Putting forth a logical argument only to have it shut down by obstinacy and (in your opinion) dubious retorts from the opposing party is frustrating – and we’ve all been there. Whether you’re trying to win a Twitter debate over which Harry Potter movie is the best (it’s Prisoner of Azkaban) or you’re having a calm discussion with a member of the opposite political party, trouble is lurking.
A theory exists in psychology called “cognitive dissonance,” and it goes a little something like this: The more a person’s actions fail to match his or her true beliefs about the action, the more mental tension that person is going to experience.
This is best explained by example. Have you ever been offered something (such as birthday cake at a party) and turned it down, perhaps without thinking? Then, a few minutes later found yourself wishing that you had accepted? This action (declining the offer for a piece of cake) failed to match your beliefs about the action (“That cake actually looks pretty good!”), thus producing tense thoughts.
Unless you’re incredibly fond of self-pity, you probably spent the rest of the party thinking of reasons that, essentially, justified your choice. “I’m trying to avoid sweets,” you might have thought, or, “I didn’t want to take the last piece.”
You wanted the cake, you declined the cake, and now you’re reducing the internal tension by minimizing the reasons you should have accepted and maximizing your reasons for declining. In the end, you might just convince yourself that you never wanted the cake at all. You could be shown photo evidence from the birthday party that shows you staring longingly at the empty cake tin, but you’d stand firm to your assertion that you’d have been crazy to accept that cake!
Now, this is an ultra-abridged version of the theory, but it gives some insight into why it seems like the other side in your debate just doesn’t get it.
Once a person has done something like assert an opinion online, cast a vote at the ballot box, or thrown an empty fast-food bag out of a car window, that act cannot be taken back. The consequences of this are that if you point out to this person (especially if you manage a convincing argument) that he or she really didn’t think through that last Tweet, that there are some negative aspects about his or her political party, or that one person’s trash will make an impact, you’re sticking that person with the mental tension of mismatched actions (the original act) and beliefs (what you’ve pointed out).
What did you do when you declined the cake that you later believed to really want? You rooted yourself more firmly in the original belief in order to reduce tension. A debate can work the same way.
You could put forth the most logical, well-worded argument of your life, but if the other side is more committed to reducing mental tension than seeing the truth (as you see it), a logical argument isn’t going to help. In fact, it might even make the opposing party more desperate to justify their original beliefs in order to keep them consistent with their actions.
Does this seem childish? Absolutely. One of the places that cognitive dissonance theory is most applicable is in child-rearing. Have you ever done something despite, or in spite, of a parent having told you not to do it? Maybe you were warned against texting while driving, did it anyway, and then convinced yourself that what you were doing wasn’t nearly as dangerous as you were told.
“You aren’t watching where you’re going when you text and drive!” they tell you. “It’s fine. I only do it at stoplights,” you reason back. Even hearing a firsthand account from a friend who got into an accident didn’t convince you because, in that case, what are the odds it’ll happen to you too? (Turns out they’re not at all lowered). You’ve heard it all, you’ve seen the videos, but you do it anyway. The evidence and logic only cause you to get defensive.
Think about cognitive dissonance the next time all reason points to you, but they refuse to listen. The more you are able to convince, the more you risk pushing them from acceptance.