The experiment


This project is novel in its ambition to explore the potential of representation-centric platforms and empathy inducement to improve the intellectual humility of dialogue in online news commentary. The field experiment will recruit ordinary citizens who usually read online news and randomly assign them to experience different online news environments.

The representation-centric platforms, Deliberatorium and, have been chosen because early pilots suggest their potential to cultivate intellectually humble dialogue, and they are designed to promote different forms of discussion. Deliberatorium is more restrictive in its requirements of relatively dispassionate reason-giving; more open to a broader range of dialogue types and potentially a more emotional understanding of the perspective of others.

The experiment will investigate the role of empathy by randomly assigning half of the groups to receive perspective-taking instructions aimed at inducing participants to be more open to people and ideas with which they disagree.

The project will also field-test a set of measures for investigating intellectual humility in online environments.

We thus test the ability of the online platform (environment), a psychological intervention (individual instructions), and the interaction of the two, to promote intellectual humility.

Barcelona meeting


At the end of June, the core research team – Graham Smith, Michael Morrell and Paolo Spada – met for the first time face-to-face rather than virtually. The meeting established a preliminary timeline. We aim to have an initial platform ready for October to begin user testing, which will end user testing by Christmas. That means by March we can have updated the platform and start the experiment. We also discussed at length the role of comment moderators. Should moderation be ex-ante? Many media comment platforms moderate contributors’ initial comments before they go live to ensure they are respectful and understand the rules of the platform. Depending on the level of comments, we should be able to do that with one facilitator for the European Time Zone and facilitator for the US time zone. The deliberatorium has generally been used with ex-ante facilitation whereas is thinking about crowd moderation. We are weighing up the options. Do you have any evidence that could help us?

Empathy, Perspective Taking and Measuring Intellectual Humility

One of the key components of our experiment is to investigate whether inducing empathy can encourage people to engage in dialogue that is more respectful and intellectually humble.

We are going to randomly assign half of the groups to receive perspective-taking instructions designed to encourage participants to be more open to people and ideas they disagree with. Within the commenting platforms, we will incorporate clear and consistent reminders that participants should imagine what their fellow citizens are feeling as they participate in the online exchange.

We have chosen to this approach for two main reasons.

First, good research demonstrates that inducing empathy through perspective-taking instructions can lead to less bias, better evaluations of others who are different, increases in helping others, less prejudice, and reductions in everyday bad behaviors. These findings suggest that empathy can play an important role in encouraging intellectually humble public discourse.

Second, these kinds of instructions are easy to adapt for an online commenting environment, which should make them attractive to news organizations.

We will also be field-testing a set of measures of intellectual humility in online environments. The goal is to develop both subjective measures of the participants’ experiences, and objective measures of the quality of the interactions people have when they comment online.


10 Projects, 1 Goal: Find Ways to Cultivate Healthier Public Disourse

In February 2017, the Scholio project was awarded funding as part of a new $2 million fellowship grant program sponsored by the University of Connecticut’s Humanities Institute and funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Scholio is one of 10 innovative projects that were selected to explore the broken landscape of American discourse and create enduring strategies to spur and sustain open-minded, reasonable and well-informed debate and dialogue.

The 10 interdisciplinary research projects focus on balancing two key features of democracy: intellectual humility and conviction of belief. Carefully curated out of an applicant pool of 110, not only for their individual merits, but also because they work in complementary fashion, each project will investigate how networks and institutions meant to connect us may be pushing people apart.

“Arrogance is easy in politics; humility is hard. These projects aim to rekindle the sense that we can learn from each other, and thus to help us restore a more meaningful public discourse,”

says Michael P. Lynch, director of the Humanities Institute and Principal Investigator of the Humility and Conviction in Public Life project.

More information about the funded projects can be found here

The project


The public sphere around media outlets offers many examples of dysfunctional behaviours that undermine the quality of public discourse. This is particularly the case with online public comments sections on news sites that attract thousands of people every day.

Can re-designing comments platforms promote more reason-based, intellectually humble dialogue? This is the question the Scholio project aims to explore, through a large-scale field experiment.

The field experiment will recruit ordinary citizens who read online news and randomly assign them to experience different perspective-taking instructions and platforms that organise and visualise comments in different ways. The project will also field-test a set of measures for investigating intellectual humility in online environments.

The aim of the Scholio project is to develop a scalable model for how news media institutions, and others, can incorporate comment platforms that promote reason-based, intellectually humble dialogue.

Scholio is one of 10 projects funded by the John Templeton Foundation within the broader Humility and Conviction in Public Life programme at the University of Connecticut.

The project runs for two years from 1 March 2017.

The Monkey Cage

Today we had a skype conference call among the co-PIs and we decided that our experimental environment will be similar to the Monkey Cage. We selected the Monkey Cage because it is a medium size blog within the Wahington Post and is the perfect target for the level of engagement we can achieve with our current funding. We hope to engage somewhere between 5 to 10,000 people in our experiment. To create experimental group we will divide our community into 12 groups, so we will have less than a 1,000 people commenting on news in each group during the experiment. The Monkey Cage has a simple layout and has enough space at the bottom of each article to place our treatments. The next issue we need to decide is the topics for our experiment.

Please do not hesitate to email us!


The second technology we will use in our experiment is takes a very different approach to the Deliberatorium, aiming to work with emotions. The interface is extremely simple. A user can vote (agree/disagree/don’t care) on the comments of other users presented in a random order, or can add her own comment. All the votes are then displayed on a map and clustered displaying users that agree on a set of issues. The objective of this platform is to draw a “climate report” of all the points of views among the users. It shows the existing coalitions of agreement among users and the fact that these coalitions are more fluid than people might think. This is an online version of an exercise often used in face- to- face deliberation, with a clever use of a simple user interface. In the face- to face- world participants voice their ideas or concerns and move around to cluster with those issues that resonate with them. It is an extremely useful exercise for group building and to show that we might disagree on some topics, but we often agree on others. We spoke with Colin who is the CEO of and he is enthusiastic about the experiment and is going to help us make sure that our treatment is the best reflection of their philosophy as possible. He also hopes to test crowd-moderation via our experiment. We are not sure we will be able to do that, but we will see!

Follow the link:

Sprucing-up the Deliberatorium

One of the technologies that we will be testing in our experiment is the Deliberatorium. The Deliberatorium is one of the original collaborative argument mapping tools. It was developed at MIT by Mark Klein around 8 years ago and has been used successfully in a number of online discussion.

The Deliberatorium structures discussions significantly. Instead of being allowed to write whatever they desire, participants are encouraged to contribute following a specific structure. Participants can offer a single idea, raise a single question, or offer an argument in favor (PRO) or an argument against (CON). The argument structure is then visualized in a map that allows users to find information easily and visualize the number of arguments in favor or against particular ideas.

The advantage of the Deliberatorium , may also be its shortcoming: it promotes a very rational discussion that sterilizes loud and repetitive voices, and accounts for each idea and relevant , pros and cons only once. This is what makes it easier to navigate compared to standard comment platforms.
The existing Deliberatorium had a user interface that was very primitive so the first order of business of our project was to meet with Mark and figure out a way to transform an interface designed for academic purposes into one that is attractive to the public.

We decided to run a first design workshop in Portugal, because that is where I am based in and can tap into a local community of developers and practitioners of deliberation. This design workshop lasted one week and involved both members of my other project called EMPATIA, students at the University of Coimbra that work on deliberation and professionals from One Source the technology provider of the EMPATIA workshop. The result of this intense process was the creation of two redesigned interfaces, one inspired by the MAC philosophy of exploring files horizontally and one inspired by Google Play that works both horizontally and vertically.

This is just a first step and now Mark and Cristina Carnevali, our new team member specialized in UI , user interface, will collaborate on the upgrade of the interface so that it is mobile ready and engaging, while at the same time retaining the rigor and depth of the Deliberatorium.

Deliberatorium explained on wikipedia.

This is the past appearance of the deliberatorium:

Paolo Spada


Welcome to our development diary. As you know from our previous post, we received funding to test new ways of improve the comment section of online news. In this space, we will track what we are doing and how the project is developing. Our plan is to test the platforms from September until the end of the year in Europe and the US. Later in 2018 we will engage a global online community of citizens in the main experimental phase. This diary will provide updates on what’s happening!

Graham Smith, Michael Morrell, and Paolo Spada


Website pictures attribution

Home page icon:

Add Comment by Rico Reinhold from the Noun Project

Test tubes by To Uyen from the Noun Project


Website theme license:

GNU General Public License v2 or later




Image attribution: Speech Bubble by Lisa Krymova from the Noun Project
exchange by Gregor Cresnar from the Noun Project triangle
Speech Bubbles by Iulia Ardeleanu from the Noun Project square
speech-bubble by Chris Kerr from the Noun Project squere
speech-bubble by Graham Dragonborn Wilsdon from the Noun Project circle
comment by Oliviu Stoian from the Noun Project
Speech Bubble by Jony from the Noun Project danger message by Chris Evans from the Noun Project platforms discussion by Vect+ from the Noun Project
judge’s score by Gan Khoon Lay from the Noun Project