It started as a conversation, turned into a debate, and somehow became a discussion about which one of you is absolutely right about everything and which one of you is a fool, discredited on every front.
How did this happen?
Sometimes it’s deliberate—for example when talking to a know-it-all who, right out the gate, wants to declare himself the infallible champion. In early Saturday Night Live skits, Dan Aykroyd parodied this know-it-all move.
Still, we can fall into such infallibility battles even when we’re not arguing with a know-it-all. We often slide into them gradually and unwittingly, even with generally reasonable people. It happens through unconscious gradual and mutual escalation, with each side insisting with increasing vigor, and defending their point of view. We get exasperated with each other and impatient to prove our point. To keep our own boats afloat we start rocking each other’s boats. Pretty soon the goal is sinking each other, proving once and for all that the other person is a complete nincompoop.
The economist Robert Frank highlights a pattern that explains accelerated escalation in all sorts of interactions, including debates. Call it the “winner-takes-all, loser-still-pays” pattern. It goes a long way toward explaining why when we’re in a hole we keep digging.
The pattern shows up in wars, elections, keeping up with the Joneses, gambling, investing, and even informal arguments. We invest, and then, having invested, are unwilling to let go. We’re willing to pay almost anything to keep from losing, but so will our competitors, which only increases both sides’ investment and unwillingness to surrender it all.
Think of how that plays out in wars: Casualties in the thousands for each side. The loser still pays––neither side can allow those soldiers to have died in vain, so they add more soldiers to the conflict, thereby increasing their unwillingness to tolerate even more soldiers having died in vain.
The same goes for political campaigns. Candidates pour millions into them and, facing the possibility of losing all that money and gaining nothing, they’re willing to say and do anything to keep from losing.
Closer to home, we end up in absurdly escalating debates with people saying things like, “You think Ringo was the Beatles’ first drummer? You’re crazy. You don’t know anything.”
We can end up on the slippery slope toward such battles without even noticing. We don’t notice the threat we feel coming through each other’s comments, nor the threats we make—in so many words, hinting that we have a good mind to just declare the other person an idiot. And often not even in words: a sigh, an eye-roll, a grunt of disgust.
It doesn’t take much to move things toward brinkmanship, a game of chicken in which we expect that if we just hint that we’re not going to back down, others will, surrendering their sunk investment in maintaining their self-esteem, dignity, and confidence because we will have finally proven them unworthy.
Or we notice their attacks but not our own, saying, “You started this,” which adds fuel to the fire. It’s like saying, “See, I’m the good one and you’re the bad one.” In the midst of an infallibility battle, such accusations invariably draw counter-accusations (“No, you started it!”) with both sides assuming it couldn’t have been a mutual slide, a product of the winner-takes-all, loser-still-pays pattern.
Here are six things you can do to prevent and de-escalate infallibility battles:
1. Blame it on the pattern.
Recognize that the escalation may be neither your fault nor theirs but simply a product of the pattern. And then watch out for your own contribution more than theirs. Why? Because you’ll already be good at watching out for their contributions.
2. To name it is to tame it.
Call out the risk of falling into an infallibility battle, or better yet, in an ongoing relationship, develop a common understanding of the pattern so you can refer to it without a lot of explanation. Be inclusive, not finger-pointing. Don’t say, “It looks like you’re trying to drag me into an infallibility battle,” but rather, “Neither of us wants this to turn into an infallibility battle, right?” Highlight how absurd these battles get, but not as though you know it and they don’t. Only know-it-alls like these battles.
3. Take a breather but with a commitment to return.
There are thin lines between, “Hey, let’s take a breather,” “I’m not going to waste my time arguing with an idiot,” and “Alright, I give up, you win: I’m an idiot.” But these lines can be managed with a little clear signaling that you want to return to the topic after hitting the reset button. Say something like, “I’m happy to come back to this because it’s important to us, but for now, I’m taking a breather.”
4. Just listen for a while.
If you have calm fortitude and self-confidence that the other person doesn’t seem to have at the moment, lay back and let them talk. Just listen to understand, only speaking up to mirror them, basically making their case for them to demonstrate that you’ve understood it (wholly independent of whether you agree with it). Sometimes this is enough to de-escalate a battle. But sometimes it isn’t.
5. Watch for signs that you’re dealing with someone who loves infallibility battles.
If you listen well or pull out of the escalation cleanly, and the other person comes back guns blazing to shoot you down, you may be dealing with someone who can’t resist the infallibility battle approach with you for a range of reasons, including that they have a chip on their shoulder, or the opposite—a swelled head. Here’s a list of clues for guessing whether you’re talking to a know-it-all.
6. When they don’t care what you think, stop caring what they think about you.
It’s very hard to pull out of infallibility contests without feeling like you’ve lost. If you’re dealing with know-it-alls, they’ll do their best to keep you engaged—they like it—and get you to feel like exiting is surrender. In response to your exit, they’ll claim victory, saying things like, “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings,” or, “Wow, couldn’t take the heat, could you?” as if you’re leaving because you’re wounded.
Remember that you just concluded that they’re not listening to you and that they’ll say anything to feel like they're winning the battle. If they’re not listening to you, don’t listen to them and don’t defend yourself. And don’t get smug about it, either. Find something else to do that distracts you and prevents you from trying to get the last word with someone who insists on getting the last word at your expense.
We're all capable of acting like a know-it-all or arguing with a know-nothing. We have to battle this tendency in ourselves and others, but don’t assume that you can purge it in everyone. If you think you have to convince every single know-it-all that he doesn’t know everything, you’re still feeling the downward tug of the infallibility battle. Just let it go.
Frank, R. H. (2011). The Darwin economy: Liberty, competition, and the common good. Princeton [N.J.: Princeton University Press.