Hearing both sides of the debate: What would ‘right-thinking people’ say?

To make an informed decision we need to listen to the other side of the debate – even though they are wrong and listening to them is painful

With the debate on the Eighth Amendment in top gear, I was thinking about the difficulties we have in hearing both sides of an argument and the man who expressed his dislike of Fianna Fáil by refusing to allow any discussion of the party in his presence. By that I mean any discussion that might suggest there was even one chance in a million the party might, just might, be right about something.

This view was put forward by a daughter-in-law, partly, I think, to wind him up and partly because she was, indeed, a Fianna Fáil supporter.

His response to her arguments was to hold up his hand, turn his face away and say: “No, no, no, no, I do not hear you.”

While this provided a certain amount of entertainment for his listeners, his actions fitted some psychological patterns that are frequently in play in societal change.


For instance, the psychologist and sociologist Serge Moscovici found that people who consistently express a minority viewpoint can gradually change the views of the majority and win the day.

Consider the introduction of divorce. Demands for its provision represented minority viewpoints some decades ago, but eventually won through in debates that were very bruising at the time.

What seems to happen when such a demand is made is that we give it attention because of its novelty and because it touches an emotional nerve. Gradually, elements of the argument begin to make sense and we can end up switching to the other side.

My man’s daughter-in-law was expressing a minority view in his family and by refusing to listen to her he avoided the risk of – horror of horrors – having his mind changed about Fianna Fáil.

Similarly, to avoid having their minds changed in the current debate some will simply refuse to listen to anything the other side, the “wrong” side, has to say.

This all fits in with the theory of cognitive dissonance which suggests we find it painful to hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time. For instance, if I am a doting parent who believes Johnny is a Golden Boy, then I would find it painful to accept that Johnny doesn’t really care about me. My solution is to ignore all evidence against Johnny to safeguard my Golden Boy delusion.

Similarly, if I believe that “all right-thinking people” are on Side A in the abortion referendum debate then it would be painful to accept that “some” right-thinking people are on Side B. The easy way to resolve this is to ignore the arguments of the ones who support side B.

I found an example of this in myself in the referendum to abolish the Seanad. I had long believed that the Seanad should be got rid of. I was not interested in arguments to retain the Seanad since they were so obviously "wrong". But when the Referendum Commission booklet came in and my daughter kept saying "Read the booklet, read the booklet, read the booklet," I finally gave in and read it. That, to my dismay, changed my mind and I voted to keep the Seanad.

That’s the trouble with arguments that support the other side – the danger that they might change your mind is very real.

That’s why we follow people on Twitter and in newspapers who have the same views as ourselves – it’s safer that way.

But if we really want to make informed decisions we are going to have to read what the other side says also, even though they are wrong and listening to them is painful.

I should declare here that I opposed the Eighth when it was introduced and I oppose it still. But I will read the booklet, though I will do so, really, really hoping it doesn’t change my mind.

What would my anti-Fianna Fáil man do?

His instinct would be to keep himself safe by figuring out what Fianna Fáil wants and supporting the opposite.

And what I would say to him if he was still around is: Good luck with that.

– Padraig O’Morain (pomorain@yahoo.com, @PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is ‘Mindfulness for Worriers’. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email.