Why winning isn't the real purpose of arguing
Do you really want to win an argument, or do you want to find mutual ground and understanding?
Jordan B. Peterson, raised and toughened in the frigid wastelands of Northern Alberta, has flown a hammer-head roll in a carbon-fiber stunt-plane, explored an Arizona meteorite crater with astronauts, and built a Kwagu'l ceremonial bighouse on the upper floor of his Toronto home after being invited into and named by that Canadian First Nation. He's taught mythology to lawyers, doctors and business people, consulted for the UN Secretary General, helped his clinical clients manage depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and schizophrenia, served as an adviser to senior partners of major Canadian law firms, and lectured extensively in North America and Europe. With his students and colleagues at Harvard and the University of Toronto, Dr. Peterson has published over a hundred scientific papers, transforming the modern understanding of personality, while his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief revolutionized the psychology of religion. His latest book is 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
Jordan Peterson: So how do you deal with situations where your words are likely to be used out of context, let’s say.
And that’s a situation I’ve encountered. Well, you see, you encounter a situation like that very frequently. Everyone does in their life. If you’re having a discussion with someone you live with, for example, so someone you have to be with for a long time – a lover, boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, husband—sibling for that matter. You’re going to have contentious discussions about how to move forward and it’s very frequently the case that your words will be – that you’ll be straw-manned. Your words will be taken out of context.
The other person (and you too!) will try to win instead of trying to solve the problem. What you have to kind of decide is – well two things. The first thing is: you’re probably wrong in some important way. And you might think “Well, so what?” But no, it’s not so simple. Being wrong in some important way is like having a map that doesn’t correspond to the streets.
If you’re wrong in some important way, when you go to where you’re going you will get lost and you might end up in a neighborhood that you don’t want to visit! So it actually matters if you’re wrong.
And so now if you’re talking to someone who is acting in opposition to you, it’s possible that during your contentious discussion they will tell you something—about how you’re wrong—that’s accurate. Now you’re not going to be very happy about that, because like who wants to discover that they’re wrong?
But it’s better to figure out that your map is inaccurate than it is to get lost.
And so one of the things you have to remember when you’re discussing things with people, even if they’re out to defeat you, let’s say, is that there is some glimmering of the possibility that you could walk away with more knowledge than you walked in with.
And that’s worth – that can be worth paying quite a price for.
And so I’ve had the opportunity to engage in public debate of an exceptionally contentious nature for let’s say 18 months nonstop, fundamentally. And it’s been very stressful. But the upshot of that is that my arguments are in much better shape than they were, and—I shouldn’t say that. My THOUGHTS are much more refined than they were at the beginning of this process. It’s not my arguments are in better shape. That’s not the right way to think about it.
It’s that I’m clearer about what I know. I can articulate it better. And that’s all forged in the heat of conflict.
If you’re discussing a contentious issue with someone you love and that you have to live with and put up with, you want to listen to them. Because what you really want to do is establish a lasting peace, and you might even have to make their arguments for them. Maybe you’re more verbally fluent than your partner (which doesn’t mean, by the way, that you’re more right, it just means you can construct better arguments on the fly. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re more accurate).
You might have to help your partner formulate their arguments so that you can really get to grips with what it is that they’re trying to say. So that you can alter the way that you’re constructing your own narrative and your joint narrative, so that you’re not butting heads unnecessarily as you move forward through life.
It’s not a very good idea to win an argument with your wife. That isn’t what you want, because then you have a defeated partner. And a defeated partner is not happy. And a defeated partner is often out to reclaim the defeat.
And so as a strategy for moving forward with someone who you’re going to wake up beside 5,000 times it’s not a very advisable strategy. It’s better to listen, to flesh out the argument on both sides, and to see if you can come to a mutually acceptable negotiated settlement. And that’s the case in most encounters in life if you can manage that. But it’s easy to want to win.
One of the things I do in my psychology seminar is I assign papers to students and then I extract out propositions from the papers. And they’re propositions that are debatable. And so then I outline the Pro side and I outline the Con side. Like “if you agreed with this, this is what you’d think”.
If you disagreed with this, this is what you’d think. Then I divide the students into groups, like four people per group. “You four are pro. You four are con. You’ve got 20 minutes to make a pro argument. You’ve got 20 minutes to make a con argument. We’ll go around the table and we’ll see how, you know, we’ll have each group rate the other and we’ll see who comes out on top.”
Well, what you want to do as an educator is you don’t want to put forward a specific point of view. Not when what you’re trying to do is to discuss a contentious issue! What you want to do is teach people how to take an argument apart and formulate a response. And to do that it’s actually extraordinarily useful to arbitrarily assign positions to people. It’s like, I don’t care what you think, you’re “pro” on this topic, generate an argument.” And what that does is it vastly widens people’s conceptualizations of the argumentative space.
Because most really contentious issues – gun control, abortion, those sorts of things—there is a lot to be said on both sides. They wouldn’t be contentious issues otherwise.They’re issues that don’t go away. Well why? Well because they’re so complex. They don’t lend themselves to easy unitary solutions.
One of the things you want to learn if you’re educated is that on any complex subject there’s a lot to be said. And that you’re going to come at that with your particular ideological bias, let’s say, your temperamental bias. Maybe even you might even come at it with things you’ve actually thought about, although that’s pretty damn rare. But you need to learn just exactly how localized your viewpoint is. There’s psychology experiments that demonstrate this quite clearly.
So imagine that you come into my lab and I ask you whether you’re “pro abortion” or “pro life”. And I get you to rate that on a scale.
Maybe you say, “Well, on a scale of one to ten, I’m eight prolife.” And I say “Okay, now you have to write a 500 word essay that’s opposed to your position.” Okay? That’s the experiment. And then I bring you back two weeks later and I ask you to rate your position on the same scale. It will have shifted substantially to the position that you delineated in your written report.
And the reason for that is that most people’s arguments are unbelievably shallow. They’re not arguments, they’re just perceptual biases. That’s one way of thinking about them. And if you get people to delineate out the space in any rigorous manner then their attitudes shift. What you really want and if you’re going to engage in a discussion about say something like gun control is you want to be familiar with the entire range of arguments—deeply familiar. And have some respect for them.
I mean it’s pretty clear that guns kill people. They’re dangerous. But then it’s also not self-evident that the only entities that should be allowed to be dangerous are the state entities. So there’s things that can be said that are intelligent across that entire distribution of opinion. And if you’re educated then you should be conversant with the entire range of opinions.
So that’s one approach as an educator, is to teach people how to analyze an argument and to formulate their opinions. You do people a great service by – that’s teaching them how to think. Not what to think, but how to think.
Now when I lecture my psychology courses which is a different approach let’s say, I take a position on the literature because I have to.
There’s no being neutral about the literature. What am I going to do, pick random studies? It’s like that isn’t how people work. I have a body of knowledge and it stems partly from my biases and from my temperaments. But it’s an informed body of opinion. But what I presented to the students as is, like look, this is my take on the literature. That doesn’t mean I’m right! It means that I’m an informed observer. I’m an informed, singular observer. And what I’m doing then is modeling how an informed, singular observer would deal with a complex body of literature.
So it’s partly, in that role I’m not exactly providing facts and I’m not exactly teaching people how to think. I’m saying, “If you’re a psychologist, a research psychologist, and you want to engage with the literature, here is one way that you would do it.” And so then I’m a model and I’m a model of a way to be in a particular domain. Now that doesn’t mean that you have to emulate me from top to bottom, but at least you have a sense of what it’s like to be a person doing that. And that’s a different form of pedagogy.
Do you really want to win an argument, or do you want to find mutual ground and understanding? Canadian psychologist and author Jordan Peterson feels that in most cases it's the latter. It might take some getting used to, he posits, as acquiescence by its very nature means admitting that you're wrong in some way. Jordan's latest book is 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
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One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?
Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."
Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.
Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.
The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."
That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"
The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.
Some back story
Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.
The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.
Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.
There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.
A Dunbar Correlation
Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?
"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.
I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.
Professor Dunbar's response:
"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."
I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:
"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."
In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.
Friendship, kinship and limitations
"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."
These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.
"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.
As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."
We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.
In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."
This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.
If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.
Gray matter matters
One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."
It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷
It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.
There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:
(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."
(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.
In the end
Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.
Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.
Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.
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