Feeling at odds with someone (or everyone)? Here's how to have a discussion that might get somewhere
Why throwing facts about when arguing never works. Ever.
Flat earthers, climate change deniers, cat people, dog people, people who think escalators are meant for standing on and not walking up (it's NOT a ride!). I'm fine. The planet is a divisive place and frankly, fighting sucks. More often than not, reservedly putting a proverbial sport sock in it, no matter how stinky, is really your best bet.
But friction, be it with good friends, longtime lovers, or perfect strangers is bound to creep into your social interactions at some point. Conflict over the geopolitics of a single parking space or an entire province can trigger visceral, primal feelings of fear, anger and anxiety (all of which science has shown, successfully scramble our ability to wield logic – doing precious little to foster resolution).
Dr. Jonas Kaplan, an assistant research professor of psychology at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences conducted a study that showed how we become immovable forces in the face of facts that challenge our beliefs. Your beliefs (especially the political and religious ones), says Kaplan, are "part of who you are and important for the social circle to which you belong."
When we're presented with the conflicting truth of another it's pretty jarring and with reason. "To consider an alternative view, you would have to consider an alternative version of yourself," explains Kaplan. When that happens, ancient parts of our brains like the almond-shaped amygdalae and insular cortex light up. They're responsible for processing emotion and decision making. "The amygdala in particular," says Kaplan, "is known to be especially involved in perceiving threat and anxiety." For Kaplan, activity bumps in these areas when wrestling with a foreign concept is "consistent with the idea that when we feel threatened, anxious or emotional, then we are less likely to change our minds." It's why facts rarely trump feelings in a high-stakes squabble. It's also worth noting that a perception of bodily harm factors in here. In a 2016 study, subjects who'd had their political beliefs challenged with reasonable but contrary evidence displayed neural activity in parts of the brain associated with physical discomfort. Being wrong gets coded by our brains as proper pain – another pretty good incentive to reject counter evidence. Ultimately, Kaplan suggests "we should acknowledge that emotion plays a role in cognition and in how we decide what is true and what is not true". Feelings fight facts.
Consider this didactic and pretty delightful video by Alex Cequea of SocialGoodNow.com who sourced several studies (including Kaplan's) to examine via deceptively cute animation why facts fail us in an argument and why humanity's cognitive foibles can lead us to visit dark things on one another.
Studies show that we empathize with people more when we feel they belong to the same general group that we do. Subsequently, we also empathize far less with those who don't. Again, highlighted by some of the least charming moments in human history (some more current than we'd like). Cue resounding ughs. One of the reasons we shut down and dig our heels in and disagreeably disagree is a cognitive mechanism aptly named the "backfire effect". One study provided evidence that we don't just stonewall people offering new data, nor do we disregard the new information outright – we use it to reinforce our personal positions becoming doubly sure our camp walks the one true path.
Should you be smugly leaning on the idea that your brain is just better than the flat-earther you were arguing with last week, note that smarts has nothing to do with it. Your intelligence actually isn't doing you any favours. Know why, brainiac? Because the smarter a person is, the better they are at convincing themselves they're right even in the face of facts. Behavioural Neuroscientist, Tali Sharot maintains that plenty of evidence actually shows that "the more intelligent you are the more likely you are, in fact, to change data at will." Or put another way, the more likely you and your high IQ are likely to twist and reshape new data to suit your will.
The human brain is remarkable but it's far (so far) from infallible. We're all prone to motivated reasoning or motivated cognition. A cousin of confirmation bias, or the tendency to collect information that satisfies what we already feel or suspect at our core. On that note, if you're remembering a past conflict where you know you were in the right, be mindful to not trust yourself too much. Our memories aren't as reliable as we might assume because of our human proclivity to cling to information that reinforces our beliefs and feelings.
So, with facts pretty much off the table as a reasoning tool, what do we do with our frustratingly fallible brains to help them interact with other frustratingly fallible brains successfully?
Michael Shermer, Science writer, historian, founder of The Skeptics Society, and editor-in-chief of science advocacy mag Skeptic has some experience with presenting data that ruffles feathers. To engage in fruitful discourse with someone whose worldview doesn't quite line up with yours, Shermer offers six prescriptions:
1 keep emotions out of the exchange – depending on the topic, you may need a frontal lobotomy for this one but there's a reason it's first on the list. Breathe and remind yourself that under reacting will simply serve you better (in almost all things).
2 discuss, don't attack – Needlessly vilifying the person you're talking to is just going to lead to them stonewalling you faster and harder. Plus, you and your ideas will be easily dismissed outright if you're perceived as foe, not friend.
3 listen carefully and try to articulate to the other position accurately – this shows that you have a willingness to understand the opposing point of view and aren't merely forcing your own data or ideology down everyone's throat. Side note: you could also learn something and experience a useful shift in cognition based on their information. Don't let those amygdalae get the better of you.
4 show respect – even if you think you have facts on your side, recall that the power of belief is superior to evidence once someone has identified with or internalized an idea. That goes for you too. Many beliefs, values and cognitive constructs are "sacred spaces", so tread lightly.
5 acknowledge that you understand why someone might hold that opinion – being able to appreciate why a person might find an idea favourable goes a long way in having them meet you in kind.
6 demonstrate how changing facts does not necessarily mean changing worldviews – don't be on a mad mission to convert anyone, just offer the information you deem relevant and valuable to the topic at hand. Once you've shared ideas, don't expect an immediate shift or even an eventual shift where everybody is on the same page. Just pat yourselves on the back for having a discussion like mindful adults.
Shermer posits that these "strategies may not always work to change people's minds, but… they may help reduce unnecessary divisiveness." Here's hoping. Should that fail, you can opt to go old school and ply your opposition with Aristotelian rhetoric.
Lastly, if anger gets the better of you in a mental melee, consider that threats don't work as a means of persuasion. It's why the graphic images on packs of cigarette do little to curb the nicotine urges of smokers. Sharot, who wrote The Influential Mind: What Our Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others makes use of the cigarette pack example in her TED talk "Get what you want without threats". Evidence shows that once those images are seen and processed by smokers, "quitting actually became a lower priority." Threats will work for a handful of folk but "on average they seem to have a very limited impact," confirms Sharot. So be sure to avoid, a "do as I say, or else" approach. Criticism and negativity emotions will consistently encourage inaction while Sharot's research suggests that positive motivation seems to cultivate a more reliable impetus to act. Always favour the carrot, not the stick.
As you stand on the precipice of any daunting discourse, consider that a bit of common sense goes a long way. Silence is another fine choice so do keep your figurative sock handy: open mouth, insert. Not everything has to be a discussion.
Marc Beaulieu is a Montreal writer, producer, performer, professional host and mental health advocate whose one true love is weird news.