A Better Way to Argue

New research has shown that framing your argument from your opponent’s “moral perspective” is much more likely to be persuasive. Professors Rob Willard, from Stanford, and Matthew Feinberg at University of Toronto, conducted a set of six studies involving over one thousand people, to determine how re-framing based on moral perspective could be persuasive in political arguments. They concluded that, when arguing with an opponent, we tend to make arguments that are persuasive to us, but the best way to persuade our opponent is to reframe our argument to appeal to their moral values.

The studies drew on past research showing that liberals and conservatives tend to draw from different moral bases. In general,  conservatives tend to be most concerned about justice and respect for authority, whereas liberals tend to value fairness and equality.

For example, they asked conservatives to formulate arguments about why English should be the official language of the United States. Conservatives used the argument that having a united country meant speaking the same language, but it would be more persuasive to people with a liberal moral framework to say, for example, when people speak English, they are less likely to face racism.

The professors noted that this does not come easy. “Moral re-framing is not intuitive.” Even when consciously trying to appeal to a different moral framework, we tend to forget and fall back into our usual arguments — which do not move the other side, regardless of how passionate we are.

While their research focused on political arguments, I think it has implications for all kinds of conflicts. It confirms the biblical principle to “look not [only] to your own interests, but [also] to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). The most effective mediations are ones where a party is truly able to understand what motivates the other side, their values and interests, and construct arguments and outcomes addressed to those. People who get good at this could resolve their disputes without even needing a mediator!

Below is a summary of the research described on “Morning Edition” last week:


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