Project focus: Julia will focus on understanding the conditions that make people willing to listen and be receptive to views and opinions they strongly oppose on political and social topics related to science.
Julia Minson is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is a decision scientist with research interests in conflict, negotiations and judgment, and decision-making. Her primary line of research addresses the “psychology of disagreement”—How do people engage with opinions, judgments, and decisions that are different from their own?
She explores this theme in the context of group decision-making to uncover the psychological biases that prevent managers, consumers, and policymakers from maximizing the benefits of collaboration. She also studies the conditions that make people willing to listen and be receptive to views and opinions they strongly oppose on political and social topics.
Much of Julia’s research is conducted in collaboration with the graduate and post-doctoral members of MC²—the Minson Conflict and Collaboration Lab. At the Kennedy School, Julia is affiliated with the Taubman Center for State and Local Government and the Center for Public Leadership. Julia teaches courses on negotiations and decision-making as part of the Management, Leadership, and Decision Science area, as well as through HKS Executive Education.
Julia is the organizer of the Leadership Influence and Decision-Making speaker series, sponsored by the Center for Public Leadership and the Management Leadership and Decision Sciences Area.
Prior to coming to the Kennedy School, Julia served as a Lecturer at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, where she taught Negotiations at both the MBA and the undergraduate levels. She received her Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Stanford University and her B.A. in Psychology from Harvard University.
1. What was the focus of your work as a Civic Science Fellow? What did you do?
My broad research program explores the “psychology of disagreement”—how people can engage with opposing views on strongly held, identity-relevant attitudes. For my Civic Science Fellowship, I conducted a series of experiments testing whether “conversational receptiveness”—the use of specific words and phrases to demonstrate your engagement with opposing views—can improve conversations about COVID-19 vaccines.
For these studies, we paired up vaccine-supportive and vaccine-opposing participants and engaged them in online communication. We randomly assigned half of the vaccine-supportive participants to receive training in conversational receptiveness, while the other half received instructions to use their natural communication style to be as persuasive as possible.
We found that in interactions where one person was trained in conversational receptiveness, both sides evaluated their counterpart and the conversation more positively. They thought the other person was more reasonable and trustworthy, and they were more willing to interact with them in the future. In another study, we found that learning about conversational receptiveness increased participants’ willingness to talk to someone who disagrees with them about the COVID-19 vaccines by 50 percent.
The studies above have now been written up and submitted for peer review. They have also laid the foundation for a broader program of research looking at the effect of conversational receptiveness training in healthcare settings.
2. How do you hope your work as a Fellow will influence the future—for yourself, an organization, a community, or a field?
Healthcare workers across almost every field have been stretched to the limit of their physical and psychological endurance by the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with terrified patients and ongoing staffing shortages, providers have seen increased conflict and incivility at work ranging from verbal abuse to physical assault. Conversational receptiveness offers a theoretically grounded and empirically validated toolkit to prevent conflict escalation in the face of disagreement. Although the work was initiated around vaccine conversations, we are now applying the same approach to discussions around antibiotic use and emergency care.
3. What’s one insight you’d share from your work as a Civic Science Fellow?
My experience working on this project has further reaffirmed my commitment to developing and rigorously testing interventions to improve civil discourse around hot-button topics. Reviewing the literature on medical communication revealed how few evidence-based tools exist for physicians who must engage with patients on controversial topics and how great the need is for more of those tools. I am glad that this opportunity allowed for the development and testing of our intervention, and I hope that it will come to be broadly applied and inspire other related work.