Avoiding diversions and deceits was only our first step. Our second step is knowing why we depend on fallacies in the first place. This is far more important.
If we don't know the why, we can't change minds. We can't persuade or lead people.
So that's what this page is about: real-world, actionable advice to refute biases.
(Hold tight. On the next page, we finally dive into how to think smart.)
Our brains love cognitive biases ("biases") because they help us avoid spending energy researching the entirety of a situation before forming a conclusion.
The side effect is prioritizing nonrepresentative evidence. This leads us to being wrong.
Or, if we're conscious of the fact we're relying on bias, we might conceal our biases using fallacies in an attempt to win the argument anyway.
Let's learn to identify the three sneakiest biases:
Sometimes we're really emotionally attached to our views.
We get a high from this: The stronger we attach ourselves to a view, the greater it delineates who we are in relation to others. This give us identity (research).
Everybody wants to be on at least one team and have something to root for.
Consequently, we love opportunities to bolster our identity and self-assuredness by arguing in favor of whatever random thing we're on record of having said prior.
We often argue blindly for our political views, our superstitions, and our principles.
This is emotional attachment bias at work. When we suffer from this bias, we often ignore all opposing evidence (research). It makes us dangerously ignorant.
This type of attachment is partly rooted in self-confidence:
♖ People who have low self-confidence about their intelligence don't want a new reason to feel even stupider. They don't want to entertain the possibility that an opposing view proves they were wrong this whole time.
It's also partly rooted in an inability to appreciate sunk costs:
♖ People invest a lot of time and resources into what they believe. Being wrong invalidates a lot of effort and meaning they ascribed to their life. And it means they now have to change their behavior. That kills their momentum.
A lot of people appear to live with these fears without admitting it. Example time!
In 2004, American President Bush implied that Al-Qaeda corroborated with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to coordinate the 9/11 attacks on the United States (research). Many Americans adopted this view as a result.
But it wasn't true. And when some of them were later presented with a legitimate quote from Bush reneging on his own claim, those people wouldn't back down!
Let me repeat that: The original source of the false claim — and, for many of them, their party's own leader — couldn't discredit the view they held.
That's emotional attachment bias at its most absurd. People who suffer from this bias care more about feeling right than they do about being provably right. (Perhaps they felt right believing all of Americas' enemies were equally out to attack their way of life.)
This brings us to the third major cause of emotional attachment bias:
♖ People may staunchly hold onto their disproven views because they really want those views to be true. It's the "fake it until you make it" mentality dialed up so high that fiction becomes fact in the mind.
Now let's see this in action. Brace yourself.
In the video below, a teenager claims she's pregnant with Baby Jesus.
Despite, of course, having no sound evidence. If we grant she's not lying for attention, and that she's instead staunchly holding onto a view she really wants to be true (maybe she feels it'll make her special), then it's an example of emotional attachment bias:
The more your identity is built on biases, the more irrationally you'll defend them when attacked. Otherwise, you'd be letting someone chip away at your identity.
When you debate an opponent who suffers from emotional attachment, they'll likely resist by doubling-down (research) on any thread they can pull: They'll hunt for even the smallest weakness in your argument and greatly exaggerate its significance.
To get through to someone like this, you have sidestep the game of comparing evidence, which they don't value, and instead leverage negotiation techniques.
The key technique you want to leverage is value framing. Politics is once again a perfect playground for us: It turns out that the spectrum of one's political views is superimposed atop moral values (research). Moral values include equality, loyalty, etc.
So if you frame a political argument as a value-based argument, you will much more effectively address an opponent's deep-seated prejudices.
Consider the following. Liberals tend to disproportionately prioritize these two values:
Consequently, liberals argue in favor of progressive identity recognition (social equality), universal health care (support), and gun control (support via safety).
Conservatives, in contrast, tend to disproportionately value:
Consequently, conservatives argue in favor of loosening gun restrictions (constitutional loyalty plus individual authority to own weapons), privatized welfare (corporate over government ownership), and against same-sex marriage (religious loyalty).
Let's see how this plays out in the real world. You're going to find this interesting.
Let's say a conservative wants to convince a liberal that taxes shouldn't be higher for the rich. The conservative should therefore argue for this view in the context of what would be the fair thing to do for your fellow citizens — since liberals value fairness.
First, find common ground: Confirm your opponent values "fairness." Then say:
Consider, would it be fair to tax someone more when they work harder than you? Is it fair to redistribute their earnings so that others get a free ride off their work ethic?
If the wealthy want to give back to those in need, they can donate to charity in the amount they're comfortable with. And the wealthy donate significant sums. In fact, the very richest (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg are donating nearly all or literally all their money to charity over time or upon their death.)
But to formalize this redistribution into law is to give the government — a bureaucratic mess that's been proven corrupt and bloated since its inception — the requirement to take more of your money... for what? Because they are incapable of handling their own sprawling finances and need to satisfy their debts with the income you hustled for?
That's to steal from the rich and keep it for yourself. We have to stand up for the principle of what's fair. Fairness is holding government accountable to their spending. Not turning their incompetency into a punishment for successful people.
The government rakes in an unbelievable amount from taxes. If they want more, they must seriously address frivolous spending and inefficiencies for the first time ever. Not set a backward precedent for how success is rewarded in today's entrepreneurial world.
Now for an argument from the perspective of a liberal appealing to a conservative.
First, confirm your opponent values "individual authority." Then, proceed:
The death penalty, a position conservatives tend to support, can be considered strongly anti-individual: It elevates the bureaucracy and inefficiency of government into the position of determining whether an individual has the right to live.
The ultimate concession of one's individual authority is granting a third-party the power to dispassionately end your life.
You might say, "But you're convicted by your peers, not the government." Sure, but the means by which your peers are provided critical trial information relies on the government adequately doing its job. And it often doesn't.
Consider at the endless examples of governments having mishandled or outright forged DNA evidence that sentenced innocent people to death: Not only can government lawyers be corrupt (they can work with police to hide or plant evidence), but judges can be bribed (less common in western countries, but it occurs elsewhere).
Here's the hard number: At least 4% of Americans sentenced to death were innocent (research). We can't take risks with the most precious thing we have: our lives.
So if you prioritize individual authority over government control, why hand your right to life over to the government? Why let a faceless, bloated entity end your life?
If your remaining concern is having the ability to administer punishment equal to the heinousness of a murderer's crimes, isn't it a greater punishment to be isolated in a cold prison cell until your last breath than to have your life quickly ended?
If you have the time to spare and want to dive further into this, hit "Expand" below.
Let's further demonstrate the power of value framing by flipping this issue around and arguing against capital punishment using different values.
Consider how some liberals oppose the death penalty because they find it barbaric and unproductive. Let's leverage these values of anti-barbarism and productivity:
You care about doing what's productive, not just being blindly vengeful, right? As in, your concern for the death penalty is how the barbarism of an eye-for-an-eye (killing the killer) doesn't do anyone any good. You want society to appreciate the sunk cost of what's occurred and take the most meaningful step forward.
So let's examine capital punishment as an issue of productivity then.
When we imprison a murderer, we burden the annual cost of $31,000 in order to:
So when someone murders a classroom of children and is sentenced to life in prison, taxpayers cover around $3,000,000 to keep them fed and healthy for 50 years (assuming a conservative 2% annual cost increase).
(Note: It still costs about $1,500,000 to sentence someone to death since they inevitably exhaust all their potential appeals, which costs the state about that much in legal fees. So I won't argue cost as a "con" — even though I could.)
We pay this hoping they productively turn their lives around, right?
Here's the problem: The death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst. Those who bomb marathons, crash planes, and murder families. Crimes of this magnitude are met with minimum sentences of life imprisonment without parole.
Meaning, someone being considered for the death penalty isn't the type of person who's going to be granted the opportunity to reintegrate into society. They'll never actually productively contribute again. So why are we paying to keep them alive?
If your remaining concern is that it's barbaric to have the government kill a citizen, I'd ask how much more barbaric it is to keep someone isolated in a cold, dim cell with daily risk of assault by other inmates. Remember, the worst of the worst are locked up together. Meaning you're in for a hellish experience if you dodge the death penalty. It's unfathomably barbaric to cage a human like an animal.
That's exactly what high-security prison is.
The non-barbaric and societally productive thing to do is allow the death penalty in cases of extremely heinous crimes where the perpetrator is caught red-handed.
In arguing the issue from different values, my personal conclusion is the death penalty would be acceptable if:
The problem is that #2 is far from reality. As we discussed in the original against argument, 4% of death row inmates are innocent. So, given the failings of our justice system, I don't think the answer is clear-cut.
You could possibly argue it comes down to how much risk you think citizens should bear: What's the "acceptable" trade-off between the risk of sentencing the innocent and spending our tax dollars? You could also argue it comes down to, Do the majority of citizens fundamentally value an eye-for-an-eye form of justice?
Everyone's arguments are rooted in their point of view. Take advantage of it:
If you want to change their mind (instead of just proving you can outsmart them), have the argument in private. Remove any chance of them feeling humiliated in public.
"When you train your mind how to think, you inoculate yourself against those who desperately want to tell you what to think."
As you can see, politics is a major cause of identity-based biases. Many people's political views merely result from exposure to the biases of family and friends.
Political identity is the final stop on the continuum of "It's true because I believe it" to "It's true because my group believes it."
These people wanted to fit in or weren't self-aware enough to seek evidence, so they never thought critically. I'll let author Sam Harris further explain the great perils of this:
This is the second type of bias that causes people to routinely ignore evidence.
Consider how, on many issues, we forget how overexposed we are to a singular view. So when we're subsequently questioned on the topic, we default to the familiar view instead of questioning if our past exposure was representative of all the evidence.
To refute this bias, here's the litmus test you must adhere to as a critical thinker:
♖ Before seriously arguing a view, consider whether you're able to form an argument for the opposing view.
If it turns out you don't know enough about the opposing view to appreciate its strengths, you cannot be confident your view is better substantiated. Because all you're comparing it against is the opposing view's weaknesses. That's a fallacy.
This is why we dove deep into value framing. You must consider the other perspective.
So, when reading the news, pause to consider if you've been failing to read alternative sources. Exclusively sourcing news from algorithmic aggregators, such as Google News, can help neutralize your exposure to publication bias (research).
If you suspect a debate opponent suffers from familiarity bias, you have two options:
Want to see familiarity bias in action? Hit "Expand" below to read a common example.
Terrorism is constantly in the news. So our exposure to it is disproportionately high. If we're asked what the greatest threat facing our country is, we may say, "Terrorism."
It's a reasonable answer. Terrorism not only causes deaths, but it also destabilizes governments and economies. It can also escalate if unaddressed.
But, does terrorism warrant a large portion of your concern for your safety and that of your children and fellow citizens? Unless you live in a war-torn country, perhaps not.
That's 100 car deaths per day. Are we exposed to 100 news stories per day about car accidents? No. Rarely even one. The familiarity bias is not working in car deaths' favor.
If the safety of our fellow citizens and our children is partly what sends us into a fervor over terrorist-related activity, why isn't our fervor 2,000 times greater for auto safety?
Familiarity bias combined with emotional attachment and a dab of hysteria. That's why.
We suffer from the stereotype bias when we rely on a generalization: When we hear of a police beating, we often assume the victim is a minority despite being uninformed.
We suffer from anecdotal bias when we rely on anecdotes to represent the norm. For example, if we have multiple friends who've gotten into fights on the streets of London, we may assume London is normally unsafe. But what if all those friends happen to be hotheads? What if that's the type of person we uniquely hang out with?
Stereotypes and anecdotes are easily refuted by requesting evidence. If you suspect someone is relying on this bias, tell them they must be able to answer this question: What should I type into Google to find evidence supporting your claim?
"The plural of anecdote is not evidence."
Then you're going to love my upcoming guides: how to speak Chinese, how to play piano, and how to write fiction. Go here to be emailed when the next guide is out.
If an opponent isn't budging despite your best efforts to have them think critically, a last-ditch technique is to tell them "Read the Smarter guide on Julian.com to learn how you can convince me of your view."
Everything on this page is summarized in the cheat sheet found on the next page.
At least, don't do it if it's with the intent to change someone's mind. No amount of appealing to values or passively sharing information is likely to have an effect.
Why? Because a debate requires both parties to prize evidence as defined by the scientific standard. This requirement is at odds with religious scripture, for which evidence of its divinity doesn't pass the scientific standard.
Further, religion prizes faith. Faith is a glorification of the dismissal of evidence. You can't enter the ring with someone who isn't playing by the same rules.
This isn't to say adhering to a religion is irrational. You absolutely can have many sound arguments for why you believe in God. "You believe" is the distinction; you can't critically conclude that others must acknowledge God objectively exists.
Many religious people know this. And they can still think critically about every other aspect of life. In fact, a survey of 1,600 scientists found 10% firmly believe in God (source). Notably, the scientist who lead the project to sequence the human genome believes in God (source). There are many, many such examples.
Non-religious critical thinkers must respect this ability to compartmentalize faith.
So when you're considering debating religion with the intent of converting someone for or against it, don't. Tell them:
♖ I respect your faith (or lack of faith). I don't see things the same way. Let's instead debate a topic where our minds can actually be changed.
More real-world tips for not wasting your time can be found on the next page.
Now for what you've been waiting for: mental models.