One thing often noticed in Social Psychology is something known as “whataboutism.” This may not seem like a real word or term, but trust us when we tell you it certainly is. You’ve likely even heard it in action when having a debate or argument with someone. Have you ever made a good point about something, and then a person says “well, what about this?”
They change the subject you’re on due to knowing they cannot fight it. Therefore, they jump to something else. For example, you make a point that vaccines do not cause autism. They’ll respond with “what about those who get sick from too many vaccines at once?”
While the subject is still on vaccines, the original was on vaccines and autism…not too many vaccines make a person sick. In this situation, we often create impossible arguments. Every time you make a point they cannot argue, they use a whataboutism to change things around. You cannot debate or argue with people like this because their technique is never to give you credit for a good point. They only want to hear or see what they hold true, and nothing else can defeat that.
This is one of the most horrific things one can deal with, yet we often cause it to ourselves. Impossible arguments are created when the Backfire Effect happens. What is it? We’re glad you asked! When you disprove something that someone believes completely or you prove a point of yours, many people might take this and move on. They’ll learn from the experience.
Yet in the Backfire Effect, a person who truly believes something as true will experience psychologically the same emotion that pain gives us. This will then create a fight or flight response, causing them to hold even tighter to their belief. Now, they will choose to believe the very thing you disproved even more. They will now think you’re wrong even when you’re right.
It does not make any sense, we know. However, it happens all the time. Psychologists believe, after studying it, that some people are unable to change certain beliefs. When you prove those beliefs to be incorrect, those same people are psychologically affected negatively. Therefore, your attempt to prove them wrong, well, “Backfired.” They are now believing their incorrect belief as fact, even when it’s untrue.
This is possibly the hardest thing people have to deal with psychologically. It goes in line, somewhat, with the Backfire Effect yet it’s far more personal than that. Identity Protective Cognition is referred to as a tendency, often found in those that are culturally diverse, to dismiss evidence & selectively credit patterns that connect to the beliefs that dominate their specific group.
This is often done subconsciously because we assume that anything considered negative regarding our specific group could not possibly true. Meanwhile, we’ll overly credit our same group even when it might be undeserved. This happens quite often in politics yet it can also happen with fans of sports teams or specific players. Identity Protective Cognition makes us resist facts because we only believe information from those we love and/or trust.
Even when that information is untrue, we’ll fight against it because it’s now a part of us to believe something. This will happen in religion, especially among extremists. It was also common among the Nazis. When questioned after WWII, many claimed they were just following orders while others firmly believed in the cause and downplayed the insane number of Jewish people killed. Others bragged about the number. All because they were sold on Hitler’s message, in spite of its horrific ways.
How Do We Actually Get Through To People In Arguments Or Debates?
This is often the hardest question to answer because there are, frankly, many ways this can be done. From a science perspective, we have shown you the pitfalls of why you cannot get through to people. That means you have to walk a very tight line here. If not, you’ll obviously enter the impossible arguments territory and you don’t want that.
How can this be done? Simple. You have to know how to go on the attack without actually attacking. This may not make much sense but think of it as if you’re a spy. A spy is there to blend in and possibly take out a target. Other times, he or she is there to gather information to take back to their commanding officer. No matter what, they cannot look out of place.
The moment you stand out, attention is gathered upon you and now you’re stuck. Some spies are able to get out right then and exit before too many people notice. Others are caught and punished. This is why in an argument or debate, you have to come across as a friend and never an enemy. However, there are other specific ways you can handle things too.
It might sound crazy to validate a crazy belief someone has. However, the moment you’re able to do this…you’re fitting into their circle of friends. They are more willing to listen to you, removing impossible arguments from the table. Take a conspiracy theorist, for example. Let’s say they believe that the Moon Landing was faked. It wasn’t and we have plenty of proof of this, but let’s pretend to validate.
You could say that, yes, NASA and the Russians have done a lot of things that make us question them. At the same time, we can look up and see that it’s possible to go to the Moon too. You can then get onto the topic of old movies and cameras as well as light technology. From here, you can help them understand how tech was not exactly capable of faking the moon landing.
Not to mention, everyone had to keep that a secret. Even those who are space rivals to us. In this format, you’re giving them the experience of discussing things indirectly connected. You validate that there could be a lot of misinformation then slowly lead them down a path to where you disprove their belief, taking them along for the ride. This, in turn, makes a person feel that they landed at the conclusion themselves. No one attacked them for their belief, in this case.
A lot of the time, people do not think things through and land on what they assume is the easiest and therefore best concept for something. This is more so common in younger people, like teenagers or just kids in general. To them, the best concept is always the easiest. They have not learned, yet, about other concepts and their work ethic is often not where it needs to be.
Sadly, some people do not grow out of this. That is why it is important that you understand these types of issues among people you have a debate or argument with. Impossible arguments are created when you do not understand the person or why they believe as they do. This is just as important as anything else. Learn how to talk to them, always making sure you connect in the way they best understand.
If a person is, say, homeschooled. They’d never be able to truly understand the experience of a High School. Therefore, they cannot speak to the difficulties of social issues within High Schools. Attempting to do so won’t go over well with them. That is why you have to understand this and calmly inform them of how things are. Going on the attack doesn’t help anyone here.
It is very important that you avoid impossible arguments by simply building a rapport with someone. You can have deep disagreements with people yet still get along with them. This was proven at the “Difficult Conversations Laboratory” at Columbia University.
Psychologist Peter T. Coleman claimed that people can have productive conversations even in disagreement. He said the best way to do this is to build up goodwill with the person. When you can find common ground and agreeable material, that helps for sure. However, also just being able to talk to someone like they are human is terrific too.
People do not want to just be a person’s punching bag. This is why they are more willing to listen to friends about controversial topics over a random guy on Facebook. Their friend built up a good rapport. Therefore, they do not often have impossible arguments with their friend. See what we mean? A connection is incredibly important when you want to have difficult conversations with people.
Perhaps, the best people who do this work in Late Night Television. People like Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, and previously people like Jon Stewart. Each man brought or currently brings extreme calm when discussing difficult topics with guests. Noah is likely the best at it today. Many of his guests get animated and he has to try to calm them down, often creating a great level of correspondence between both people.
He’s not doing this just so they will hear his point. He is doing this because it takes away the animation someone has. Instead of getting louder and causing essentially a screaming battle, calmness takes them down. Impossible arguments are created in these screaming battles. No one gets anything through and eventually, both will be too angry to listen to the other side.
When you aren’t screaming, you’re not attacking. You’re taking away any ability for one to be angry. They know when you’re calm that you’re listening to them. Even if you’re not, you’re sending that message. Therefore, they’ll be far more willing to listen to your points too. At this point, you’re not debating or arguing…you’re discussing. That is something we’re all cool with.