Pop-psychology of debating: a short guide to political brawls

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November 9 , 2017 – Fort Russ News – 
Op-ed by Denis Churilov

In the ideal world, people would have rational discussions, they would talk calmly about issues, listen to each other’s arguments, evaluate them, and then come up with the best, most optimal answers and solutions that everyone would agree on. In the real world, however, it’s next to impossible for people to find a common ground in most discussions and debates. People don’t tend to change their minds and agree with their opponents easily, even if provided with irrefutable evidence. 

The reasons for that vary. Below is a short summary of the the most general and the most common of them.

1. Hidden agendas. People might have hidden motives when they argue for or against certain ideas. I would refer to such people as “agents”, for the sake of convenience. An example would be a politician who is trying increase the influence of their political party, or a “journalist” who is hired to do a “hit-job”, a bot or a sock-puppet on Twitter, a PR-agent who is promoting his organization, a salesperson who is trying to sell something, etc. They may not really care about the issue. Further, they may not even believe the things they say. It’s just that they have to spread certain ideas at all costs (because they are being paid to do so, for instance), and, therefore, if argued with, they may easily resort to omissions, manipulations and outright lies. They don’t care about the truth. They only care about doing their job, and their job is to propagate certain ideas, no matter how debatable/false those ideas are. 

2. Ego. Believe it or not, but, in many cases, when people argue, they don’t really argue for the sake of finding and defending the truth, but to prove to others (and to themselves) that they are right. This problem is especially common among teenagers and young adults, but can often be observed among professional academics as well. Especially when debates happen in the presence of large audience. It’s more of a status thing, really, and it has its roots in evolutionary biology (has mostly to do with dominance). It often happens that people take things personally and start defending their ideas as if they were defending their pride, getting defensive and closing the opportunity for any proper discussion (and later consolidating their own views through subconscious mental gymnastics).

3. Identity. Heavily related to the previous point, but it’s not quite the same thing. Here we often have the topics such as religion, national and racial issues, professional pride, sexuality, and so on. Values would also come here. If a topic you’re discussing is a matter of personal identity to your opponent, they are likely to perceive any criticism of their views as a personal attack (especially when they’re not really secure about their identity). 

This is where you can’t have any sorts of rational discussion, as it will trigger all sorts of defense mechanisms that would most certainly distort reality and logic. Even if people are solid and secure about their identity, it would be next to impossible to change their views, as their views are rooted deep in the way they think and perceive the world. It’s counterproductive to, say, debate the existence of God with people who consider themselves Christian and Muslim, same way as it’s counterproductive to debate gender equality matters with someone who strongly identifies themselves as a feminist.

Remember: when it comes to topics that involve your opponent’s identity and values, it’s not going to be a matter of logic and rationality to them. There are exceptions, of course, but, either way, the chances are that their views will not change and the discussion will degrade to an unsophisticated brawl with opponents exchanging insults (which might as well be fun, in certain cases, but, alas, it is unlikely to result in anything constructive). 

4. Perceiving the world through emotions. Some people just generally prefer to feel rather than to think. Experiencing the world through feelings and emotions is much easier than analyzing information cognitively and logically. I would refer to such people as the “idiots”, for the sake of convenience. Idiots can be relatively well educated, but they are prone to the most basic cognitive biases and distortions that you can find in first-year Psychology textbooks. They think that they think, but they don’t. They can’t have their own opinion, so they follow the crowd and go with the mainstream flow, ultimately confusing majority’s opinion with the truth. When they are presented with new information that contradicts what they think they know from the mainstream, they will just ignore it (or shut it down subconsciously) to avoid cognitive dissonance. They are the most easy prey for the “agents” who can easily turn them into manipulable “zombies” (provided that they have the necessary media resources to do so). Presenting facts, appealing to rationality and logic is unlikely to work. It’s just not the way their mind works.

5. Mental health issues. Paranoia, clinical cognitive distortions, schizophrenia with psychosis, all that kind of stuff. Don’t argue with people who suffer from those. Help them to seek medical treatment. 


Obviously, the factors mentioned above are not mutually exclusive. Thus, for instance, an “agent” who propagates a certain idea is likely to start believing it themselves, which then can easily become a part of their values/identity. Many political pundits and “journalist” in the mainstream media really do believe that they take a higher moral ground when they preach about topics such as Syria, Ukraine or Russia (which, at times, makes them more convincing). Similarly, some impressionable people can be stressed down to mental health issues with constant stream of emotionally charged propaganda (we remember the reports of suicide prevention hotlines receiving a record high number of calls following Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 Presidential Elections). 

The thing to take out of this is that no human being is fully rational and objective, especially when social influence gets involved. Everyone has their own biases. It’s just comes down to whether people are aware of their biases and are able to admit that they have them. 

Having biases, obviously, doesn’t relieve us from the necessity of understanding the reality the way it is and trying to solve the issues we face collectively.

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