Please remain calm! Tips for staying rational during emotional discussions.

[Guest Post by theskepticalhippy]

I consider myself a skeptic.  I also consider myself a bit excitable.  These traits, however adorable, can work against each other.  Getting emotionally worked up during a discussion can completely color your point-of-view and remove you from logic.  I will, almost unexpectedly at times, attach myself firmly to a POV with very little information and often for motives that go well beyond “learning”.  My emotional charges into discussions are exhausting at times and I have learned that being involved in a discussion (and by “involved” this can simply mean observing the discussion) is much more rewarding when I leave my emotions and preconceived notions at the door.

I am not entirely to blame for my biases.  Neuroscience and psychology have shown that decision making is an emotional process.  Jonah Lehrer (Journalist with a BS in Neuroscience) presents evidence in his book “How We Decide” that in order to make effective decisions, we have to listen to our emotions.  Basically, the consequences of our choices make an emotional “imprint” by giving us constant feedback.  This creates an expectation.  When the expectation is fulfilled, we get positive feedback in the form of a dopamine release.  This is what many would call our “gut reaction”.  Despite the negative connotations gut reactions can have, these emotional reactions to events can be quite wise and learned.  Lehrer presents several examples of how a well-trained individual can readily rely on their emotional reactions to novel events.  However, it is this strong emotional  connection to decision making that can also make for bad decisions and set us up to continue making bad decisions.

No matter how highly evolved our brains are, they were shaped within an environment that made it impossible for humans to spend a good deal of time on every decision that is to be decided.  Those who could quickly decide were the ones who successfully propagated.  However, this quick-thinking can lead to a variety of bad decisions and erroneous conclusions.  We tend to bias our first experience with the subject/event/whathaveyou with more weight than subsequent experiences.[1]  We pay less attention to opinions that do not support our own.[2]  Dozens of logical fallacies have been identified (Michael LaBossiere has two books on logical fallacies, one book lists 42 and the other book lists another 30).  And, not surprisingly, the environment itself can lead a person to chose “left” when they should have chosen “right”.  All of these decisions are driven by emotion.  It can leave us stubbornly attached to a point-of-view even when presented with evidence that strongly suggests (or outright proves) our opinion to be incorrect.

Being aware of all of this can definitely help but it’s of little consolation when a conversation leaves you feeling stabby.  So, what is one to do?  Well, you can pick up the book, A Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston, but that won’t help you later today when a Facebook status compels you respond provocatively.  Luckily I have some tips to keep you emotionally level and rationally sharp when conversing.  [You may notice a slight internet-centric theme.]

1.    Survey Your Environment – Are you feeling hot, cold or hungry?  Are your children screaming in your face or pulling at your hem?  Did your husband just tell you his parents are staying the week?  Before engaging in a conversation that could turn into an argument (I’m using the word ‘argument’ to mean: discourse intended to persuade), first decide if the environment is conducive to proper, logical, discussion.  If not, see if you can change your environment.  If you cannot do that, it would probably be best to refrain from the discussion until the environment improves.

2.    Allocate Appropriate Time – This is tied closely to the first tip.  Do you have the time to explain to your friend that acupuncture has, in fact, been properly studied and found to be no more effective than placebo?  If not, you may not want to invest the emotional energy into the discussion, especially if these kinds of discussions are known to raise your blood pressure.

3.    Assume The Best Of Your Audience – So, let’s say that you just put the kids to bed, have a glass a wine in your hand, a warm soft blanket on your lap and have a good two hours to dedicate to lively discourse.  To prevent strawmen from escaping from your fingertips and other such logical fallacies, one must assume the best of their audience.  I recently read a article that summoned up my thoughts on this fairly well::

“In many ways, everyone who is different from us is a bewildering, inexplicable enigma. They arbitrarily hate the things we like and like the things we hate, and behave in ways we can’t predict. That makes us hate them a little. We end up concluding that these people (members of the opposite sex, opposing political party, owners of a rival video game system) are just one-dimensional stock characters placed as obstacles or foils in the movie that is our life.
…it’s all due to the fact that we not only do not understand each other, but don’t even try.”

It reads like a bummer but it goes through and lists ways in which we can better understand each other.  For instance, not just picturing yourself in their shoes, but picturing THEM in THEIR shoes:

“Instead of learning two or three facts about people in a different situation and trying to fill in the rest by picturing ourselves if those two or three facts were true about us, you get a lot further much faster by just putting yourself away for a bit and maybe asking, or reading about, what a typical day for the other person is like.”

It boils down to assuming that those with a differing point-of-view came to their POV honestly and with at least some logic and rationality.  I believe this approach encourages the “why” and “how” questions that lead to a productive discussion.

4.    Does This Really Matter? – If you find yourself going ‘round and ‘round about whether or not Bigfoot is a mammal or some type of mammalian/reptilian hybrid, ask yourself if the truth of that particular discussion really matters to your day-to-day life.  If not, take a deep breath and reconsider furthering the discussion.

5.    Treat Differing Opinions As Learning Experiences – I find this useful in spirited exchanges.  Become observant, like Jane Goodall, just watch the behavior of those gentle apes so you can simply learn from them.  Not only can this distance yourself emotionally from the discussion (“I’m only here to observe!”) but you can take that opportunity to review your own behavior (“Am I being an asshole?”).  Pragmatically, the best way to properly engage with someone in a polarized discussion is to honestly and openly accept their views and then build from them.

6.    Don’t Assume You’re Right – Many times we enter into a discussion with some level of confidence that we are correct.  If you enter into a discussion without this assumption, you are less likely to get yourself emotionally attached to whatever opinion you happen to have.  Like tip #5, removing this assumption can leave you more ready to possibly change your mind, or at the very least, keep the discussion rational and respectful.

Discussions can be difficult but if you keep your emotions in check, even the most trying discussion can be a productive one.  I hope you find my tips useful the next time you contemplate tackling a topic that needs your rational and skeptical input.

1.  Hoeffer, S., Ariely, D., & West, P. (2005). Path Dependent Preferences: The Role of Early Experience and Biased Search in Preference Development. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 101, 215-229.

2.  “Confirmation Bias.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Feb. 2012. Web. 05 Jan. 2012. <;.

About theskepticalhippy

I am a materialist, humanist, skeptic and nutty Libertarian. I'm also a mother to three beautiful children. I try to parent with the Attachment Parenting philosophy in mind with Alfie Kohn-type leanings. I'm trying to transition into an evidence-based hippie. My hippitude is hampered by my laziness and procrastination. My goal, besides raising super smart and well-adjusted children, is to eat a more healthy diet, strengthen my community by buying local and reducing my energy consumption. It's a slow process but one that I have finally started.

Posted on March 4, 2012, in Skepticism, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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