It’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.