‘You can’t say that!’: how to argue, better

A few years ago, I had an argument with a close friend who had decided not to give his children any vaccinations. To preserve our relationship, I vowed never to talk about vaccines with him again. When Covid-19 arrived, I broke that vow. For the next nine months, we duked it out in email threads so long that we ran out of new colours for our replies. One day, he made a comment that caught me off guard. We’d argued more in the past year than we’d spoken in the preceding decade. “I don’t know about you,” he wrote, “but I love it.”

He wasn’t alone. I found myself looking forward to our cognitive cage fights. Instead of pushing us apart, arguing brought us closer together. And rather than closing our minds, we both opened up. We admitted we were wrong on some points – and discovered harmony on others.

In our polarised world, a productive disagreement is a rare occurrence. Research shows that the average person would rather talk to a stranger who shares their political views than a friend who doesn’t. That’s a travesty. As an organisational psychologist and recovering conflict avoider, I’ve spent years studying how to build our argument literacy. Arguing well is a skillset, but it’s heavily influenced by your mindset. A good debate isn’t about one person declaring victory, it’s about both people making a discovery.


Are you a preacher, prosecutor or politician?

In disagreements, too many of us think like preachers, prosecutors and politicians. In preacher mode, you’re trying to proselytise your views. In prosecutor mode, you’re attacking someone else’s. And in politician mode, you don’t even listen to people unless they already share your views.

Illustration of a man raising his hands
Illustration: Hannah Robinson/The Guardian

When I hear someone talk like a preacher or politician, I often snap into prosecutor mode. There are few things that offend me more than ignorance masquerading as knowledge. If I think you’re wrong, I feel it’s my professional responsibility as a social scientist – and my moral responsibility as a human being – to correct you. I’ve been called a logic bully. It took me too long to realise that hammering people with facts rarely wins the argument and sometimes loses the relationship. Whether you’re preaching, prosecuting or politicking, you’ve already concluded that you’re right and they are wrong. You’ve flipped a switch that shuts down your capacity for critical thinking.


Learn to recognise your own lazy thinking

In a pair of clever experiments run by an international team of cognitive scientists, people had to generate logical arguments on a range of issues, then evaluate other people’s answers to the same questions. What the participants didn’t know was that one of their own arguments had been mixed into the set they were being asked to evaluate. When they thought that argument was made by someone else, 57% of people rejected it.

Our reasoning is selectively lazy. We hold our own opinions to lower standards than other people’s. When someone doesn’t buy the case you’re making, it’s worth remembering that you might not either if you weren’t the one selling it.


Stay critical, even when you’re emotional

The more charged the issue, the harder it is to stay in control of your critical thinking skills. When the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, many liberals were understandably outraged. As they slipped into prosecutor mode, though, I watched their reasoning falter. Many argued that it was wrong to walk away from precedent, forgetting that they stood against precedent when it came to overturning the 1972 ruling that outlawed gay marriage. Many conservatives fell into the same trap. They insisted there was no constitutional right to bodily autonomy, overlooking that they had insisted regulations to inject a vaccine into their body were a violation of their constitutional freedom.

We choose the most convenient arguments to preach our convictions but demand bulletproof facts before we will rethink them. It’s not just due to confirmation bias – the tendency to seize ideas that validate our views, while dismissing information that challenges them. It’s also because of distance. We’re often too close to our own arguments to evaluate them critically. To recognise our blind spots, we need other people to hold up a mirror. Friction isn’t inherently bad; it can be productive. If two people always agree, at least one of them is failing to think critically or speak candidly. A difference of opinion doesn’t have to threaten a relationship, it can be an opportunity to learn. The people who teach you the most are the ones who question your thought process, not the ones who validate your conclusions.


Embrace the shades of grey

My friend who was opposed to vaccines works in healthcare. I asked him if he could help me identify flaws in my reasoning about the benefits of them. He quickly pointed out that when I said, “Vaccines are safe and effective,” I was parroting a narrative. How safe? How effective? He was right. I had fallen victim to what psychologists call binary bias. It’s when we take a complex spectrum and oversimplify it into two categories. If we want to have better arguments, we need to look for the shades of grey.

Photograph of someone throwing a glass of wine at someone else over dinner
‘Great minds don’t think alike – they challenge each other to think again.’ This image and top: food and prop styling: Liam Baker. Manicurist: Mara Soares at Beautii using OPI. Hand models: Emily Hayden and Joelle Dyson. Photograph: Jay Brooks/The Guardian

In the Difficult Conversations Lab at Columbia University in New York, psychologists asked people on opposite sides of the abortion debate to have a 20-minute discussion about the issue, then consider writing and signing a joint statement about their shared views. Before the discussion, they read one of two versions of an article on a different issue: guns. A simple edit to the article was enough to boost their odds of finding common ground on abortion from 46% to 100%. In the first version, the gun issue was presented as a war between two camps; in the second, it was framed as a complex issue that could be seen through many different sides of a prism. There were plenty of conservatives who favoured universal background checks for gun ownership, and quite a few liberals who supported the right to bear arms. Once people saw the shades of grey on guns, they came to the abortion conversation with a more open mind.

I needed to bring that complexity into my arguments. I asked my friend how he would weigh the benefits against the costs of vaccines. To my surprise, we agreed on the standards. We’d have to weigh the probability and severity of Covid-19 against the probability and severity of adverse effects from vaccines. When I sent him some initial evidence showing that the benefits outweighed the risks, he said my view was biased. Instead of making one-sided arguments, I should be questioning the status quo. I told him the goal isn’t to challenge a narrative – it’s to find the truth.


Agree on your approach to arguing

In conflict-mediation training, I learned that if you want to have a good argument, it helps to take a step back and talk about how you argue. I told my friend that before debating the facts, we should discuss how to assess them. A balanced argument doesn’t weigh two sides equally – it gives more weight to the strongest evidence. He was trying to use a chart implying a weak correlation between vaccination rates and mortality to debunk the results of multiple randomised controlled trials. He said the results of these trials could be exaggerated by scientists with incentives to promote vaccines, and that adverse events might be suppressed by big pharma and the government.

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My friend had helped me see the selective laziness of my reasoning. Now I had an opportunity to help him spot a hole in his. I asked if he believed the Earth is round. He said yes. I asked him to consider what it would look like if he evaluated evidence on the shape of the Earth the same way he does vaccines. He might say physicists are biased and astronauts are paid to lie. He might insist on seeing it with his own eyes. I followed up with another question. Even if he could see a round Earth from space, who’s to say it isn’t an optical illusion? The Earth is spinning, but your eyes (and inner ears) tell you it’s standing still. I acknowledged that he has some valid concerns about vaccines, and that I share some of them. But I worry that on this issue, he’s more in the Flat Earther camp than the science camp. For the first time in our 30-year friendship, he said: “I see what you’re saying.”

People who are sceptical of scientific evidence on one issue rarely deny it across the board. Climate change deniers put their faith in physics each time they board a plane. Vaccine sceptics show their trust in medicine whenever they take an antibiotic.


Build up to the really toxic topics

The stronger your convictions, the harder it is to recognise your biases. Finding an issue where views are less extreme can create some distance. I didn’t have to attack my friend’s conclusions, I just had to help him reflect on his own thought process. A few months later, he proposed that we should switch sides on the debate. He sent me a study suggesting that, compared with people who were vaccinated and boosted, unvaccinated people had a risk more than 13 times greater of being infected with Covid – and more than 53 times greater of dying from it.

Illustration of a woman holding out her hands in frustration
Illustration: Hannah Robinson/The Guardian

The highest compliment from someone who disagrees with you is not, “You were right.” It’s “You made me think.” Good arguments help us recognise complexity where we once saw simplicity. The ultimate purpose of debate is not to produce consensus. It’s to promote critical thinking.

As children, many of us were taught that it isn’t polite to disagree. As adults, we often shy away from minor disagreements with our partners. The risk is that we never prepare for the major ones. Arguing well is like learning to balance on a tightrope. You wouldn’t get up one morning and walk across the Grand Canyon. You’d start off on a low rope and work your way up with a safety net. If you only argue when the stakes are high, your emotions are running too hot to think and learn. Practising small fights is how you train for the big ones. Before clashing on racism or trans rights, try duking it out on tax policy.


Keep agreeing to disagree

My friend and I are well into our second year of the vaccine debate. We still don’t see eye to eye on many things. When I sent him a study estimating that the Covid-19 vaccines saved 14 million lives in 2021 alone, he said the official reports for Covid-19 deaths were based on flawed data – we don’t know how many deaths were really caused by the pandemic. I told him he was right: the researchers dealt with that problem by tracking total excess all-cause mortality – the difference between actual death rates in 185 countries and the expected number of deaths if there had not been a pandemic. The reported deaths were an underestimate: it appears that vaccines saved 19.8 million lives. He’s still digesting the results and waiting for the longer-term data.

In the meantime, we’ve taught each other quite a bit. He’s educated me about the number of people needed to treat in order for one person to benefit from a Covid vaccine, and I’ve sharpened his understanding of study design and statistics.

Great minds don’t think alike – they challenge each other to think again. The clearest sign of intellectual chemistry isn’t agreeing with someone. It’s enjoying your disagreements with them. Harmony is a pleasing arrangement of different sounds, not the same ones. Creative tension can make beautiful music.

The Guardian