We don’t talk about this.

Shutterstock: http://ow.ly/A9bHO

Shutterstock: http://ow.ly/A9bHO

Have you ever critiqued or corrected another science writer online, to have them become defensive in response?

Has this type of conflict ever lead you to avoid writing about certain topics?

According to the theory of motivated reasoning, there are two basic types of reasoning motives: accuracy goals and defensive goals. We often look at motivated reasoning on the part of science communication audiences. But science writers themselves are not immune to motivated reasoning processes.

Imagine an individual is going online to read news or research about a particular scientific issue he or she is interested in. Perhaps he or she even plans to write a blog post about the issue and what science has to say about it based on this reading. An individual with accuracy goals is motivated to make accurate judgments, to evaluate all sides of the debate or analyze a reasonable number of different pieces of evidence before making a judgment. On the other hand, an individual with defensive goals in a particular situation is motivated primarily to defend his or her prior attitudes.

Here’s the kicker – one might be particularly motivated to defend prior expressed attitudes and opinions. Expression effects, or the media effects of writing and posting a blog post on the blogger him- or herself, can take on a variety of different shapes and forms. But it is often the case that when expressing opinion – and reasons or evidence that back this opinion – writing and posting the message produces a defensive bolstering effect on the blogger.

Once expressed and (permanently) displayed on the blog, closely tied to the blogger’s social media identity, the post becomes tangible evidence. But of what? To the blogger who wrote it, this post, more than the intangible floating idea that was the post before he or she formed it into words and published it, is evidence that this really is what he or she thinks of the problem, the issue, the science. These are not fleeting statements and opinions. They are expressed. And as it turns out, mass communication scholars are increasingly realizing that the act of expressing an opinion, judgment or message has perhaps stronger effects on the sender that it does on the audience.

In a 2005 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Carsten De Dreu and Daan van Knippenberg explore why conflict so often and easily becomes personal and emotional. They explore why our conterparts so often take our comments or critiques more personally that we intended them. According to De Dreu and van Knippenberg, these negative reactions occur primarily to due ego-threats. In identifying and perhaps especially expressing their arguments and positions, people often integrate these into their concept of themselves. We might even say that we come to really know ourselves and our opinions through communicating these to others. It follows that opposition to these arguments and positions from others can represent a threat to the self.

Uncivil* messages play a role here too. If one perceives hostility in a message, a critique of one’s recent blog post, for example, this perception of hostility leads quite quickly to defensive motivations. Forget accuracy goals, which might lead one to go back and correct misspoken or incorrect statements. With a blogging image, credibility and reputation on the line, defensive tweets and blog comments often follow.

“[P]eople have difficulty managing conflict because they quickly develop ownership of arguments and positions they use in the dispute, that these arguments and positions become part of their (extended) self-concept, and that any opposition or counterargumentation therefore becomes an ego-threat.” (De Dreu & van Knippenberg, 2005).

So the defensive bolstering effect on the blogger who wrote the post is pronounced if he or she perceives critique to come in the form of uncivil* commentary by another blogger.

So why don’t all critiques of another blogger's writing, arguments or facts expressed in a post produce defensive reactions? After all, we observe that most science writers are in fact very welcome to feedback, critique and self-correction. Psychology and mass communication scholars have found that ownership over arguments, and perceived threats to the self, are reduced by factors including process accountability and clarity of one’s self-concept.

Under process accountability, individuals expect to be observed and evaluated by others with unknown views, who will judge the quality of their reasoning and arguments. Under such conditions, individuals have been observed to be more self-critical and open to alternative viewpoints (De Dreu & van Knippenberg, 2005). Bloggers who regularly have diverse audiences read their stories may be more self-critical and positively open to feedback, even critical feedback.

Competitive responses to comments or critiques are also lower among individuals with high self-concept clarity and high internal self-esteem. Individuals with high self-concept clarity have a clearly and confidently defined concept of themselves that is consistent and stable with the self they reveal to the world. People with low self-concept clarity, on the other hand, are likely to agree with statements such as “on one day I might have one opinion about myself, and on another day I might have another opinion.”

So what can we take away from psychology and mass communication studies on conflict and defensive reactions around expression in online environments? First, uncivil messages are more likely to lead to escalating hostility. In critiquing other writers, we should always avoid unnecessarily uncivil* messages or comments that attack the other’s self-concept. It is also important to understand that writers who start from a position that is more accountable to alternative viewpoints are more likely to engage in self-critical, accuracy-seeking reasoning. Perhaps we can let other science bloggers know, in a non-threatening way, that we are following their arguments with interest?

And third, in may be important that science bloggers begin their writing online with a clear concept of themselves and high self-esteem. Those with conflicting views of themselves, or with lower self-esteem, will likely take constructive criticism more personally.

I think it's also important to understand power dynamics in these defensive reactions. Writers in positions of power – with great resources including prestige or social capital – may unnecessarily silence criticism from other online writers nervous about escalating conflict. In the interest of reducing defensive hostility in the blogosphere, we should continue to make sure that writers in all different levels of the blogosphere perceive accountability to diverse audiences, including other science writers online.

Does this change your view of how conflict in the blogosphere arises, or how certain voices may be silenced?

*Update: It's come to my attention that the term "civility" can be ambiguous and mean different things to different people. In this context, I would construe uncivil commentary to mean more aggression and personal attack than a lack of politeness.

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