Try These 5 Techniques to Make Your Next Political Argument Fruitful (2022)

There we were, clinging to the pointed allegations of a sexual assault survivor and vociferous denials of the Supreme Court nominee. The testimony was emotional, raw and compelling. But was it likely to sway opinions? Nope. Predictably, people’s arguments and positions on the nomination aligned quite closely with political affiliation.

So where does that leave us now? With midterm elections just days away, is there any hope for rational discourse and persuading others to change their minds?

Business professor Michael Norton and behavioral economist Dan Ariely have given us some hope to hang onto. Their research has showed that when stripped of partisan information, Americans’ description of an ideal society is remarkably similar regardless of political affiliation. They found that when we boil the issues down to core values, we tend to agree.

But we’re up against a massive force. Our modern political parties are powerful tribes through which we express our social identities and take cues on how to vote. Often, it’s more important to humans that they be accepted by their tribe than to be right. And it’s not even that irrational: evolutionarily, not being part of a tribe was a death sentence.

Given the fight we’re up against this November, we’ll need all the tools in our tool kit to change hearts and minds. We reviewed the literature on moral persuasion to help uncover clever strategies to use in debate. The hope is these tactics will help people have productive conversations with people we disgree with.

Here are five strategies to change someone’s mind (and your own). To illustrate each tactic we have used the example of how to argue for and against gun control.

PROVIDE AN ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATION

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Imagine you are initially told that a warehouse fire was thought to have been caused by the negligent storage of gas cylinders and oil paints in a closet. You are later told that the closet was actually empty. Do you change your mind about the cause?

It turns out, no. Despite the correction, when they were asked about the cause of the fire, participants in a study continued to cite “gas and paint.” Participants recall that the information was updated, but without an alternative explanation for why the fire actually happened, they reverted to old information that provided a better fit to the fire’s cause.

Practical advice: Fill in the blanks. In the case of gun control, it might look like this:

If you’re against gun control: You can give your debate partner an alternative reason for the mass gun shootings. Advocates for gun control tend to cite mental illness as the default cause of killings.

If you’re in favor of gun control: In response to this mental illness claim, you may suggest that most young killers would not have been flagged as mentally ill. But you’d need to go a step farther and provide the alternative explanation. For example, you may share one thing killers do have in common: parents with guns that are easy to access.

ASK PEOPLE TO BE SKEPTICS

When debating with someone, it’s tempting simply to repeat your own point of view, leading to a conversation that resembles a game of ping-pong. You question your opponent’s viewpoint but not your own. There is some evidence to suggest you should instead kick off your debate by asking everyone involved to engage in universal skepticism. Political scientist Jennifer Jerit ran an experiment priming people to focus on the accuracy of information rather than other factors. This intervention, as described in The Atlantic, successfully led to reduced motivated reasoning in the lab.

Practical advice: Welcome questions.

Both sides: Whether you’re for or against a proposition, set the scene before you start debating. Give everyone the social permission to question each other about the accuracy of any statement made

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CREATE AN IN-GROUP WITH YOUR OPPONENT

You may have very different views from the person across the table, but it won’t help to think if it as a competition.

A study by social psychologist Muzafer Sherif at a boys’ camp successfully manipulated groups first into rivalries and later into alliances. After turning the groups against each other, they created allies by staging a scenario where competition would hurt each group. In one scenario the camp truck was on its way to retrieve essential supplies and became stuck. The boys had to cooperate to return the vehicle to its important mission. In another instance, researchers interrupted the camp's water supply, and the boys had to organize themselves to implement a fix.

Practical advice: Create a shared objective.

Both sides: Try to solve a problem together. State up front that you must agree on one thing. Regarding gun control, you might ask how we could work together to reduce accidental gun deaths in the home. This is an issue where people on both sides of the debate would agree that less is better. State up front that you must agree on one thing.

ASK FOR DETAILS ON HOW SOMETHING WORKS

In 2002, cognitive scientists Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil devised a test to demonstrate how much people know, relative to how much they think they know. They started with zippers. People were asked to rate their knowledge of zippers. Then they were asked to explain, in as much detail as possible, how a zipper works. After explaining a zipper, they were asked again to rate their knowledge of zippers.

People ended up lowering their self-ratings when they realized they didn’t actually know that much about zippers. The researchers coined the term “illusion of explanatory depth” to describe people's tendency to think they understand the world better than they actually do. In a follow up study, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach found that soliciting explanations about the operations and effects of political policy reduced not only the subjects’ sense of their understanding, but also reduced the extremity of their position.

Practical advice: Probe the question of and why something works.

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If you’re for gun control: Ask your opponent to explain background checks. What is the process and whom do they target?

If you’re against gun control: Ask your opponent to explain the Second Amendment and historically how it has been applied in America.

SHOW YOUR MESSAGE IS CONSISTENT WITH PRIOR BELIEFS

In his book Influence, Robert Cialdini describes tactics employed by the Chinese military to alter the hearts and minds of American POWs. The Chinese military would solicit very mild anti-American or pro-Communist statements from the American prisoners (e.g., “The United States is not perfect”). Soldiers might later be asked to list a few imperfections, and eventually they might write an essay on the topic. Through each successive step, the soldiers slightly reframed their commitment and self-perception. Researchers suggest that the fact that some of these commitments were in their own words and even in their own handwriting made them that much more powerful.

This study implies that to change someone’s mind, we need to create consistent (but slightly different) beliefs. It is unlikely someone will end the conversation with “I was so wrong about that” but they may say “I never thought about that before.”

Practical advice: Give your opponent a reason to slightly modify their beliefs.

If you’re for gun control: People who know someone who was killed in a mass shooting tend to support gun control measures. Think about how your beliefs might change if it happened in your town.

If you’re against gun control: How do other factors in society (besides guns) contribute to the mass killings and homicides? What could we do about those factors?

At times, changing people’s minds may seem impossible. But there is hope. We’ve done it before. In part, slavery was eventually abolished by changing the societal narrative. Religious movements such as the Quakers contributed to this change by interpreting religious texts in a way that made slavery appear very un-Christian, stirring up cognitive dissonance in the population. To maintain their social identities as Christians, many people had to revise their attitudes toward slavery. Through a concerted effort to educate their citizenry, the abolitionists were able to first have the slave trade banned and later have the practice eliminated altogether. To make this sort of progress in society, we must continue to seek ways to reframe the narrative at the macro level—but also within each conversation. The tactics above are just a slice of the various ways we can move beyond the status quo of our beliefs and towards a greater shared objective. To get more strategies you can use to bridge the partisan gap, check out our literature review essay “Breaking the Spell.”

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The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

    Kristen Berman is the co-founder of Irrational Labs, a behavioral science product design shop that focuses on increasing health, wealth and happiness.

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      Sara Dadkhah is a behavioral scientist with Irrational Labs. Her background focuses on public policy and humanitarian issues.

        Harry Snyder is the advocacy leader in residence at the Berkeley Center for Public Health Practice and Leadership, and a lecturer for the Division of Health Policy and Management.

        FAQs

        What is an example of a political argument? ›

        Political argument should be distinguished from propaganda, in that propaganda has little or no structure or the rationale, if it exists, is egregiously fallacious. A classic example of political arguments are those contained in The Federalist Papers arguing in favor of ratification of the American constitution.

        How do you make a good debate? ›

        1. Provide relevant points that connect to the topic. ...
        2. Provide proofs and credible data instead of just solely your own opinion. ...
        3. Take the audience into account. ...
        4. Use comparisons and claims to explain why your arguments are important. ...
        5. Remain flexible. ...
        6. Be confident. ...
        7. Think about your language. ...
        8. Avoid the following behaviors:

        How do you debate with people? ›

        To debate someone, be clear about why you disagree with them and what you believe instead, and avoid just saying "I disagree with you" or "You're wrong." After the person makes their argument, bring up evidence that counters what they said. Try to be as specific as possible so it's harder for them to disagree with you.

        How can you promote healthy debates and arguments support your answer? ›

        • 8 Ways to Encourage Healthy Debate in the Classroom. ...
        • Acknowledge that no ideas are silly ideas. ...
        • Actively listen. ...
        • Step up, step back. ...
        • Put yourself in someone else's shoes. ...
        • Take one deep breath before you speak. ...
        • Arrange the seating in a way that invites conversation between students. ...
        • Model respectful conflict management.
        Nov 7, 2016

        Why is it important for students to learn argumentation? ›

        Empirical research suggests that having students argue (and write persuasively) about issues that they can actually influence — such as writing a letter to the school principal in order to change a school policy — can result in higher student engagement and better learning outcomes.

        What are the political arguments for government intervention? ›

        Political arguments for government intervention cover a range of issues, including preserving jobs, protecting industries deemed important for national security, retaliating against unfair foreign competition, protecting consumers from “dangerous” products, furthering the goals of foreign policy, and advancing the ...

        What is a political debate? ›

        A leaders' debate or presidential debate is a public debate held during a general election campaign, where the candidates expose their political opinions and public policy proposals, and criticism of them, to potential voters. They are normally broadcast live on radio, television and Internet.

        How would you define an argument? ›

        1 : a reason or the reasoning given for or against a matter under discussion — compare evidence, proof. 2 : the act or process of arguing, reasoning, or discussing especially : oral argument.

        What makes an effective argument? ›

        Arguments must conform to a well-formed structure: first, they must contain reasons (or else they're merely opinions); and second, they must contain reasons that don't contradict each other or assume the truth of the conclusion.

        What makes a strong argument? ›

        Definition: A strong argument is a non-deductive argument that succeeds in providing probable, but not conclusive, logical support for its conclusion. A weak argument is a non-deductive argument that fails to provide probable support for its conclusion.

        What makes an argument convincing? ›

        It attempts to persuade a reader to adopt a certain point of view or to take a particular action. The argument must always use sound reasoning and solid evidence by stating facts, giving logical reasons, using examples, and quoting experts.

        Why is political debate important? ›

        Debates Help Reduce Political Tensions

        In divided election environments or countries emerging from conflict, debates give political rivals a chance to show that, despite their differences, they can treat each other with mutual respect while they disagree on the issues.

        How do you begin a debate? ›

        The best way to start a debate is to open with a bold rhetorical question, a touching personal story that's relevant to your argument, or a shocking statistic. Once you have your audience's attention, define the key terms you'll be using in your debate and summarize your case.

        What is the main purpose of debate? ›

        The main goals of classroom debate and inter-school debate tournaments are to encourage youth participation in debate, help students develop their communication and listening skills and ability to draw from given information, as well as to make and defend against arguments with logical and rational thinking.

        What is a good example of an argument? ›

        Common Argument Examples

        For example, the subject of an argument might be, “The internet is a good invention.” Then, we support this contention with logical reasons, such as “It is a source of endless information,” and “It is a hub of entertainment,” and so on.

        What is an example of an argument by example? ›

        For example, a French biologist might describe an interesting characteristic of ours blanc to a Greek biologist. The Greek biologist might then respond that she has noted a similar characteristic in πολική αρκούδα. If they had begun by calling the animal Ursus arctos, they might have saved time and avoided confusion.

        What is argument and its examples? ›

        For example, consider the argument that because bats can fly (premise=true), and all flying creatures are birds (premise=false), therefore bats are birds (conclusion=false). If we assume the premises are true, the conclusion follows necessarily, and it is a valid argument.

        What are the 5 elements of an argument? ›

        Information is used, but it is organized based on these major components of an argument: claim, reason, evidence, counter-claim, and rebuttal.

        What are the 5 basic debating skills? ›

        Debating Skills
        • Style is the manner in which you communicate your arguments. This is the. ...
        • 1.1 Speed: Talk at a pace which is fast enough to sound intelligent and allow you time to say what you want, but slow enough to be easily understood. ...
        • 1.2 Tone: ...
        • 1.3 Volume: ...
        • 1.4 Diction: ...
        • 1.5 Language: ...
        • 1.6 Clarity: ...
        • 1.7 Fluency:

        What are the 5 Steps to analyzing an argument? ›

        The five steps of analyzing arguments include: Determining what the arguer MEANS, CONSECUTIVELY numbering arguments, identifying the argument's MAIN CLAIM, DIAGRAMMING the argument, and CRITIQUING the argument.

        What makes a good argument essay? ›

        The argumentative essay requires well-researched, accurate, detailed, and current information to support the thesis statement and consider other points of view. Some factual, logical, statistical, or anecdotal evidence should support the thesis.

        Why is a strong argument important? ›

        Argument teaches us how to evaluate conflicting claims and judge evidence and methods of investigation. Argument helps us learn to clarify our thoughts and articulate them accurately. Arguments also consider the ideas of others in a respectful and critical manner.

        What makes a good argument logic? ›

        A good argument is an argument that is either valid or strong, and with plausible premises that are true, do not beg the question, and are relevant to the conclusion. Now that you know what a good argument is, you should be able to explain why these claims are mistaken.

        How do you write an argumentative essay example? ›

        The basic formula is this: Introductory Paragraph - containing a hook and thesis statement. Body Paragraphs - containing at least three striking arguments and one rebuttal to the opposing side. Conclusion - summarizing the main points and leaving a lasting mark on readers' minds.

        Can political arguments be resolved through reasoning Class 11? ›

        Yes, Political argument can be resolved through reasoning.

        What is economic argument? ›

        CSR is an argument of economic self-interest for businesses. CSR adds value because it allows companies to reflect the needs and concerns of their various stakeholder groups.

        What are the 5 parts of an argumentative essay? ›

        Information is used, but it is organized based on these major components of an argument: claim, reason, evidence, counter-claim, and rebuttal.

        How do you present an argument? ›

        Remember to present your thesis statement or main idea clearly, and remember it should present your argument. Provide the highlights of your evidence from your essay (if you are building from an essay) or simply focus on the key points of evidence from your research. Remember to address the opposition.

        How do you solve strong and weak arguments? ›

        Strong & Weak Arguments | Critical Reasoning | Analytical Reasoning

        Why do we need political theory give four reasons? ›

        It helps to think, helps to find out the solution to problems that are happening in our political world and it also gives the reasons for our every action of political life. Again it can say that no political theory means political problems without solutions. Every subject grows because of its theoretical dimension.

        What is statement and argument? ›

        Argument is a fact that is being given by a person to support or oppose a statement. In this type of questions, a statement concerned with an issue is given, followed by certain arguments in favour or against that statement. You have to identify the logical correct arguments.

        What is the best argument you can make for an economic position that is opposite the one you hold? ›

        One way to make sure your economic argument is sound is to take the strongest argument of somebody opposite of you, and understand how they got to that position. An example would be a free-market advocate making the strongest case they can for a command economy.

        Is government intervention necessary? ›

        Without government intervention, firms can exploit monopoly power to pay low wages to workers and charge high prices to consumers. Without government intervention, we are liable to see the growth of monopoly power. Government intervention can regulate monopolies and promote competition.

        What are agglomeration economies in the industrial context? ›

        Agglomeration economies refers to the benefits received by the firms and people when they come together to make use of the advantages offered by the urban cities that prove helpful to them.

        What is argumentative techniques in writing? ›

        Goal of ARGUMENTATIVE WRITING: To get reader to acknowledge that your side is valid and deserves consideration as another point of view. General technique of argumentative writing: Offers the reader relevant reasons, credible facts, and sufficient evidence to support that the writer has a valid and worthy perspective.

        What are the techniques and strategies used in argumentative essay? ›

        Aristotle's Three Appeals: Strategies used to influence an audience. These methods include appeals to emotions (pathos), ethics (ethos), and logic (logos). Counterargument: A point that is against the thesis or claim statement.

        What is the techniques and strategies used in persuasive essay? ›

        A sure-fire way to convince your readers of your point is to use concrete examples, provide statistics or facts, or cite experts in the field. This evidence will provide perspective, help you explain complex ideas, and support your arguments. But make sure your evidence is credible.

        Videos

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