The Secret To Winning A Political Argument Is Remarkably Simple

This could change the way you talk about issues.

The horrific attacks in Paris set off a wave of panic in the United States of another large-scale terrorist attack here. Much of the reaction has been narrowly focused on whether resettling Syrian refugees in the U.S. will threaten national security, a debate spurred by the fear of a possible "Trojan horse" if terrorists posed as refugees to enter. As anyone who has been involved in a discussion on this topic — or any political issue — can tell you, it's a difficulty unproductive one to have. As it turns out, a new study has shown that the key to winning any political argument is actually quite simple.

Watching as America's political landscape increasingly degenerates into two distinct, stubborn camps, researchers Matthew Feinberg, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto and Robb Willer of Stanford University decided to investigate ways to overcome the polarization. 

Feinberg and Willer's experiments were based on prior research stating that conservatives and liberals have contrasting moral foundations. Published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, their own findings showed that the most effective way to convince someone holding an opposite political viewpoint to support your position is not to talk their ears off with your moral perspective, but to appeal to their own moral values. 

iStock via FiledIMAGE
iStock via FiledIMAGE

Divided into liberal and conservative groups, the results showed that both groups were startlingly weak at developing arguments that would appeal to their political opposite, "even when specifically asked to do so," the report stated.

Liberals were asked to convince conservatives to support same-sex marriage based on conservative values of loyalty, authority, or purity; conservatives were asked to make the case for English being the country's official language based on liberal values of fairness and protection from discrimination. In both experiments, a vast majority of them framed the issue through their own sense of morality.

But doing the exact opposite seemed to have an actual effect. Conservatives tended to support universal health care when confronted with the argument that the uninsured would lead to a wider spread of disease (a "purity-based" argument). Liberals, on the other hand, were more inclined to support increased military spending when it was argued that the military — and its employment opportunities — created less inequality.

iStock via james Anderson
iStock via james Anderson

Talking about politics can seem infuriatingly futile, as many a Facebook debate has proven. But to have an effective, productive discussion with those whom you disagree with is not impossible. 

In light of the ongoing discussion about whether to allow Syrian refugees in to the U.S., keeping this in mind could definitively change the course of their fates, or at least your friends' minds.

As Feinberg said in the report:

Instead of alienating the other side and just repeating your own sense of morality, start thinking about how your political opposition thinks and see if you can frame messages that fit with that thought process.

Cover image via iStock / Chris Pecoraro