The Science of Argumentation

Most people think that the best way to convince other people is with facts. It turns out that psychology says that’s all wrong: arguing is all about emotions. Here are the best ways that science has found to change someone’s mind.

1. One of the best ways to get someone to realize their opinion is flawed is to ask them to explain what they think and why. In a phenomenon called “illusion of explanatory depth” most people haven’t actually thought out their opinions, and once they start trying to explain it they will see the problems with their own viewpoint. It might not lead to an immediate change, but it will often lead to someone recognizing the flaws in their own arguments.

2. An important fact to remember when arguing is that when people get upset or angry, they aren’t receptive to new information. When people feel comfortable and happy they are more open-minded. If you take some time to validate what the other person says (even as much as telling them you understand or agree with one thing they say) they are far more likely to listen to what you say when you disagree.

3. One surprising finding of psychology is that many political issues can be traced back to the emotion of disgust. When someone is having feelings of disgust, they are not going to be open to new information or facts. Amazingly, all you have to do to combat this is ask them to not be disgusted. One paper found that a group of conservatives who watched a video of two men kissing and told to “try to think about what you are seeing in such a way that you don’t feel anything at all,” were more supportive of same-sex marriage than a control group that was given no instructions.

4. Perhaps the most prominent theory about politics today is the Moral Foundations Theory, which says that there are five different foundations to moral beliefs: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Liberals tend to rely on the first two while conservatives rely on the last three. If you know which one someone is using, you can shift your focus to speak within their paradigm. For example, one study found that more conservatives approved of gay marriage when gay Americans were described as proud and patriotic.

5. The final piece of argument jujitsu is to simply not argue. In 2004, researchers found that when supporters saw their candidate contradict himself their brains changed: the parts that handle logic went quiet and the parts that initiate fight or flight took over. When people see things that directly challenge their worldview, feel like a threat, or prime them for an argument, they stop thinking logically. Frame things as a discussion instead of making it personal.