Here’s Why You Can’t Convince Someone With Rational Arguments

Argument: (noun) 1. A fact or assertion offered as evidence that something is true 2. Discussion in which reasons are advanced for and against some proposition or proposal

We spend too much time arguing with people about things that don’t matter. Things like which phone is better, why some film is good, which stock to invest in, which is a good holiday destination, what is the best way to lose fat etc.

It is not important to change someone’s mind about things like these. People can be left alone with their opinions once disagreement is found.

These are the kind of things on which different people are most certainly going to have different opinions. But when we hear from people an opinion that is different from ours, we want to convince them of our point-of-view by arguing with what we think are rational explanations for why we think what we think about it.

If we knew how our minds work, however, we would consider it a waste of time.

In this post I am going to tell you exactly what you need to know about human mind to save your time and energy by not engaging in arguments of this nature.

We Are Irrational All The Time

What if I told you that all human beings are irrational all the time? Yes, you read it right. ALL OF US ARE IRRATIONAL, ALL THE TIME. Even the philosophers and scientists, and so-called rationalists.

The only time we are rational is when we are making really simple decisions.

Here’s what I mean by really simple decisions: Let’s say you want to reach somewhere within an hour and if you walked it would take you two hours to reach there. So you employ rationality and say it’s rational to take a cab instead of walking.

That’s an example of really simple decision. I want you to remember this example or refer to it when I say simple scenarios where we do use rationality.

Such simple decisions are where we use perfect rationality. Our rationality is not really boast-worthy then, is it?

The moment there are multiple variables in the mix, rationality goes out the window and emotions or gut feeling takes over. We make up our minds based on how we feel about something and continue to think we are being rational. What we are actually doing there is rationalize the decision we have arrived at through emotions or gut feeling.

I will give you some examples of the decisions that we think are rational, but are most likely taken based on emotions or gut feeling.

The choice of school or college, the preference for workplace, the choice of cellphone and cellphone carrier, your favorite film or film star, your support of political party or candidate, etc. These are the kind of decisions that we like to think are rational but are anything but.

How do I know these are not rational decisions?

Any time you see two people having two different opinions over something, or different people having different opinions over something, though it may seem simple, it is not one of those simple scenarios (refer above to the example of simple decision) where we are rational. It is the multiple variables scenario where the opinions are based on emotions and subjective experiences, or gut feeling, so to speak. People who think they are being rational about these things are merely rationalizing their positions.

Why We Don’t See Our Irrationality

If we are rationalizing our beliefs, opinions and decisions rooted in emotions or gut feeling and all we are doing is rationalizing them, then why do we keep thinking that we are being rational?

The answer to this lies in confirmation bias.

As soon as emotions or gut feeling biases our mind towards one position, confirmation bias kicks in. We start noticing things that confirm the position we are already now biased towards, all the while blocking all the conflicting information that may come our way, which keeps on expanding the bias until we become certain about the correctness of our position.

Confirmation bias is a well-known psychological phenomenon. If you don’t understand confirmation bias, you have not taken the first step in understanding human interactions.

Convincing Someone With “Rational” Arguments

When an opinion is formed in the irrational way, that is, based on emotions or gut feeling (which is how it is almost all the time), it is almost impossible to change that opinion using facts and “rational” arguments.

Reason: An opinion or decision based on emotions or gut feeling is likely fueled by a lot of confirmation bias. When that position is argued against using facts or what the opposing side thinks to be rational arguments, it induces cognitive dissonance in the person holding those opinions.

Cognitive dissonance is another well-known psychological phenomenon, and is equally essential in understanding human interactions in a meaningful way.

Cognitive dissonance is a mental discomfort one feels when one is presented with facts and arguments that conflict with one’s own beliefs or opinions. The stronger one’s beliefs/opinions are, the more the dissonance.

Once the dissonance is created by conflicting information/facts, the person would want to get rid of it. Now there are two ways to remedy cognitive dissonance. Either the person suffering from the dissonance can agree with the person with the opposing view (and accept that they were wrong), or make up more irrational hypotheses to justify their views in the face of conflicting information.

For some reason, humans are not good at accepting that they were wrong upon being countered with conflicting facts and information – at least not immediately. But they can’t live with cognitive dissonance either. Result: The disagreement widens.

When Rational Arguments Work

There may be times when you have changed other people’s minds using rational arguments and facts to counter their opinion. I don’t say it never happens.

But if you credit your rationality or facts alone for that success, you may be mistaken.

First of all, no one is perfectly rational except in case of really simple decisions (refer above to the example of simple decision). So when you thought you convinced someone using a rational argument, you were actually using better rationalization for your position than your opponent was using for theirs.

That said, some positions are more rational, or better, than others, even if both the positions are held by different people based on their emotions or gut feeling. And a person with aptitude for rationality is easy to convince with facts and “rational” arguments.

So here’s two situations where rationality and facts have worked for you –

  1. When the person you presented your differing view to already saw you as an authority, or generally respected you, regarded you as an intelligent person.
  2. The target of your argument was someone who had aptitude for rationality. Meaning, they regarded rationality as a virtue.

Barring scenarios with the above two conditions, there’s no way anyone can convince another person of a different or opposite view – at least not immediately.

So if you are setting out to argue for what you consider to be a superior belief, opinion or decision with 1) someone who doesn’t know you or doesn’t regard you as a particularly intelligent person and/or 2) doesn’t have aptitude for rationality – which is most people you will come across – good luck with getting your point-of-view through their head.

You might want to save time and energy, and possibly even the relationship, by hearing a different opinion from someone and letting it be.

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