Why you will (almost) never win an online debate

Online debates were my thing for years. But after hundreds and hundreds of debates with countless people I have come to the conclusion that it is nearly impossible to win an online argument. Since then I’ve examined myself and realize now that there were deeper issues at work.

Debating, or sometimes just chatting, exposed my defensive and often overactive nature. I sometimes even frustrated myself for not ably reining them in. But now thanks to a helpful article at Brain Pickings I think I know why that is, and maybe what to do about it.

Psychologists have observed two tendencies in humans that have been confirmed by hard neuroscience. The first is known as “confirmation bias” and the second is known as the “backfire effect.” Together these two tendencies not only make it nearly impossible to win an online debate, but they actually work in conjunction to solidify each party’s position.

Essentially the very act of debating someone online initiates a “backfire effect” in which the person you are debating with walks away more confident in their position than before, just as you do. Hence, the debate backfired.

“Confirmation bias” is fairly straightforward. When we do “research” we consciously or unconsciously look for “evidence” that confirms our existing beliefs and have a natural skepticism towards “evidence” that seems to press our beliefs.

The “backfire effect” is a bit more involved. Here’s how it works:

Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do this instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens those misconceptions instead. Over time, the backfire effect makes you less skeptical of those things that allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper. (quoted originally here)

One of the first steps to developing healthy confidence in your beliefs and healthy conversations with people who believe otherwise, is to become aware of these two tendencies in your own life.

When you become aware of your own confirmation bias, you can then consciously counteract that bias in search for actual truth (let’s face it, we’re all on that journey). And when you become aware of the backfire effect, you’ll be in a better place to slowdown and remind yourself not to be reactive.

Perhaps just as important: knowing that confirmation bias and the backfire effect are probably at work in the minds of the person you’re discussing with will help you understand not just their position, but why they are answering you the way they are.

And ultimately you have to ask yourself what the purpose of the discussion is in the first place.

I have a blogging friend who is a former Methodist pastor who commented on an article I wrote titled “How to reply to comments on social media.” To my list he astutely added:

Your goal is clarification, not persuasion.

That is absolutely true, especially online. In fact, I’d suggest that the next time you get into a discussion with someone on social media, tell yourself: “I want to clarify my position and understand hers, I don’t expect to persuade her.”

Online discussions are more about exchanging ideas than making converts. Not saying that converts can never be had online. But it’s not likely, or at least, not until after months or years of encouraging conversations, idea exchanging, and relationship building.

In most cases the best you could hope for is to plant a seed, an idea, a conviction, a belief system. Give your discussion partner some food for thought. Let them mull it over after they’ve shut off their device and allow them the freedom to accept or reject your views. If you don’t give them that freedom, obsession can turn nasty, people will get hurt and relationships will break.

Question: Do you avoid online debates or do you embrace them? How do you keep them “Christian”? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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