In these contentious times, it may be comforting to know that encountering others who disagree with us can help us let go of biases and become more open-minded beings.

So, don’t get stressed out if your family has arguments at the dinner table.

“Families that cultivate a culture in which disagreements are voiced may help raise individuals who are less prone to rely on their personal biases when they make decisions,” says Anne-Sophie Chaxel, an assistant professor of marketing.

Arguments often stem from biases that reinforce racial, political, and religious beliefs. People can activate a mindset that leads them to become more open to questioning their existing beliefs, thus reducing their own bias, according to a study co-authored by Chaxel.

Her findings demonstrate potential for “family squabbles to have a functional utility because they cultivate a mindset that allows individuals to process new information without being tainted by prior preconceptions; in other words, let people be more open-minded,” says Chaxel.

Disrupting cognitive consistency

Biases are common, Chaxel says, because of a need for “cognitive consistency” or processing information in a way that confirms existing beliefs. Through this study, she was able to disrupt the cognitive consistency thinking process by asking participants to write about why they agreed or disagreed with preset statements.

The research showed people who had written refuting statements were less likely to be influenced by their existing bias and the act of exposing oneself to beliefs that are different than their own helps counteract biased tendencies.

“We may avoid people who do not share our political views, merely because we think we are right, and we do not want others to try to convince us otherwise,” she says.

Becoming more objective

So, what would be the point of confronting an alternative opinion? “Actually, mere exposure to disagreement is useful, not because it may change our political attitudes — this is only one part of the story — but because it changes the way we process information. It makes us more objective.”

Chaxel teaches classes on consumer behavior, marketing management, marketing communication, judgment, and decision-making. Her research focus is on biases in judgment and decision making, cognitive processes and consumer goals.

Chaxel co-authored the study, “Benefiting from Disagreement: Counterarguing Reduces Prechoice Bias in Information Evaluation,” with Yegyu Han, a doctoral student in marketing. The study was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

– Based on a Virginia Tech News item