On the Righteous Mind and How not to Win an Argument

There is the common view that the truth can be found through reason and argument. That if only people get access to information and the knowledge from science and research they will adjust flawed opinions and convert to the truth no matter how they personally feel about it. This is the ideal of science, that man can leave his emotions and personal views behind on the road to objective insight. 

A scientific man ought to have no wishes, no affections - a mere heart of stone.
— Charles Darwin

But then there is an opposing view, that man is a self-righteous scumbag, mostly using his mental faculties to win pointless arguments and to justify his egocentric worldview.

In his book, "The righteous mind" Jonathan Haidt elaborates on this second view and presents extensive research on how the human mind is not a cold rational computer but a highly complex, emotional system that is usually a self-righteous defender of pre-made gut-decisions. Haidt argues that usually our experiences, prejudices and social influences shape our intuition which in turn is determining our judgements. Only afterwards, when a decision is already made up, our mind is employed to find reasons to justify our point of view. Therefore, our mind is more of an inner lawyer defending our public image than judge or scientist. We might proclaim to endorse the highest deeds but after all we are just fallible humans, reluctant to loose an argument.

Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason.
— Jonathan Haidt

Just think of the last time, you tried to convince an ultra-religious person of Darwins theory of evolution. Logic and reason certainly didn't help you much! Same goes with many arguments about trivialities when arguments quickly turn into a verbal shit fight where adopting the other persons point of view would be seen as proving their higher intellect and giving in would be taking as a hit for the ego. Brain-researchers have found that once an argument turns this way, the area of the brain responsible for rational argumentation gets completely turned off and chances of agreement turn towards zero! Interestingly, there was even a sarcastic treatise by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer on "The Art of Being Right: 38 Ways to Win an Argument".

If you’re losing an argument, start correcting their grammar!
— Strategy #39 (forgotten by Schopenhauer)

To illustrate this, Haidt employs the mathaphor of the mind being the rider of an elephant depicting intuition and feelings. Only in a very calm state can logic and reason guide the way but usually the elephant decides where to go and the mind has to follow.
In a study that demonstrates this effect, participants were confronted with different disturbing stories (for instance about two siblings having safely protected intercourse) and asked what they think about this. When explaining their judgements the participants came up with the weirdest arguments and when these were refuted by the experimenter they didn't change their opinion but desperately tried to come up with better rationalizations instead of admitting that it just feels wrong. It seems, sometimes we are trapped in our own reasoning and can't see through to the true foundations of our judgements.

A highly interesting concept in this context is the psychological concept of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted with new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values (example: being convinced that tallness is always a good thing and then sitting in an airplane). To prevent this awkward state of cognitive dissonance people try to shield their mind from anything that is contradictory to their worldview and if that fails might even add strange new beliefs to justify their behaviour and so to create mental harmony.

From all these mechanisms, an answer can be derived to the question:

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but not notice the log in your own eye?
— Matthew 7:3-4

Therefore, changing other people's worldview through reason and logical argument is usually doomed to fail. It doesn't matter if a belief is reasonable or far from the truth, once it is established there is a strong tendency to defend it. Additionally most people hold an extreme certainty regarding the truthfulness and objectivity of their own opinion. This in turn entails an urge to convert others to their own, truer perspective - be it regarding politics, religion or the right lifestyle (as hippie, buddhist monk or beauty queen for instance). These attempts of persuation are usually just an annyance to others and are quickly blocked off. However, sometimes there are people with important insights that ought to spread and nevertheless people will undifferentiatedly also shield themselves from these arguments to protect their own worldview.
If a legitimate insight is about the magnificence of the Batman movies but others don't listen to the advice to watch them, it seems unfortunate. But if the majority of people ignores all appeals to stop slavery, racism or warnings about global warming it is tragic, especially if the messenger is exposed to general ridicule or worse forms of society's self-defence (as Galileo had to find out the hard way).
It seems, mankind is trapped in his own self-righteousness.

So is there a way to get around this mechanism?
Unless one is Jesus, the Dalai Lama or Oprah Winfrey (or has comparable social approval) challenging other people's worldviews directly will pretty much always be taken as an know-it-all annoyance and therefore ignored. Instead, it seems necessary to carefully address the emotional sphere (the elephant) first. Only if this has successfully cast doubt on the foundation of a former worldview, reason and logical arguments will fall on fertile ground. Additionally, even without explicit argument, the opinions of friends and peers have a strong effect in the long term. From this follows, that the more people have adopted a new perspective, the easier it is for others to follow suit. Here though, it should be kept in mind that the opinion of the majority is rarely a strong indicator for truthfullness despite it bringing a feeling of legitimacy.

Friends can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: they can challenge us, giving us reasons and arguments that sometimes trigger new intuitions, thereby making it possible for us to change our minds.
— Jonathan Haidt

But more important than changing others, it is to improve oneself. As argued above, being human means being subjective and biased in one's perspective. Not denying one's self-righteousness can be the first step to betterment. This means one can never be completely certain regarding one's own perspective and opinion and should regularly confront it with critique and challenging opinions. Instead of holding an opinion with certainty until it is disproved (as most people do) one should better doubt the own opinion until it has been extensively tried against all critique. If more people actively searched exposure to opposing opinions every now and then, examining them with an open mind, the truth might gain substantially.

Further, I feel it to be important to redefine what it means to win an argument:
Not to triumph over the other but to gain new insight. Of course it is easier to agree to this ideal than to live by it and from time to time even the noblest thinker will fail to constrain the ego and gets will lost in a pointless dispute. But it seems that many people don't even hold this ideal in their conscious mind and give more respect to those with a smart tongue and firm convictions instead of those that are open to doubt and critique.

Nevertheless, there is certainly no easy way to overcome our self-righteousness and even Jonathan Haidt concludes that it seems impossible to change our human nature in this regard. Mankind is and probably always will be a self-righteous scumbag.
But acknowledging that oneself is part of this strange group and carrying the own opinion with a bit less certainty might lessen our collective burden a little bit.

More on this:

For argument’s sake (video) - 10 min TED talk by Daniel H. Cohen who redefines what it means to win an argument.

Thinking, Fast and Slow (book) - Daniel Kahnemanns bestselling book on the workings of the mind

The Righteous Mind (book) - Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt explaning brilliantly how our righteous mind works and why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion