You Will Never Win Your Political or Relationship Arguments
We naturally find evidence to support our own views, which makes debate useless.
Posted Jul 01, 2020
One of my fellow graduate students was fond of Freudian psychoanalytic theories. At one point, he told me I was too quiet in class. He suggested this was because I must have come from a family that was uncomfortable talking about sex. I protested that he didn’t know my family. “See!” he said. “Your reaction proves my point. You are using defense mechanisms, because I am getting at underlying endopsychic conflicts.” The more I pushed back, the more I proved to him he was correct, and the more defensive I became. He saw what he was looking for, and my arguing convinced him he was right.
Research on motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and other illogical leaps of the human brain show we are not equipped to convince each other through debate. As emotional and social creatures, we form our opinions based on our feelings and seek communion with others who feel the same. This helps us hold on tightly to our views and swat away threats to changing them. Scholars have found that when people are presented information on complex topics, they agree with the points that support their existing position and dismiss things that contradict it. The least informed are often the most zealous about how right they are, and they gain pleasure from their supposed moral superiority. Heated debates only convince the already converted, and further entrench the opposition. As the old saying goes: “One convinced against their will, is of the same opinion still.” This is why political arguments are nearly futile, as are other fights about loaded and ambiguous subjects. There are always fast-moving data points to cherry-pick, and exaggerations and distortions aplenty.
Life is complex, but we like simplicity and certainty. We fill in gaps to confirm our biases and create a preferred reality. Since experience is often ambiguous, it’s easy to find evidence that fits our views. Politics is an obvious example. The issues are loaded with ambiguity, complexity, and subjectivity. But that mess is often boiled down to a simple certainty: “Everything my side says is true, and you are an idiot if you don’t agree with it.” Have you been on social media recently? If so, you may have seen friendships disintegrate and confirmation bias run amok. Here is a post I saw that is typical: “How can any intelligent person vote for ____? I honestly am asking!” I don’t think this was a completely “honest” question. I think this person was saying: “What moron could support such a fraud?” Even this mention of politics is likely firing up your emotions and biases.
As Voltaire said, "Doubt is uncomfortable, certainty is ridiculous," and he might have been talking politics, but he might also have been thinking about relationships. Partners become very certain about their opinions, even when they are about subjective issues. Will and Kim were a quirky couple I worked with who had lively, 11-year-old twin girls. Will was a health club manager, and Kim worked there as a masseuse. They were self-help enthusiasts and each was convinced that they knew more than the other about how to raise the twins. They would find books and research that supported their views, and the kids were caught in the confusion as the parents implemented various (and sometimes extreme) interventions. Will would try time-outs and claim these were working, and Kim would suggest that his discipline was soul-crushing and caused depression. They would offer contradictory explanations for how the girls were turning out. Kim would say, “The girls potty-trained early, because we gave them freedom to develop at their own pace.” Will would say, “The girls potty-trained early because I reinforced them and used principles of conditioning.”
Everyone likes to feel correct and creating simple explanations for complex situations is one way to do this. Kim and Will liked reading advice books that gave prescriptions and claimed to know the one true way to make kids sleep through the night or learn to read. Given how different each child is, having one correct approach seemed presumptuous to me, but it was seductive to them.
The tendency to see what you want was shown in a classic experiment with the most irrational and violent of creatures: the sports fanatic. In the 1950s, psychologists from Dartmouth and Princeton asked students from both schools to watch film from an unusually rough football game and look for infractions of the rules. They were to rate the fouls from mild to flagrant. They all watched the same film but—I am sure you can guess—the students’ ratings corresponded to their loyalties. The Princeton students saw many more fouls from the Dartmouth players and rated their own players’ fouls as much less serious, and vice versa. Each accused the other side of intentional rough play. Even back in an era when social scientists assumed people were rational, these researchers were forced to conclude there was no objectivity when perceiving events in which one has an invested interest.
The next time you get into an argument on social media or around the family dinner table, remember that aggressively pushing “facts” and accusations will not win anyone over. Instead, try to understand the underlying motivations and issues at stake, which is more helpful than arguing each other into deeper divides.
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Albert H. Hastorf, and Hadley Cantril. "They Saw A Game: A Case Study." The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 49, no. 1 (1954): 129-134.
Leonard Mlodinow, Subliminal: How your unconscious mind rules your behavior (New York: Harper Collins, 2012).