How Arguing Can Undermine Our Rationality

I like to argue. That should be obvious enough to anyone who knows me. But sometimes after I argue I feel bad. I recognize that while I was doing a good job of defending my position, that position wasn’t nearly as strong, when I’m being honest with myself, as I made it seem. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Judith Glaser offers one possible reason why:

I’m sure it’s happened to you: You’re in a tense team meeting trying to defend your position on a big project and start to feel yourself losing ground. Your voice gets louder. You talk over one of your colleagues and correct his point of view. He pushes back, so you go into overdrive to convince everyone you’re right. It feels like an out of body experience — and in many ways it is. In terms of its neurochemistry, your brain has been hijacked.

In situations of high stress, fear or distrust, the hormone and neurotransmitter cortisol floods the brain. Executive functions that help us with advanced thought processes like strategy, trust building, and compassion shut down. And the amygdala, our instinctive brain, takes over. The body makes a chemical choice about how best to protect itself — in this case from the shame and loss of power associated with being wrong — and as a result is unable to regulate its emotions or handle the gaps between expectations and reality.

She’s speaking there of a business setting, but the same phenomenon happens in adversarial situations, especially when we’re arguing over an issue we feel passionate about. And the other thing that frequently happens, if we’re really going to be honest with ourselves, is that we’re putting on a show. We’re showing off for others, especially in a context like the comment section of a website, trying to assert our dominance and, as they say in Gladiator, win the crowd.

But doing those things undermine our ability to think rationally about the subject under discussion. It leads us to dismiss arguments out of hand, behave in a tribal manner, beat up straw men and fail to recognize the weaknesses in our own position. In short, it pushes us to embrace logical fallacies. I try to avoid doing those things, but I still catch myself doing them (though others catch me doing them more often, probably). If you’re honest with yourself, I bet you do it too.

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  • If you’re arguing and while you’re doing it, you’re considering both sides of the argument (and other sides as well!) then you’re probably arguing in good faith. If you’re arguing and you’re considering winning the argument as more important than the topic under discussion – you’re probably not.

  • lclane2

    When we argue we rationalize rather than reason. In fact most of our “reasoning” is simply rationalizing. What’s important is to be circumspect.

  • jonrowe

    This is so true. One reason why I prefer the Internet over verbal arguments because you can say what you need in the comment box or blog post without being interrupted. Yet, you can also flood people with words on the Internet and get the last word in without knowing that you are wrong or making a fool of yourself (the Dunning Kruger effect). A fair argument is one where each side gets equal time according to a reasonable process.

    Face to Face “arguments” — the kind spouses get in — boil down to who can scream the loudest, regardless of who is saying what or who is right or wrong.

    Those petty egotistical emotions are very dangerous. They can not only break up friendships and relationships, but also start actual stupid wars.

  • Sastra

    The comments section of a blog does offer several advantages over face-to-face situations, however. For one thing, it isn’t possible to “talk” so loudly or aggressively that someone with a thoughtful response or insight can’t be heard. Every post is equal in that sense. They are all read in turn. A particularly good comment will automatically draw attention to itself because of the nature of the forum.

    Another advantage is the diversity of views and the number of critics. Get carried away by cortisol and create a caricature straw-man and you’re likely to be called out — if not carried out — by someone. I suppose that can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. So can having an easily and communally available record of who-said-what. A bad argument can be trounced — and a good argument can be pettifogged-to-death.

  • baal

    /smile. I may have known about this feature of how our brain works and taken advantage of it when I was a debater in high school. I intentionally try not to provoke mindlessness these days as I’ve more or less concluded it’s not ethical to push people’s buttons for tactical advantages.OTOH, some folks go from zero to apoplexy over trivia.

  • Abby Normal

    This is exactly why I’ve cut back on my commenting here over the past year or so. I noticed I’d started to care about my status in the group and it was having a negative effect on the quality of my posts. I wanted to be right, to win, more than I wanted to contribute. So I decided to focus on listening instead of talking for a while.

  • abb3w

    Of possible related interest, the paper “Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory”, (doi:10.1017/S0140525X10000968).

    The mention of oxytocin leaves me wondering whether there’s also a testosterone factor to the argumentative tendency.

  • Michael Heath

    I’ve found a way to not let your ego get ahead of your position when it comes to debating, and that’s to continue to educate yourself on critical thinking skills. Doing so keeps one focused on the framework and mechanics of debate, which also keeps the right parts of your brain working – the logical dispassionate areas.

    That doesn’t mean passion, ridicule, and insults meant to hit bone don’t have a place, but it should be used to advance your argument, not cause short-circuits in your logic that provides an opening for your opponent to point out fallacies that so often are attendant to inflamed rhetoric.

    A good example of the difficulty of employing passion in a debate was Andrew Sullivan’s recent debate with theocrat Douglas Wilson, which you can see on YouTube. Wilson’s argument against civil gay marriage was completely abstract, and meritless – absolutely meritless. Sullivan’s was both abstract and practical, he repeatedly pointed out the actual harm that comes from treating some people like himself unequally. And yet I thought Sullivan’s passion was a little too overwrought given how dispassionate Wilson was with his abstract-only arguments. Even though Sullivan didn’t move into any noticeable fallacies, his style didn’t help him as much as it would have if he would have presented those non-abstract harms in less passionate style. I think his level of passion would have been appropriate if Wilson would have posed as a victim of gay marriage because he’d have to confront the gay, but he never made those arguments. He was extremely disciplined and calm in his near-total vacuity.

    Not to be overly critical, I’d give Wilson’s argument a one out of ten and Sullivan an eight; however that’s on the quality of their arguments whereas most people want to be emotionally moved where I’m not sure Sullivan’s earnestness was optimal given the style his opponent used.

    Of course if you’re in a debate and your argument is structurally sound and your opponent’s is not, that will create some heated rhetoric from your opponents. Nobody likes it when you reveal obvious fallacies and absurdities, even if you don’t ridicule them for those.

    Consider boxing: You’d think that would be a sport where people’s emotions would overwhelm them and move away from a disciplined relentless approach to mere flailing away. Yet good boxers stick to their process precisely because of their training. They don’t focus on boxing, not flailing, even in late rounds when they’re exhausted by the effort.

    This is a primary reason I continue to advocate we teach critical thinking skills just like we do math, history, and science – as an ongoing overt effort. We can’t practice critical thinking unless we’re always in tune with what it takes be an effective critical thinker from a purely mechanical and contextual perspective. (Contextual in terms of being considerate of the sufficiency of the framework containing the set of premises in play in the debate.)

  • Arguing is a wonderful thing. Yes, it causes you to invest far more assurance and certainty into the beliefs you already held, or thought you held, than you might otherwise in the process of defending those beliefs. It certainly undermines rationality that way. But it also forces you to come up with support for those beliefs in the first place, as opposed to simply going about your day becoming more and more sure of things you’ve been fed, ideologically, by people you trust without ever being challenged on them.

    Arguing is work. It’s enjoyable work sometimes, but make no mistake– work it is. I despise people who watch others argue and either “get popcorn,” declare the entire enterprise meaningless, or both. If you’re not learning from or being at all challenged by the exchange you’re observing, you’re not thinking. You’re simply being entertained by the work of others as you deride it.

    An intellectually honest person also engages in defending his or her views on his/her own– to him/herself. On such occasions the kinds of defenses raised while in argument with someone else don’t go up, so the person in question is likely to be much more rational and– consequently– to change his/her mind. But most of the time, perhaps all of the time, this process takes place as a result of having heard the arguments of others and contemplating them by oneself later.

    The wise monk who has lived on top of a mountain all by himself for twenty years and thereby discerned the secrets of the universe is a myth. We learn from each other. Often by arguing. And that’s a good thing.

  • Michael Heath

    Abby Normal writes:

    This is exactly why I’ve cut back on my commenting here over the past year or so. I noticed I’d started to care about my status in the group and it was having a negative effect on the quality of my posts. I wanted to be right, to win, more than I wanted to contribute. So I decided to focus on listening instead of talking for a while.

    And it’s our collective loss since your comment posts are worthy of our consideration.

  • I think Michael Heath is right when he says that actively thinking about thinking — about the process of rigorous, critical thinking — is a valuable tool to avoid doing the things I described. And being around people who will challenge you on your thinking but that you really respect is a big help as well. I did a radio show for two years with Jeremy Beahan, one of my good friends and one of the hosts of the Reasonable Doubts podcast. He’s the most consistently rational person I know (the fact that he teaches critical thinking in college and thus thinks a great deal about it every day probably helps). And sometimes I find that I actually hear his voice in my head when I’m making an argument that is weak or designed to shortcut rationality rather than engage in it.

  • Sastra

    I’ve often been frustrated in real life discussions by some people’s tendency to confuse different meanings of the concept of an “argument” — and thus shut down all dissent. The technical meaning of the term of course has to do with a line of evidence and reasoning meant to persuade someone to change their mind, adopt a viewpoint, or engage in an activity. But in popular parlance an “argument” is taking place when both sides are angry and refusing to listen to the other side. It’s a fight for status. Nothing worthwhile ever comes out of such “arguments.”

    But if this second interpretation is then extrapolated into disagreements in general, there’s a serious problem. All arguments are fights. Debates are violence. Any time any person disagrees with someone else and tries to make a case, this is an example of ego. People are being forced to change.

    Since arguments are all bad, discussions then must consist only of people describing what they, personally, believe — and this must be respected. No disagreeing. No saying “you’re wrong” or “that’s wrong.” Only “I think different … but what you think is ok, too.”

    I think this style of argument against arguments is passive aggressive. A rule which forbids dissent is not promoting harmony and understanding: it’s establishing the majority status quo in a rather ruthless fashion.

  • anne mariehovgaard

    Sastra @ 12: This is not an argument, this is only contradiction 😉

    Unfortunately, a lot of people seem incapable of using “a line of evidence and reasoning meant to persuade someone to change their mind”, possibly because their own opinions are not based on evidence and reasoning.

  • xmaseveeve

    I used to teach the 4 levels of Communication (Scotvec). At each level, communication was ‘reading, writing, speaking and listening’. I always stressed that the most active component is listening. Once you can do that, you can communicate.

    In a debate, you learn to hold onto the threads of what someone is saying, divide them into different colours which you unweave from their arguments and assumptions.

    Later, in advocacy training, and mooting, I learned that the most effective and satisfying thing you can say is, ‘No further questions, my Lady (or Lord).

    Here’s a thing. In real life, which seems unreal right now, as I’m fighting agoraphobia, I argue quite well, purely by asking questions. Online, I feel inhibited from doing that, because of the presumption that anyone would care enough to answer me!

    So, I tend to go off on rants! I’m banned from everywhere. Thanks for this Ed. You are very wise sometimes. Isn’t it lovely to live and learn?

  • ladyatheist

    From 2002 to 2008 I worked in a rather scrappy workplace, where I learned to speak up for myself when it was clear my point of view was being ignored if I didn’t (and often even if I did). I’m a rather creative person, so if one of my ideas doesn’t fly I don’t really worry about it because I have 100 others waiting in the wings. I don’t get too attached to them unless there’s a super really good reason.

    One of my coworkers was a narcissist and managed to convince several coworkers that he was as great as he believed he was. I was the new kid for the whole six years even though I’d been in the profession since 1982 and had previously worked there in the 1980s. So naturally my ego got involved sometimes, but I think when i fought for my ego it was a worthwhile fight because of the dysfunctional situation. I challenged the status quo, which of course led to some workplace mobbing, but I don’t regret speaking up.

    Then in 2008 the narcissist’s role was expanded to include my job and I was pushed into an even scrappier corner of that organization. I gave it six months, and held my own in some very tough situations, then asked to be let go… and then wound up finding a job in the most polite and reticent workplace I’ve ever experienced. It’s freaky. We have meetings where nobody feels they can say anything, and others where things work pretty well, but always with Midwestern politeness. It has taken me a long time to get used to this atmosphere. I still have a kind of PTSD from the old place, and whenever things go wrong in the new place I’ll dream I’m back there. On the other hand I miss the old place because it was pretty clear where I stood and what people thought of me. Here they believe if you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all.

    I can certainly handle it if someone disagrees with me and I can change my mind, but I need to make sure people understand that IRL. Online, people seem a lot more eager to disagree.

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