Chris Mooney describes some recent research that involved volunteers reading an article about nanotechnology and then talking about it online. What effect did rude, trollish comments have?
The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn't a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people's emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.
Chris ties this into the modern media environment, and implies that an explosion of online rudeness may be partly responsible for increasing political polarization. I suppose that makes sense. Certainly the research results themselves are entirely unsurprising: as the old saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. I think everyone understands at a gut level that insulting people is likely to make them dig in, while treating them nicely has at least a modest chance of changing their minds.
That being the case, why do so many of us spend so much time insulting people who disagree with us? Probably because most of us aren't really trying to change their minds. Rather, we're demonstrating our tribal loyalties and having fun in the process. Welcome to the blogosphere.