On a recent trip to Ireland, I gave a talk on tactics for having better arguments (video here).  There's plenty in the video that's been discussed on LW before (Ideological Turing Tests and other reframes), but I thought I'd highlight one other class of trick I use to have more fruitful disagreements.

It's hard, in the middle of a fight, to remember, recognize, and defuse common biases, rhetorical tricks, emotional triggers, etc.  I'd rather cheat than solve a hard problem, so I put a lot of effort into shifting disagreements into environments where it's easier for me and my opposite-number to reason and argue well, instead of relying on willpower.  Here's a recent example of the kind of shift I like to make:

A couple months ago, a group of my friends were fighting about the Brendan Eich resignation on facebook. The posts were showing up fast; everyone was, presumably, on the edge of their seats, fueled by adrenaline, and alone at their various computers. It’s a hard place to have a charitable, thoughtful debate.

I asked my friends (since they were mostly DC based) if they’d be amenable to pausing the conversation and picking it up in person.  I wanted to make the conversation happen in person, not in front of an audience, and in a format that let people speak for longer and ask questions more easily. If so, I promised to bake cookies for the ultimate donnybrook.  

My friends probably figured that I offered cookies as a bribe to get everyone to change venues, and they were partially right. But my cookies had another strategic purpose. When everyone arrived, I was still in the process of taking the cookies out of the oven, so I had to recruit everyone to help me out.

“Alice, can you pour milk for people?”

“Bob, could you pass out napkins?”

“Eve, can you greet people at the door while I’m stuck in the kitchen with potholders on?”

Before we could start arguing, people on both sides of the debate were working on taking care of each other and asking each others’ help. Then, once the logistics were set, we all broke bread (sorta) with each other and had a shared, pleasurable experience. Then we laid into each other.

Sharing a communal experience of mutual service didn’t make anyone pull their intellectual punches, but I think it made us more patient with each other and less anxiously fixated on defending ourselves. Sharing food and seating helped remind us of the relationships we enjoyed with each other, and why we cared about probing the ideas of this particular group of people.

I prefer to fight with people I respect, who I expect will fight in good faith.  It's hard to remember that's what I'm doing if I argue with them in the same forums (comment threads, fb, etc) that I usually see bad fights.  An environment shift and other compensatory gestures makes it easier to leave habituated errors and fears at the door.


Crossposted/adapted from my blog.

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Well, I somewhat strongly disagree (will I get cookies now?).

Assuming a similar amount of information is exchanged*, introducing strong social conventions will overshadow the arguments and skew their results. Probably without the participants even noticing. Being on someone's home turf, being served food, the ballast of thousands of years of social evolution, all of these are detractors from factual debate. Yes, the experience will be more amenable, filled with polite "Aaaah, I see what you mean!" interjections, and everyone will leave fuzzily happy, well fed, socially status-affirmed and postprandially somnolent. Quirrell would approve, as the cookie-dispensing host. But when looking for the correct -- even if unpopular -- deduction?

There's a reason I have more respect for people who implicitly embrace Crocker's Rules, having no need for being cuddled, especially when such cuddles will (in my opinion) inevitably sway the course of the arguments.

When you're invited to debate a couple of friendly Jehova's Witnesses (See me adhering to online social conventions? In fact, any religion could be inserted here.) over some tea and cookies, and everybody leaves fuzzily happy thinking "what a great exchange!", you did something wrong. If truth was your objective, that is.

* (otherwise the medium allowing for more exchange mostly wins by default; a long series of Facebook exchanges would allow for more mutual updates than a short tete-a-tete)

Well, in my experience, we don't all arrive at consensus, just because we start by liking each other more. This was the discussion where one of my friends said that disagreeing with Eich's resignation was the moral equivalent of endorsing genocide against gays (for a variety of slippery slope reasons that I don't feel the need to disentangle).

The main difference, as far as I could tell, is that we all heard his reasoning, rather than all jumping in right after his assertion, and got a better idea of the reasons of his belief and then could decide what arguments to marshal (or whether we wanted to let the most inflammatory statement dominate the topics we covered at all).

Basically, think of changing contexts as all along a spectrum. Probably it's a bad idea to have a discussion while pleasantly tipsy in a spa. And also a bad idea to have it while quickly tabbing back and forth between facebook and your work and hiding windows from your boss. My main point isn't that "Cookies" is always the right context, but that it's often worth not staying in the venue where your argument started.

Personally, I find that people are more likely to show me the soft underbelly of their beliefs if they're relaxed and in a situation where it's clearer I care about them (and easier for me to do the same thing). So I like creating contexts of warmth and trust, because it often means people are sharing their beliefs with me, excited to show me how they work, rather than just looking for weak points in mine. (and vice versa).

Depending on how close and dear someone's belief are to their own identity, a context of warmth and growth could work against going against a wrong belief full-bore. Especially when you notice how essential such a belief is to someone's identity. Like telling a child there's no Santa, to their face.

rather than just looking for weak points in mine

Probably the crux of our disagreement: Looking for weak points in your own and the interlocutor's belief is what you should be doing, with as few distractions as possible. (If correct beliefs were the overriding goal. Which, all protestations to the contrary aside, they mostly aren't.)

However, I totally get that there are often more important things than correcting someone else's wrong beliefs. Such as building shared experiences, creating a sense of community et coetera. Singing Kumbaya ;-).

rather than just looking for weak points in mine

Probably the crux of our disagreement: Looking for weak points in your own and the interlocutor's belief is what you should be doing

I think you may be missing the point. It sounds to me like being more willing to look for weak points in your own arguments is exactly the kind of goal Leah has in mind for the change in context.

Well, this may be a subcultural distinction. In my circles, saying "Jeez oh man are you wrong, let's get coffee to discuss" is affectionate, but it doesn't mean people pull their punches over coffee. So fondness doesn't require soft-pedaling.

I find it easier to look for weak points when both people are enthused to take each other on a tour through their beliefs (ideological show and tell, basically). If the discussion feels really framed around "discover weak points" it's often harder for people to reveal them, because it feels like once they're spotted, you'll be laughed out of the argument. Alternatively, you can create a context where it's easier to say, "This is the part that I find a bit confusing myself, to be honest, though I still am relatively confident in my overall model. What would your model say about this sticky widget?"

You're treating looking for week points in your and the interlocutors belief as basically the same thing. That's almost the opposite of the truth, because there's a trade-off between those two things. If you're totally focused on the second thing, the first one is psychologically near impossible.


Of course, when people falsely hold Crocker's Rules, the results can be yet worse.

Yes. Stupid humans.

What does "falsely" mean, when applied to "Crocker's Rules"? I'm having trouble parsing that phrase.

It could mean that one would still get meaningfully offended (i.e. beyond unendorsed emotional response), even after promising not to.

I think there are two opposing effects that might happen if you try something like this.

  1. People get less defensive about the identity politics of the debate, which opens both sides to actually engaging with the other side, not automatically rejecting the other side, treating arguments less like soldiers, etc.

  2. People are more likely to let statements they disagree with slide, and the depth and vigor of the discussion is reduced, by focusing on agreements and amicability, rather than disagreements.

A lot of other factors are at play here, but depending on what your biggest problems are in debate, and how much this sort of change will affect them, it might still be a good idea. If the debate is already an actual debate and argument, rather than political attacks and rhetoric, then changing the context to something like this would probably be counterproductive. If the debate is political attacks and rhetoric, on the other hand, a little bit of humanity and amicability is probably not a bad idea.

I use to have more fruitful disagreements

So, you've had a more polite, pleasant, and civilized discussion. But was it more fruitful?

As far as I can tell. I tend to be able to grok the beliefs (and sources of the beliefs) faster in these kinds of venues than elsewhere. Understanding the other side's position deeply sometimes dissolves the argument, and sometimes refocuses us on the heart of whatever we're split on and how to test it.

I tend to be able to grok the beliefs (and sources of the beliefs) faster in these kinds of venues than elsewhere.

Do you think this is universal or specific to your type of thinking/understanding/interacting?

I understand what you are saying, but can see advantages in both a relaxed kitchen discussion and a, let's say, a swordfight.

I think it's a very good idea. Discussions often derail into argumentative wars of this kind. Of course, there is also the opposite failure, referred to in some of the other comments, namely that people agree too much, don't point out flaws in others' arguments for fear of upsetting them, etc. In order to resolve that, you need a different strategy, just like different biases require different counter-bias techniques. That does not establish that this strategy is not helpful to improve the kind of discussion described here (which, by the way, is very common).

The general idea of changing contexts is also very interesting. It seems to me that how discussions unfold is to an extremely high degree due to situational features. For instance, at my previous department, the discussions in the small seminar room were nearly always more cooperative and fruitful than those in the large seminar room, which felt much more official and somehow prompted people to take a more adverserial stance visavi the speaker. Probably we should change contexts more often to find out under which circumstances the discussions tend to become most fruitful.


I like the writeup and the idea very much. I can think of times when I've used something similar in the past, but the bit about recruiting people to do get milk didn't occur to me at the time.

I'm kinda torn, I see it as a very useful technique to defuse a situation and get people reminded about why they talk to each other in the first place. And of course the actual consequences of having a blazing row, which isn't as apparent when we're separated by keyboards. On the other hand as already pointed out a bunch of other social conventions then come into play. ('Home turf', shyness, social dominance, etc.)

At the very least, it's an important option to have in our toolkit.

Then, once the logistics were set, we all broke bread (sorta) with each other and had a shared, pleasurable experience.

Did anyone fundamentally change a strongly held opinion?

Not usually over the course of one meeting. In our group, more folks than not have changed strongly held opinions over a series of coffees, debates, etc.

You're 100% correct when you say that changing venues and having the arguing parties work together had changed the tone and flow of the debate experience but I can't agree that changing context will ultimately improve an argument. I would like to discuss some things I believe to be at play here, but not mentioned.

The difference between arguing online and arguing in person can be of significant importance to how the two parties interact (argue). I will go ahead and propose that if the two parties had instantly (after your request to speak in person) transported them selves to a room and sat right in front of each other without the cookies or you even being present, even then their tone and ferocity would change from what it was online. I believe that when we are online we are no longer bound by the effects of communication between body and mind (similarly time depending on the online medium). When we are online we do not read the body language of those we are speaking with and we all know that body language makes up for a very large portion of how communication plays out.

When the two parties are instantaneously transported from their chairs to being right in front of each other they are subjected to a larger portion of their emotional consciousness then they were online. Their expectations of people and how they communicate in person becomes in affect. Those attributes of the arguing parties personalities weren't all at play when the conversation was happening online.

Their characteristics while the argument was online could even be considered as dissociative to their true personality traits. Which means, yes... Changing context will effect arguments, but I wouldn't go so far as to say it will improve one. Who knows... Maybe one of your guests had a sexual desire for cookies and so became aroused which made them care less about the topic being argued and so didn't fight back as hard as they might have online.