Heated verbal exchanges in social settings (read: arguments or “discussions”) are not the best way to share ideas, learn from one another or form new conclusions.
The limitations to these verbal exchanges include:
- Difficulty expressing opinion succinctly the first time: Unless gifted or well-practiced, we are rarely able to express exactly what we mean in an efficient and understandable way the first time we try to say it.
- Limited carrying capacity of the brain: It is challenging to simultaneously hold the other person’s point of view in mind at the same time as forming your own counter-arguments. As there is an inherent investment in ‘proving’ your own point, priority is given to forming your own counter-arguments at the expense of fully understanding the other person’s point of view.
- Interruptions: In relation to the above points, one person struggling to make their point succinctly while the other is experiencing cognitive strain from holding their counter-argument in their head leads to interruptions. This prevents ideas from being fully-formed and leads to the “discussion” becoming side-tracked.
A solution that overcomes these limitations is to utilise another of the basic modalities of communication; writing.
If rather than enter into a verbal argument, we committed to writing down our ideas before discussion it would overcome the above limitations in the following ways:
- Accurate and succinct expression: The opportunity to re-write your points enables this.
- Reduce carrying capacity demand: By placing your ideas on paper, you no longer need to store them in your mind so you can spend more of your cognitive capacity on understanding the other person’s point of view and thus are able compare points in a more objective way.
- Full expression of ideas: Without interruptions, arguments can be formed more completely.
- Maintain focus: By defining what you want to discuss beforehand you prevent becoming side-tracked.
- Honest self-assessment: With the benefit of time for reflection, you can assess your own arguments more honestly and critically.
- Reduced emotional contribution: Emotions inhibit rational thinking. Creating this temporal buffer after the “discussion” was otherwise going to start reduces the emotional involvement.
A Change In Behaviour
If there is a genuine interest in learning from each other and discovering the “truth” of the matter, then entering into a heated discussion is an illogical route to take.
When about to enter into a “discussion” or argument, it is a perfectly reasonable response to stop and say:
“There is no benefit from continuing this verbal discussion. Let’s write down our ideas on the subject of _____ [define the parameters] and discuss it properly next time we meet.”
A caveat to this is when discussions are used as a source of social enjoyment. Throwing ideas around with friends is the basis for many social interactions but when the discussion is no longer enjoyable a threshold has been crossed. This can happen if it becomes too serious or people become too invested in it.
A foreseeable criticism is “I don’t care enough to go away and spend time writing things down”, which is legitimate when the purpose is social enjoyment. But if the aim is educational then “not caring enough” actually means the motive is not a genuine desire for learning but rather a desire to be right, to appear intellectually superior or an alternative motivation. Continuing to engage in verbal arguments in these circumstances can be destructive by inhibiting social enjoyment.
A second caveat is the that verbal discussion serves an important purpose in some settings, such as in the political debating chamber. Here the aforementioned limitations are reduced as the individuals are highly trained and skilled; they can express themselves succinctly and have developed excellent carrying capacities.
In summary, solely verbal discussions only serve a purpose in social enjoyment (and thus should only be done if enjoyable). If the aim is intellectual progress, then involving pen and paper (or a computer and keyboard) is the way forward.
The Benefit To Society
The progression of society involves maximising the efficiency of many processes. Historical examples include the Agricultural, Industrial and Digital Revolutions.
Maximising efficiency should not extend to social interactions, as this goes against its purpose, but when a discussion is aiming for intellectual benefits rather than social ones it makes sense to conduct it in an efficient way.
Recent developments in cognitive psychology, notably the models proposed by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, identify the need for humans to develop new understanding in order to overcome innate cognitive flaws. Utilising writing for verbal discussions, as described above, is another example of doing so.
In our Information Age, there is an excess of information that appears to support both sides of every argument and thus our opinions are largely dictated by the information that we are exposed to rather than the objective “truth” of any matter. Discussions based on half-formed opinions, one-sided views and poorly appraised evidence leads to murky perceptions of what is and isn’t true. Notable individuals, such as Richard Feynman and Elon Musk, support using the “First Principles Approach”, whereby you develop understanding by building on things that you know for sure. This can be a cognitively-demanding process, and methods for doing so is a subject for another day, but writing for verbal discussions utilises this principle and enables development of a more accurate worldview.
In answer to the title question: Practically speaking this suggestion is not likely to end all arguments, due to the involvement of other human factors, but a commitment to taking this action would be a step towards developing a more understanding, intellectual and accurately-informed society.