from the world's big
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.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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