$1M Koch Foundation donation will help Well-being Laboratory study ways to improve open-minded discourse in a polarized society

George Mason University’s Well-Being Laboratory has developed methodologies for gauging emotion prejudice, emotional agility, curiosity, trust, and purpose in life.

These methodologies allow the laboratory’s researchers to better understand how to help individuals, groups, and organizations navigate the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment prevalent in the 21st century.

Now, the lab is using this background to find ways to improve civil, tolerant, open-minded discourse in the face of group polarization in society, thanks to a recent funding award of $1.09 million from the Charles Koch Foundation.

The lab’s team, led by Todd Kashdan, Professor of Psychology, and Patrick McKnight, Associate Professor of Psychology, has researched how people can better strive for goals with uncertain outcomes, and has examined the biases and prejudices that prevent people from expressing or listening to ideas that run counter to prevailing views. It has found that those who are emotionally agile, curious, trusting, and/or purposeful in their pursuits tend to devote more effort and be more successful.

“The lab is initiating a new line of research on how to enhance civility and reduce animosity in a politically polarized world,” said Kashdan. “We are investigating the value of ideological diversity in groups. We are fine-tuning strategies to become intellectually humble and sufficiently curious to consider ideas that emerge from members of other groups.”

“Engaging each other’s differences with curiosity instead of fear is a powerful tool in bridging divides,” said Koch Foundation Executive Director Ryan Stowers. “Mason’s Well-Being Lab is leading scientific study in applying the tools of social psychology to discovering how we can live together better.” The Foundation supports students and scholars pursuing research and expanding educational programs that help people reach their full potential through work on poverty, immigration, criminal justice reform, free expression, and other critical issues.

Kashdan and McKnight are grateful for the opportunity to develop the lab’s research, including its support for students working in the program. “Much of the funding is being used for talent development—supporting a wide range of students at George Mason University who will be making substantial scientific contributions,” Kashdan said.

“Our laboratory will become one of the world's leading places for talent development, where undergraduate and graduate students will receive the mentorship to lead their own well-being research programs,” McKnight said.