Why We Shout During an Argument (and Why It’s Not Effective)

Why We Shout During an Argument (and Why It’s Not Effective)
Photo: Anutr Yossundara, Shutterstock

When we get into arguments with people, such as your on-the-other-side-of-the-political-spectrum uncle, the disrespectful neighbour, or even your messy roommate, it can be all too easy to devolve into a shouting match. However, according to Vanessa Bohns, a professor of organizational behaviour at Cornell University, shouting during an argument not only undermines the effectiveness of our message, it also shows a lack of confidence in our ability to influence others.

As Bohns wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “[W]hile we often are overconfident in our beliefs, the tendency to shout — whether over our neighbours, friends, or adversaries — comes from underconfidence in our ability to convince others.”

Bohns, whose book “You Have More Influence Than You Think: How We Underestimate Our Power of Persuasion and Why it Matters” comes out Sept. 7, has spent her career studying how people influence each other. Although many studies have shown that most of us consider ourselves to be better than average when it comes to qualities like creativity, moral character, and athletic ability, this confidence does not extend to how we perceive our social abilities or how other people perceive us.

We underestimate our ability to convince others

Our tendency to underestimate our ability to influence others has been demonstrated in a number of studies over the years. This includes surveys showing that people tend to assume others are less interested in them than they actually are, studies showing that people thought strangers liked them less than what those same strangers reported to the researchers, and study participants overestimating how difficult it would be to get friends and strangers to do a mundane task.

As Bohns notes, “Together, these two seemingly contradictory, but actually complementary, sets of findings create a perfect storm that leads to shouting.” Since we believe that we are more knowledgeable, more moral, and less susceptible to bias than the average person, this gives us the belief that we should be listened to.

However, we also don’t believe we have the ability to convince others, creating an insecurity that no one is listening to us. As Bohns puts it: “We shout because we don’t think people will listen to us otherwise.”

Shouting during an argument is less effective

As anyone who has found themselves in an argument knows, when it comes to certain topics, it can be hard not to raise your voice. However, as tempting as it is to shout, this can actually backfire. Numerous studies have shown that shouting is a less effective way to persuade others, especially if they’re already disinclined to believe you.

Instead, gentle persuasion tends to be the most effective. This includes tactics such as pointing out the disconnect between what a person thinks and says versus what a person does, or what they recommend for others versus themselves. For example, if someone trusts their doctor when it comes to non-COVID-19-related medical advice but not when they offer COVID-19-related recommendations, that’s a disconnect. So is a person who recommends that their elderly parents follow COVID-19 precautions but doesn’t follow them for themselves.

Another strategy is to ask questions, as a way of getting someone to articulate what their thoughts and views are, which is a way of getting them to engage in the topic, and think it through. You can shout about a subject until you are blue in the face, but if the other person isn’t listening, nothing will change. However, if you can get a person to think and engage about a topic, there’s a chance they’ll work through what they think and why.

So the next time your uncle starts talking about why they think COVID-19 is overblown, try and refrain from raising your voice. It won’t help, it’ll most likely hurt, and you’ll just end the conversation frustrated and upset. Instead, if you think there’s a chance of engaging with them in a productive way, try a softer, gentler approach.

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