Friday, September 16, 2011

Ramblings: Arguing on the Internet

I allowed myself to be drawn into a discussion again, over at the Privateer Press forums. It's a well known fact that you can't ever win a discussion online. The reason for this is something called the backfire effect, and if everyone knew about it, we would be a lot more knowledgeable, when the world ends in nuclear holocaust. - Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do it instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. 

  • The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.
  • The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.
You stick to your beliefs, and when someone tries to correct you, or tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens them instead: What should be evident from the studies on the backfire effect is you can never win an argument online. - David McRaney

When you start to pull out facts and figures, you're actually making it worse. They match your fervor, the same thing happens in your skull, and all hope is lost. I have one tool to manage my Backfire Effect, but it fails just as often as it works, if not more. I know that might sound strange, but in the words of Socrates:
Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is - for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.
When I allow myself to be drawn into discussions I fail, just as the wise man of which Socrates speaks. I assume I know better than my opponent, and no matter what he says, I'll probably keep that assumption intact. This really bothers me, and I work like crazy to overcome that particular weakness, but it's hard work.

I can actually give you an example of the problematic nature of the backfire effect. At the Danish Masters I had my third game against a T4 eButcher list. I demolished that list, without ever being in danger, and I lost a grand total of one model during the game. This was the last game of day one, and the morning after we met for breakfast before the last two games. There I sat, and listened to a conversation about the ultimate power of a T4 eButcher list, completely identical to the one I fought the night before.

I was stupid enough to comment, and told the tournament organizer (since he was the one doing the talking) that he would more or less automatically lose a game, against an opponent with Bile Thralls in his list. This was stupid, because he took second place with just that list last year, so the comment instantly backfired. The next ten minutes he explained exactly what he would do against such a list, and it was the exact same strategy (to the last tiny detail) I came up against the night before. I tried to suggest the ways his strategies would fail (as they did the night before), but nothing got through. I didn't mention that I had done all the things I suggested as counters, and won a crushing victory doing it, because I knew it would simply get him to attack instead of defend.

This sounds like a clear cut case of the Backfire Effect, and it is, but the problematic thing is, that I suffered it as well. I dismissed everything he said, because I proved him wrong just the night before, and that assumption is as flawed as his. No two games are alike, no two models ever end up in the exact same place, and no two tables are exactly the same. His strategy might work on a different table, keeping a model further back, or pushing one further forward, and while I'm pretty darn sure it wouldn't work, I wound up disregarding everything he said, and suffered the exact same Backfire Effect as he did.

This was in real life, and I knew he took second with that list last year, but I still wound up disregarding it. I can guarantee you, that even if I had mentioned annihilating his tactics (by proxy) the night before, it would have changed nothing, and that's why arguing online is a waste of time. We can't even avoid backfire in real life, so we don't stand a chance when we're online.

I would love to say, that this realization allows me to float through the internet, shooting rays of enlightenment, but I'm all out of time, since some schmucks over at the Privateer Press forums are wrong, and I have to go tell them why.


  1. By that logic, arguing anything is pointless?

  2. Indeed. Talking about something with a person in doubt, can bring about a change (in either participant actually), but the second it becomes an argument it's lost.

    The more I think about this, the more it rings true. I can remember plenty of people changing the way they act, but changing the way they think takes an event, that causes them to question everything they know.

    You can win arguments, if you have a way of inflicting lasting consequences upon the opposition, if he/she doesn't yield. The problem is, that you're not actually changing their minds, just making them say things they don't really mean, out of fear of the consequences.