David R. Henderson  

Stop Winning Arguments

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The Institute for Humane Studies asked me to write a piece on persuasion. My post at Learn Liberty, "If you want to persuade people, stop 'winning' arguments" is the result. Normally, I don't like it when editors substitute their title for mine. But this time I did.

An excerpt:

Some years ago, a colleague of mine had his students pair off according to their views on a controversial issue, one student on one side of the issue and the other on the opposite. He gave the "persuader" five minutes to try to persuade the "persuadee" of his viewpoint. When the time was up, he asked the "persuaders" to raise their hands if they had persuaded their partner. Many hands went up. Then he asked the "persuadees" to raise their hands if they had indeed been persuaded. Many fewer hands went up.

He then asked the persuaders who incorrectly thought they had convinced their partners to tell what their strategy had been. Invariably, they said that they had been at their rhetorical best, using logic and evidence to make their case. He then asked the persuaders who had succeeded to explain their strategy. Almost invariably, they said that they had simply asked questions. Why do you think what you think? Have you ever thought differently? Do you remember when you thought that way? What kinds of evidence would persuade you? If you thought this particular fact was not a fact, would that change your mind?


Thanks to Daniel Bier, who did an excellent editing job.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
mico writes:

That's correct if you want to persuade the person you are talking to, but usually you want to persuade an audience. Bystanders might not be any more rational, but they sure love winners.

Rich Berger writes:

Ah yes, the Socratic method. Changing minds for 2400+ years.

Phil writes:

David, Our Center for Executive Education provides opportunities for senior naval officers (admirals) to come to the university for a couple of days of 1:1 meetings with the faculty to discuss topics of interest as they prepare to take on new assignments. I recently arranged for two different professors to discuss a particular topic and the feedback from the admiral was that one was far more effective than the other. On reflection, I replied, "Yes, the first is someone predisposed to be helpful; the other needs to be right."

Greg G writes:

Excellent essay David. I like talking with libertarians about public policy issues because I find I almost always think they ask the right questions even if they sometimes get the wrong answers.

Mico makes a good point about attempting to persuade a group being different from attempting to persuade an individual.

In general, people tend to be persuaded by the people they like the most, not by the best arguments. This is why showing someone their argument is idiotic almost never persuades them.

Of course someone like Milton Friedman who was very likable and made the best possible arguments may enjoy the best of both worlds.

Glen Smith writes:

Funny, in my experience if the persuader is known, asking to many questions almost always fails.

GregS writes:

Yes! Great piece. If your metaphor for argument is "battle," you're doing something wrong.

dwb writes:

If you are trying to persuade people with facts, logic, or the Socratic Method, then you are playing checkers in a world of 6 dimensional chess.

Thank you David for the wonderful, thought provoking piece on an important subject. The subject is complex, or at least I could comment at length. But I will stop after pointing out two assumptions which seem to be made commonly by libertarians who argue with statists.

Assumption 1: Argument with statists is necessary.
David’s Learn Liberty piece starts with this question:

How should believers in freedom try to persuade other people to share their beliefs?
That question assumes, does it not, that believers in freedom should try persuasion? But consider where that assumption holds. It holds in democracy on a question where “we-all-together” make a decision. But it does not hold in private realms, in choice-spaces still beyond the reach of government regulation. In the US for example, persuasion has become important in the subject of immigration because that realm of choice has been gobbled up by government. But few think persuasion is essential in the realm of personal hairstyle choices, because government has not yet reached there.

Assumption 2: The best argument will win because argument with statists takes place on a level playing field.
There are circumstances in which a proponent of a policy will entertain discussion with one of us believers in freedom — only so long as the discussion seems headed in their direction. A farmer who has decided it is time to butcher a pig would prefer to have the pig walk voluntarily into the cage. So the farmer may try persuasion or bait. The farmer may wisely indulge a few oinks and sidesteps if that indulgence reduces his overall effort. But someone who thinks the pig may persuade the farmer to pursue a different policy has failed to grasp how the farmer survives. By analogy, statists may try conversing with libertarians as long as the statists believe their program may thereby advance, but we should not lose sight of the fact that the state is itself a form of life — feeding itself by feeding its constituents.

Shane L writes:

It's a great idea and fascinating.

I'd suggest another important point is to make sure the other person identifies with you. I've wondered if this is part of the reason I have seen feminist friends make very general comments like: "a feminist is someone who thinks women are people". That broad statement suggests that everyone who is not monstrous is a feminist, therefore most of us are feminists. This may help to persuade non-aligned people to identify as feminist.

Later come the more complicated and subtle feminist arguments on quotas, abortion, sex working and so on. I imagine that they are more likely to win these arguments when people identify with them to start with.

Steve writes:

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Hazel Meade writes:

I think Shane L is onto something.

First, you get people to identify themselves with a particular tribe.

THEN, you tell them what the tribe believes.

Personally, I hate this, but the past election is tremendous proof that it works, and works very effectively. I witnessed many Republicans and even libertarians do a complete 180 on free trade because Donald Trump (elected king of the tribe) took the opposite position that the tribe previously took. I even saw many of them confabulate explanations to rationalize the flip, of the "We've always been at war with Eurasia" variety.

Thaomas writes:

Questioning is my style almost exclusively. I find that the people I want to discuss with are generally infuriated by it. :) And I think I know why. Most people want to believe that different points of view result from different ultimate values. The questioning style confound that belief.

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