How to Win Your Next Political Argument

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You’ve probably gotten in a political argument in the recent past, whether with your nutso cousin at Thanksgiving or your militantly ignorant co-worker at a happy hour.

And you’ll probably get in another political argument sometime in the near future. Hard as it may be to believe, you can actually win these arguments. Here’s how.

1. Forget facts.
Psychologists who study political belief and persuasion think it’s adorable how obsessed argumentative people are with those cute little things called facts. When it comes to winning arguments, truthfulness and details simply don’t matter as much as we think they do.

“People think emotionally, and they very often will have these gut moral intuitions that certain things are right or wrong,” said Matthew Feinberg, a psychologist at Stanford. The process of belief formation runs in the opposite direction than we’d hope: People “come to the conclusion first, and then the reasons they kind of pull out just to support their beliefs.”

This runs counter to a lot of what we learn when we’re writing term papers in school or reading our favorite authors, of course — in these contexts, logical precision is key. But when you’re engaging in a live argument with someone who views the world very differently than you do, it’s important not to get too hung up on factual accuracy.

So how do you capitalize on this knowledge? Read on.

2. Let your opponent hang him or herself.
It may not seem right judging from cable news, but when people are asked to explain their beliefs about how a given thing works, they’ll actually become less confident in those beliefs.

This phenomenon is known as the “illusion of explanatory depth.” If you ask the average person to explain why they hold a given opinion, “They will come to realize the limitations of their own understanding,” said Frank C. Keil, a Yale University psychologist who studies intuitive beliefs and explanatory understanding. Keil cautions that this won’t necessarily lead to a change in point of view, but said that if you ask them gently and non-aggressively to walk you through their point of view, they’ll likely see the holes more."

3. Don’t be such a dick.
This one can be tough to remember, but even in a heated debate with a distant cousin whose political beliefs would make a Neanderthal blush, there’s a tactical upside to being nice.

“When people have their self-worth validated in some way, they tend to be more receptive to information that challenges their beliefs,” said Peter Ditto, a psychology professor at UC-Irvine who studies emotion and its connection to political and religious beliefs. This is partly because our mood determines a lot about how receptive we are to new information or ideas: If we’re happy and confident and at ease, we’re more likely to be open-minded.

The problem is that political arguments, by their nature, tend to make their participants angry and frustrated. So it’s easy to be self-defeating here: When you’re arguing with Uncle Bob, who fervently believes certain things about 9/11, you may think you’re making a cutting, incisive point that reveals his stupidity for the world to see. But if you’re antagonizing him or openly implying that he’s nuts, he’s only going to feel backed into a corner — and that, the research suggests, will harden his beliefs further. (This effect is likely only amplified in big group settings, which bring greater opportunities for “point-scoring” and embarrassment, meaning smaller gatherings are more conducive to substantive debate and persuasion.) Instead, as you’ll read below, there are ways to possibly nudge him toward reason without threatening his entire worldview.

4. Defuse disgust.
Not every hot-button political issue can be traced back to disgust, but many of them can. A long line of research has shown just how intimately connected our politics and our sense of disgust are (many researchers think this is an outgrowth of the cognitive systems that provided us with a visceral aversion to dangerous substances like human and animal waste back before the days of sewer systems and litter boxes). And if you look around, you’ll see political arguments couched in disgust everywhere, such as in the memorable recent case of the South Dakota state rep who likened gay sex to “a one-way alley meant only for the garbage truck to go down.”

So what should you do if you find yourself locked in debate with someone who is grossed out, and you suspect his disgust, rather than a more substantive argument, is fueling his belief? One paper by Feinberg and some colleagues suggests simply asking your adversary not to be disgusted could be a surprisingly successful strategy. The researchers had participants watch a video of two men kissing. Some were instructed to simply watch, while others were asked to “try to think about what you are seeing in such a way that you don’t feel anything at all.” The latter condition was designed to short-circuit feelings of disgust, and political conservatives in that group “subsequently expressed more support for same-sex marriage than conservatives in the control condition,” as the study’s abstract put it.

5. Change the frame.
Here’s where you can earn your black belt in political argument. One of the most prominent current theories through which psychologists explain differences in political beliefs is called Moral Foundations Theory, or MFT. MFT posits that there are five foundations to moral beliefs: care/harm (whether other beings are being hurt); fairness/cheating (whether people are treating others fairly); loyalty/betrayal (whether people are exhibiting loyalty to their group); authority/subversion (whether people are playing by the rules); and sanctity/degradation (whether people are sullying physical or spiritual things that are sacred). According to the theory, liberals and conservatives view these concerns differently. For liberals, care/harm and fairness/cheating are the most important of the five, while conservatives are more into loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.

This is pretty powerful knowledge, because it can help you know your opponent’s “weak points,” in a sense — which aspects of morality will resonate for them, and which won’t.

During a debate, you’re more likely to make progress “if you can appeal to the moral concerns of the people that you’re talking with,” said Jesse Graham, a USC professor who helped develop MFT. All too often, though, “there are ways in which liberals and conservatives can talk past one another in these debates.”

The idea that changing the moral framing can help convince people to rethink their views has been borne out in some as-yet-unpublished work by Feinberg and his collaborator Robb Willer, also at Stanford, in which they got conservatives to say they approved of gay marriage at a higher rate by describing gay Americans as proud, patriotic Americans with the same hopes and dreams as everyone else (invoking the loyalty/subversion foundation), and liberals to support expanded military spending by arguing that doing so would provide valuable career opportunities to low-income young people (invoking the fairness/cheating foundation). And in another study that has been published, they “largely eliminated the difference between liberals’ and conservatives’ environmental attitudes,” as they put it in the abstract, by describing environmental degradation as a threat to the planet’s purity (invoking the sanctity/degradation foundation).

Pulling It All Together
Let’s put this into (hypothetical) practice. Say you’re arguing with an uncle who insists that the Boy Scouts should continue their policy of excluding openly gay people from being scout leaders. “For thousands of years, society has been built on one man, one woman,” he insists. “It just seems like a dangerous and unnatural social experiment to start having role models teaching kids that it’s okay to be gay.”

Here’s how to respond, and how not to:

Wrong response: No, it hasn’t! The concept of heterosexual, one-man, one-woman marriage is actually really new. Haven’t you read the Bible? Dudes had tons of wives back then! It’s like conservatives just conveniently ignore all this history when they’re trying to fight gay rights.

Why it’s wrong: Too nerdy and fact-y and confrontational. Remember that his opinion on this is probably coming from deep gut feelings rather than because he has expertly sifted the history and data.

Better: I think you’re definitely right that there’s a long-standing, wonderful tradition of one-man, one-woman relations. I totally respect how much you care about that institution — I do, too! I think my main reason for supporting allowing gay people to be scout leaders is that I have some gay friends who were Boy Scouts growing up, and who seriously treasure the lessons they learned during that time. They have the same ideals as you and I do, love our country for the same reasons, and even root for the same sports teams. They just want to give back to an organization that helped shape who they are, that taught them all sorts of invaluable life skills.

Why it’s better, and which of the points of advice you’re following: You’re not engaging with his questionable historicizing (forget facts), you’re being calm and respectful (don’t be such a dick), you’re sidestepping questions of disgust or what is or isn’t natural (defuse disgust — well, halfway, since you’re simply ignoring it), and you’re invoking the loyalty/betrayal framework by implying that Americans are all the same (unleashing some Moral Foundations Theory). That’s four of the five tools in just a few sentences — a dazzling Bruce Lee–esque combo of rhetorical mastery.

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Suffice it to say that in the real world, any argument about a hot-button issue is unlikely to end with one party reaching a hand out to the other and saying, “You know what? You’re totally right. My bad!” But still: There’s a right way to argue, and a wrong way. And too many of us, having spent countless hours watching jerks on TV scream at each other, have developed bad argumentative habits.