How we communicate disagreement

The purpose of my week-long visit to Toronto and the University of Toronto therein was to collaborate with a research team full of wonderful and talented researchers at the ChiLD Lab headed by Dr. Samuel Ronfard. In this blog post, I will discuss the reasons for my visit and the exciting things we got up to both inside and outside the lab.

Disagreements are an inevitable and frequent part of our social lives. One day, we might disagree about which takeout to order and the next we might disagree on which route to take to our destination. But the way in which we communicate our disagreements surely matters. When we disagree, there is usually still some underlying level of agreement between us. For example, if I want an Indian takeout and you want an Italian takeout, we are both in agreement that we want takeout, just not on which kind. These types of “superficial” disagreements are arguably more easily overcome, since we share something in common. Sometimes, however, we might disagree with each other on a more substantial scale. Using the same example, imagine I want an Indian but you do not want a takeout at all. Now we are at an impasse, as my assumption–that we both want takeout–is misplaced and we actually share very little in common ground, making these types of disagreement harder to navigate. The question thus arises: does the way in which we communicate or convey our disagreements affect how easily they can be overcome? Taking the first steps and thinking of different ways to test this question was the main purpose of my visit.

Designing a new study is one of my preferred parts of the research process and this time was no exception. The general idea or thinking behind the current design is that if an individual acknowledges the common ground between them and their partner (e.g., “I also want takeout, but we had Indian last week”) then this should make overcoming their disagreement easier, and perhaps even encourage their partner to revise their beliefs, compared to when the common ground assumption is not acknowledged (e.g., “We had Indian last week”) or is directly refuted (e.g., “I don’t want takeout, and we had Indian last week”). Some refinement of the methodological minutiae is still in order, but we hope to run the study soon. Stay tuned for the results!

In addition to the work at hand, to mark the occasion, Dr. Ronfard and his lab also organised a series of presentations outlining some of their ongoing work on adults’ and children’s understanding of the function of disagreement as well as their recent success stories. These talks were especially useful in broadening my horizons and providing me with valuable insights into the various techniques and ways in which they conduct developmental research, some of which are different from my own.

Now for the stuff outside the lab! Being in Toronto, I could not help but visit the famous CN tower (left) and the cityscape views from neighbouring Toronto Island (right).


Escaping the city, it was clear Fall had arrived, and the beautiful autumnal palette of greens, yellows, oranges and reds were out in force. Being a bit of a twitcher (or bird enthusiast), I was thrilled to lay eyes on the famous Blue Jays–not the baseball team, obviously, the bird. And of course, no visit to Toronto would be complete without a day trip to Niagara Falls (see picture above). It is truly a sight to behold! For anyone reading, I would highly recommend the boat trip under the Falls as the best way to take in their majesty. Fair word of warning though, you will get soaked!

Again, I would like to extend my gratitude to Samuel and his team (Alexa, Ashley, Ece and Luis) for their insights and hospitality throughout, and for making this such an enjoyable yet productive visit. This would also not have been possible without the support of the ESRC LuCiD travel grant, which I am grateful to have received.


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