Why It’s Difficult To Win An Argument

Consider the following story from the book “The Happiness Hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at NYU:

Julie and Mark are sister and brother. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie is already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other.

This story raises the question: If two adults, who are also siblings, consent to making love, is it acceptable?

If you’re like most people, then you probably immediately answered “no.”

But what if I then asked you to justify why you said no? What would you say?

Your first response may be, “Well incestuous sex leads to genetic abnormalities in the offspring.”

But then I’ll say, “But both siblings in the story used protection so that’s not a concern.”

This doesn’t however make you agree with me. Instead what most people typically do is begin searching for other arguments.

Your argument then may be, “Well incestuous sex is going to harm their relationship.”

But then I’ll respond by saying, “But the experience has brought the two siblings closer together.”

Most likely, you still won’t agree with me.

Instead what most people will say here is, “It just doesn’t feel right, but I don’t know why it doesn’t feel right.”

This is what’s known as “confabulation,” which is the scientific finding that people will readily fabricate reasons to explain their own behavior or opinions.

Haidt goes on to say,

“Moral arguments are similar to this: Two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other. When you refute a person’s argument, does she generally change her mind and agree with you? Of course not, because the argument you defeated was not the cause of her position; it was made up after the judgement was already made.”

When people start to challenge your opinions and beliefs and you aren’t sure why you believe what you believe or you don’t have a strong enough argument to explain why you believe what you believe, you’ll notice that you will start to confabulate.

The problem with confabulation is that people are naturally great at making up explanations and reasons for why they believe in certain things.

But unfortunately, not great at knowing that they have done so.


4 thoughts on “Why It’s Difficult To Win An Argument

  1. the proof of this is arguing politics or religion with someone who believes differently. If your goal is simply to share or if you are trying to change their opinion it seldom works. I rarely change my opinion but find it wonderful to see someone’s passion about what they think and feel. That I can totally respect. It also lets me see another facet of how they and I think..

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We need more people like you. People who respect each other’s opinions and who actually listen to each other’s opinions. But we also need people who aren’t so stubborn with their opinions and who are willing to compromise and adapt.


  2. While your article certainly focuses on the nature of understanding the justification of beliefs and ideaology, I think that the biggest attraction would be the story about incest.
    You are correct, there is no logical reason as to why most of us consider incest to be a complete “NO”… Most of us would actually point it out to just not feeling right. This also has the same when talking about same sex marriages, political views, religion, etc.

    For me, if someone would have to ask me about my faith and why I believe in what I do, I can only say that it comes down to a personal experience. Whether you choose to believe me or not is irrelevant to me. I would not expect to that person to follow or come to my side of reasoning. I do not have a logical excuse to say why I believe in what I believe, I just follow my beliefs and respect anyone else’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I understand that religion isn’t something that you might be able to argue logically. It is a belief and I have those beliefs as well. You can disagree with them, and that’s okay. And like you, I’ll respect other people’s beliefs as well.

      But again, and you addressed it in your comment so I know you know what I meant with this post, but the example about incest was to illustrate an idea when it comes to arguments in general.

      Thank you for the great comment. Whenever you leave a comment, I’m always impressed with it:)

      Liked by 1 person

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