Tuesday, November 24, 2009

This is your brain on argumentation

From Congress.org. CLICK HERE to link to original article.

This is your brain on argumentation

It takes just 250 milliseconds for your brain to respond to an argument.

How long do you have to persuade someone in a political argument?

Five minutes? Ten minutes?

Try 250 milliseconds.

In an experiment, psycholinguist Jos Van Berkum of the Max Planck Institute found that the brains of volunteers lit up that quickly after they read a statement they disagreed with.

Yes. That. Fast.

For example, opponents of abortion rights reacted instantly—and strongly—when faced with the word good in this sentence: "A society that condones abortion is a good society."

The lesson? Couch your arguments in agreeable terms. Begin by stating ideas you and your opponent share before moving on to more contentious territory.

For a better understanding of the research, we talked with Van Berkum via e-mail.

Most people believe that political arguments are won or lost on logical reasoning. But your research suggests emotions play a larger role than we think. How do they come into play?

Although there is some logical reasoning in political arguments, there’s also a lot of other stuff. Look at debates in congress, or any foreign parliament. What’s important there? Power, forging alliances, surviving the next elections, making a trustworthy impression—all that is a large part of the story too. We’re not just the ever-rational Mr. Spock from Star Trek. We're also great apes trying to survive, feel good, and make a living.

Most problems that politicians have to deal with are extremely complex, involving many unknowns and many trade-offs. Should we invest millions of dollars to perhaps save that bank, or should we use those dollars to improve health care? Testing new medication on animals is bad for them, but it might save human lives, so should we allow animal trials?

These trade-offs virtually always depend on a value system: how should I weigh the suffering of animals against that of humans? So, as in one’s personal life, what is the ‘best’ decision is dependent on you values, on what you care about.

And that’s exactly where emotions come in. Emotions signal that something of value to us is at stake. Some values, like staying alive and being part of a group, are built into the system by evolution, whereas others, like 'respect for all that lives' or being on MTV Cribs, have an obvious cultural component.

Either way, when something threatens those values, emotions very rapidly signal that something important is at hand. They also usually come with a suggested response, like “I want more of that!” or
"better move away from this…"

You recently conducted an experiment that showed people's brains fired up within 250 milliseconds of reading a statement they disagreed with. Did you expect it to happen so soon?

Yes, we actually did expect a rapid response. In the field of attitude survey research, an often-made assumption is that people first read an entire statement, and only then work out how they feel about it.

However, we knew from language research that readers and listeners try to make sense of things as the words come in—they don't wait for the end of a sentence. Also, from research with for instance emotional pictures, we knew that the emotion system responds extremely quickly to things that matter. So in a way, it was just putting 2 and 2 together.

What we did not know was how the brain would respond to morally objectionable language. The EEG effects we get suggest that there’s a real emotional component to the response (comparable to how the brain responds to emotionally unpleasant stimuli).

Also, people seem to find it more difficult to compute the meaning of a statement they strongly disagree with (reflecting a kind of 'wishful thinking.' as it were). That’s quite interesting, because it suggests that feelings influence basic language comprehension.

What's also new is that language researchers look at personal values at all. For various reasons, research on language and research on values and emotions have drifted far apart; these topics are studied in totally different research communities, each with its own journals and conferences.

But the brain is not so compartmentalized, and language comprehension is affected by values and emotions right from the start. So, that member of congress who’s reading your letter will inevitably feel stuff at every word. The challenge is to arouse the right feelings.

Is there a way to structure your argument to avoid this effect?

No, not really.

If you talk about politics and communal decision-making, the talk is inevitably about values. And when you touch upon values, you get emotions. And you need the latter to get people moving at all. What you want to avoid, though, is waking up the wrong emotions.

Politician are not just governed by the values they officially stand for, the party line. Like you and me, they also have lots of other values. For example, they too want to feel safe, keep their job, and be respected.

And more often than not, they too want to be rich and famous. When you're dealing with a politician, you're always facing all these values, and it takes some careful navigating to address the right ones to further your cause.

Are there any other lessons for people about making more effective political arguments?

Well, the main lesson is connected to what I just said: If you want people to 'do the right thing,' you want to push the right buttons and avoid waking up the wrong emotions.

If you treat people like morons in your letter, or 'shout' at them by using all capital letters, the emotions you’ll arouse will be unhelpful and destructive.

So you need to think of smarter ways to 'get at them,' taking into account the fuller spectrum of what they care about. For example, try to arrange matters such that they will feel good if they support you. Take the other person’s perspective for a minute, think about what matters look like to him or her, and design your plea with the latter in mind.

Never simply crush people with a long list of arguments. Always offer a graceful retreat, allow them to save face. Always convey respect, even if it is hard. If you reject them, the dialog will be over before it ever started.

And never, never send off your letter to Congress right after you've written it. Read it over the next day, and imagine one of your friends would get it. Then revise.

Ryan Teague Beckwith is deputy editor of Congress.org


Anonymous said...


Hi [url=http://www.verifiedfile.com][img]http://verifiedfile.com/images/smile.gif[/img][/url]

Does anybody like to [url=http://www.WatchMovies4Free.org][b]Watch Full Movies For Free[/b][/url]? For those of you who like movies, I just developed a new site

Anyway - the site has no commercials and allows you to stream on demand all of your favorite 2009 movies [url=http://WatchMovies4Free.org][b]WatchMovies4Free.org[/b][/url]

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...


[b]BackGammon Game Lovers...![/b]

[b]Backgammon-Directory.info[/b] provides the largest [url=http://www.gammonempire.com][b]online backgammon[/b][/url] game community[url=http://www.tunespro.com][img]http://www.tunespro.com/images/1pixel.gif[/img][/url]

You can play for free[url=http://tunespro.com][img]http://tunespro.com/images/1pixel.gif[/img][/url]

There are many [url=http://www.gammonempire.de][b]backgammon[/b][/url] & [url=http://gammonempire.de][b]backgammon spielen[/b][/url] portals.

Anyway, wishing you all playing luck [url=http://www.verifiedfile.com][img]http://verifiedfile.com/images/smile.gif[/img][/url]

[b]The Object of the Game[/b]
The object of the game is to "bear off" all of your checkers from the backgammon board before your opponent. Each player can prevent the other from advancing. The object of the game is the same whether you play face-to-face or online.

[b]Note:[/b] These sites offer a safe and secure online environment where new players can learn how to play Backgammon with the easy rules and strategies provided on this site. Whether you seek an online Backgammon game for beginners or advanced players, you can download free [url=http://www.gammonempire.com/backgammon-articles.php][b]Backgammon[/b][/url] software and play against other players at your level on the Internet. This way you can gain experience and improve your game in preparation for real money games or scheduled online backgammon tournaments. In addition, you can learn where to play online Backgammon, as well as improve your skills on the board by utilizing the useful Backgammon instructions and articles. In the meantime, you can enjoy our 30% bonus on you first deposit, as well as a $5 welcome bonus.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

The response level to local and national disasters is awesome but it's a real shame that so many citizens take advantage of the negative situations.

I mean everytime there is an earthquake, a flood, an oil spill - there's always a group of heartless people who rip off tax payers.

This is in response to reading that 4 of Oprah Winfreys "angels" got busted ripping off the system. Shame on them!

Anonymous said...

Hi Everybody

Discussion about global warming are most often disregarded as too scientific - but, earthquakes and mass death should not be disregarded as another statistic. We're talking about people, just like you and me.

[b]Please offer financial or volunteer assistance to Chile & Haiti[/b]

Anonymous said...


Words like global warming are generally too scientific to participate in - but, earthquakes and mass death cannot be another disregarded statistic. We're talking about people, just like you and me.

[b]Please help the victims to Haiti and Chile[/b]