Have you ever gotten in an argument before? A case where you had all the facts on your side and your opponent was clearly wrong and ignorant, yet they just wouldn’t give up, they only dug their heels in harder? Have you ever had that happen, and it turns out that you’re the one who is actually wrong all along? Can you bring yourself to admit you were wrong? Can you do it when the other person was mocking you? Lying to you? Do you feel like admitting fault would be like admitting weakness, like losing the argument? If you withdraw completely to avoid further mockery, do you think that’s cowardly, that you should let your points stand rather than be dishonored?
The finding from psychological research is, if someone has a strong belief about something, then being presented with real evidence their belief is incorrect they will not change their mind, rather their belief will grow stronger. When confronted on a belief, one tends to seek out reasons for believing what they do, and the belief grows stronger rather than weaker. We all individually think we’re rational, but we all make the same mistakes, even when we’re aware of those mistakes.
This is why debates on the internet tend to be acknowledged as going nowhere. The purpose of debate and argument is ostensibly to change the other person’s mind, but as one debates more and more, they find that no one is changing their mind. Since they aren’t changing their mind, why should you argue? Many people rationalize this as attempting to convince the bystanders, or that the other person will turn it over in their head and eventually change their mind, or do it for the purpose of refining their own ideas, or simply making the truth known and if the other person weren’t so thickheaded, they’d know good enough to change their mind, and if they aren’t, then they don’t deserve fair treatment anyway.
At this point the fault has become embedded in the system, and people have found reasons to argue, despite it being completely ineffective at the original purpose. Instead of trying to find means that are effective, they’ve come up with excuses for why being ineffective is okay by moving the goalposts. They’re tacitly admitting that changing people’s minds is impossible, so the only option is to polarize undecided people to your side or theirs and hope you win by majority consensus. Being locked in a bitter cycle of disagreement is fine because next time you’ll get to disagree even more strongly than ever before.
So what’s the solution? Don’t make it an argument. If you argue, if you frame each other as adversaries, you’re already in the trap. This is counterintuitive. The simplest thing to do when seeing incorrect information is simply to offer a correction, but if the other person has a strong belief, they will correct your correction, and instead of reaching the truth, you both end up correcting corrections ad infinitum. People think they are being convincing because they have so much evidence, and they can explain it so clearly, and they’re being scrubs.
A scrub is someone who has the goal of winning but doesn’t play to win. They have an idealized version of how the game should be played, and rather than taking the path to success, they doggedly stick to their guns on their ideal way to play, even though it rarely, if ever, works. They undermine themselves and deprive themselves of the skills they need to win on purpose, then rationalize it with concepts like Honor. If you try to prove someone wrong, you’re a scrub. You are directly preventing yourself from doing the thing you want to do. You’re trying to take a shortcut to belief change, and you end up further from the destination than if you had never tried at all, while making yourself and the other person angry and bitter in the process.
The thing to acknowledge is, everyone thinks they’re right. Everyone does what they do for reasons they think are right, and everyone has a self-serving narrative about it. Everyone also thinks they’re better than that and more rational than to be self-serving and think their beliefs are formed by evidence where other people’s are not. We collectively don’t tend to recognize that other people believe what they do for a reason, and we tend to be uninterested in that reason, instead diving headfirst into proving them wrong.
The key is to establish an atmosphere of intellectual honesty. You need to admit fault where you are at fault, and you need to be willing to change your mind in response to what the other person says, or you can’t ever hope to get the same benefit from them, even if you are legitimately completely correct and they are legitimately completely wrong. You need to de-escalate it from being an argument, and instead make it a mutual discussion and search for the truth. If both of you are working together to find out what’s right, then one of you is more likely to actually change your mind, which is what’s important.
This means abandoning the older notion of winning or losing the argument. Nobody can win an argument, because all arguments stalemate with someone eventually backing down because they’re sick of it or have something better to do. What you want is to be right. To act in accordance with the truth. To make decisions that are reflective of the nature of reality . And this is more important than winning an argument. Thus the win condition isn’t just to change the other person’s mind, it’s to have your mind changed too.
Of course, having beliefs isn’t wrong. Arguing for your beliefs isn’t wrong either, but it’s worth double checking at every stage of an argument whether you’re actually right or not, or whether there is anything you could stand to learn. If you are presented with conflicting beliefs or people attempting to prove you wrong, it’s worth trying to re-evaluate your beliefs from scratch. We have the beliefs we do because circumstance has presented us evidence that we think makes them align with truth.
And sometimes you know you’re right and the other person is wrong, and you happen to really be actually legitimately correct, however you cannot act like this is true a priori, because you’re not going to get anywhere, and because there’s no telling what crazy off-chance there is that you might be wrong. If you want the other person to change their mind, you still need to be open to what they say. This doesn’t necessarily mean you will compromise with them or change any of your beliefs at all, but you still need to follow the procedure or you won’t make any progress. If someone comes at you swinging disrespectfully with insults, mockery, and falsehoods, you need to be level-headed and patient enough to de-escalate and ask them to explain where they’re coming from. This is legitimately hard and goes against our instincts as humans, but it is the only way that actually works.
Apart from just being open to their ideas and them to yours and avoiding an adversarial frame, the key is to ask the other person questions about their beliefs and have them ask you questions about yours. Establish a Socratic Dialogue. Asking questions naturally causes you to consider alternative points of view, and helps you understand why the beliefs in the other person formed in the first place. Be legitimately inquisitive and respectful of their beliefs, however much you’re opposed to them. Remember that everyone has a reason for believing what they do that looks legitimate from their perspective and experiences. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine that all the same things happened to you, you only knew what they do, and you think in their way. Then ask yourself if you’d come to the same conclusions as them. Generally, the answer should be yes. If the answer is no, then it’s it’s probably a really weird case, or you have issues with theory of mind and you should work on that.
On the more aggressive front, when you’re relatively certain you’re in the right, you can ask them questions that cause them to realize and themselves point out the issues in their belief. Figure out through questioning what their core values are, and show them a way of looking at your side that is more compatible with their values. Get them to commit to particular stances and use their tendency to be consistent with them to . Avoid attacking them or insulting them, because you want the other person to like you, and you want them to think you’re being fair, which affects whether they’re willing to actually change their mind.
This also means purging yourself of ideas about fairness. Belief change is unfair, and your only win condition is the other person actually changing their mind (or you changing yours). Stalemates are actually losses. Hold yourself to these conditions very firmly and play to win regardless of how unfair the circumstances might seem. Resist the urge to retaliate against the slights of your opponent against you. “Well he did it first, so it’s okay if I do it,” is an excuse to undermine yourself by arguing instead of questioning. It might seem like you’re losing when you turn the other cheek to offenses, but remember your real win condition, which is to effect change in the minds of other people. In the pursuit of that, you should be willing to take any type of abuse or humiliation, because that’s damn better than digging your heels in when you’re wrong, or failing to convince someone because you can’t stay calm over petty offenses. You might have the pure-minded ideal that someone confronted with the facts should have the dignity and rationale to change their mind when shown the truth, but in the same situation, you’d be just as unlikely to change your mind as they are, so you might as well stack the cards in your favor. This is a standard you should hold yourself to, but not anyone else. Always hold yourself to higher standards of intellectual honesty than anyone else and never be unforgiving of other people for failing to meet your standards.
One of the big advantages of this method is also that it usually avoids pissing other people off. Arguments make people angry, where this approach tends to have people end disagreements amicably, even if the point of contention remains by the end, because at least both of you understand where the other person is coming from, and hopefully respect why they hold that value. You can view this entire approach as a style of manipulation, because it’s more effective at changing other people’s beliefs than basically anything else, but on the other hand it also means practicing intellectual honesty, avoiding hostility, and coming to better understand the other person, which means you’ll probably make and keep more friends in the long run as well as learn more stuff and steadily increase the accuracy of your beliefs about the world. You have both the selfish and non-selfish reasons to do this, selfish because it’s the only way to actually change someone else’s mind, and the non-selfish reason of also creating a better community and getting along with other people better.
One drawback is this is time consuming. It takes a lot of time to ask questions, receive answers, and come to a better understanding of the other person. And it’s difficult in longer written formats instead of speaking to the person or text chat which is suited to both short and long messages. It’s much easier to just say why they’re wrong and move on. Unfortunately, this really is the only way I know of to actually get anything done. If it would cost too much time to change someone else’s beliefs about something, then let sleeping dogs lie until a better opportunity arises.
Another drawback is, this doesn’t work on people who are being intentionally intellectually dishonest. It doesn’t work on trolls. It doesn’t work on people who are lying and know it. My best advice for dealing with these people is either don’t, or get to what their real stance is. Remember, (almost) everyone thinks they’re doing what’s right, or at least rationalizes their actions as inconsequential, even if that’s being an asshole and lying to other people. Also don’t be quick to label people as being intentionally intellectually dishonest. That’s a dangerous tactic, because most people are honest with their intentions, even if they don’t have a strong commitment to the truth, and calling them out for something they’re not doing is an easy way to get them to dislike you and not want to listen to you.
You can occasionally get around this whole process, but only if both you and the other person have a pact with yourselves to absolutely accept the truth as truth regardless of how conflicted you are, close to total impartiality and commitment to the truth over reinforcing previously held beliefs. This is extremely rare, and even if you think the other person might be applying this level of intellectual honesty, you can never be totally sure, and it can break down if the conversation goes poorly. If you both trust each other to be truthful and impartial, and to accept the results of the debate when it is clear what the truth is, then you can get things done a lot more quickly.
Another thing is that these are all skills and procedures you can improve and follow. These aren’t things people are born with or not, though some people and personalities find it easier than others. You’re responsible for having more productive social interactions with other people, and you can get better at it if you notice what people respond to and why.
Great piece. Especially the point about getting to the root of another person’s core values. I think most of the ideological divides we’re facing today ignore the fact that we have different foundations; people digging their heels in largely because they’re hearing arguments that do not speak to their values.
I wonder what inspired you to write this article.
The bit about people rationalizing confrontational debates with the notion that undecided bystanders might change their minds is actually one used by Richard Dawkins.
It seems like a valid excuse considering how successful he is and how funny and enlightening public debates can be. The rationale that people turn points over in their head over time has worked for me personally, but that’s just an anecdote.
On an unrelated note, I’ve always thought I had a “Goku” approach to debates. I try my damnedest, but not necessarily to change the opponent’s mind, but just because I like chatting and discourse for the sake of it.
I’ve been turning this topic over in my mind since high school. I didn’t know Richard Dawkins specifically used that logic, a lot of people use it.
It’s a justification to make a fruitless debate seem like it’s worth your time anyway, and maybe it’s partially true, but we can be a lot more productive than we currently are.