norm, or being seen as soft, apologetic or nuanced, are often deemed too high. The result is that group settings invite more extreme opinions with less room for agreement. Think about the dynamics on social media, where the oftentimes toxic clashes can at least in part be traced back to the negative incentives to boost the in-group credentials of users, for example through claiming the spotlight with extreme behavior and confrontation seeking. Many a study has shed light on the polarizing effect that group settings can have (see an interesting example here).
In an anonymous one-on-one setting there are no social costs involved in expressing your individual opinion or even changing it. As such the Civinc environment is a bulwark against group-think, designed to stimulate individual expression. It has the added bonus of providing little to no incentives for trolling or abusive behavior: after all, your ‘audience’ is limited to one partner who can move on to the next at any time!
- The Power of Intimacy
How intimate can an anonymous chat conversation get? You’d be surprised. In the right setting, us humans form a sense of emotional and social attachment quickly, even with people we do not at all know. Once we form such a connection, we are hesitant to break it. A fascinating study illustrates this, where subjects received a Christmas card from a (ficticious) stranger and felt inclined to send a card back in return, supposedly to preserve a relationship that did not exist to begin with (see here).
Such sense of emotional attachment underlies the ‘intimate’ and civil character of the average Civinc discussion. It helps explain why users generally feel hesitant to switch partners unannounced and instead are inclined to end a conversation on positive terms. Even if there are no social costs at all for leaving abruptly. The conversations are, after all, entirely anonymous. Beyond civilities, such a sense of ‘intimacy’ may also stimulate more constructive engagement on substance and a more genuine exchange of thoughts. And, importantly, it also helps explain why the Civinc platform normally invites very little abuse or trolling.
- The Power of Chat-Based Conversation
A question that often gets asked is whether the Civinc platform would not merit the possibility for audio-visual exchanges instead of or in addition to the chat-based conversations. Beyond the fact that a chat-based environment is a prerequisite for leveraging ’the Power of Anonymity’, it has another distinct advantage. Having to write your opinion down helps to take a moment to reflect on the substance, and it allows you to edit your response before you hit ‘send’ in a way that other real-time forms of communication don’t. It can help slow people down from ‘System I’ to ‘System II’ thinking, a state of mind that makes us more thoughtful and receptive to receiving new information even if it contradicts our prior beliefs (see also Daniel Kahnemans bestseller ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’)
In addition, chat-based conversations, unlike other forms, produces concrete data output that is relatively easy to analyze. As such, it can provide a wealth of insights into the dynamics of the exchanges and the sentiment of the participants, in a way that simply is not possible with other types of conversation. These insights in turn may in themselves serve as a conversation beyond a Civinc session, as food for further thought and reflection.
Of course, a chat conversation is no panacea and in no way is meant to replace (virtual) face-to-face contact, which indisputably has its own unique benefits. The Civinc method therefore is always presented as just one piece of the puzzle to promote constructive engagement and mutual understanding amongst people with diverging beliefs. But thanks to the distinct benefits of chat-conversations (anonymity, time to reflect & formulate, and easy to analyse) it can be a very important piece.
- The Power of ‘Constructive Clashes’ as a Shared Purpose
This final power may well be the most ambiguous, but its relevance should not be underestimated in the context of Civinc discussions. It is well established that a powerful antidote to exclusionary (or even hostile) group-think is to impress upon people an overarching, shared sense of purpose. This follows from the fact that interests of different people and groups are not (always) zero-sum; focusing on shared interests or goals helps imbue a sense of ‘sameness’ that normally gets crowded out by the ‘otherness’ central to group-think dynamics. Much research has been conducted into this phenomenon, all pointing in the same general direction: if people (with contrasting identities/beliefs) view themselves and each other as part of a larger whole with a shared objective, they become more capable of cooperating and receptive towards each other’s thinking.
Here the connection with the Civinc concept becomes apparent. Participants in Civinc discussions, be they citizens, students or employees, are (made to feel like they are) contributing to something greater than the sum of their individual conversations. Whether this be about the health of a democracy or the well-functioning of an organization, the ability to facilitate ‘constructive clashes’ between people with different perspectives lies at the core. And it is this greater goal that participants contribute to when they ‘burst their bubble’ on the Civinc platform.
A selection of suggested further reading: