Presenting Facts Can Sometimes Backfire

Presenting Facts Can Sometimes Backfire People tend to have contempt for ideas that they disagree with. What’s worse is the possibility that some people, when presented with information that goes against their beliefs, may not only snub their challengers, but also double down on their original viewpoints. Cognitive psychologists call this the backfire effect.

For instance, voters have been shown to judge the political candidate they support even more favorably after the candidate is attacked by the other party. In the same way, parents opposed to vaccinations have been shown to become more convinced of their alleged apprehension that vaccination causes autism after reviewing studies showing that vaccinating their kids is the best course of action.

The backfire effect explains why, when people argue against conflicting information strongly enough, they wind up with more supportive arguments for their cause, which further aligns them with their preexisting positions.

The backfire effect is related to confirmation bias—the rampant propensity to seek, interpret, synthesize, and recall information in a way that substantiates one’s preconceptions. For instance, when people read an article that describes both sides of an issue, they tend to select that side that they happen to agree with—thus reinforcing their viewpoints.

See also: the phenomenon of group polarization explains why people who share opinions and beliefs get together in groups, they tend to be even more persuaded in their beliefs.

Rapoport’s Rules to Criticize Someone Constructively

'Intuition Pumps' by Daniel Dennett (ISBN 0393082067) In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, philosopher Daniel Dennett lists Anatol Rapoport‘s rules of constructive argument and debate:

Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent? If there are obvious contradictions in the opponent’s case, then you should point them out, forcefully. If there are somewhat hidden contradictions, you should carefully expose them to view—and then dump on them. But the search for hidden contradictions often crosses the line into nitpicking, sea-lawyering and outright parody. The thrill of the chase and the conviction that your opponent has to be harboring a confusion somewhere encourages uncharitable interpretation, which gives you an easy target to attack. But such easy targets are typically irrelevant to the real issues at stake and simply waste everybody’s time and patience, even if they give amusement to your supporters. The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one’s opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport (creator of the winning Tit-for-Tat strategy in Robert Axelrod’s legendary prisoner’s dilemma tournament).

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said).

This comports with the following sage advice gentle art of criticizing people effectively:

  • “If you disagree with somebody, you want to be able to state their case better than they can. And at that point you’ve earned the right to disagree with them. Otherwise you should keep quiet.”
    Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s business partner (see this article)
  • “The man who can hold forth on every matter under debate in two contradictory ways of pleading, or can argue for and against every proposition that can be laid down—such a man is the true, the complete, and the only orator.”
    —Roman Orator Cicero (see this article)
  • “I have yet to find a more efficient and reliable way to probe the depths of a person’s knowledge and seriousness about an issue than asking them to explain the other side’s perspective.”
    —Entrepreneur Ben Casnocha (see this article)
  • “If you can’t imagine how anyone could hold the view you are attacking, you just don’t understand it yet.”
    —Philosopher Anthony Weston in Rulebook for Arguments (see this article)
  • “When you think you can nail someone with your argument, take a breath & see if you can phrase it as a face-saving question.”
    —Career Coach Marty Nemko

[Effective Arguments] Explain Your Opponent’s Perspective

“The man who can hold forth on every matter under debate in two contradictory ways of pleading, or can argue for and against every proposition that can be laid down – such a man is the true, the complete, and the only orator.”
Cicero

“If you can’t imagine how anyone could hold the view you are attacking, you just don’t understand it yet.”
– Anthony Weston, ‘Rulebook for Arguments’

Explaining the Other Side of the Argument, An Opponent's Perspective

Explaining the Other Side of the Argument

Entrepreneur and blogger Ben Casnocha presents an effective discussion / debating / interviewing technique:

Here is one of the simplest ways to test someone’s knowledge of an issue: ask them to explain the other side of the argument. Ask the person who’s in favor of spending more money on marketing project X to explain the thinking process behind those who oppose the budgetary move.

I have yet to find a more efficient and reliable way to probe the depths of a person’s knowledge and seriousness about an issue than asking them to explain the other side’s perspective.

How can you effectively argue for your side if you don’t understand the arguments of the other?

Never Limit Your Ability to Learn From Opposite Perspectives

Never Limit Your Ability to Learn From Opposite Perspectives Habitually, we discard contrasting opinions without making an effort to explore their significance. We shape our attitudes and seek facts to support our own beliefs without contemplating the merits of opposite perspectives. We fail to realize that, when we do not understand opposite perspectives enough to justify their merits, we almost certainly do not understand them enough to dismiss them either.

Develop the curiosity to see the world from new perspectives and discover opposite circumstances, whether you believe in them or not. If you follow faith X, attend services of faith Y; if you are conservative, explain the liberal outlook; if you hold the western philosophy on a particular subject, reason the eastern viewpoint; if you oppose a particular legislation, argue the merits of legislation. Instead of asking ‘ why ,’ ask ‘why not .’

When you pause arguing with an opposite perspective and try arguing for it, when you switch your point of view briefly, you will witness a profound shift in your thinking.

  • Your own attitudes may look different when seen from the opposite perspective. It can help you reinforce your own beliefs and attitudes. This approach may open your mind to discover the merits, similarities, and weaknesses of your arguments that may not be obvious from your own side of the board.
  • People are often glad to work with anyone who is accommodating and tries to understand their perspectives. Therefore, your ability to persuade others improves.