Any claim can be presented as positive or negative via the law of double negation. Not not P is P. This is only true for as long as you work within the axioms of formal logic. Disputes amongst humans do not abide by these axioms. Amongst humans, not not P is a very different proposition to P. It’s possible to completely shift the tone of a conversation by doubly negating a proposition, and if you ignore the double negation, you’ll instantly lose the argument. I think examining the axioms of rhetoric is a good way to understand people better.

Some of this ceases to apply if both parties try extra hard to make their arguments abide by mathematical logic, but when argumentation is war, that's never guaranteed.

What does it mean to win an argument anyway? In most situations, I think it means a combination of three things:

  1. Getting your way
  2. Convincing an audience that you’re right
  3. Getting the audience to see your character positively

The last two things might seem the same, but they’re not. The competent jerk is right a lot, but diminishes his reputation with each spat. If you’re looking for a promotion, convincing spectators that you’re of good character is the only one that matters. If you ever get the opportunity to trade off either of the first two for the third, take it. It’s a good deal.

This is, of course, only true if you don’t have strong intrinsic motivations of your own. Many people earnestly care about what they perceive as optimality even if there’s no material benefit to pursuing it, and will sacrifice their reputation to argue it. Those people will ignore the illogicality of arguments between humans, for better or for worse.


The size of the search space for doing things is very big. It’s much easier to identify the things that you’re not than the things that you are. It’s why comparison is the theft of joy. Deciding not to do things is often a more effective method for accumulating determination than deciding to do them. When trying to persuade an audience, stating that you believe something has better optics than saying you oppose something. Negative values signal fear or reactivity, which have bad optics. It’s a common form of political mudslinging to say something like “they don’t support[thing], they just hate [other thing].”

Framing is a device for changing a conversation by encouraging a specific interpretation of a piece of data. Rhetorically, a negative frame is easier to defend than a positive one. When debating ethics, don’t ask what is good, ask what justifies the bad. Many times, people will not notice you’ve used a negative frame and will assume the burden of proof without realising it.

The null hypothesis within a negative frame is that the speaker is correct. “There’s no evidence for the existence of life on Mars.”

Positive subjective traits are more malleable than negative ones. Large corporations choose meaningless positive values like “trust” and “integrity” precisely because they are non-binding. To flip these positive frames into negative ones is to make them powerful - too powerful. Pinning “never dishonest” as a business value is impractical. There are obviously times in business where you must not tell the full truth. This is not always malicious either. For example, not telling a negotiating partner information they could leverage against you, or not telling your customers about new features that your competitor just launched. It’s possible to avoid doing these things while still being “honest”, but the whole truth was never on the table at all. For this reason, corporates can claim that they are “honest”, but it would be catastrophic to claim that they are “never dishonest”.

Positive frames can be defended on balance, “more X than Y”, but negative frames inherently require purity.


One common way to subtly employ a negative frame is to inject purity into a positive frame and use it as a device to shift burdens of proof in the same way. When dealing in the empirical there’s nothing wrong with this, because a proof by contradiction is all that is needed.

When you’re trying to backdoor naive objectivity into the subjective, negative frames become impossible to rebut without challenging the frame itself. Don’t say that green is the best color, say that you can’t see how any other color could be better.

None of this is to say that negative frames are analytically any different from positive frames. Their effects lie in rhetoric and the effect they have on conversation, not in shifting the underlying logic. Taking the above example, a naive conversationalist might respond to a negative frame about favourite colors by enumerating particular contexts in which other colors could be superior to green. Danger signs and warning labels are red because of danger. The proponent can defend their positive claim simply by aloofly claiming skepticism. It’s a fast way to lose an argument before it even begins.

An even more effective way to muddy the water in this way is to follow up a negative frame by casting an aspersion about the motives of the person who is challenging it. This is an improvement not just because it’s likely to distract the focus of the conversation, but because it allows you to weave in positive statements that can make a conversation seem balanced when it isn’t.


In the workplace, this is a great way to steamroll others. Imagine two office workers arguing about whether to make their logo purple or green, featuring our aforementioned lover of green.

“What color do you think the logo should be?”

“I think it should be purple.”

“I just don’t see how purple could be better than green, which is the color of nature.”

“Well from our customer research last week, the data shows that purple is the most popular color.”

“That research had a small sample size. You’re focusing too much on data without looking at the bigger picture. We shouldn’t be spending so much time on these unimportant details. Can we just move on to something more important?”

“Of course we can move on as long as we agree that the logo should be purple because that’s what the data says.”

“If we make the logo purple, is that going to solve any of our business’ fundamental problems?”

“No, that’s not what this is abo-”

“Okay, so why are we still arguing about this? There’s no evidence that purple is better than green, you say it’s not going to solve anything, this is the problem dude, you’re not thinking about what’s important.”

“Alright, whatever.”

Not only has green steamrolled purple without making any justifications, he’s managed to make purple look badly motivated for providing them. As soon as purple responds to the negative frame by bringing up evidence and data, he’s already lost the argument because he’s already committed himself to the frame. The only way out is to recognise and immediately push back on green’s framing, but there’s a very narrow time window for thought in which to do so.

In the workplace this becomes extra tricky because counterassertions, the easiest way to expose a negative frame, have the side effect of making you appear reactive.

There are good and bad ways to push back:

“I just don’t see how purple could be better than green, which is the color of nature.”

“Well I also don’t see why green is better than purple, which is the color of luxury.”

This is a mistake because it’s going to suck you into a series of repeating counter-assertions which is worse for purple because they’re responding while green is acting. Continue down this path and green will accuse you of being defensive, and you’ll get sucked into the trap of defending yourself against the allegation that you’re acting defensively.

“I just don’t see how purple could be better than green, which is the color of nature.”

“Let’s take a step back and consider all the evidence. There are obviously lots of colors in the world, how should we decide which one to use?”

The important difference between this response and the original conversation is that now you can push green to explicitly acknowledge your frame instead - that we should lay out the data and evaluate it. This is much better because it forces green to argue a much higher bar - if he wants to maintain his negative frame, he must argue against the value of quantitative data itself, not just a single flimsy survey.


The unfortunate thing about framing is that it’s something of an arms race. Disputes, especially those in the workplace, tend to be won and lost along the lines of framing, but framing itself doesn’t drive good outcomes. From a game theory perspective, the best way to become more influential is to spend more energy than your adversary on something that doesn’t create value for anyone. When people talk about “workplace politics”, they’re referring primarily to two things - creating intentional information asymmetry, and creating intentional framing asymmetry. Rhetoric is just one part of framing, but it’s the one that makes people win the sort of disputes that have a clear set of adversaries.

I’m not convinced there’s a clear way to avoid framing disputes at scale, but in early stage startups, I think it’s important to hire people who are ideologically opposed to them. The other side of the coin to game theory is finding people whose optimisation function significantly involves enjoyment of their work as an intrinsic motivation.

I don’t think it’s sufficient to take joy in the ends - the value adds to customers or the like. The power of naive realism means that it’s easy to justify engagement in framing disputes as a means to an end - sincere belief that you are almost always correct makes it rational to engage in framing disputes even if you’re entirely selfless.

I won’t offer any advice about how to reliably identify these people, nor can I say that I’m settled on this being the answer, but it’s my best hypothesis so far.

As an aside, I've been a lurker here for a little over a year but haven't yet stepped fully into the conversation. Doing my best to learn little by little. Earnest criticism appreciated.


New Comment
9 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:53 AM

Some thoughts that come to mind (epistemic state: 1 a.m.):

  • In common-language terms, if we rate people's goodness from 0 to 100, where 50 is neutral, then "good" might mean "≥60", and "bad" mean "≤40" (heh, those happen to be the exact numbers KOTOR uses for dark side / light side alignment).  Then "not bad" means ">40", which is in fact a weaker condition than "good".  I think something similar could be said for many conditions that aren't a rigid binary.  So it is often legitimate that "not anti-X" is easier to defend than "X".
  • Some have observed that some people use sarcasm or humor to "hide" or "deflect" when the first group are trying to discuss something serious.  Generally, saying "Oh yeah, I totally X" is sarcasm-speak for "not X", which doesn't rule much out, and especially if X is outlandish, it communicates very little new info.
  • Orwell's Politics and the English Language mentions, among other things, the "not un-" formation (e.g. "a not unjustifiable assumption") as one of the bad language habits he sees; a major complaint is that these habits make communication more vague—less meaningful.  Well, replacing "X" with "not anti-X" makes it a weaker statement, and it's quicker, easier, and less risky to make a weaker statement when you're writing in a political or corporate environment.  Excerpting:

As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier – even quicker, once you have the habit – to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think.

[...] simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself [bold added]. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.

[...] In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

On the scenarios described and stuff:

  • The green/purple example could also be described as the green advocate privileging a certain hypothesis, or arrogating the right to choose the null hypothesis.
  • In the absence of your post, I would describe people who do that kind of stuff and win arguments as a result (while leaving their interlocutors unsatisfied, and possibly thinking of counterarguments after the meeting is over) as "being really good at arguing".  I had a secondhand account of a striking case of this from someone at work, and have observed less-striking cases of him doing it elsewhere.  I note the guy climbed the corporate ladder reasonably quickly; he is also quite smart and driven.
  • The general "being really good at arguing" thing, and possibly "being good at maneuvering" (including such measures as, say, organizing a meeting to discuss a decision, then taking up most of the time with a presentation you've prepared, and giving the other person 5 minutes toward the end to state their side), probably involves lots of skills; the "double negation framing" tactic is one among many.
  • Setting the Zero Point seems related (haven't read the whole thing), also links to others.  Probably various other essays have mentioned at least similar things in the past.  Not sure about the best way(s) to name and think about the stuff.

You're not wrong, and I don't disagree!

I am always impressed by how much insight LW users can cram into a small number of words. One angle I feel has been underdiscussed on LW is effective rhetorical devices for dealing with people who are very good at using the dark arts. This post was inspired by my experience with an old colleague with whom we many times had the exact conversation in the green-purple example. 

I somehow missed Setting the Zero Point, and it's extremely thorough, but I wish it were more like Proving Too Much - advice on how to convince an audience that rationality is valuable.

Well, replacing "X" with "not anti-X" makes it a weaker statement, and it's quicker, easier, and less risky to make a weaker statement when you're writing in a political or corporate environment.

This is the opposite conclusion to the one I reached - that positive values are evaluated on balance, while negative values are evaluated by their exclusivity. I think we're talking about subtly different phenomena though, I'm not considering euphemism here, just scaling the rigidity. I do agree that self-deceit is an important part of framing conflicts though. It might be worth whole new post, but I theorize that mental resistance to using rhetorical dark arts is strongly associated with openness to experience and one's personal relationship with doubt and learning.

Do you know of any particularly good essays that focus on countering the dark arts performatively for an audience beyond just being aware of them?

I've spent several years competing in university debating and I've learned a lot about practical application of a very specific kind of dark arts, but interpersonal dark arts are a different sort I want to learn more about.

Going off localdeity's comment, I think "arrogating the right to choose the null hypothesis" or as you said, "assuming the burden of proof" are more critical than whether the frame involves negations. If you want to win an argument, don't argue, make the other person do the arguing by asking lots of questions, even questions phrased as statements, and then just say whatever claim they make isn't convincing enough. Why should purple be better than green? An eminently reasonable question! But one whose answer will never have satisfactory support, unless you want it to. "I'm just asking questions."

It's good for you to point out that the true statement localdeity offered and your conclusion seem in contention. It is a weaker statement, so if you are being asked for your opinion, you may want to hedge with that negation. If you are actually trying to convince someone of something though (and this is why I think you rightly believe these are about subtly different things), that is not the way to do it. You could make the stronger claim, or alternately, you could phrase it as a question - "why shouldn't we do anti-X?" (but notice it would also work without the negation: "why should we do X?") and get them to do the arguing for you.

I guess an ending where I throw my hands up and say "oh no my reasoning" was simultaneously the most likely and the most beneficial outcome to finally wading in to throw up a post of my own. Critique is fair enough, and it would seem that least to some degree I have in fact missed the point.

I still think there's something here beyond just privileging a hypothesis and Orwell's complaint about double negation as euphemism. Perhaps the real thrust I was trying to make here was that double negation makes it harder to notice that you've privileged a hypothesis. Socratic questioning is good but tends to bore an audience, takes a long time, and doesn't lead to the kind of decisive rhetorical victory you need to win a manoeuvring competition. There might be something in rephrasing socratic questions as propositions instead, but I'm not currently sure what that would look like.

There's a wealth of valid insight amongst the rationalism community, but it goes unusable if you can't win the frame in the first place. It's not sufficient to be right in many contexts, you must also be rhetorically persuasive. I've not yet come across a convincing framework for melding the two.

It was a good post! To the extent that whatever I said was value-added or convincing to you, it was only because your quality post prompted me to lay it out.

And like you said, perhaps there is more here. Does a negative (vs. positive) frame make it harder to notice (or easier to forget) that there is a null hypothesis? Preliminary evidence in favor is that people who "own" the null will cede it in a negative frame, whereas they tend to retain it in a positive frame. More thinking/research may be needed though to feel confident about that (I say that as a scientist starting with the null effect of no difference, not as someone proponing the hypothesis of no difference).

"It's not sufficient to be right in many contexts, you must also be rhetorically persuasive." Spittin' facts.

“Well from our customer research last week, the data shows that purple is the most popular color.”


There’s no evidence that purple is better than green,

That's not framing, that's lying.

Perhaps poorly phrased. I was trying to hint at Isolated Demands For Rigor to skeptically dismiss all evidence. This post was inspired by someone I used to work with who amongst other things would talk about "fundamental issues" and "the big picture" in a vague way as rhetorical devices to discard certain pieces of evidence.

That "the big picture" angle sounds infuriating. I wonder what would happen if anyone responded "the big picture is made of many small details, so lets just get this one right and worry about the others later".