Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Should We Stop Trying to Win Arguments on Social Media?

Come, let us reason together. (Part 3)

Source: uncredited/MaxPixel

Some say that what goes wrong in our political arguments is that the participants care mostly about winning the argument. It would be better if they cared more about learning and finding the truth, and less about winning.

Indeed, if you frequent the political side of social media, you will see people arguing ad nauseum with each other while giving onlookers little hope that any progress is being made because everybody is shouting loudly with their fingers in their ears.

But if wanting to win is the problem, then many experts in the psychology of reasoning are starting to paint a depressing picture. Their models of human reasoning tell us that we are all natural-born lawyers. We work hard to defend our positions and persuade others to hold them. And trying to fight this tendency is like riding one's bicycle into a strong headwind.

Where does that leave us? In good shape, actually. I will make the case that we don't actually need to ride our bicycles into that strong headwind, because wanting to win is not the main problem. Something else is.

Furthermore, counter-intuitive as it might seem, when the circumstances are favorable, wanting to win is one of our most efficient ways to get to the truth.

Human Reasoning is Biased and Lazy

We will start with a banal observation. Human reasoning is biased and lazy. Reflective individuals have known this for millennia, and Mercier and Sperber go to great lengths in their 2017 book to drive the message home.

"The tour starts with a pair of observations: human reason is both biased and lazy. Biased because it overwhelmingly finds justifications and arguments that support the reasoner's point of view, lazy because reason makes little effort to assess the quality of the justifications and arguments it produces." -- Mercier and Sperber (2017), The Enigma of Reason, p. 9.

Our reasoning is lazy. That's the bad news. The good news is that it is only selectively so. For the most part, our laziness is confined to the evaluation of our own reasons. When we evaluate other people's reasons, we are vigilant and sharp, especially if we disagree with them.

When we overgeneralize, we are unlikely to catch our own mistake. When the other person overgeneralizes, counterexamples jump readily to mind. When external factors might be clouding our own judgment, we are unlikely to see them. When they might be clouding our opponent's judgment, our causal imaginations are strong.

Why are we like this? Why are we so biased and asymmetrically lazy? And how can this possibly be a good thing?

Human Beings Are Limited

We will continue with another banal observation. Human beings are limited. We each are born into the world knowing next to nothing. And then we each take a particular path through the world. Along the way we have some experiences (but not others), are taught by some adults (but not others), read some books (but not others), have some conversations (but not others), develop some sense-making models and narratives (but not others), make some inferences (but not others), imagine some possibilities (but not others), and see everything from a limited perspective with our own unique blend of visceral needs at the center of it all.

Our parochial bubble is pierced here and there as we open our minds, learn new things, and argue with each other, but no one comes into a complex argument knowing all the relevant considerations, or with an ability to see things from every point of view.

On top of that, we all have roughly the same limited cognitive equipment. Our working memories are better than those of any meat-based computers in the entire world, but they are still quite limited and in predictable ways. We are less than thorough in assessing our own reasons, in part, because we are limited in our ability to imagine possibilities. As Philip Johnson-Laird notes:

"We think about possibilities when we reason. [...] And that's why our erroneous conclusions tend to be compatible with just some possibilities: we overlook the others." Johnson-Laird (2008), How We Reason.

But we don't overlook possibilities merely because we have a perverse desire to win an argument, and we are trying to hoodwink our partner.

Part of the problem is that, compared to the pooled experience of the entire community, our experience is partial. We know what we know and don't know what we don't know. Part of the problem is that our working memories are limited, and the on-the-fly mental models we construct in order to think things through are only partial models that don't allow us to see some of the relevant possibilities. And part of the problem is that the positions we defend are generally fairly consistent with the rest of what we believe. If counterexamples were readily available to us, we wouldn't have held the position we are defending in the first place.

And all of that can put us in a poor position to evaluate our own reasons thoroughly, even if we want to. In fact, that might be partly why we are selectively lazy in our reasoning. We don't bother much with evaluating our own reasons, because, frankly, we're not the best person for the job.

A well-matched arguing partner is in a better position to evaluate our reasons than we are. And we are in a better position to evaluate their reasons than they are. We know things they don't. They know things we don't. We imagine possibilities they overlook. They imagine possibilities we overlook. Furthermore, they are motivated to notice possibilities we have missed, because, duh, they want to win.

Late Night Bull Sessions and Politics on Social Media

A desire to win makes us more vigilant in evaluating other people's reasons. But it also makes us willing to shoot our entire load in support of our own position.

This dynamic is easy to see in late night bull sessions where participants keep pushing their positions to an almost silly degree because they're not ready to give up yet.

The topic arises: Takeru Kobayashi vs Spock in a hot dog eating contest. I take Kobayashi (have you seen that guy eat hot dogs?). You take Spock. We go back and forth. You cite facts about Vulcan physiology. I show you YouTube clips of Kobayashi eating hot dogs. You seem to have the losing case, but you keep generating reasons anyway. I ask if you're ready to concede. Of course, you're not ready to concede. You haven't tried everything yet. Eventually, you say, "Spock would win because Scotty would beam the hot dogs out of his stomach as fast as he ate them." (And perhaps you generated this reason because you remembered Badger's premise in this scene of "Breaking Bad")

Your persistence didn't cure cancer or help us solve the climate crisis. Perhaps you didn't even win the argument. But our imaginations are now all richer because you persisted.

Wanting to win can be a good thing. It motivates us to be vigilant in evaluation where we have the most leverage (evaluating other people's reasons), and it motivates us to pool together a larger set of considerations.

And yet . . .

We all know that political arguments on social media aren't always so productive. And we know that people who argue on social media want to win something fierce. So it's hard to shake the suspicion that wanting to win has a downside.

So what is the difference between the late-night bull session, where wanting to win is paired with progress, and the typical political argument on social media, where wanting to win is paired with pain?

Fear Is the Mind-Killer

Eliezer Yudkowsky had it right when he said: "Politics is the mind killer." But that's because Frank Herbert had it right when he said that "Fear is the mind killer." Politics is the mind-killer, in large part, because fear is the mind-killer.

In late-night arguments with friends over who will win a hot dog eating contest, the participants have little to lose. The safety of the friendships, and the plausible deniability provided by whatever substances they've consumed, allow them to "play the fool" in defense of their own position. And they can concede points without losing face.

But sober political arguments are different. Politics can cause many fears to surface. One side fears their own children will be gunned down in their school. The other side fears their guns will be confiscated. One side fears the nation is headed toward a Communist dystopia. The other fears it is headed toward a different dystopia, where the poor are perpetually exploited by the rich.

And these fears are often overshadowed by an even greater fear -- the fear of losing face. People fear that, if they lose the argument, their group might lose face in the larger community. And they fear that, if they concede too much, they will lose face in their groups.

All this fear hijacks our minds and undermines our commitment to fair play. When the stakes get high, people no longer allow their blind spots to be corrected. They refuse to acknowledge the force of counterexamples. They no longer moderate their positions. They dodge and weave and change the subject when the argument isn't going their way. They obfuscate. They set rhetorical traps. They stop listening. They semi-deliberately misinterpret their opponent. And sometimes they stop arguing with their opponent altogether and use them as a platform for preaching to their own choir.

High stakes plus anonymity plus in-group/out-group dynamics does strange things to interlocutors. It can make them impatient, evasive, and mean.

How to Have More Productive Political Arguments

We should try to win our political arguments. In fact, we have a duty to try to win, because, if we don't, we will likely shortchange the community of all the good reasons we have locked up in our heads. And we should also celebrate a well-matched opponent who is trying to win the other side of the argument. Reasonable, vigorous dialectic can pool possibilities and correct for blind spots at a dizzying pace.

But these the benefits will flow strongest when both sides try to win fairly. And fair play goes out the window when fear reigns supreme.

And with that in mind, I offer these four rules of thumb for participating in political arguments on social media.

  1. Manage your own fear. We all have blind spots. Try to make it safe for yourself to acknowledge possibilities you hadn't considered. We all overgeneralize (in fact, I might be doing it right now). So there is a real possibility that you will say something at some point in an argument that requires some backpedaling. Try to make it safe for yourself to backpedal when you need to. We all have soft spots. Try to keep your pulse on how hot you are in the moment. Maybe it's best to come back to the argument when your amygdala has loosened its grip a bit. If you find you are not listening well, or you are obfuscating, or you are trying to change the subject, ask yourself "What am I afraid of?".
  2. Manage your opponent's fear. Make sure they know they can save face if they need to concede a point or backpedal a bit. ("I can see why you say that, but have you considered this...?") If their amygdala has the best of them, suggest picking up the argument at a later time. If your opponent isn't listening, or starts obfuscating, or starts changing the subject, ask yourself "what are they afraid of?" Maybe a reassurance or two can get the argument back on track.
  3. Review common ground. As we saw in part 2 of this series, reasonable arguments are brilliant vehicles for refining our differences and expanding common ground. And common ground is often a partial antidote to fear.
  4. Avoid nicknamers. (Did I just give them a nickname?) Arguing with people who call everyone they disagree with "libtard" or "Nazi" is often fruitless. These folks are giving loud and clear signals that they are unreasonable. They have left themselves no way to retreat without losing face. Their bridges are burned, and they will do anything necessary to avoid defeat. (On the other hand, if you are itching for a cathartic fight that accomplishes little, then, by all means, dive in).

Finally, please overlook my hypocrisy here. Anyone who has argued with me about politics knows that I sometimes follow these rules of thumb, and sometimes I get carried away in the heat of the moment. Like everyone, I'm a work in progress.