Monday, July 31, 2017

Political Persuasion 201: Stop Trying to Win.

We suck at arguing about politics. This is partly because we always have this dream of how we want the argument to end. We’re going to make some amazing point and all of a sudden our opponent is going to see the light and realize...

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The idea that we can really “win” a political argument, and force our opponents to wallow in their own wrongness is seductive. But it’s something we need to give up, because it’s NEVER going to happen.

Think about it – have you have you ever seen someone arguing about politics suddenly change their mind and admit they were wrong? It’s pretty rare.

This doesn’t mean political arguments are worthless though. Arguments can change minds. But only if we stop trying to win them.

Being Wrong Hurts

“Winning” an argument means getting the other side to admit that they were wrong.  But admitting that you are wrong hurts. Admitting you are wrong in public hurts even more. And when something hurts that bad, we just don’t do it. It’s that simple.

It's even worse when we're talking about politics. If you're the kind of person who likes arguing about politics in the first place, then your political views are probably closely tied up with how you see yourself as a person. Being wrong about politics might mean a accepting some pretty harsh truths about your own life. 

If you see yourself as smart because you don’t believe in “fake news,” but it turns out you do...then you’re not smart, you’re dumb. If you see yourself as a “good person” because you fight against “leftist fascism,” but it turns out you’re actually being racist, then you’re not a good person, you’re a bad person. If you spent your entire life working to promote conservative values, but it turns out those values are bogus, then you’ve wasted your life. Even admitting that to yourself would be painful. Now imagine doing it in front of an audience who wants nothing better than to watch you suffer. 

When I say being wrong hurts, it’s not just a metaphor. If you’re a liberal and want a taste of how this feels, just think back to when Trump won the election, when it seemed like everything we believed about America, about social justice, about democracy itself, was wrong. I know liberals who felt physical pain when Trump won: nausea, stomach cramps, trouble sleeping. Now imagine feeling ten times worse. That’s what it would feel like for die-hard Trump supporters to admit that they are wrong.

Can Arguments EVER Work?

Admitting you are wrong hurts. But actually being wrong can also a different way. 
The psychologist Leon Festinger formulated the theory of cognitive dissonance to explain the sense of unease and discomfort we feel when our beliefs are in conflict with one another. Arguments can convince us to change our minds when they force us to confront a dissonance in our own beliefs that is so uncomfortable that we need to change our beliefs in order to make the discomfort go away. 

Cognitive Dissonance in Action

Was it “collusion” for Donald Trump Jr. to meet with a Russian attorney promising damaging intelligence on Hillary Clinton? No, Trump supporters said, because the Russians didn’t actually have any was all just a ploy to talk about something else. 

But then someone points out...

Most of us believe that trying to rob a bank is still wrong, and Donald Jr. admitted that he was trying get damaging information on Clinton at the meeting from “Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump.” This argument makes it clear how dissonant it is to believe both of those (obviously true) things while also believing that Don Jr. did nothing wrong. This dissonance is, in some sense, painful. They way to make the pain go away is by changing your mind, and agreeing that it was wrong for Donald Jr. to take the meeting.

But you’re never going to see Trump supporters admit that. At least not yet. They may not have a good counter argument, but they don’t want to get hurt. So they’ll change the subject,

...or call you names

Or, more likely, they’ll just stay silent, and try not to think about it. 

As much as cognitive dissonance hurts, losing an argument in public and admitting that you’ve been duped into blindly supporting a family whose authoritarian, anti-American impulses are held in check only by their utter ineptitude hurts a thousand times worse. If you have a choice between something that hurts a little, and something that hurts a lot, which are you going to choose? 

People are willing to put up with a lot of cognitive dissonance if the alternative is even worse. 

So How Do We Change People’s Minds? 

The key to getting someone to change their mind is to try and make it not hurt as badly. There are a few ways we can do this.

1: Be nice to them.  

It’s a lot easier admitting you are wrong to friend than an enemy. If you call me names and obviously take delight in my suffering, then I’m sure as hell not going to give you the satisfaction, just on principle. But if someone I respect makes a good argument against me, it doesn’t hurt so badly to admit it, and I'm going to be more likely to listen to your arguments in the first place.

2: Give them time.

Sometimes we have to ease into things. If I’m ever going to admit that my entire political worldview is wrong, it’s not going to happen overnight. It will happen gradually, in fits and starts. Changing my mind slowly doesn’t hurt as much as changing it all at once. And as time goes by, we’re able to distance ourselves from our past views. It’s a lot easier for me to admit to mistakes I made when I was a teenager than the mistakes I made last week.

3: Let them win.

If you convince me that I’m wrong, I’ve lost the argument. And losing hurts. But if I convince myself that I was wrong, then I didn’t lose anything. In fact, I’ve won! I’m not a moron for being wrong, I’m a genius for figuring out that I was wrong! I don’t have to “eat crow” or admit defeat to anyone. This makes changing my mind a lot less painful. And because changing our minds on politics hurts so much, this is probably the only way we’re ever going to do it. There’s no way you are ever going to convince me to change my mind, but maybe, like Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception,  you can trick me into convincing myself to change my own mind. 

Be Gardeners, not Warriors

This may sound impossible, but it’s not. The trick is to adjust your strategy. If you are arguing with me about politics, stop trying to win, and focus on planting seeds. A well-formed argument is like a seed that you plant in my garden. If it’s a good argument it will cause me cognitive dissonance - and gnaw at me long after our conversation ends. Over time, that seed will grow into a vine which will intertwine with my other beliefs. I’ll forget that you were the one who planted it, and start to think of it as mine. Then, slowly, and in private, I might start to reconsider some of my own beliefs. One day I’ll wake up and my mind will be changed, but it happened so gradually that it didn’t hurt so badly. 

This is how it worked for Megan Phelps Roper. Her dramatic change from a homophobic, fundamentalist member of the Westboro Baptist Church to an advocate for tolerance and LGBTQ rights didn’t happen overnight. It took a long time - over three years - and even though the seeds of her transformation were planted in Twitter arguments with a blogger named David Abitbol, Megan had to convince herself to change. She won. 

If Trump supporters are ever going to change their minds, this is how it will happen. These people voted for Trump less than a year ago. No matter how good our arguments are, it may just take them more time to come to terms with that decision.

Don’t Expect a Medal

Of course, even if you can pull of this bit of “inception,” you shouldn’t expect to get any credit.  If your arguments really do change someone’s mind, you probably won’t be around to savor it. It may be weeks, months, or years before your arguments take root, and if you really did your job well, then your opponent won’t even think of them as your arguments. They’ll see their change as something they came to on their own. 

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying. We need to plant as many seeds as possible if we want them to grow. It’s not always going to work, but sometimes it will, even though we may never know for sure. So keep getting in arguments, and planting those seeds! And don’t be discouraged if the conversation ends with a slammed door, or an incoherent string of profanity, or some non sequitur about Hillary Clinton’s email server.

It can be hard to just walk away from an argument when your opponent is being an illogical jerk. Letting a bad argument stand, or not responding to a dumb claim can seem like an admission of defeat. And it would feel so good to really stick it to them, get them to admit just how utterly wrong they are.  But remember: you’re not trying to win right now, you’re just planting seeds. 

Be nice, give it time, and, although you may not be around to see it, trust that one day those seeds will grow.  


Festinger, L. (1962). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Vol. 2). Stanford university press.

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