Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


arguments

(ILLUSTRATION: LOLLOJ/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Want to Win a Political Debate? Try Making a Weaker Argument

• August 23, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(ILLUSTRATION: LOLLOJ/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Gun control? Abortion? The new social science behind why you’re never able to convince friends or foes to even consider things from your side.

If all of American politics could be epitomized by a single emotion, it would be the frustration of watching an ignorant politician maniacally disregard the proof that your own position is correct. Professional politicians are dogmatic in part so they can remain “pure” for re-election, but even average citizens talking policy with their friends are rarely swayed by each other’s arguments.

Lately, there’s been a growing emphasis on psychological explanations for such intransigence. There could be an entire book of syndicated newspaper columns that discuss “motivated reasoning”—the tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms your existing beliefs. But research on human motivation also hints at a simpler and somewhat startling reason for the lack of flip-flopping: Nobody makes the type of arguments that are likely to change minds.

And there’s nothing illogical about it.

The arguments people make are those that appear the strongest to themselves and the people who already agree with them. But such arguments tend to be meaningless to people who disagree.

How does this happen?

It starts with the universal desire to protect against threats to your self-image or self-worth. People are driven to view themselves in a positive light, and they will interpret information and take action in ways that preserve that view. The need to maintain self-worth is one reason we attribute our failures to external factors (bad luck), but our success to internal factors (skill.)

The arguments that are most threatening to opponents are viewed as the strongest and cited most often. Liberals are baby-killers while conservatives won’t let women control their own body.

Because political beliefs are connected to deeply held values, information about politics can be very threatening to your self-image. Imagine coming across information that contradicts everything you’ve ever believed about the efficacy of Medicare, for example. If you’re wrong about such an important policy, what else might you be wrong about? And if you’re wrong about a bunch of things, you’re obviously not as smart or as good or as worthwhile a person as you previously believed. These are painful thoughts, and so we evaluate information in ways that will help us to avoid them.

It follows that our openness to information depends on how it affects self-worth, and a number of studies bear this out. One line of research has found that self-affirmation—a mental exercise that increases feelings of self-worth—makes people more willing to accept threatening information. The idea is that by raising or “affirming” your self-worth, you can then encounter things that lower your self-worth without a net decrease. The affirmation and the threat effectively cancel each other out, and a positive image is maintained.

A 2006 study led by Geoff Cohen, for example, found that when pro-choice people had their partisan identities made salient, affirmation made them more likely to compromise and make concessions on abortion restrictions. Similarly, a study by Joshua Correll found that affirmation led people to process threatening political arguments in a less biased way. More recently, research by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler (PDF) found that self-affirmation made people who supported withdrawing from Iraq more likely to agree that the Iraq troop surge of 2007 saved lives, and made strong Republicans more likely to agree that climate change is real. The takeaway from all three studies is that information is more likely to have the desired effect if, on net, it doesn’t lower a person’s self-worth.

Research by Nyhan and Reifler on what they’ve termed the “backfire effect” also suggests that the more a piece of information lowers self-worth, the less likely it is to have the desired impact. Specifically, they have found that when people are presented with corrective information that runs counter to their ideology, those who most strongly identify with the ideology will intensify their incorrect beliefs.

When conservatives read that the CBO claimed the Bush tax cuts did not increase government revenue, for example, they became more likely to believe that the tax cuts had indeed increased revenue (PDF).

In another study by Nyhan, Reifler, and Peter Ubel, politically knowledgeable Sarah Palin supporters became more likely to believe that death panels were real when they were presented with information demonstrating that death panels were a myth. The researchers’ favored explanation is that the information is so threatening it causes people to create counterarguments, even to the point that they overcompensate and become more convinced of their original view. The overall story is the same as in the self-affirmation research: When information presents a greater threat, it’s less likely to have an impact.

How does all of this play out in a real-world policy debate? Imagine you’re a dedicated social liberal who is attempting to show a conservative friend the joys of gun control. You put your trump card on the table right away: Gun control saves lives. All evidence from around the world and within the U.S. points to that conclusion. You smirk, knowing that there’s no way somebody can deny that argument.

But things appear different to your friend. The upshot of your argument is that he has spent years supporting a set of policies that kill people. And yet he knows there’s no way that could be true because he’s a good person who wants what’s best for the world. So what you’re saying has to be false. It’s not even worth considering.

This plays out over and over in politics. The arguments that are most threatening to opponents are viewed as the strongest and cited most often. Liberals are baby-killers while conservatives won’t let women control their own body. Gun control is against the constitution, but a lack of gun control leads to innocent deaths. Each argument is game-set-match for those already partial to it, but too threatening to those who aren’t. We argue like boxers wildly throwing powerful haymakers that have no chance of landing. What if instead we threw carefully planned jabs that were weaker but stood a good chance of connecting?

Imagine that instead of arguing about the quantity of gun deaths, for example, you make the case that universal background checks will allow a mom with two young kids to feel less nervous about the strange, reclusive man who lives down the street. Now your point is much less threatening. People will never believe they help bring about the deaths of innocents, but they can believe they failed to consider the peace of mind of some person they don’t know. The argument is objectively weaker, but it’s more likely to be below the threat threshold that leads to automatic rejection. It might actually be considered.

None of this is to say that when somebody is unknowledgeable or uncommitted it isn’t best to use your most powerful argument. And for political parties the priority is often driving activism rather than changing minds, and thus threatening arguments may be a better choice. But if you’re trying to convince a friend to change his views, it might be worthwhile to go against your instincts and hit him with all your weakest points.

Eric Horowitz
Eric Horowitz is a Ph.D. student in social psychology at the University of Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @EricHorow.

More From Eric Horowitz

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


Follow us


Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.