11 Science-Backed Tips for Winning an Argument

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For many people, arguing is something to avoid. But arguments can be used for good—they can inform, sharpen thinking, and challenge old ideas in important ways. The expert tips below will help you argue more incisively, which, in turn, will probably make you more likely to win the discussion. (Of course, winning means different things to different people—so not all of these concepts are about making someone else think you’re right.)

1. DETERMINE THE NATURE OF THE ARGUMENT.

According to Mark Porrovecchio, a professor of rhetoric and a debate coach at Oregon State University, understanding the nature of a disagreement will help you determine how best to handle it. “Argument styles vary according to context [and] genre,” he tells Mental Floss. “What might work when arguing with a significant other could backfire when debating with a colleague. The goal is to be mindful of the type of situation you are in … and to be willing to adjust your approach based on a host of situational factors.”

You should adjust your tone—and even the content of your argument—depending on the person with whom you are having it and the place it’s happening. The conversation in a private setting may be a different from one in a public space. This particular tactic, Porrovecchio says, is as old as debate itself: Both the Sophists and Aristotle used it.

2. KNOW YOUR OPPONENT'S PERSONALITY TYPE …

Sometimes you won’t know what your opponent values or what their background is—but sometimes, you will. Use that information.

Most people are either reactive or analytical, says Prince Ghuman, a professor at Hult International Business School and coauthor of the book Allure: the Neuroscience of Consumerism. “Some people tend to be more reactive, so you can convince them using techniques that appeal to them—emotion and empathy," he tells Mental Floss. "Others seem to be more deliberate—you’ll need to provide an analytical support for your argument."

3. … AND MORAL IDENTITY.

In political and ideological arguments, different sides often have fundamentally different ways of looking at the world. According to the moral foundations theory, a framework proposed by a group of social psychologists, most people see society through six different binaries: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression. A politically liberal person, for example, might be more affected by an argument that stresses compassion and fairness, whereas conservatives might find loyalty and authority to be more important. Each person will have a unique idea of which concept in each pair carries more weight, and in an argument, knowing what the other side values can help frame your talking points.

“One reason it’s so hard to reach across the ideological divide is that people tend to present their arguments in a way that appeals to the ethics of their own side, rather than that of their opponents,” journalist Olga Khazan explained in an Atlantic video. Framing your argument to appeal to your opponents' moral code rather than your own can help you win.

4. USE EMOTION—BUT DON'T REST YOUR ENTIRE ARGUMENT ON IT.

Not only is arguing sans emotion almost impossible if you're a human being, it’s also not a great way to succeed. “Every argument, even many seemingly factual arguments, contains an emotional element,” Porrovecchio says.

According to psychologist Sherrie Campbell, author of Success Equations: A Path to Living an Emotionally Wealthy Life, you should include feelings when you make your case, but don’t go too far with an emotional point—especially in professional settings. When it comes to personal disagreements, uncomfortable feelings can sometimes be necessary, and while kindness is important, so is honesty.

“Sometimes emotional arguments that bring about sadness can help people get to the core of where the hurt and frustration is," Campbell says. "As long as the person you're arguing with has empathy and can put caring over being right, then emotional arguments can be effective.”

Ideally, you should try to keep it balanced. “An argument that relies solely on emotion should be treated with suspicion,” Porrovecchio says. Feelings without information or details to back them up fall flat if the other person can’t relate.

5. MAKE YOUR CASE WITH EMPATHY.

“Connect to the listener by conveying your story through one person’s example. Personify, rather than generalize,” Ghuman suggests. He cites research [PDF] by psychologists at the University of Oregon that shows people will donate more money to an individual in need than a group of people. That’s because most of us can empathize with one person but find it harder to relate to groups in the same way. When arguing, use this tactic to your advantage by finding (or imagining) a specific person who might be helped by what you are arguing for.

For instance, if you are arguing that Peggy shouldn’t be fined for parking her car in a tow zone because she was trying to rescue a dog in the street, it would make more sense to describe who she is specifically. Rather than call her “Peggy, a dog owner,” describing her as “Peggy, who has adopted a mutt, a pitbull, and an elderly chihuahua,” would render her more sympathetic. Empathetic details shouldn't be used as replacements for factual information, though; they should be additions to the facts.

6. USE STORYTELLING.

Storytelling works hand-in-hand with empathy and puts data to support your argument in context. Pull all your information together—using empathy, facts, and emotions—to create a compelling story, and your argument will be tougher to beat. When your point seems part of a narrative arc, each aspect of what you're arguing is harder to pick on.

Need a template? Porovecchio recommends the TED format. “I think TED Talks have gained popular cachet because they often manage to balance a degree of detail and fact with a personable, narrative-driven delivery style,” he says.

7. INFLUENCE YOUR ADVERSARY WITH PHYSICAL CUES.

People unconsciously mimic others in social situations, a behavior that psychologists believe is associated with emotional connection. Consciously imitating the posture and movement of your opponent is also a well-known way to bring someone over to your side. Try leaning back if your opponent does so, or cross your arms or legs the way they do. Looking them in the eye when you are listening to them speak is another to reduce their confidence in their own argument—and you’ll look stronger, too. You can even lower your voice a notch to sound more dominant, according to this study.

8. REMAIN CALM.

Whether you are using or responding to an analytic or emotional argument, keep it as relaxed as possible. “The best thing to do when in an argument is to stay calm and talk slowly—you can't yell and talk slowly at the same time,” Campbell says. “Forcing yourself to talk slowly helps to keep the emotions under control and your thoughts rational.” If that sounds like a challenge, it is: “This takes a lot of discipline, but it's a simple thing to focus on.”

9. PRACTICE YOUR DELIVERY.

Like most other skills, spending time arguing will make you better at it. Debate in high school, college, or in a professional-development context “should be viewed as a way to practice the skills of arguing,” Porrovecchio says. “You work to improve your technique, your content, your delivery; then use what you have learned in real world situations.” Porrovecchio says he’s seen his students become not just better debaters over time, but also “better public speakers and critical thinkers.”

10. REFRAME THE DEBATE.

Not all arguments have to be about being right, which some people define as winning. You might consider it a win if your opinion is valued and considered by the person you are disagreeing with—even if you don't change their mind. “Instead of the word argument, replace it with conversation. If you're just having a conversation, then winning is off the table, and a productive discussion can occur,” Campbell says.

11. IF ALL ELSE FAILS, WALK AWAY.

Sometimes it gets ugly, or the argument seems to be going in circles. If you’re not getting anywhere in a discussion, “ask your opponent directly: ‘Is there anything I can do to change your mind?’ If they say that nothing will change their mind, believe them, and walk away,” Ghuman says. Sometimes an argument is a draw—and that’s OK. You’ve won if you’ve learned something, Ghuman adds: “Healthy argument can expand your perspective and open your mind.”

How Coronavirus and 31 Other Infectious Diseases and Viruses Got Their Names

Rotavirus—from the Latin rota, for "wheel"—is named for the wheel-like appearance of its particles.
Rotavirus—from the Latin rota, for "wheel"—is named for the wheel-like appearance of its particles.
Dr_Microbe/iStock via Getty Images

As you may already know, the corona in coronavirus has no relation to a certain refreshing beer often served with a slice of lime. Corōna means “crown” in Latin—and Spanish and Italian, too—and virologists chose it in 1968 to describe the group of viruses characterized by crown-like spikes that protrude from their surfaces.

So how do other viruses and diseases get their names? Based on the infographic below, created by Adam Aleksic for his website, The Etymology Nerd, there isn’t just one way. Some, like the coronavirus, are named for how they look under a microscope. The rota in rotavirus, for example, which means “wheel” in Latin, reflects the virus’s wheel-like appearance when viewed beneath an electron microscope.

Others are named after the locations where they were discovered or studied. In 1947, scientists named a newly identified mosquito-borne virus after Uganda’s Zika Forest. In 1977, Yale researchers investigating a string of pediatric arthritis cases in the town of Lyme, Connecticut, started referring to the illness as “Lyme arthritis.” Later, the name was modified to “Lyme disease” when scientists realized patients were exhibiting other symptoms, too.

Still others are characterized by the symptoms they cause. People with tetanus—from the Greek tetanos, for “tension”—usually experience muscle stiffness, and the skin of yellow fever sufferers often takes on a yellow tint due to jaundice.

Find out the origins of malaria, measles, and more below. And follow The Etymology Nerd on Instagram for more fascinating etymological explanations.

etymology nerd infectious disease names infographic
Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of Latin in this infographic.

These 8 MasterClass Courses Will Get You Out of Your Netflix Funk

Chef Gordon Ramsay is just one of the professionals lending their knowledge to a MasterClass course.
Chef Gordon Ramsay is just one of the professionals lending their knowledge to a MasterClass course.
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Although binge-watching Netflix is always a great way to kill a few hours, you might want to shake it up and do something a little more substantial with your free time. That’s where MasterClass comes in. A subscription package that features over 80 virtual courses in a wide range of subjects, MasterClass can help you explore exciting new subjects or improve your knowledge in an area you’re already familiar with. And all the classes are taught by highly recognizable experts in their fields, so you can be confident that the lessons you’re learning are solid (that Martin Scorsese probably knows a thing or two about filmmaking, after all).

The courses themselves are broken up into individual lessons that are only around 10 minutes long, so fitting them into your schedule is as easy as becoming a professional chess player (or it will be, once you’ve finished the course). MasterClass is priced at $15 a month for unlimited classes or at $90 per course, and you can sign up here.

So whether you want to become the next great young adult novelist or an expert bartender, MasterClass has something for everyone. Check out a few highlights from the course list.

1. Cooking with Gordon Ramsay

Gordon Ramsay, known for his sharp demeanor and high expectations in the kitchen, is an international chef, restaurateur, and television host who’s nothing short of legendary. And in his MasterClass series, he’ll teach you to become a legend, too. This series features the softer side of Ramsay, who teaches you knife techniques, seasoning tricks, kitchen layout, and much more. And, for anyone ready to level up, he also offers Cooking II: Restaurant Recipes in the Kitchen.

Sign up here.

2. Mixology with Lynnette Marrero & Ryan Chetiyawardana

If you’re ready to become an award-winning bartender—or just make a decent martini at home—look no further than this 17-lesson course with master mixologists Lynnette Marrero and Ryan Chetiyawardana. You’ll not only learn to craft the perfect cocktail, but also how to safely incorporate raw eggs into drinks, make complementary drink “seasonings,” and discover the best liquor to pair with food (who knew that whiskey and blue cheese were a match made in heaven?). A good drink has the power to bring people together, and after this course, you’ll be the go-to guru for any dinner party.

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3. Writing for Young Adults With R.L. Stine

After you’re through with R.L. Stine’s class on writing for young adults, you may just become the next sultan of the Scholastic Book Fair. According to his website, Stine has written over 330 books over the course of his career, and he’s provided thrills and chills to millions of readers with his beloved Goosebumps and Fear Street series. Now, he’ll teach you some of his favorite tricks of the trade, like why you should always start with the ending (so you can focus on fooling your reader for the entire book) and how writing from personal experience makes for a more sincere scare. This masterclass will help you perfect the art of scary storytelling and overcome any fears you might have about putting your own experiences on the page.

Sign up here.

4. Conservation with Dr. Jane Goodall

Dr. Jane Goodall is best known for her groundbreaking work with chimpanzees and gorillas, but she’s more than just a scientist—she’s an environmental activist and conservationist who wants to ensure that animal habitats are preserved for years to come. In this course, Dr. Goodall will share some of the conservation lessons she’s learned as a scientist, identify the central problems facing our planet today, and share effective methods for creating change. As she says, one of the best ways to confront environmental issues is by “telling stories, meeting with people, listening to them, and then finding a way to reach the heart.” This course will show you how.

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5. Chess with Garry Kasparov

Garry Kasparov, a chess grandmaster and world chess champion, will help you dust off your old chessboard and learn to play the game like it’s an art form. This 29-lesson class starts with the basics and gets more complex the further you get into the course. Using the tactics he’s curated throughout his career, Kasparov will show you how to approach chess with a strategist's mindset, including the basics of openings, interference plans, and endgames. This class even features other “students” so you’re not just studying the techniques, but seeing how they play out in real time, too.

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6. Comedy with Steve Martin

One of comedy’s greatest names—and one of film’s most beloved actors—is Steve Martin. The star of film classics such as Father of the Bride and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Martin will teach you how to find your comedic voice, develop your persona, and work a crowd so that you’ll never get booed off the stage. And he’ll share his comedic process, which involves more writing and editing than it does practicing in the mirror. This is the perfect class for anyone looking to practice their improv skills or sign up for their first open mic night.

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7. Space Exploration with Chris Hadfield

Make your childhood dreams come true with this course from retired astronaut Chris Hadfield, who’s flown two Space Shuttle missions and served as commander of the International Space Station during his 21 years as an astronaut. And in his course, he’ll teach you the intricacies of space exploration, from learning how rockets work to preparing your body for liftoff. Even if you're not planning on leaving the atmosphere (or your couch) anytime soon, this class teaches you what it's like to be an astronaut. And as Hadfield talks about his unique journey to the stars, there's the chance to learn plenty of life and career lessons that you can apply on Earth.

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8. Adventure Photography with Jimmy Chin

Even if your biggest adventure is going on a walk in your local park, award-winning adventure photographer Jimmy Chin (the face behind documentaries such as Free Solo and Meru) will still teach you how to turn your photographs into works of art. Chin’s class acts as part photography course and part adventure guide, teaching you every step from choosing the right location to editing the final product. You’ll learn how to plan shoots, pack the right gear, and even find clients if you want to go professional. Whether you want to make photography a career or just take the perfect photo of your dog at golden hour, this masterclass will get you feeling comfortable behind the camera and bring some more adventure into your everyday life.

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