Trying to “win” an argument rarely convinces anyone of anything, because when people feel like their beliefs are being threatened, they guard them even more.
Brain scans help us see why. In one study of political beliefs during the 2004 election year, participants were shown divisive video clips of George W. Bush or John Kerry.
Time magazine reports:
As soon as [study subjects] recognized the video clips as being in conflict with their worldview, the parts of the brain that handle reason and logic went dormant and the parts of the brain that handle hostile attacks — the fight-or-flight response — lit up. This is what happens when a discussion becomes an argument. It’s no longer an exercise in logic and reasoning. It’s just a fight.
So if you want to convince anyone of anything, you need to make a point without starting a fight.
This is where the tactic of extreme agreement — or showing people the logical conclusion of their beliefs — comes in. It can help people loosen up in even the most charged of political arguments, like around the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict.
In a study published this month, Tel Aviv University scholars recruited over 150 Israelis to watch videos. As the LA Times reports, half of them watched clips “that related the conflict with Palestinians back to values that many Israelis hold dear,” while the control group watched TV commercials.
The study revealed that “showing people versions of ideas that confirmed — not contradicted — their opinions on a deeply divisive issue actually caused them to reconsider their stance and become more receptive to other points of view,” The Times reports.
The key here: The videos took lots of commonly held beliefs to their logical conclusion.
Again, The Times:
“For example, the fact that they are the most moral society in the world is one of the most basic beliefs of Israeli society,” [study author Eran] Halperin said. So when the researchers showed participants a video that claimed Israel should continue the conflict so that its citizens could continue to feel moral, people reacted angrily.
“You take people’s most basic beliefs and turn them into something that is absurd,” Halperin said. “For an outsider, it can sound like a joke, but for them, you are playing with their most fundamental belief.”
The video viewing — which happened in the months before the 2013 Israeli election — left an impression. Participants self-reported that they were 30% more likely to reconsider their views than the control group. The change in perspective lasted more than a year afterward, and it carried into politics, too, as participants were more likely to vote for moderate candidates after viewing all those videos.
How might this finding carry over to a real life argument? A recent University of Colorado study helps here: When political extremists were asked to explain how their favorite policy would create change — rather than rattle off the reasons for why the policy should be enacted — their views quickly softened.
For example, let’s say you have a family BBQ in the next few weeks and your ultra-conservative Uncle Ted shows up. Making arguments with Ted about immigration reform won’t get either of you anywhere. But if you practice extreme agreement, you would ask Ted to tell you the full conclusions of his views and how those views can actually translate into policy.
The takeaway from all this research: If you’re trying to change your spouse, colleague, or uncle’s mind, ask them what the logical conclusion of their stance would be, and then ask them to explain how their theories could be put into practice.
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