You Learn From People Who Mostly Agree With You

There is a romantic idea about conversation, learning, and open-mindedness: “Joe and I don’t agree on much, but we respect each other, and learn a heck of a lot from each other.” If you want to learn and grow, get out of your comfort zone and spend time talking to people who disagree with you and who will challenge you. Right?

Wrong. In fact, you learn more from people who mostly agree with you.

On the Econtalk podcast, I heard this insightful argument made by David Weinberger, which I’ll summarize and riff on here.

The premise: Rarely is your worldview turned upside down in a single conversation over lunch. Rarely is your mind truly blown in an hour. Instead, most learning happens on the margins. A nugget here, a nugget there. Brick by brick you assemble a house of knowledge; you iteratively form and evolve a worldview.

The question: With what kinds of people do you have conversations that lead to an iterative, valuable insight?

The answer: People with whom you agree on 99.9% of issues already.

In order to even have a coherent conversation with someone, you need to share a language, basic values, assumptions, conversational norms. A Creationist learns little about the origins of the world from an Evolutionist. A lab scientist working on a vaccine doesn’t learn much from someone who thinks vaccines cause autism. Nobody learns anything if civility isn’t mutually valued. If these basic table stakes aren’t met — 98% of the game, in my view — there’s no productive conversation to be had.

When you have broad foundational agreement, learning in conversation happens best when there’s still further agreement on the next 1% of possible agreement. Two internet company CEOs who both speak English who are both convinced of technology’s wonders will have no problem at all breaking bread and having a lively conversation. But for learning’s sake, it’d be even better if they agreed on a number of industry-specific beliefs. If they’re aligned on the booming future of mobile devices, for example, then they can dive deep and explore possible disagreement on how to, say, best serve ads to users on an iOS device.

As Weinberger says, “It’s how culture advances. It’s how knowledge advances.” And it’s how individual intellectual growth advances, too. Some of my best, most mind-expanding conversations have occurred with good friends who agree with me on almost everything–but not quite everything.

Bottom Line: Want to learn and get smarter by talking to people? Seek out those who agree with you on 99.9% of things, and then push, push, push at the niche-y, hyper-specific areas of disagreement. It’s not about groupthink; it’s not about confirmation bias. It’s about learning on the margin.

(Photo: Search Engine People blog, Flickr. This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.)

13 comments on “You Learn From People Who Mostly Agree With You
  • Agree that on the margin, most people would do well in seeking out people who think like them and finding micro areas of disagreement.

    On the other hand, I think sometimes that talking to people who disagree with you can lead you to change your mind over a period of days to weeks, even if you don’t recognize it right away. You forget that you disagree, but remember the idea itself; sort of like the , to the extent that that it is true and generalizes. Consider also Milton Friedman’s on the benefits of intentionally eschewing intellectual homogeneity.

    The trade-off is something like the poorly named . If you make more assumptions and make them stronger, you can get more done. But stronger assumptions also become more easily ingrained, which restricts your potential courses of action.

    • Good point that changing your mind from people who disagree with you, if it happens at all, happens over the long run, and by then you might even forget you’ve changed your mind!

  • I’ve always felt that part of the art of persuasion is knowing how far you can actually move a person. I try for small changes, not radical alterations, figuring that a small but sustainable change has more impact over time.

  • There’s something to be said about learning from people that different from us over time and maybe not via conversation. That may be the biggest loss when being a tech entrepreneur and hanging out with tech entrepreneurs. Many lessons I get come from thinking later about how so and so live their lives, believe the things they believe, etc. San Francisco, for example, was surprisingly not surprising in terms of lifestyles and philosophies. This is similar to what Andy is saying, I think…

  • Beyond learning at the margins, updating beliefs also largely happen via experiential learning. Often times, I’ve found my views and beliefs shaped more by the experiences I’ve had than the conversations I’ve been in. Traveling, risk-taking and the oft-lauded value of failing have pushed me in ways conversations only pointed me in.

    In addition, how much weight do you think changing someone’s mind, or your own, is a function of emotion over reason? I often find that telling powerful and relatable stories interweaved with metaphors does a better job of convincing someone than bludgeoning them over the head with facts and figures.

  • I agree with most of this but I think the 99.9% is way overstated. I have many meaningful conversations with people that I may agree with 85% or less. I do however crave the opportunity to converse with people that have different ideas and values (within reason – which may mean similar LOL) so point taken.

  • Ben,

    This is a dubious and widely speculative claim. You wrote: “In fact, you learn more from people who mostly agree with you.” (my emphasis) And what kind of fact is this? In other words, what exactly do you mean by fact? (I’m genuinely curious since this was an important question raised in Too Big Too Know) I don’t think it’s a fact just because you happen to believe that it’s true. Alas, it’s all too easy to make up just-so stories.

    In order for people to learn from each other (or from the evidence), you seem to be implying that it’s important for them to share a similar philosophical framework. This is undoubtedly true in many domains, but I think that the most interesting things I’ve learned about humanity have come from people with a vastly different worldview and culture than my own.

    Count me as one data point that doesn’t support your claim.

    • It is indeed a claim, not an assertion of Natural Truth. “In fact” is more of a turn of phrase rather than an emphasis of the word ‘fact’ — i.e., I use the phrase in the same way I might use, “To the contrary…” It’s just a phrase and this post is an argument, nothing more than that.

      • I’m not suggesting that you are making an assertion of “Natural Truth”, nor do I think that “fact” is synonymous with “Natural Truth”.

        I want to know the following: how did you came to believe this assertion? Is there evidence that supports this belief?

        In the post you make the assertion that “you learn more from people who mostly agree with you.” Again, this is an assertion, not an argument. In order for this to be an argument, you need to support your claim with reasons.

        Since you didn’t explicitly state them in the post (and in the spirit of this post), I’m trying to tease them out here in the comments section, with the hope of learning something I didn’t know.

  • To put this differently: you learn more from people who share the same assumptions about life, because when their conclusions are different you’ll be more likely to listen. The lab scientist researching vaccines and the vaccine rebel ultimately have different religions, or foundational beliefs about the world, and these beliefs are too deeply held to be displayed in normal conversations.

    The best political discussions I’ve watched this season have come from some Republicans on The Daily Show, where Stewart has directed the conversations toward the core assumptions about how the economy grows (private speculation versus public spending).

  • Thanks Ben, it seems that you’ve said that we learn well in an environment where are fulfilling our drive to bond. Which is a helpful observation. There are other drives however that should also facilitate good learning, the drive to understand and the drive to defend should facilitate learning in those environments with someone I may not agree with.

Leave a Reply to Ben Casnocha Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *