Is arguing worth it? If so, when and when not? Also, how do I become less arrogant?

by 27chaos1 min read27th Nov 201431 comments


Personal Blog

I've had several political arguments about That Which Must Not Be Named in the past few days with people of a wide variety of... strong opinions. I'm rather doubtful I've changed anyone's mind about anything, but I've spent a lot of time trying to do so. I also seem to have offended one person I know rather severely. Also, even if I have managed to change someone's mind about something through argument, it feels as though someone will end up having to argue with them later down the line when the next controversy happens.

It's very discouraging to feel this way. It is frustrating when making an argument is taken as a reason for personal attack. And it's annoying to me to feel like I'm being forced into something by the disapproval of others. I'm tempted to just retreat from democratic engagement entirely. But there are disadvantages to this, for example it makes it easier to maintain irrational beliefs if you never talk to people who disagree with you.

I think a big part of the problem is that I have an irrational alief that makes me feel like my opinions are uniquely valuable and important to share with others. I do think I'm smarter, more moderate, and more creative than most. But the feeling's magnitude and influence over my behavior is far greater than what's justified by the facts.

How do I destroy this feeling? Indulging it satisfies some competitive urges of mine and boosts my self-esteem. But I think it's bad overall despite this, because it makes evaluating the social consequences of my choices more difficult. It's like a small addiction, and I have no idea how to get over it.

Does anyone else here have an opinion on any of this? Advice from your own lives, perhaps?


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If you plan on changing someone elses mind, ask a lot of questions about their position to see where they are coming from. Questions might be more important than arguments.

If you talk to someone to disagrees with you, have a genuine curiosity about their position.

Pressing someone to defend their position quite often makes them more certain of it, not less certain.

See, if anything I have the exact opposite problem (which, ironically, I also attribute to arrogance). I almost never engage in arguments with people because I assume I'll never change their mind. When I do get into a debate with someone, I'm extremely quick to give up and write them off as a lost cause. This probably isn't a super healthy attitude to have (especially since many of these "lost causes" are my friends and family) but at least it keeps me out of unproductive arguments. I do have a few friends who are (in my experience) unusually good at listening to new arguments and changing their mind, so I usually wind up limiting my in-depth discussions to just them.

I've been struggling with this problem as well - for example, one of my family members believes very strongly in 'fate' in the traditional fatalist sense, while several others are practicing Buddhists. Most of the time we have a tacit agreement to avoid these topics - because my beliefs probably look very bizarre to them as well, and it is unlikely that any of us will change our mind.

Trying to quell the Someone-Is-Wrong-On-The-Internet impulse is an exceedingly noble goal.

Something I've been trying recently, as part of a broader effort to improve my communication skills, is explicitly telling myself what my goal is with any given communiqué. If that goal turns out to be "convince this person that their cherished belief is wrong", and that outcome is unrealistic, I'm less likely to make the attempt.

Half the time my goal when someone is wrong on the internet isn't to convince them, it's to convince anyone else that might be reading. But in part that's because most of my internet arguments take place somewhere like reddit instead of somewhere like Facebook. Convincing people who are just passively reading is easily, and it helps to modulate your message so that you don't end up getting combative (the biggest risk in arguing with people on the internet who keep being wrong).

If that goal turns out to be "convince this person that their cherished belief is wrong", and that outcome is unrealistic, I'm less likely to make the attempt.

That's true in interpersonal situations, but on the internet, do you really care if anyone changes their mind?

For me I find that it's mostly "try to provoke this person into saying something interesting about this specific topic". I'm not saying it's a good impulse - it's mostly just a waste of time, but it's fun in the sense that video games are fun. If there's anything to "quell" it's the tendency to procrastinate through pointless novelty seeking.

Perhaps you have a better class of Facebook friend than I do. I would love it if I could provoke them into saying interesting things about a topic, rather than them just making unprincipled tribalistic noise about it.

Something I've started experimenting with at the moment, when someone says "it's terrible that this politician has done [x] because [some stupid argument]" is "three reasons why [x] is good, and one broader conceptual reason why it might not be". This seems to confuse people's Political-Enemy-o-meter, and also frames the dispute along a moderately sensible axis.

Oh, I didn't realize we were talking about facebook. (I mostly started reading when you invoked my username). I was mainly talking about all internet forums, in general.

When I was younger I used to do more facebook debates, because I hadn't discovered the Internet properly, and because I had silly ideas about "discussions" and "learning" coming out of it, and because I did not fully realize that other people were actually capable of getting legitimately upset about this stuff. (Still glad I did it, at least I read some cool stuff when I was searching for citations.)

Today I only ever seriously engage with maybe 2 facebook friends, because they know what it means to engage - and even then, I'm leery about doing it in open forum, lest other people see it and take it out of context. I definitely prefer to argue anonymously so I can be more blunt and feel free get bored and trail off at any time. I'm now super pragmatic when it comes to people who don't know how to engage, to the point of blatantly just nodding and smiling. I still test people who show signs of intellligence sometimes, just to see what sort of person they are, but they only ever get one test before falling into "we can be friends, but I reserve the right to nod and smile if you start getting angry".

I worry that this makes me a bad and manipulative person, but people who formally had a problem with me have literally told me "you are much more open minded, accepting and easier to get along with now compared to before", so I've started embracing the idea of manipulation so long as it is done with good intentions, in cases where I feel maintaining an agreeable environment supersedes other people's right to know that I completely disagree with everything they say.

Could you give an example of "three reasons why [x] is good, and one broader conceptual reason why it might not be”? I’m not sure I follow.

Warning: politics. This is an example only. Please don't discuss the object-level question of nationalised rail services.

In 2009 the (previous) UK government nationalised a railway company that was suffering from credit problems. It's being re-privatised at the moment. Privatisation of publicly-owned assets is an extremely contentious issue for the current government, and so this event spawned a bunch of garbage on Facebook. I responded to a friend forwarding one of these with three reasons why, in this specific case, the railway company probably should be in private hands, and then gave one considerably more abstract argument for why it might make sense to nationalise all railways.

When debating with people, you should only make one inferential step per debate. Leave the next step for tomorrow, when the person has already accepted the former step (and probably believes it was actually their idea).

my opinions are uniquely valuable and important to share with others

They are valuable and important to you. Not to the others, yet.

I do think I'm smarter, more moderate, and more creative than most.

You may be right, but this is irrelevant here. People don't automatically accept smarter people's beliefs (and that's probably a good thing).

It's almost always a good thing, agreed.

Smart people's willingness to privilege their own hypotheses on subjects outside their expertise is a chronic problem.

I have a very smart friend I met on the internet; we see each other when we are in each others (thousand-mile-away) neighborhood. We totally disagree on politics. But we have great conversations, because we can both laugh at the idiocy of our tribe. If you handle argument as a debate with a winner and a loser, no one wins and no one has any fun. I admit that it takes two people willing to treat it as an actual conversation, but you can help it along.

[-][anonymous]7y 7

Politics is a combination of the opinions of bureaucrats, politicians, interest groups, the press, and the general public. The general public's ability to influence politics is based on their influence over politicians (money+voting) and interest groups (money). The press, by controlling information, are able to influence all the other groups. This an expanded form of the iron triangle. Check the link for more details, and for a wide variety of opinions on the subject. Your arguments mainly serve to have a limited influence over public opinion, and this influence will often be negative. You have to ask yourself whether possibly damaging your personal relationships is worth having a very limited impact on one element of decision making on a single issue that may not be as important as you think it is.

There's a concept in psychology known as cognitive dissonance. Arguments are hotbeds of cognitive dissonance; both for you and for your opponent. Each of you tries to separate themselves from the cognitive dissonance, but this actually causes you to double-down on your original position by coming up with new ways to prove yourselves right. By arguing, both parties are gradually reinforcing their own beliefs. It's actually very difficult to avoid this; even highly intelligent people will often make this mistake. Less Wrong, similar sites, and some of academia are unusual exceptions in that much of those individuals are actively thinking about trying to overcome their own biases. They have trained themselves to consider the argument on its own merits rather than on the basis of their prior opinion.

I actively avoid getting into arguments in ordinary conversations unless I think the individual wants or needs to hear it. The reason is identical advice can always be found on the internet, and there will always be a source out there with a better worded explanation than something I pulled off the top of my head. If somebody has taken the time to form an opinion on an issue, they've taken the time to decide which sources to look for to determine that answer. If they want to find a better source, they can ask, but they don't need me to give them their opinion. A very difficult skill is determining what they are and are not interested in listening to you about. If they've already given a firm no, then that should be sufficient. They are not going to listen to your drawn out explanation, no matter how intelligently worded, if they don't want to do so.

An alternative method from marketing is known as brand messaging. You create a simple, consistent, positive message associated with your view and put it out there as much as possible. If people see your viewpoint reflected in a positive light in enough places (not just from you), there's a good chance they'll reconsider their position. Arguments fail all three of those principles. They are not simple. They are not consistent (I mean you use a different argument each time, I am not referring to logical consistency). They are not positive (by which I mean cheerful, not additive).

I learned a long time ago that having good relationships with my friends is far more important to me than showing them that I'm right. I'm perfectly ok with trading a pursuit of the truth (since it's political, this should probably be "the truth") in exchange for some utilions. I've hidden all the controversial or clickbaity topics from my facebook feed, and facebook's algorithm doesn't show me these any more. If I'm really jonesing for an argument, I'll go somewhere where there's structure for it and it won't damage my personal relationships, such as /r/changemyview.

I have the same problem as well. Although I have not been able to stick to it every time, I try to follow this method: If you are in an argument, keep the time in mind and change the subject as soon as you have not gained anything after e.g. 5 minutes. The gain could be new insights, entertainment, mental exercise, increase of social bonds/respect, money, self-respect, self actualization (e.g. convincing the influential person to implement your wish), etc. This sounds harsh, but time IS your most precious resource and using it without a benefit is like throwing money into a vending machine, which gives nothing in return. Better find another subject or conversation partner.

Deduct one minute every time the person switches talking points instead of responding to your argument. Punch him every time he mentions a study, but won't give you a source (e.g. instead of googling it together, he promises to 'send you a link later'). (Punching seems a bit excessive, but imagine a world in which everyone thought twice before quoting PIOOMA results! It could usher in a new age of enlightenment!)

I try and imagine my words and behaviours on someone else. In other words, how would I react if I saw someone else acting in the way I am acting. This causes me to be a lot less argumentative and a lot more conciliatory.

If you want to resolve your own desire to publicize your arguments without dealing with internet_contrarian_255, writing up your arguments without targeting them to a specific person and posting them on a blog or some other site where people who agree with you can point out a few flaws might be helpful.

Also, if you do that, then when you do end up needing to argue with someone, you'll already have your arguments and sources handy on your computer.

This advice has more to do with serious written criticism, but I like spreading it around.

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."
You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Me quoting Judith Curry quoting Daniel Dennett quoting Anatol Rapaport.

I only ran across this fairly recently, but it makes explicit some vague intuitions I had had before. The few times I consciously have put it into practice so far, I have found it rather time consuming but beneficial. I'm not sure whether I have learned to back away from pointless controversy or how to make points more persuasively, but it has helped me get away from looking at arguments as soldiers in an army kind of thinking.

You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly

When I debate people on the internet, I find that much of the time the other fellow does not have a clear position. That when I gently and politely ask questions aimed at clarifying the person's position, I get evasions, ad hominems, strawmanning, weaseling, and attempts to change the subject.

Of course I usually limit my debates to topics where I've though pretty carefully about the subject. And I'm most interested in topics where popular views are questionable.

Notice that "re-express your target’s position clearly" was not the entirety of Rapaport's advice, or even of that line of his advice.

Notice that "re-express your target’s position clearly" was not the entirety of Rapaport's advice, or even of that line of his advice.

I agree. Still, that part of his advice -- to state the other person's position very clearly -- is not going to work out in practice a lot of the time. Before you can state someone's position "clearly vividly and fairly" you have to understand it. And the person has to actually have a position which can be stated "clearly vividly and fairly."

When I find someone else's argument puzzling, it is often for a reason that they didn't anticipate. Because they didn't anticipate that I would find a particular step puzzling in a particular way, they didn't explain this step, at least not in a way that I understood.

Thus, I need them to (1) be willing to do the work of understanding which step I found puzzling and why, and (2) be willing to do the work of addressing my idiosyncratic confusion. (They will perceive my confusion as idiosyncratic, because this is the first time that they are encountering it.*)

Both of those steps require some work on their part. Moreover, they need to do this work to bridge a step that seemed obvious to them, and hence which seemed like it could be missed only by someone who is, in a certain sense, unusually stupid. This automatically puts me under suspicion of being "not worth the time", either because I'm stupid or because I'm asking in bad faith. (See Expecting Short Inferential Distances.)

So, most people aren't willing to undertake this work unless they have some sympathy for me. The other lines of Rapaport's advice serve to build this sympathy, so they should happen before I attempt the "re-express clearly and vividly" stage.

When I do attempt a "re-expression" as part of my process of understanding their argument, my first attempt is accompanied by something like "Here is my attempt to restate what you are saying, but I know that it is probably wrong. This attempt is just to give you something to work with as you address the error in my understanding of your meaning." (Here's an example of my doing this.)

This may seem overly humble or deferential, but, in my experience, it is effective and literally true. This kind of expression really does make people more willing to attempt a helpful reply, and their replies really do fill in gaps in my understanding of their position. (Again, see the above example. I didn't entirely resolve my confusion, but I did come way understanding my interlocutor's position better.)

* However, if I continue to profess confusion over this step, and I haven't made myself sympathetic by following the rest of Rapaport's advice, then my professions won't be chalked up to idiosyncratic confusion, but rather to willful stupidity or bad faith.

(Here's an example of my doing this.)

Thank you for providing an example. By the way, it looks to me like lukeprog never actually clarified for you what he meant by "mathematicians succeed and fail on this issue in a wide range of degrees"



As I added in my reply to him, his reply did help me with other parts of his argument. But I needed more iterations of questions and clarifications before I could understand that particular phrase better.

This doesn't seem to me like wasted effort, though, because I expect that what he did clarify would have helped me to understand that particular phrase, had we continued to discuss it. So, while I can't explain that particular phrase better than I could before, I expect that I am closer to understanding it. Certainly, partial illumination of the argument surrounding a specific sentence is normally the preamble to full illumination of that specific sentence, if this full illumination ever happens.


That's generally consistent with my experience. As I alluded to at the start of this exchange, when I seek clarification of someone's position, it's unusual for the person to actually provide it. No matter how polite or respectful I am.

Which is why the idea of stating the other fellow's position clearly is actually of limited utility at best in practice. At least on the sort of topics I am interested in grappling with.

I also seem to have offended one person I know rather severely.

From this sentence I gather that you're concerned mainly with in-person arguments. My own experience is that I argue extensively on the internet, but I'm quiet and modest with my friends and family. Mostly I suppose I'm just not that assertive in person. But if I had what I'm gathering is your problem, I would basically: take care to watch the faces of friends and family (constantly, or at least whenever there's conversation). Think how you value your relationship. That's a lot of mental effort, but it should supply you with a ready, natural-feeling motive to tone down or end an argument.

In an argument you use the facilities and methods that the other person recognises to come to some conclusion. There should not be any use of force involved. Fighthing over theorethical things can be pointless. However arguing is usually pointful. If you are just stating things you are not making an argument.

I have seen some people fight over theorethial issues and use quilthing, authority and all kinds of shady stuff to make their opposition concede. This has no epistemological value and I am very doubtful whether it can be used to achieve even moderate lasting communal decisions. If you are truly arguing and doing it right the discussion requires going deeper by the standards of the other participant. This should not be emotionally energy draining (quite the reverse the other particapnt sees a reason to deploy more resources to get to the bottom of the issue). If you need to figure something out for yourself you don't need to do it in a group setting and some other mind not having the same bottomline as you is not an error state.

I think a big part of the problem is that I have an irrational alief that makes me feel like my opinions are uniquely valuable and important to share with others. I do think I'm smarter, more moderate, and more creative than most.

I've had a similar problem. Every time I feel the impulse to argue, I try to remember that (in general) arguing won't change their position. It depends on what you're trying to achieve with your arguments. Are you trying to make the other person lose social status? Are you enjoying yourself by demonstrating your greater intelligence/moderation/creativity? Or are you trying to get them to change their mind? Because the last goal is probably not achievable through argument.

I've found that questions/experiments/bets tend to be better ways to settle disputes than arguments, especially when it comes to sensitive topics. It's probably better to avoid meaningless debate that just enrages people.

This discussion also reminds me of Yvain's In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization.

It's more as though I'm angry their opinions are poorly thought out and want to make them think seriously about the subject. It's not a desire to lower their social status except insofar as I feel that will cause them to think critically about the issue (which doesn't actually ever happen as a consequence of lower social status, probably).

I don't really have a desire to demonstrate my intelligence/moderation/creativity either, exactly. It's more like, one, I enjoy exercising my capabilities for those traits, and two, I want to persuade them that intelligence/moderation/creativity are good things that are worth striving for.

Basically, I am getting frustrated that other people have a different thinking style than me and then trying to convince them to change it by being a jerk. But I should probably just avoid any object level disagreements except for important exceptions, and focus on improving people's rationality in more gentle and less confrontational ways. It's just that it's difficult to remember this in the moment, as it's frustrating listening to people I see as irrational.

Probably, this implies that my tolerance for irrationality is too low. I'm seeing irrationality too often, I expect. Even when it is there, I ought to leave it alone most of the time.

If you are to exert influence on the world, you have to state your opinions to people. But you also have to be rational about it.

Start with asking yourself:

  1. Am I wrong? (Honestly examine your position and see things from the other persons point of view)
  2. Is the topic important? (Cause prioritization)
  3. Am I convincing the live person or the audience? (Different tactics)
  4. Is success a possible outcome?

Let's say the answers in a given scenario are no, yes, person and yes. Convincing another person is hard because of confirmation bias. Added to that is the social dynamics of you telling another person that she is wrong, perhaps while others are listening. Both of these challenges have to be overcome in order to succeed.

Some suggestions from my personal experience (as a politican, inspired from Carnegies book):

  1. Ask questions throughout, preferrably questions that makes the other person respond positively. Make sure you understand the other persons position. Show respect for her opinions, never say "You are wrong". "Interesting. Would this be applicable in scenario X?"

  2. Begin in a friendly way, with praise and emphasize where you agree with the other person. "Yes, I very much agree with you on X. That's a precise observation".

  3. Call attention to the other persons mistakes indirectly and talk about your own mistakes first. If you yourself have said something wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically. "I actually used to think Y myself, but then I discovered Z"

  4. Minimize the points where you disagree (make the fault minor / seem easy to correct) and let the other person save face "Of course, we both have the same intentions here. Whether Z is true or not is a minor issue"

Some tricks up your sleeve:

  • Give the other person a reputation to live up to "This is of course familiar to a person to a knowledgeable person such as yourself"
  • Let the other person feel the idea is hers "Excactly. It is as you said, X segment, which in turn is Y and Z."
  • Dramatize your ideas with enthusiasm and stories.

Lastly, as I can see that you already know, arguing is not a winning social strategy. Very few arguments improve the relationship you have with the person you are arguing with. There are many ways to talk about interesting topics without pointing at points of disagreement. Save the arguments for when it is strictly neccesary.

It sounds like you're measuring your success by the impact you have on the person you are directly communicating with.

What happens if you measure success by your impact on the rest of your audience?