Fact’d Up: Why it’s Pointless to Argue Based on the ‘Facts’

Donald Trump | Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Donald Trump | Tom Pennington/Getty Images

We’re taught to take down our opponents with sound, logical arguments. Countering distorted views with bias-free factual evidence – be it a political scuffle over the Thanksgiving turkey with your relatives, or a fight for a bigger salary from your employer – is typically seen as the best way to tip an argument in your favor. You don’t necessarily need to use Jedi (or CIA) mind tricks; just be armed with the evidence.

Well, as we’ve all witnessed during the presidential campaign, we’ve seemingly entered a logical no-man’s land. It’s like an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway? – where the narratives are made up, and the facts don’t matter. And some researchers are saying that deploying facts and evidence are likely to get you further from a desired outcome. Not closer.

When it comes to changing minds through debate or other persuasive measures, we usually simply state our case, and present the factual evidence to back it up, as mentioned. Well, researchers now say that this is backward – using facts and analysis often won’t persuade anyone. It’ll only force your opposition to dig deeper into their respective foxhole. Which goes a long way toward explaining the swelling support for Donald Trump.

We previously wrote about the “Blowback Effect”, in which certain negotiation tactics that get you results during the argument period actually backfire on you in the long run. A new study has found a similar effect at work in fact-based arguments. The reason? People take it personally – and when you come back at their claims with facts or evidence that discredits them, they see it as an attack on who they are as a person.

“Recent research has shown that for some topics, messages to refute and revise misconceptions may backfire,” reads a paper published in the journal Discourse Processes. “The common explanation for how the backfire effect occurs is that some individuals are more skeptical of the retraction, and expend effort to counter-argue it. In so doing, they activate more evidence that supports their original belief.”

The authors refer to that personification of beliefs as “self-concept,” and go on to say that when self-concept comes under fire – through an attack on our beliefs – our defenses melt down, and we react emotionally. “Refutations that conflict with salient aspects of self-concept can give rise to emotional reactions. Self-concept may serve as input into setting up perceptions of attainment value for learning new knowledge,” the paper says. “If self-concept is perceived to be threatened, then negative emotions may be generated that negatively affect measures of learning, either through avoiding processing the message, undermining its arguments, or activating prior knowledge that conflicts with it to bolster pre-existing attitudes.”

Basically, the paper’s author, researcher Gregory Trevors, found that people have ugly reactions to information we don’t like. We internalize our beliefs and views, and when they’re challenged, we feel an actual hit to our ego, and thus, feel an emotional response. We then associate those emotions with the source of our woes: our opponent, and their “facts.”

When you think about it, it goes a long way toward explaining a lot of behaviors we see from people who seemingly act irrationally – or even our own unanticipated or unexplained meltdowns in certain situations.

The real question is, what can you do about it?

Well, when you know that you’re facing an adversary who will be completely unmoved through normal, factual discourse, it puts you in quite a pickle. Again, if we turn to the presidential campaign – we’ve seen Donald Trump (as the most blatant example, but not the only one) side-step factual-based arguments and evidence with masterful skill. And his supporters seem completely unmoved by those arguing against his major points. In fact, given the amount of physical violence being seen at his rallies, we can even say that the very sort of emotional reactions Trevors wrote about in his paper are taking place right in front of the news cameras.

But this is only one case. We can take this into account in our personal lives as well. Whether it’s an argument about fantasy football with a co-worker, or any other disagreement, most of us put some sort of effort into avoiding certain topics around certain people. Because it seems that they can’t handle your truth, only their own.

Follow Sam on Facebook and Twitter @SliceOfGinger

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