The Internet has introduced a golden age of ill-informed arguments. You can't post a video of an adorable kitten without a raging debate about pet issues spawning in the comment section. These days, everyone is a pundit.
But with all those different perspectives on important issues flying around, you'd think we'd be getting smarter and more informed. Unfortunately, the very wiring of our brains ensures that all these lively debates only make us dumber and more narrow-minded. For instance ...
5We're Not Programmed to Seek "Truth," We're Programmed to "Win"
Think about the last time you ran into a coworker or family member spouting some easily disproven conspiracy theory -- somebody who still thinks Obama's birth certificate is a fake or that Dick Cheney arranged 9/11 to cover up his theft of $2.3 trillion from the government. When they were shown proof that their conspiracy theory was wrong, did they back down? Did they get this look of realization on their face and say, "Wow ... if this is untrue, then maybe the other 'facts' upon which I've based my fringe beliefs also aren't true. Thank you, kind stranger, for helping me rethink my entire political philosophy!"
That has literally never happened in the history of human conversation. Whether it's a politician whose point has been refuted or a conspiracy theorist who has been definitively proven insane, they will immediately shift to the next talking point or conspiracy theory that backs up their side, not even skipping a beat. They keep fighting to defend their position even after it is factually shown to be untrue. But what's really weird is that process -- of sticking to your guns even after you've been proven definitively wrong -- is apparently the entire reason humans invented arguing.
"OK, so Dick Cheney doesn't have a third arm. He might still be capable of spitting acid."
It's called the argumentative theory of reasoning, and it says that humans didn't learn to ask questions and offer answers in order to find universal truths. We did it as a way to gain authority over others. That's right -- they think that reason itself evolved to help us bully people into getting what we want. Here's how a proponent puts it:
"'Reasoning doesn't have this function of helping us to get better beliefs and make better decisions,' said Hugo Mercier, who is a co-author of the journal article, with Dan Sperber. 'It was a purely social phenomenon. It evolved to help us convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.' Truth and accuracy were beside the point."
And as evidence, the researchers point out that after thousands of years of humans sitting around campfires and arguing about issues, these glaring flaws in our logic still exist. Why hasn't evolution weeded them out? The answer, they say, is that these cognitive flaws are adaptations to a system that's working perfectly fine, thank you. Our evolutionary compulsion is to triumph, even if it means being totally, illogically, proudly wrong.
"Check it out, you guys, Carl has something called 'Loose Change' loaded up on his iPhone."
Yes, kids, being a dick works.
So During Your Next Argument, Remember ...
You do this, too. If you're a human being, you're from a long line of people who got to the winner's circle again and again by ignoring facts in favor of advancing your side. So, the next time you find yourself desperately Googling for some factual example that proves your argument is right, and failing to find even one, stop. See if you can put the brakes on and actually say, out loud, "Wait a second. If the things I'm saying in order to bolster my argument are consistently wrong, then maybe my argument is also wrong."
"But if President Obama isn't a serial killer, what does my life mean?"
It's going to be harder than you think. Back when evolution was still sculpting your ancestor's brains, admitting you were wrong to the person you were debating got you bred out of existence. These days, being able to admit you're wrong is the greatest skill you can develop if you want to stay married.