How To Win An Argument The Scientific Way

While internet arguments so often seem unwinnable, a team of researchers at Cornell University think they have come up with the ideal formula for changing someone's mind — thanks to two years worth of posts on the ChangeMyView subreddit.

Arguing image via Shutterstock

Through analysing a number of original postings and the replies that did or did not manage to change their minds, the researchers have managed to determine what sort of language is most persuasive — and what kind of language from the original poster means you shouldn't even try.

ChangeMyView is a subreddit where, as the name might suggest, posters invite other redditors to try and change their opinion on a certain topic. While this is one of the best places on the internet to attempt to change someone's mind — with that intention being invited from the beginning — it's still surprisingly difficult. On CMV, a successful change of mind is indicated by a Δ or 'delta' being awarded, and recent topics discussed range from "piracy is best for business" (in which the original poster's view was changed) to "getting Married and Having Kids is a waste of life" (an opinion which has not yet been changed).

CMV already has an 'antidelta' guide (or how not to change someone's mind), including tips such as "come on strong and hard with contradictory evidence and a combative tone", "insult their intelligence", "use hostile sarcasm" and "declare that you're finished responding, several times". While the guide is a solid one, it's largely anecdotal, while the researchers from Cornell University have some solid evidence behind their findings.

So how can you win an argument every time? Unfortunately you can't — the research also looked at the fact that some original posters were never open to having their opinion changed in the first place. However you can potentially tailor your arguments to make them more convincing, and even pick out the discussions that aren't worth getting involved in in the first place.

Trends In Online Arguments

• Strength in numbers apparently holds true in internet arguments as well, as threads with more challengers were more likely to result in an opinion being changed. The average number of changed opinions peaks when there are 128 unique challengers in a thread, dropping off only slightly after that.

• However when it comes to 'subtrees' — replies to a challenger's first argument — it pays to have a single coherent argument, with single-challenger subtrees consistently proving more successful than multi-challenger subtrees. "The fact that multiple-challenger subtrees are less effective might suggest that when talking about the same counterargument, challengers might not be adding value to it, or they might even disagree."

• The early bird gets the worm — earlier posters in a thread are far more likely to change someone's mind, with the success rate peaking at the second challenger and dropping sharply thereafter. So if you're thinking of joining an argument that's already well underway, you may be far less likely to succeed.

Remember that 'delta' is the indicator for a successful argument

• The number of replies (or counterarguments) to a challenger's argument can be indicative of whether or not the original poster is going to change their mind. The rate of success peaks at three replies in a back-and-forth exchange and flatlines at five — meaning that if you haven't convinced someone after five rounds of back-and-forth, it will be almost impossible to do so at all. "Perhaps while some engagement signals the interest of the [original poster], too much engagement can indicate futile insistence," the researchers postulate.

Persuasive Language

• Language is of key importance to a key argument. The most important factor to successfully persuading someone is to use different words from those used in the original argument. Even though your initial reaction may be to be sympathetic with the original poster, using different words is indicative of bringing in a new point of view to the argument.

• Longer replies tend to be the most convincing in winning arguments, while it's completely unsurprising that calmer language is more likely to be successful.

• Another thing that can help the strength of your argument is using specific examples. The mere inclusion of phrases like "for example", "for instance" and "e.g." means you're more likely to succeed in convincing someone of your point. While quotations and question marks have no impact on how convincing your argument is, linking to supporting evidence improves your chances of success.

• While definite articles (say, using "the" instead of "a") turn up more often in successfully persuasive arguments, hedging — vague language often using terms such as 'could', 'may' and 'perhaps' can actually increase your chances of success. While hedging often indicates a weak argument or uncertain point of view, the researchers believe its success may come from softening the tone of an argument.

Warning Signs

• Some minds probably can't be changed in the first place, and researchers have picked up a few warning signs for 'resistant' points of view.

• First person pronouns such as "I" can indicate a malleable point of view, while plural pronouns such as "we" indicate a more resistant one. This isn't the first time this trend has been noted in psychology, however. "In psychology, self-affirmation has been found to indicate open-mindedness and make beliefs more likely to yield," the study notes.

• Like convincing arguments, changeable opinions are expressed calmly and positively, which is a poor sign for the majority of internet arguments out there. These include paragraphs that use the words "help" and "please", and there is even a link between malleability and a higher use of adjectives and adverbs.

• Stubborn views tend to be expressed with more "arousal", a parameter that the researchers define with the "intensity of an emotion" used in any given opinion.

• Resistant opinions tend to be expressed with decisive words — such as "anyone", "certain", "ever", "nothing" and "wrong", so if you see someone expressing their view in absolutes like these, it may be best to give up on your counterargument before you even try.

[Cornell University via Washington Post]


    This should be used with care. What the researchers have failed to point out is that if 2 opponent's use this approach a wormhole in time and space could be opened up causing unintended consequences...

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