Why duplicity is a debate winner The Times 04.01.19

Not for publication on site but might link to sometime https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/why-duplicity-is-a-debate-winner-3f02d72w0?shareToken=cf7446ac2d67a7b910ead908ef2bc705

 

Forget bombarding opponents with facts and impassioned rhetoric. A new study suggests that winning an argument demands an altogether sneakier tactic: you must present yourself as a potential ally.

Scientists have found that a part of the brain involved in forming opinions becomes disengaged when we debate with somebody with whom we have decided we disagree. Neural circuitry involved with processing fresh evidence seems to grind to a halt, making it less likely that we will change our mind.

Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, believes that this helps to explain the phenomenon of confirmation bias — where we give priority to information that confirms previously existing beliefs. To win over others, she suggests, it is important not to be labelled as an opponent.

“To get the other person to encode your confidence in your belief you don’t want to start with binary disagreement — because then it’s likely that their brain, metaphorically speaking, will shut down,” Professor Sharot said. “You want to start with something that you have in common.”

The advice stems, in part, from an experiment in which 21 pairs of volunteers were asked to assess the value of properties. They might be asked, for instance, whether a certain house was worth more or less than a million pounds. They also had to bet money on their answers. The more confident they were that they had made an accurate assessment, the more money they would put down.

During the betting game the subjects were told what answers the other person had made and how much money they had bet. A big bet suggested that the other person was very sure that they were right. Armed with this information, the subject could then amend their own bet.

When they found that the other person agreed with them they tended to increase their own wager. The more the other person bet, the more they tended to increase their own. This was accompanied by activity in the PMFC brain region. When the other person disagreed with them, however, the PMFC stopped tracking the new information.

The strength of opinion of the disagreeing partner had little impact on the subject’s conviction that they were correct. In a study published in Nature Neuroscience, the researchers wrote: “It was not the case that the volunteers were not paying attention to their partner when they disagreed with them. . . Rather, it seems that contradictory opinions were more likely to be considered categorically wrong and therefore the strength of those opinions was unimportant.”