We’ve all been there, waist-deep in an argument with a relative about Black Lives Matter, immigration policy or the Me Too movement—maybe all three at once.
We convince ourselves we’re right. Then our opponent brings up a fact we didn’t expect. For a moment, we doubt ourselves. But instead of learning that fact, we double down on our emotions. We still feel right, so the fact must be wrong. This is more than just instinct; it’s a phenomenon called the backfire effect.
Psychologists have found that when we’re confronted with information that contradicts our strongest beliefs, we start to believe even harder. The backfire effect could explain why we get irrational when faced with a sound argument. We’re scared we’ll have to recalibrate our feelings around facts. We might even come to—gasp—respect our opponent’s viewpoint.
In a political climate where every argument feels like a battleground for larger ideological disagreements, that’s a terrifying prospect. It’s time we started arguing in good faith again.
Let’s accept the possibility that we could be wrong, or at the very least, that we have something to learn. And, we should rethink why we argue. Are we trying to defeat our opponent or persuade them? Are we willing to be persuaded in turn?
The Reddit community /r/changemyview is fostering productive conversations in the birthplace of angry arguments: the Internet. It was founded on a few simple rules: don’t be rude, be open minded. The group’s 650,000 participants discuss topics as diverse as taxes, the philosophy of Star Wars, digital privacy, first-past-the-post elections in Canada, and marshmallows versus whipped cream as the ultimate hot chocolate topper. Users award “delta” points when someone changes their mind.
One of the top discussions in 2018 was “The biggest problem with American politics is viewing people that we disagree with as ‘the enemy’.”
We could all learn from this in real life. The next time you find yourself in a debate with your neighbour about the housing crisis, take a step back and try a new approach. Ask them what they think most people misunderstand about their perspective. This will help you discuss their actual stance, and not the straw man you’ve been debating in your head.
See if you can establish common ground, suggests psychiatrist Karin Tamerius, who created a chat bot simulator for arguing with your angry uncle. Highlight the points you agree on before you explain your side.
If you catch yourself getting defensive or you need time to fact-check, take a breath and admit you have more reading to do. Come back to the conversation later with better facts and a calmer head. Abraham Lincoln famously wrote angry letters, but then stuck them in his desk for a day to give himself time to calm down before sending them. (He would have done well on Reddit.)
If you do manage to disprove your opponent, don’t gloat. You’re only encouraging the backfire effect. Instead, thank them for considering your side.
We all have more to offer each other when we argue. It starts with being open to the possibility that we’re wrong.
Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.