I like to argue. That should be obvious enough to anyone who knows me. But sometimes after I argue I feel bad. I recognize that while I was doing a good job of defending my position, that position wasn’t nearly as strong, when I’m being honest with myself, as I made it seem. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Judith Glaser offers one possible reason why:
I’m sure it’s happened to you: You’re in a tense team meeting trying to defend your position on a big project and start to feel yourself losing ground. Your voice gets louder. You talk over one of your colleagues and correct his point of view. He pushes back, so you go into overdrive to convince everyone you’re right. It feels like an out of body experience — and in many ways it is. In terms of its neurochemistry, your brain has been hijacked.
In situations of high stress, fear or distrust, the hormone and neurotransmitter cortisol floods the brain. Executive functions that help us with advanced thought processes like strategy, trust building, and compassion shut down. And the amygdala, our instinctive brain, takes over. The body makes a chemical choice about how best to protect itself — in this case from the shame and loss of power associated with being wrong — and as a result is unable to regulate its emotions or handle the gaps between expectations and reality.
She’s speaking there of a business setting, but the same phenomenon happens in adversarial situations, especially when we’re arguing over an issue we feel passionate about. And the other thing that frequently happens, if we’re really going to be honest with ourselves, is that we’re putting on a show. We’re showing off for others, especially in a context like the comment section of a website, trying to assert our dominance and, as they say in Gladiator, win the crowd.
But doing those things undermine our ability to think rationally about the subject under discussion. It leads us to dismiss arguments out of hand, behave in a tribal manner, beat up straw men and fail to recognize the weaknesses in our own position. In short, it pushes us to embrace logical fallacies. I try to avoid doing those things, but I still catch myself doing them (though others catch me doing them more often, probably). If you’re honest with yourself, I bet you do it too.