The Power of Moral Complexity

Today, the citizens of the United States face some very difficult moral choices. Should the U.S. government commit to spending billions conducting airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria or stay out of the conflict and invest those dollars in our own education and transportation systems? Is Obamacare a constructive step forward in addressing our nation's complicated and dire health care crisis or a job-killing imposition by an overzealous president? Is climate change a real threat with severe consequences or is it the paranoid fantasies of left-leaning, anti-business academics?

Difficult moral conflicts such as these can divide families, communities and nations. They can trap us in destructive and costly spirals of negativity, contempt and dysfunction. All too often moral conflicts create black-and-white divisions -- pro-life versus pro-choice, small government versus big government, pro-environment versus pro-business -- and lead to oversimplification of the issues and vilification of the opposing side. But these conflicts can be managed constructively.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the simplest approaches to complicated problems are always the best. However, in our research, we've found that more complex approaches involving a more nuanced understanding of the issues can lead to better solutions, stronger relationships, and a more unified society.

We have brought together hundreds of people to examine moral conflicts like these in our labs at Columbia University in New York and at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany. As you can imagine, the conversations that took place in our labs were contentious. All the groups in the study were discussing difficult, politically polarizing issues on which they held strong, morally opposing views; many of them became hostile. Some escalated so much that we had to end them early.

But what might surprise you is that not all went so poorly. Although emotional, even caustic, some of the dialogues left the participants feeling significantly better about the discussion, their relationship with the other person, and even their understanding of the issues. They were able to discuss the issues in ways that remained constructive. While the more destructive groups became mired in the quicksand of their opposing beliefs, increasingly unyielding and exhausted the more they struggled, the constructive dyads were somehow able to avoid this trap.

The main thing that we found distinguished the more destructive from the more constructive moral discussions was the dramatic contrast in their complexity. The conversations of the more constructive pairs revealed patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors with a strikingly higher level of complexity than the more destructive conversations. For example, they experienced a more expansive variety of positive and negative emotions during the conversation, thought about the issues in more nuanced ways, and displayed more contradictory behaviors like advocating their positions and inquiring about the other side's.

In a subsequent experiment we found similar effects. Participants were placed in either high-complexity groups where they were presented with information on a moral issue (like abortion) in a more nuanced manner, or in low-complexity groups where the same information was presented in more simple, pro-versus-con terms. Again, those in the high-complexity groups were able to reach consensus when writing position statements on the issues more often, generated better quality agreements, felt more positive, satisfied and cooperative, and thought about the problems in more sophisticated ways.

The takeaway from this research is simple: with difficult conflicts, complex is better. In the realm of moral dilemmas, it can be tempting to oversimplify our understanding of the issues, our beliefs and the beliefs of our opponents. In these times of Red state and Blue state hyperbole, of Fox News versus MSNBC, when our government is divided and often unable to address our more serious problems effectively, the first step toward remedies must be a recognition of the complex times in which we live.

This is essentially what community organizations like Public Conversations Project, National Issues Forum, and Search for Common Ground do everyday in their work across the country and around the world. They organize forums for community discussions on polarizing sociopolitical issues and try to reintroduce a sense of nuance and complexity back into the communities' understanding of issues that have become gridlocked through oversimplification and polarization.

The challenges we face today as a nation, at home and around the world, demand the moral courage to resist the temptation to oversimplify what threatens us and to engage more directly with the gray areas, the ambiguities, the doubts, and with those with whom we differ. Certainty and simplicity are often comforting in the face of menacing problems. But achieving certainty prematurely almost always makes matters worse. As the former Czech President and playwright Vaclav Havel said, "Simple answers which lie on this side of life's complexities are cheap. However simple truths which exist beyond this complexity, and are illuminated by it, are worthy of a lifetime's commitment."

Peter T. Coleman is Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University, Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and co-author with Robert Ferguson Making Conflict Work: Harnessing the Power of Disagreement (September 2014, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).