“No—you are wrong! Blue is by far the superior color, idiot. It’s laughable you think green is the best, you fool!”
Maybe you’ve never argued about the merits of primary colors before, but surely you’ve argued with someone about something. And if you’ve disagreed strongly, chances are your conversation escalated into a shouting match that when finished left both arguing parties that much more committed to their original stances—and not for any good reason.
This, of course, is neither ideal nor productive. The whole point of arguing—or we can call it debating civilly if you’d prefer—is to convince your opponent that yours is the correct interpretation or understanding of the topic at hand.
And that won’t be accomplished by screaming in your opponent’s general vicinity. In fact, studies have shown that when you raise your voice, yell or otherwise, you know, act like a dick during an argument, you’re less likely to accomplish what you set out to accomplish: convincing your opponent you’re right.
If you want to win your arguments, the first thing you’ve got to do is focus on maintaining an optimal volume and a steady cadence when you speak. But being a good debater extends far beyond simple verbal tricks. You’ve got to really know what you’re talking about.
How Sure Are You About ‘What You Know,’ Anyway?
In a 2002 study, two researchers at Yale—Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil—unveiled what they called the illusion of exploratory depth, i.e., the habit we all have to feel as though we understand topics much better than we actually do. Essentially, the study proved that once we’re asked to actually explain our understanding of subjects we feel confidently about—particularly when it comes to explaining how things work—we immediately recognize we’ve overestimated our intelligence.
In other words, we think we’re smarter than we actually are. For example, because you’ve driven a car for so long, you might be convinced you know how they work. But when you stop to think about it, how well could you explain what’s under the hood of your car and how it actually operates? You step on the accelerator—and then what? (OK greasemonkeys, how about trying to explain how Tylenol works?)
According to Rozenblit and Keil, because we are familiar with something, we incorrectly assume we’re extensively knowledgeable about it. Rarely are our beliefs or thoughts actually put to the test, so instead we might brush up on topics of particular interest every so often on the web to maintain our amateurish level of understanding.
But because we underestimate the depth of familiarly certain topics require in order to claim ourselves subject matter experts, oftentimes we lack the breadth of understanding necessary to thoroughly and accurately explain our patterns of thought, convincing others they’re the right ones.
To win arguments, you need to be able to thoroughly explain every nuance of your opinions and stances, offering a host of facts that support your theses. But on top of that, you have to remind your opponent that he or she is likely overestimating the depth of his or her understanding, too.
Be Quiet, Listen & Ask For Explanations
A decade after Rozenblit and Keil’s study was published, new research indicated that the illusion of exploratory depth also applied to political ideologies, and therefore by extension, other similar topics: the best musicians of all time, the greatest sports players, the best movies and so on.
For example, many Republicans might say they’re in favor of sanctioning Iran. But when pressed, research subjects had a much harder time explaining how, if implemented, the policies they supported would actually work (e.g. if the goal is to provide stability in the region, how does hurting the country’s economy through sanctions help meet that end?)
What does that mean? The next time you find yourself in the middle of an argument, take a deep breath and consider the following: Your opponent probably doesn’t know the subject matter he or she is debating as well as he or she thinks. So take your foot off the accelerator, calm down and ask questions—a lot of them. Keep asking questions and see how well your adversary can answer them.
At the very least, you might expose your opponent’s lack of knowledge about the subject you’re debating. But beware: Once that happens, you’ve got to be ready to handle the return onslaught of questions that most assuredly will come your way.
So before you go looking for an argument, you might want to stare into a mirror and convince yourself you actually know what the hell you’re talking about. Once you’re confident you’ve got that down, all you have to do is calmly convince your opponents they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about by asking them to explain their stances. Doesn’t sound too hard now, does it?