First published in The Hindu, 1 June 2024

In their brilliant book, Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson claim that metaphors are not just figures of speech but impact how we think and behave. In fact, they aver that “our conceptual system” is, largely “metaphorical in nature.” For example, for most English speakers, the word ‘argument’ connotes war. We defend our positions, strategize to shoot down our opponents’ views and attack their weak points. Thus, an argument is structured like a battle with an “attack, defence, counterattack etc.” But do all arguments have to mimic war?

Not so, say philosophers Scott Aiken and John Casey in an article in Psyche. At their core, arguments are about changing people’s beliefs. And that’s what makes them so problematic. While “you think your beliefs are true,” the other person or party you’re arguing with thinks “their own beliefs are true.” Beliefs, in contrast to plans, hopes, goals and worries, are more resistant to change. To complicate matters, Aiken and Casey point out that beliefs are not entirely under volitional control. The authors state, “You cannot simply will yourself to change what you believe.”

Better arguments

But our beliefs can and do change if we come across facts that discredit our point of view. The problem in our polarized world is that people tend to seek out information that supports their beliefs while ignoring or blinding themselves to disconfirming evidence. Given this bleak scenario, Aiken and Casey offer the following strategies for us to have better, not bitter, arguments. To begin, you need to pick your battles wisely. They dissuade you from engaging with the likes of internet trolls who aren’t necessarily interested in learning. Next, you need to enter into the argument from a position of humility. If you articulate your viewpoint strongly and stridently, you are unlikely to even hear the other party out.

Further, be prepared that the other person’s arguments are likely to “feel like attacks.” After all, the “argument is war” metaphor is fairly pervasive. When the other party points out why you are wrong, you may feel like a ‘failure.’ But know that discomfort is part of the process and that your opponent is also likely to be feeling the sting. Further, make a genuine attempt to understand alternative points of view and the reasoning behind their positions. For people to change their minds, they first need to feel understood.

Learning mindset

In an article in Scientific American, Matthew Fisher, Joshua Knobe, Brent Strickland and Frank Keil exhort us to approach disagreements with a mindset of “arguing to learn” rather than “arguing to win.” Further, people differ on how they perceive “moral truths.” Those who hold an objectivist stance see issues in stark black-and-white terms. As a result, objectivists think that alternative views from their own positions are simply wrong. In contrast, relativists concede that there can be multiple truths regarding moral issues.

However, whether a person assumes an objectivist or relativist position also depends on how an argument plays out. In one study, when participants were encouraged to approach an argument with the intent of learning about the other party’s position, they tended to take on a more relativist stance. In contrast, if they were instructed to argue to win, people were inclined to adopt a more objectivist outlook that prizes clear-cut solutions without factoring in contextual factors or nuanced judgments.

If we approach debates or arguments as a “cooperative exchange,” as Fisher, Knobe, and colleagues suggest, both parties are likely to gain. In The Psychologist, Emily Reynolds describes research that suggests that people, at least in a lab setting, can enjoy conversations on hot-button issues with others who hold opposing political views.  If we cultivate a philosophical approach, prizing learning over winning, the “argument is war” metaphor may gradually lose its stranglehold over us. We may even start viewing arguments as a co-construction leading to mutual growth and understanding.

(The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. She blogs at