How to Win an Argument Using Psychology . . . or should you even try?

Barry Lenson

How to Win an ArgumentIt’s Saturday morning. You and your significant other are disagreeing. You have your side of the argument. He or she has his. You are both determined to win and for some reason, the mood is heating up.

Heating up? Yes. But here’s the cool part. According to some psychologists, the whole discussion you are having is probably pointless.  Over the centuries, people have come to believe that they can arrive at a solution by arguing with each other – that’s what we expect to happen. But now some psychologists are starting to think that people don’t argue to arrive at solutions, but to feel better and to gain a social advantage.  You can read about some of these new-thinking shrinks, like Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier, in a recent article in The New York Times.

That same article explains some other new theories about why arguing is not much more than a pointless social ritual.  Some psychologists are now theorizing, for example, that people tend to remember only information that supports viewpoints that they already agree with, and forget the rest. So the more opinionated people become about a topic, the less they really understand.

If you think that people from the fictional county Papadapistan are all evil, for example, you will seek out and remember information that supports that belief; you will also avoid or forget information that refutes your viewpoint.  People remember stuff that they like to remember, to put it another way, and forget stuff that doesn’t please them. It’s just that simple.

Okay, that’s all theoretically interesting. But how can you put those theories to use in your daily interactions with other people? Let’s say for example that your spouse likes to buy organic foods or take you to the opera, and you’re trying to get him or her to cut it out and do things the way you want.

Here's some wisdom that  flows logically from the new psychological insights described above . . .

  • Try to live with as few opinions as you can.  Let’s say that you love MSNBC news or Fox News. You like the way your favorite commentators reinforce your political beliefs. But when you stop to think about it, you realize that those media outlets don’t only support your opinions, they actually created them.  If you accept the idea that you’re only toting those opinions because you hope to use them to win a arguments that are really about nothing except winning, it gets a lot easier to just let them go. You’re not amassing wisdom, only ammo.
  • Agree to disagree, and just don’t argue.  You’d like your boyfriend to stop watching the same “Everybody Loves Raymond” reruns over and over. Or you’d like your girlfriend to stop hanging around with a certain group of her friends who you don’t think like you. Well . . . stop wanting those things, and stop trying to get your significant other to change. Just let it go. And on the flip side, be willing to give up your side of an argument early. If it doesn’t really mean anything, why keep it going for long?
  • Give up on the idea of winning.  Have you ever seen anyone actually “win” an argument by getting the person on the other side to give up his or her opinions? I know I haven’t, and I doubt that you have either.

To learn more . . .

Why not take a course in introductory psychology?  It can be a great way to not only understand other people’s motivations, but your own too.

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7 thoughts on “How to Win an Argument Using Psychology . . . or should you even try?”

  • Steve Pendry

    This sounds exactly like what the political pundits said to the Republicans after losing the last Presidential Election. "Be more like the Democrats and you will win" . Seriously, what stupidity. The REAL reason Republicans lost the last election, was because the Republican candidates looked TOO MUCH like DEMOCRATS and it angered the Conservative base into staying home, causing the loss. So, no, I''m not going to give in to every argument I get into when I believe the other person is incorrect, ill informed, uninformed or just plain wrong. I believe that was what Neville Chamberlain did for Great Britain, how did that work our for them.

  • randydutton

    This article is absurd. As a former 2008 political candidate, I had my share of 'arguments' with my opponent (the WA state legislative majority leader). Frequently she ended up siding with my point of view despite her 17 years in a liberal position. She even admitted during a newspaper editorial meeting that "if they wanted facts, ask Randy, his are probably right."Your article would defy that happening. She didn't change the media she watched, nor did I. Yes, she still won, but only because she had vast the power of incumbency in a Democratic district. Additionally, I frequently convinced Democratic voters to vote for this Republican.

    My wife and I occasionally have different positions but each will change our position if the other has the better argument.

    Your article seems to imply futility is a the best solution.

  • Jeff Rogers

    I shutter to think if the article's line of reasoning would have worked if we would have just given in to the arguments of Slavery and Nazi Germany. It is important to defend truth

  • Pete

    What started out sounding like a compelling article proved itself to be no more than an exercise in sophomoric thinking. Not only does the writer deign to understand the underlying principles behind every argument, but goes so far as to suggest that no one is capable of admitting when they're wrong because they are driven solely by ego.
    Could have and should have been an excellent article, but too little understanding of all the possibilities behind arguments and in a rush to pat themselves on the back for 'thinking outside the box' on this one, they simply showed their own personal limitations and the writer of this article is most likely someone that none of us should ever concede an argument to.
    Nor do I really expect that he is likely to give up on any point of contention from here on out either.

  • Chris

    Great advise here. I have applied it recently to this one particular person I know who loves to argue with me about stupid stuff and I love the results now more than ever. Thanks.

  • petie3

    I reject the entire premise of the article. My opinions are not created by Chris Matthews or Bill O'Reilly, although I respect Dr. Krauthammer a lot. To abandon truth for peace and quiet is what gave us Munich.