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Home » How to Win a Political Debate in 5 Easy Steps: Joshua Thompson (Transcript)

How to Win a Political Debate in 5 Easy Steps: Joshua Thompson (Transcript)

Full text of Joshua Thompson’s talk: How to Win a Political Debate in 5 Easy Steps at TEDxWWU conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Joshua Thompson – WWU Political Psychology Lab

It’s April 2016, which means we are currently in the middle of one of the greatest spectacles on the face of the earth, and that would be… my clicker not working. That’s a pretty big spectacle. There we go. Oh! Let’s try this again.

The United States presidential election.

But now by this time, we’ve been inundated with political ads and candidates screaming at each other and Facebook posts with everybody just going nuts, and at this point if you’re a normal person, that’s how you feel.

But if you’re me, you’re like, “Please sir, could I have some more.” I absolutely love politics. I love watching politics. I love to talk about politics. And I really think it’s a travesty in this country that politics have become such a taboo topic.

It’s something we don’t want to talk about. We don’t want to talk about it at family gatherings; we don’t want to talk about it at bars when you’re enjoying an adult beverage; we just kind of steer away from it and that’s really sad. It’s something that we should engage in, we should talk about, and we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about.

One thing that’s lost in our politics is civility. We seem to come from a place of ideology, and when we come from this place of ideology, there’s something that’s lost, and that’s fast. And it’s important to remember that facts do matter. When we’re talking about politics, it’s important to know your facts.

But what I’m going to propose to you today is that there’s actually something a little more important, and that’s psychology. Psychology matters.

We can use principles of psychology to come up with a new approach of discussing politics, really. It kind of takes ideology out of it and really makes us focus on one another and listen to what other folks are saying, right?

And so, the title of my talk is How to Win a Political Debate in Five Easy Steps. And just in my title alone, we see one of the major problems within politics, and that’s these first three words ‘how to win.’ That’s a problem because we seem to view politics as a sum game; it’s a game of wins and losses. How can we one-up one another? How can we just fight it out to the death almost? It’s almost like Thunder dome, you know, two men enter, one man leaves. It’s really kind of nuts.

So, I’m going to change that; not just how to debate in five easy steps. You can really use this for just about any argument, I feel.

And so I came about this one day after scrolling through Facebook and I saw this post from… we will call him Facebook guy and it was about the hashtag ‘Love Wins’.

Now I’m sure most people here know what that hashtag means, but if you don’t, it was created through social media during the whole debate over same-sex marriage, marriage equality and it was in support of that.

So I’m looking through Facebook one day and Facebook guy has this big long post about hashtag Love Wins, about how it’s hateful, it’s hypocritical, it’s just awful, it’s persecuting people for their sincerely held beliefs and how basically allowing members of the LGBT community to be legally married, it’s just going to destroy the world, right.

So I kind of stepped back for a minute and thought about it and I was like, you know, I am not going to troll this dude today.

But then after considering it and after reading his post again and just taking into account, who I am? I was like yeah that’s dumb of course, I’m totally going to troll him, right and it was a really simple thing to do. I just did it with two little hashtags.

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And though I couldn’t actually see him through the inner web, I can tell by his response that this was his reaction, he really didn’t like it that much, you know.

And so that brings me to the first step and that is Push The Buttons, right, and I know that kind of sounds a little counterintuitive, but kind of hear me out on that.

Cognitive psychology tells us that we tend to remember things more when they have an emotional content, right. If we’re in a state of arousal, we’re going to pay attention to what’s going on around us whether we realize it or not, we just are. Arousal leads to focus.

So, you can see this with word list, number sequences, written narratives, autobiographical memories just about anything if it comes with an emotional context. We’re going to pay attention to it whether we realize it or not.

So all I had to do with Facebook guy is just challenge his beliefs which I didn’t really do, I mean, I just posted two snarky little hashtags and that was enough to do it. So I’ve got his attention, I’ve got him around which then leads me just not to step two but actually through the bipolar model of political cognition.

Now in the context of political learning we have this model, the bipolar model, and when people see bipolar, most of the time they think of mental health and in that condition bipolar disorder, but with this what I mean is bipolar meaning a continuum from one side to another, and bipolar we’re talking about emotions, right.

And then when I say political cognition, that’s just the way we learn about political issues, that’s how we process them, how we code them and how it goes into our memory and then we can recall it.

And what the bipolar model says is that you take an emotion on that continuum from either negative to a positive, and that emotion that you have is then going to lead to an attitude, right, either negative or positive, it goes again. But then that attitude is going to lead to your level of involvement. So you’ve got your emotion, your attitude has been formed, that’s going to affect how much you pay attention, what level of involvement are you going to have with what’s being said, what the argument is or just what the political issue is.

And then that is going to lead to learning, that’s going to lead to what you learn, right. So overall what this model says you take an emotion, you give it an emotional context, that’s going to affect your attitude which is then going to affect how much attention you’re willing to pay, which is then going to affect learning, right.

And now this actually leads me to step two. So I got Facebook guy little riled up just by challenging his beliefs and saying face palm, so after you do that, you then hit them with your argument and you give them a well-formed logical fact-based argument and you can see this principle in marketing all the time.

You know, imagine you’re sitting there, watching television, you’re watching The Real Housewives of some random city wherever they happen to be on Bravo this season, you know, then a commercial comes on, you hear music in the backgrounds… so you know then you see this really hot couple running down the beach which is only heterosexual but, you know, that’s another talk for another day.

And they’re on the beach and then you see them in a bar dancing and, you know, they’re sipping cocktails and stuff. So, they’ve gotten aroused through that. And then after that, they hit you. Well, this is actually going to cost you ten thousand dollars; you get all the best quality inclusions in seven days. So, they get you, they kind of draw you in, with the emotional components of it; they hit you with their argument.

And so, how this applies to my little debate with Facebook guy is that, you know, I got him round up, I challenged him and I hit him with my argument. And I gave him the argument. First, I started out with all of the different ways that allowing members of the LGBT community to be legally married, had absolutely no impact on his life, whatsoever. Right? It doesn’t impact his family, his job, his income, his finances, his home, his safety, nothing. No impact on your life in… if it does have an impact on your life, and maybe there’s some deeper questions you need to be asking.

And so, he was kind of like me, I’m not really sure. So then, I hit him with all of the ways that not allowing members of the LGBT community to get legally married, had a very profound negative effect on millions of people. Right?

And so, the tactic I used there, as I hit him with a pocketbook issues, right? That you talk about money that’s something people can understand and they’re going to pay attention to.

So, I explained to him the ways it affects a couple’s car insurance, health insurance, mortgage, inheritance rights, income taxes, 401(k) retirement, all of these ways that not allowing same-sex marriage really hurt a lot of people. Right?

So then, you feel like oh, money is these dollar signs, you know, he’s kind of starting to come around a little bit. So then I hit him with step three. And that’s ‘make it personal, turn it around’ give them something that they can cling to, something that they can relate to.

And this kind of goes to a research involving the framing effect. I recently did a couple of studies with some undergraduate RAs, looking at the framing effect. And what we really find is that when you do give a persuasive argument that someone can reach out to, that they can connect with it, that they can feel that, that’s going to affect attitude; that’s going to change your attitude a little bit.

So, I’ve gone through, I’ve got him riled up, I hit him with my argument. And then, I am like, well just imagine how it would make you feel if, or some trait about you that you cannot change, this innate, you have no control over, you were denied basic human rights, not to mention basic dignity that comes along with that little piece of paper.

And so, he was still, yeah I could kind of see it turning a little bit, a little more. So that brings me to step four, and I really think this is the most important step; and that’s appeal to a person’s sense of morality.

Now, when you hear the word morality, a lot of times we think about specific behaviors and moral behavior. A lot of times it’s in the context of religion and spirituality, and all of that but there’s really so much more to the idea of morality.

Now, moral foundations theory takes into account motivation. It draws from cultural anthropology, sociology, biology, psychology; I mean it pulls in a lot of things. And what moral foundations theory tells us is, while there are five different dimensions of morality, there are basically two main foundations.

The individualizing foundations, you see here, really deal more with social justice, equality, how we treat one another, how we avoid doing harm to other people.

While the binding foundations more deal with adherence to traditional values, submission to authority, how we should behave according to group norms.

And this is, like I said, drawn from a number of different disciplines and brought together into one core idea. The interesting thing about these two foundations, in reference to politics, is that liberals tend to be more in line with individualizing foundation, while conservatives tend to be more in line with the binding foundation; and you can see this just in our political candidates today and just the whole rhetoric of what we’ve got going on in our political contests right now.

But there is one little discrepancy in this. And that’s harm and care. Although liberals do score significantly higher in harm and care than conservatives, conservatives score well above the average, right? And people who consider themselves moderates, they’re about the same across all foundations, but it’s that harm and care.

So, if you can appeal to a person’s sense of harm and care, then you can kind of sway their motives which is going to sway their attitudes. And this is something I’m looking at in my thesis; we’re looking at if we frame political arguments, can we shift moral motives? Right?

And so, in the context of my little debate with Facebook guy, what happened here is, I told him the story of Edie Windsor; and I’m sure a lot of us know that Edie Windsor is the lady who brought the case forward to the Supreme Court that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.

So, I explained to him her story and how she and her partner had been together for, I don’t remember, something like 50 years, a really long time. And when her partner died, she was hit with all of these inheritance taxes and all. And since, though she was legally married in the state of New York, it wasn’t recognized with the federal government.

So, she basically went bankrupt due to this and was having to sell out all of her possessions, all of her partner’s possessions, just to pay that inheritance tax. So again, I hit Facebook guy with money issues, you see, dollar signs. People can understand that.

So, I go through, get him riled up, hit him with my argument, make it personal, appeal to his sense of morality.

And then the final step, and this is just really be sincere and be open-minded. We really need to recognize, in the political context, that there are differing views and that those differing views don’t necessarily make us opponents. And that when you just yell at each other and you can bring ideology into it, it really… something’s lost. You’re just yelling past each other and we’re not really trying to hear each other and understand each other.

And so, your political views may be different from mine, but to you, your views are no less valid than mine are valid to me and we need to understand of that about people. So, be open-minded when you’re talking about these things.

And so, to kind of sum up, after about a six-hour Facebook ordeal that just never seemed to end, I’m not sure if I just wore him down or what really happened but I finally got him to publicly admit, and by publicly I mean Facebook which is pretty public, that though I had not swayed his sincerely held beliefs, I did give him something to think about. He could see my point. You know, and that he was going to have to go pray about it.

And I really, I hate to use the word ‘victory’ after what I’ve said about something lost but it is the way our politics go today; it was kind of a little victory. You know, and that’s what it takes is little victories. And after a while you have these little victories, you win the battle and you can change hearts and minds.

So, what I want to leave you with today is, don’t be afraid to talk about politics. Get out there, engage, talk about it; that’s the only way things are going to get changed as if we openly discuss it.

Just take a different approach to it; think about psychology and think about how that person that you’re talking to actually works, how they tick. Don’t bring in talking points and ideological stuff which, half the time, is not fact. Just really try to hear people, and engage, and get out there and discuss these things. And most of all, vote. Vote.

In this country, we don’t really have a lot of voice. And a lot of people think that your vote really doesn’t matter, but your vote matters; that is the one true way you can raise your voice and get out there, engage, and change the world.

Thank you.

Resources for Further Reading:

Nancy Duarte Discusses Common Structure of Greatest Communicators at TEDxEast (Transcript)

Communication in the 21st Century: Is It What You Say, Not How You Say It: Vivian Ta (Transcript)

The ‘Art’ of Communication: Jimmy Nelson (Transcript)

The 110 Techniques of Communication & Public Speaking: David JP Phillips (Transcript)


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