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One of the internet's favorite pastimes is arguing, but very few of those arguments ever actually go anywhere. It can be frustrating to watch, but scientists have some ideas on why things play out the way they do.

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Sources:
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[INTRO ♪].

Let’s be honest: we all try to win arguments on the internet, even though we know it’s pointless. Sometimes when you’re scrolling through your Facebook or Twitter feed, bad opinions and misunderstandings just jump out at you, and you have to set your friends and followers straight.

But if it seems like your impeccable logic is always met with hostility and digging in— well, that’s exactly what’s happening. Psychologists have put a lot of thought into how people argue— both online and off— and they’ve found plenty of reasons why people rarely change their minds. Part of the problem is that correcting someone can actually strengthen the memory and influence of their original belief— the one you think is clearly wrong.

It’s known as the backfire effect. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2005 demonstrated this by giving 335 people a list of science facts and myths, then clarifying right afterward which were true and which weren’t. 30 minutes later, they asked half of the subjects which things on the list were true, and they were pretty good at separating myth from fact. But when they tested everyone else 3 days later, that group made a lot of mistakes.

Specifically, they recalled a lot of the "false" statements as "true" — but not the other way around. Psychologists think that’s because we use how familiar something is as a guide to whether it's true. And all you need to do to make something familiar is to repeat it.

This effect doesn’t seem to always happen when people’s false beliefs are corrected. Some studies have failed to find a backfire effect, especially when the topic was political. But pointing out exactly how wrong your Facebook friend is often involves repeating their false beliefs.

And when you do that, it’s possible that the backfire effect just makes them more sure they’re right. Another challenge is that we all suffer from confirmation bias: we can look at the same evidence but come to different conclusions based on what we believe is true. If evidence confirms what you already believe, it jumps out at you and you pay attention to it.

Meanwhile, we tend to gloss over contradictory evidence and just forget about it. A 2013 study with more than a thousand participants showed this with political beliefs. People were shown the results of a fictional study about gun violence, and were asked whether the evidence supported gun control.

But since the study was made up, the researchers made two versions— one in which the data were in support of control measures, and another where the data were flipped. When people were then asked whether the study they read supported gun control, the data barely made a difference. If the person supported gun control, they thought the data did, too, and vice versa.

Ironically, the researchers found that being better at math made this effect worse. You’d think people with better math skills would be more likely to interpret the data objectively, but instead, they tended to recalculate the information in their heads in a way that justified their existing belief. So even if you’ve got some super-solid evidence in support of your position, showing it to those who disagree might actually lead them to the opposite conclusion.

But if, despite all of this, you still find yourself thinking that you just have to try to change someone’s mind because dangit, they are wrong on the internet, there is some good news:. There’s also research on what might work. One group of researchers analyzed a whopping 12,000 arguments on a subreddit forum called "ChangeMyView" to see what the arguments that successfully changed people's minds had in common.

They found the most effective tactic was to pick wording that was unlike that of the other side, maybe because unfamiliar wording was a sign that the arguments were new information. Like, if someone’s arguing that Kirk was the best starfleet captain because he led with his gut instinct, pointing out all the times Kirk’s instincts have put the crew in danger might not be that effective. Instead, you might have more success arguing that.

Picard always opted for the peaceful solution. That kind of shift in language is more likely to change the person’s mind, whereas using really similar wording— especially quoting them directly— is seen as nit-picking. The researchers also found that when the original poster used the word "we" instead of "I" to describe their position, the arguments were less likely to change their minds— probably because they were more entrenched in their viewpoint.

And if the debate went back and forth more than 4 times, it wasn’t likely to go anywhere. So if you’re still arguing on that thread from weeks ago, you might just wanna walk away. Even with the more successful tactics, though, very few people were convinced to change their minds.

And a lot of people are going to this forum because they say they’re open to change! So no matter how strong your arguments are, it’s probably worth picking your battles. Don’t get too discouraged when you can’t change the other person’s mind— we’re just wired that way.

And remember: all of this applies to you, too. So every once in a while, you might want to stop and reevaluate the positions that get you so fired up. Because some of those arguments might not be as strong as you think they are.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! Feel free to leave your arguments in support of. Sisko or Janeway in the comments.

And if you want to learn more about how you might have formed those opinions that you’re so intent on arguing about, you can check out our episode on how your friends can affect your opinions. [OUTRO ♪].