Tweaking our tweeting

Ross Paull |

Is anyone else struck by the declining standards of public discourse that has accompanied new social media? People seem quick to aggressively attack the individual instead of their underlying argument. Everything becomes highly personal and it sets a terrible example for the rest of us on how to deal with conflicting points of view. The saying, “play the ball, not the man” now seems very old school.

A problem child seems to have popped up at a place where public discourse and social media intersect… Twitter. Some TV shows live feed these short, random thought-bubbles across our screens. These Tweets are in the moment. They are reactionary and people don’t think long and hard before they fire them off which often gets public identities into trouble when they are on the wrong side of a discussion. Here is a recent random example so you get my gist. This was a tweeted response to the author of an article in the Australian:

“@SharriMarkson so remarkably lacking in selfreflection on your activism & understanding of Journalism & it’s (sic) history. People laugh at you”

What stood out for me was the personal hostility (People laugh at you….who are these people?), all because the Twitterer disagree with the thesis. There was no mention of WHY she disagreed? The thing is that there are plenty of examples out there of Twitterers modelling bad behaviour and herein lays Twitter’s hidden dangers for the general population – its process of osmosis – the gradual, often unconscious, absorption of knowledge or ideas through continual exposure rather than deliberate learning. Over time, people can, and likely will, pick up bad habits in the context of managing conflict, especially when you consider that best practice negotiation teaches us to attack the problem at hand instead of the person. Just because you disagree with someone’s point of view doesn’t give you blank cheque to attack the person.

One way to tweak our tweets and deal with everyday disagreements is to filter our language by making it less about the person and more about the issue. So, instead of tweeting (or saying) “you are a moron”, for example, one could de-personalise such a statement by saying “your argument is moronic”. Better still, “your argument makes no sense”; and if you want to go one further, try adding “to me”.  Part of what we trying to achieve at Guided Resolution is to shift the focus to addressing the problem or ‘issue to be addressed’ instead of attacking the other party.

Our online pathways provide immediacy to venting together with a mapped sequence of progressive steps that can slow things down to move parties away from those hot-headed moments that Twitter inflicts on us. The objective of our system is to “De-Tweet” by incrementally shifting people’s focus: The other shortcoming with Twitter is that it lacks the so-called ‘situational cues’ that remind people of their objective self which can help suppress aggression.

What does objective self mean? Well, the theory of Objective Self-Awareness (OSA) – google it if you like – identifies two forms of conscious attention at any given time:

  • One that is focused on the self (objective), and
  • The other that is focused on the environment (subjective).

Both do not occur at the same time, which leads to differing intrapersonal effects as individuals tend to alternate between the two forms. Humans are not usually self-focused, but certain stimuli can trigger this, including:

  • Mirrors,
  • Audiences or
  • Cameras.

Focusing attention on oneself induces a more passive state, whereas subjective self-awareness is usually accompanied by an individual’s more active manipulation of their environment. During the more passive OSA, individuals are more inclined to evaluate their current self-conception relative to internal standards of correctness that are mostly pro-social. For example, think of a Town Hall meeting where someone has leapt to their feet in a hissy fit and then slowly sat down when all eyes turn to them. OSA’s roots lie in cognitive dissonance, or psychological inconsistencies, that people are usually motivated to reduce or avoid. So, in the Town Hall example, a negative discrepancy created discomfort and tension, and the individual then attempts to either avoid stimuli or reduce the discrepancy by changing their attitude/action…sitting down in this case.

Negative inconsistencies arising from self-focusing stimuli, such as video recording, create this dissonance, and the pressure to be consistent in thoughts and actions will likely lead people to align their behaviour with their beliefs. It seems that Twitter is not stimulating OSA. It’s just the user with their iPhone, operating subjectively and using it as a tool to actively manipulate their environment. Exposing people to self-focusing stimuli provokes a number of interesting psychological effects in the context of dispute resolution, such as:

  • Aggression-suppression;
  • Attribution of responsibility for negative inconsistencies towards oneself; and
  • A greater likelihood of aiding behaviour (under certain conditions).

In fact, better behaviour can often result simply from the illusion of being observed. This stems from our in-built ‘gaze detection’—an involuntary evolutionary tool. Experiments have shown that even objects that merely resemble the human eye can spark this gaze detection mechanism and subsequently alter our social behaviour. Conditions of anonymity may cause individuals to lose their self-awareness and view themselves as distinct hence the rise of the so-called internet ‘trolls’, who, with reduced self-evaluation, cyber-bully without regard for accepted social norms. The beauty with web-based applications like Guided Resolution’s is that we can embed functionality to heighten or inflame the stimuli that trigger OSA to induce a more passive state and suppress aggression.

This is what positive conflict management is all about and what Twitter lacks – the ‘situational cues’ that remind people of their objective self.