There’s an old meme that goes:

How do you start an argument on the internet?

1. Say something. 

2. Wait. 

It isn’t the only rule of thumb on the ever-present nature of internet arguments. For example, there’s Godwin’s law:

“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

The 11th rule of the internet:

“All your carefully picked arguments can easily be ignored.”

its cousin:

“Anything you say, no matter how truthful or carefully picked, WILL be deemed wrong if the majority is against you.”

and more.

These memes quickly summarize one of the main influences of this instantaneous communication system. For all the transparency the internet has afforded us, the ability to go anonymously behind the keyboard has nearly made civil dialogue a thing of the past.

An activist’s arguments are often meant to educate another person or advance a particular point of view. However, due to the backfire effect and cognitive dissonance, those arguments rarely get anywhere. Often, the person’s beliefs will actually become stronger, and the only thing you will have accomplished is to waste an afternoon.

However, according to a few recent psychological studies on rational and emotional persuasion, scientists believe they have discovered the way to “win,” or at least successfully make a person question their beliefs after, an argument.

Simply ask them to explain why they believe something.

Because most people have closely held beliefs (including you) and don’t know why, questioning them on the process, on the reasoning for why they believe what they do, in many cases actually causes them to back off and re-examine their stance.

The key, however, is to present your question without seeming like you’re attacking their beliefs. For example:

“Why do you believe drug prohibition has been a success?”

is better than

“Prohibition has never worked. Why do you think the drug war will be any different?”

The second question, as it clearly explains your position and attacks theirs, will more than likely activate the fight-or-flight response in their brain. If you trigger this response, it will be difficult to convince them of anything, but if you can remain unbiased, or at the most inquisitive, you just might get them to question their beliefs…which is the first step to knowledge.

This video from Bite-sized Psych goes into further detail:

The lesson here, internet warriors, is that sometimes you have to put down the sword and shield, stop comparing your opponent to Hitler, and start asking questions. Odds are, you’ll learn as much as they will, and you’ll both walk away from the discussion better informed. Because we’re in a war of ideas, there simply couldn’t be a better outcome.

Dan Johnson is the Founder and President of the Solutions Institute, and a prolific arguer. Send him hate mail here dan [at]

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