How to Know You Won a Political Debate on the Internet

Do you remember the time you changed a stranger’s political opinion on the Internet by using your logic and your accurate data? 

Probably not. Because that rarely happens. If you were paying attention during the past year, you learned facts don’t matter to our decisions. We think they do, but they don’t. At least not for topics in which we are emotionally invested, such as politics.  (Obviously facts do matter to the outcomes. But not to decisions.)

So how do you win a political debate on the Internet when people refuse to change their opinions? I propose the Cognitive Dissonance test. If you can trigger your opponent into cognitive dissonance, you win. That’s usually as far as a political debate can go. Generally, you can’t change people’s minds, but you can back them into a corner and make them show a “tell” for cognitive dissonance. That’s essentially a white flag that says, “I have no logical argument, so I will say something ridiculous and act as though it is not.”

The problem with cognitive dissonance is that it can be hard to know whether your opponent is experiencing it or you are. It looks exactly the same to you. The person in the illusion can’t tell the difference. You need some sort of simple and objective sign to know when cognitive dissonance is in play and which one of you is experiencing it. And I have just that.

You can detect cognitive dissonance by the following tells:

Absurd Absolute

An absurd absolute is a restatement of the other person’s reasonable position as an absurd absolute. For example, if your point is there is high crime in Detroit, the absurd absolute would be your debate opponent saying something such as “So, you’re saying every person in Detroit is a criminal.” When your debate opponent recasts your opinion to include an “absolute” word, such as every, always, never, all, completely, universally, and the like, you are seeing cognitive dissonance. 

Some people call what I just described a strawman argument. But a strawman argument refers to any sort of inaccurate recasting of your opponent’s argument. That is the generic case. I’m referring to a specific strawman argument that uses an absurd absolute.  When your debate opponent recasts your point as an absurd absolute, you won the debate. That’s as far as you can go.


Analogies are good for explaining concepts for the first time. But they have no value in debate. Analogies are not logic, and they are not relevant facts. An analogy is literally just two things that remind you of each other on at least one dimension. When I see a cauliflower, it reminds me of a human brain, but that doesn’t mean you should eat brains in your salad. When your debate opponents retreat to analogies, it is because they have no rational arguments. You won.

There’s a reason your plumber never describes the source of your leak with an analogy. He just points to the problem and says it needs to be repaired or replaced. No one needs an analogy when facts and reason can do the job.

Attack the Messenger

When people realize their arguments are not irrational, they attack the messenger on the other side. If you have been well-behaved in a debate, and you trigger an oversized personal attack, it means you won. When people have facts and reasons in their armory, they use them first. When they run out of rational arguments, they attack the messenger. That is the equivalent of throwing the gun at the monster after you run out of bullets.

People are mean on the Internet all the time. Being an ordinary jerk might not be a tell for cognitive dissonance. But when you see an attack that seems far angrier than the situation calls for, that’s usually cognitive dissonance.

The Psychic Psychiatrist Illusion

The Psychic Psychiatrist Illusion involves imagining you can discern the inner thoughts and motives of strangers. I’m talking about the unspoken thoughts and feelings of strangers, not the things they have actually said. If your debate opponents retreat to magical thinking about their abilities to detect secret motives and mental problems in strangers from a distance, you won.

I’m not aware of any science to back my description of the tells for cognitive dissonance. But generally speaking, if your debate partner leaves the realm of fact and reason for any of the diversions I mentioned, you just won the debate. Declare victory and bow out.

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