Many of us have been guilty of getting into heated arguments over social and political issues often on social media, only to see neither party budge, instead souring our relationships with friends and family. As a result, some of us have chosen to avoid such arguments altogether preferring to hold onto our convictions depriving ourselves of the truth. In this piece, Adam Grant, the organisational psychologist at Wharton and author of the book on critical thinking ‘Think Again’, helps us with how to argue, better.
“In our polarised world, a productive disagreement is a rare occurrence. Research shows that the average person would rather talk to a stranger who shares their political views than a friend who doesn’t. That’s a travesty. As an organisational psychologist and recovering conflict avoider, I’ve spent years studying how to build our argument literacy. Arguing well is a skillset, but it’s heavily influenced by your mindset. A good debate isn’t about one person declaring victory, it’s about both people making a discovery.”
He uses an argument with a friend he had on vaccines as a case study and shares his takeaways on how they could turn the debate into a productive one with both parties ceding ground on occasion and coming out of it better off than either one having won the argument.
First, he says, we must learn to recognise our own lazy thinking:
“In a pair of clever experiments run by an international team of cognitive scientists, people had to generate logical arguments on a range of issues, then evaluate other people’s answers to the same questions. What the participants didn’t know was that one of their own arguments had been mixed into the set they were being asked to evaluate. When they thought that argument was made by someone else, 57% of people rejected it.
Our reasoning is selectively lazy. We hold our own opinions to lower standards than other people’s. When someone doesn’t buy the case you’re making, it’s worth remembering that you might not either if you weren’t the one selling it.”
Second, we must stay critical even when we are emotional:
“We choose the most convenient arguments to preach our convictions but demand bulletproof facts before we will rethink them. It’s not just due to confirmation bias – the tendency to seize ideas that validate our views, while dismissing information that challenges them. It’s also because of distance. We’re often too close to our own arguments to evaluate them critically. To recognise our blind spots, we need other people to hold up a mirror. Friction isn’t inherently bad; it can be productive. If two people always agree, at least one of them is failing to think critically or speak candidly. A difference of opinion doesn’t have to threaten a relationship, it can be an opportunity to learn. The people who teach you the most are the ones who question your thought process, not the ones who validate your conclusions.”
Third, we must embrace the shades of grey:
“My friend who was opposed to vaccines works in healthcare. I asked him if he could help me identify flaws in my reasoning about the benefits of them. He quickly pointed out that when I said, “Vaccines are safe and effective,” I was parroting a narrative. How safe? How effective? He was right. I had fallen victim to what psychologists call binary bias. It’s when we take a complex spectrum and oversimplify it into two categories. If we want to have better arguments, we need to look for the shades of grey.”
Fourth, agree on your approach to arguing:
“In conflict-mediation training, I learned that if you want to have a good argument, it helps to take a step back and talk about how you argue. I told my friend that before debating the facts, we should discuss how to assess them. A balanced argument doesn’t weigh two sides equally – it gives more weight to the strongest evidence.”
Fifth, build up to the really toxic topics:
“If you only argue when the stakes are high, your emotions are running too hot to think and learn. Practising small fights is how you train for the big ones. Before clashing on racism or trans rights, try duking it out on tax policy.”
Finally, agree to disagree:
“The highest compliment from someone who disagrees with you is not, “You were right.” It’s “You made me think.” Good arguments help us recognise complexity where we once saw simplicity. The ultimate purpose of debate is not to produce consensus. It’s to promote critical thinking.
Great minds don’t think alike – they challenge each other to think again. The clearest sign of intellectual chemistry isn’t agreeing with someone. It’s enjoying your disagreements with them. Harmony is a pleasing arrangement of different sounds, not the same ones. Creative tension can make beautiful music.
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