Why Discussing Unpopular Views Is Intellectually Healthy

People often have misperceptions about their abilities or policies.

Posted Jun 24, 2018

Recent protests, some of which were accompanied by violence, have resulted in cancelling dozens of controversial talks on campuses. According to Ceci and Williams (2018), however, respectful dialogues between people with different viewpoints are salubrious not only for academic health and growth but also for the democratic wellbeing of nations. Psychological research has shown at least two sound reasons that unpopular or shocking viewpoints need to be presented and examined.

First, people, regardless of their moral or political beliefs, tend to know less about complex policies and the supporting evidence than they think they do (e.g., Fernbach, Rogers, Fox, & Sloman, 2013). In addition, people tend to overestimate their abilities in many social and intellectual domains with unawareness of their ignorance. This overestimation is associated both with making erroneous conclusions and unfortunate choices and with inability to recognize and correct their mistakes (e.g., Kruger & Dunning, 1999).

Second, there exists an asymmetry in assessing objectivity and bias in the self versus others. People tend to possess the misbelief that their own judgments are less prone to bias than those of interacting others. For example, people are inclined to think that their own understanding of a given issue is a source of accuracy and illumination but others who hold different views about the issue tend to base their judgments on bias (Ehrlinger, Gilovich, & Ross, 2005; Gilovich & Ross, 2015).

Certainly, the issue of free expression on campus is related not only to psychological research but also to legal and philosophical considerations. “Disdained views will not disappear just because they are banned; they can go underground and fester and even grow in support.” “Failure to steadfastly defend the discussion of unpopular views is as toxic to campus intellectual health as it is to the democratic health of nations” (Ceci & Williams, 2018, p. 309).


Ceci, S. J., & Williams, W. M. (2018). Who decides what is acceptable speech on campus? Why restricting free speech is not the answer. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13, 299–323

Ehrlinger, J., Gilovich, T., & Ross, L. (2005). Peering into the bias blind spot: Peoples assessments of bias in themselves and others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(5), 680-692. doi:10.1177/0146167204271570

Fernbach, P. M., Rogers, T., Fox, C. R., & Sloman, S. A. (2013). Political extremism is supported by an illusion of understanding. Psychological Science, 24(6), 939-946. doi:10.1177/0956797612464058

Gilovich, T., & Ross, L. (2015). The wisest one in the room: How you can benefit from social psychology's most powerful insights. New York, NY, US: Free Press.

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121-1134. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121