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Photo: iStock

Opinion | Why longer replies are better than short one-liners to win a debate

It is essential to overcome confirmation bias to be able to make better informed choices

During a recent debate at a multilateral conference in Delhi, something unusual happened. All participants were pre-assigned to different teams and didn’t get to choose their stand. As luck would have it, my team had to argue against something we believed in. Although it was unsettling to begin with, preparing for the debate strengthened our collective understanding of the subject. It got me thinking if debating can be a tool for unlearning and relearning.

We live at a time where high-pitched shouting matches and social media wars are the norm. We are so sure we’re right that we don’t really listen to counter arguments. We make up our minds and then look for proof. This is what Mark Twain called “man with a hammer syndrome", when he famously quipped, “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

Berkshire Hathaway’s vice chairperson Charlie Munger has an interesting mental model for framing arguments and shaping debates. He says it is irresponsible to have an opinion on any subject if we can’t state the arguments for the other side better than our opponents. This takes both effort and rigorous mental discipline. Munger calls it the cost of having an informed opinion.

We have to learn to overcome confirmation bias—favouring information that confirms your existing beliefs, train ourselves to see issues through multiple lenses, become our most intelligent critic and have the intellectual honesty to kill some of our most cherished ideas.

Stress-testing our beliefs the way Munger does empowers us to analyse things from first principles, basic assumptions uncoloured by biases. This strengthens our arguments and enables us to understand weaknesses in our thought process. Most importantly, this iterative approach makes us less dogmatic.

The purpose of having a debate isn’t to shove our intellectual superiority over our opponents. It is an opportunity to learn and change our mind when provided with convincing arguments.

Change My View is a Reddit community with almost one million members who have starkly different social, economic and political beliefs . Set up by Scottish teenager Kal Turnbull in 2013, it has managed to emerge as a safe digital space for civilized debate. Thousands of people use Turnbull’s platform to learn about issues they deeply care about every single day. He recently partnered with Cornell University’s Chenhao Tan and came up with four useful reference points that explain under what circumstances people change their minds.

First, explaining where you are coming from is far more likely to change someone’s mind than well-rehearsed facts and counter arguments. People care deeply about the rationale underpinning your point of view. Explaining why you hold a particular opinion not only establishes common ground for the conversation but also makes you far more relatable to your opponent.

Second, language plays a subtle yet significant role in the outcome of an argument. Directly quoting someone and finding logical flaws in the statement is usually ineffective. People perceive it as nitpicking their words rather than their view as a whole.

Additionally, be careful when people use collective words like “we" in their argument. It is easier to change a person’s mind than that of a community. When someone uses “we", it is often an unconscious way of putting a barrier against your argument by invoking their affiliation to a larger group. In such cases, you probably won’t succeed in changing their mind.

Third, longer replies substantiated by linked references are more effective than short one-liners. Psychologists call backfire effect as the difficulty in accepting that we are wrong. Essentially, when our deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, our beliefs become stronger. Tan’s research suggests that we can overcome the backfire effect by addressing different layers of our opponent’s arguments and complementing it with trustworthy links.

Fourth, if someone has not changed her mind with three rounds of back and forth arguments, one should agree to disagree. Tan’s team suggests that after the third round, the probability of someone changing their mind drastically reduces.

Of course, these are not fool-proof methods but keeping them in mind might help us frame arguments better and inform us which debates are worth engaging in.

As I walked up to the podium during the Delhi conference to argue something that I initially didn’t fully believe in, I realized that I not only understood the issue prompt much better but also felt good about changing my own thoughts on the topics.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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