When someone disagrees with you and you want them to see the wisdom of your position, you may try to provide them with facts or logical arguments as to why your view makes more sense. That may not be the way to go, according to a recent BBC article. It states research shows it may be more effective to ask the person questions about how their position would actually work if applied in the real world.

The Illusion of Explanatory Depth & The Cognitive Miser

Researchers at Yale University a little over a decade ago found that test subjects would often express confidence in how well they understood something when their understanding was actually just superficial (referred to as “the illusion of explanatory depth”).

  • They asked study subjects to rate how well they understood how things like toilets, car speedometers and sewing machines worked.
  • They next asked them to explain what they understood and answer questions about it.
  • The results were that, on average, people rated their understanding as much worse after it had been put to the test.

The researchers claim that we mistake our familiarity with certain things for the belief that we understand how they work. Psychologists call the idea that humans take mental short cuts when making decisions or assessments the “cognitive miser” theory.

Strongly held views may not survive exposure to reality

Would the same be true of political beliefs? Research published last year shows the results of an experiment where people had to explain how they thought a policy they favored would actually result in the effects they claimed it would.

  • University of Colorado researchers polled two groups about controversial US policy issues (such as imposing sanctions on Iran, healthcare and carbon emissions).
  • One group gave their opinion and provided reasons for why they held that view. This group put forth their side of the issue, as if in an argument or a debate.
  • A second group gave reasons for their support but also had to explain how their favored policy would work. They had to spell out, step by step, from start to finish, how the policy would result in the desired effect.

Those who had to work through how a position would actually work in the real world ended up less likely to continue to be “true believers” in their cause.

  • Those in the first group who provided reasons remained as convinced of their positions as they had been prior to the experiment.
  • Those who had to provide explanations softened their views and reported a correspondingly larger drop in how they rated their understanding of the issues.
  • Those who had previously held strong opinions for or against carbon emissions trading, for example, tended to become more moderate and ranking themselves as less certain in their support or opposition to the policy.

Next time you find yourself facing opposition due to a “big picture” policy argument, turn the tables. Don’t fall into the trap of fighting facts with facts and arguments with arguments, ask questions. Ask how the other party’s fears will truly be realized if your position is adopted. You might not have to convince your opponent of the wisdom of your position. Your opponent, if asked the right questions, might do it all by himself.