By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
If you've ever suffered through an extended interpersonal argument, either as a protagonist or as an observer, you might be justifiably skeptical about its usefulness. The common experience is that no one is going to budge. I've been there as well, and that is why I was intrigued when reading a study that I recently came across on effective argument. "One might think that the the outcome is trivially 'no one ever changes their mind,' since people can be amazingly resistant to evidence contravening their beliefs," the authors wrote in the first footnote, "But take heart, change does occur, as we shall show." The study (Tan et al., 2016) further piqued my curiosity when I looked at the methodology. The authors focus on social media, taking advantage of the opportunity to observe attempts at interpersonal persuasion on a large scale. They looked at the social media platform Reddit, and specifically a community called "ChangeMyView," a group that boasted more than 211,000 members as of the article's publication date. At "ChangeMyView," the goal is for people to take a position, state their reasoning, invite counterarguments, and then indicate if their minds have been changed or not. As a condition of entry, users "accept that they may be wrong or want help changing their view" (a position that is admirable in its intellectual humility). Looking at all discussions occurring within that community during a four-month period, the team was able to quantify the language factors that successfully predicted attitude change.
It is not surprising that most of the time, 70 percent of the time actually, people stuck with their original beliefs. But that leaves the 30 percent, and within that slice, the authors found a high ability to predict argument effectiveness. "Persuasive arguments," they conclude, "are characterized by interesting patterns of interation dynamics." Naturally, the setting within this Reddit community is different than the settings for legal persuasion. For one, people join by choice and announce their willingness to be persuaded. In addition, the argument is an interactive conversation with an active opportunity to review and rebut the written arguments coming from one's adversaries. But the research is still interesting in focusing on the human nature to resist, and to sometimes accept, a contrary message. If there are verbal tactics that work in an online setting, they are worth at least considering in a courtroom context. In this post, I will focus on the top implications that stood out to me when I reviewed the study. Here are 10 features of an argument that tend to make it more likely to lead to genuine attitude change.