The holiday season is upon us again. With it, many of us brace for dinner-table debates. In an era of social discord, viral misinformation and pandemic-induced stress, arguing with other people is an invitation to exasperation.
One common scene plays out as follows. You want to convince a friend or a family member of something you know they disagree with you about, so you share information and walk through your reasoning with them. They reject your case. Undaunted, you brush up on the issue and try again, optimistic that more facts will shift the other person’s thinking. You repeat yourself—maybe more loudly and slowly. But your audience remains unmoved.
How do you react when your powers of persuasion fail? You might dismiss the person who doesn’t heed your arguments as biased, dimwitted or otherwise out of touch with reality. You naturally feel your own logic is irresistible. You might decide to stop talking about that particular issue. You might even cut ties. Indeed, these unresolved debates can contribute to social estrangement and parent-child breakups.
The whole experience may feel like trying to guide someone on a journey when they refuse to follow. They drag their heels, wander off in the wrong direction and throw away the map you made for them. We have coined a term, persuasion fatigue, to describe this unique form of frustration.
In ongoing research, we are investigating the consequences of this experience. Our initial findings—still unpublished—suggest that persuasion fatigue is widespread. Of 600 people in the U.S. who participated in recent studies, 98 percent reported having experienced this fatigue, sparked by discussions of topics such as politics, religion and health. Our work also suggests that most people believe debates hit dead ends because the other person in the conversation was at fault.
There’s a lot to unpack here, and we’re hoping our data will begin to answer important questions about this phenomenon. But in the meantime, there’s a notable pattern emerging. Persuasion fatigue may make it harder to successfully navigate challenging conversations.
Past research demonstrates that feeling frustrated can make you more resistant to changing your mind. We think it may also diminish your ability to recognize why your arguments don’t succeed. Feeling burned-out could obscure whether your audience is open to persuasion and, if so, how to get your point across better. Persuasion fatigue may also explain why, when debates break down, people tend to blame their conversational opponent. As Mark Twain once wrote, “In all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane.” In our findings thus far, for example, people generally reported three times as many reasons why others’ failings led to failed debates rather than their own shortcomings.
It is true that others are not always open to your ideas. Ending the discussion can therefore be the right thing to do. But in an overheated debate, your fatigue may lead you to misinterpret the situation and believe that your opponent is too dim or too deluded to see the truth. It is exceedingly unlikely that you never contribute to frustrating debates. We humbly suggest that sometimes it’s not them; it’s you. Fortunately research suggests some sound approaches for salvaging these situations and protecting your relationships.
As an initial step, identify when you start to feel tired. Across many studies in the past decade, psychologists and neuroscientists have found that labeling emotional experiences helps people manage their feelings, including anger and distress. (In fact, this practice—called affective labeling—is so powerful that it can help people regulate their emotions even when they believe it won’t work.) Simply acknowledging your persuasion fatigue as such may help you slow down, take a breath and ask yourself why a discussion has stalled. That brief reflective process may open a space where you can consider the sources of your fatigue more self-critically. Maybe your argument isn’t bulletproof. Maybe the holiday dinner table is not the right place to debate politics or religion. Maybe you should take your aunt at her word when she says, “Don’t talk to me before I’ve had my coffee.”
Once critical self-reflection becomes possible, there are additional insights you can draw on to improve the exchange and reduce your fatigue. First, it’s easy to be too ambitious in debate. A persuasive argument needs small steps of agreement on premises and assumptions, not giant leaps to a conclusion. If someone won’t buy your argument for a contentious claim, then backtrack to the ideas that precede and support each assertion. Maybe you can’t convince your in-laws to get vaccinated today, but helping them understand the science behind modern vaccine programs may make them more inclined to get a shot in the future.
Second, remember that values and feelings underlie thinking. If you don’t feel what someone else feels, it’s difficult to grasp how they think. For example, one of us (Ditto) has studied “moral empathy gaps,” in which people believe that those who do not share their moral opinions have less intelligence, bad intentions or both. These misperceptions can widen cultural and political divides. For example, in two studies of vaccine hesitancy, researchers found that parents reluctant to get their kids vaccinated were generally more attuned to issues of liberty and purity—desiring the freedom to make medical decisions for their family or fearing “impure” vaccinations—than less hesitant parents. Because traditional vaccine messaging emphasizes issues of harm and fairness, it may be misaligned with what vaccine-hesitant people actually find persuasive.
To reach your audience, it may be essential to express your message in terms of their values, not yours. Psychologists call this “moral reframing.” In debates over public policy, wrapping your message in your audience’s values has been shown to increase its persuasiveness. In fact, research suggests that the simple act of affirming your interlocutor’s values—telling them you understand where they’re coming from, even if you don’t agree—may lead them to lower their defenses and open up a little to new arguments. Understandably, people are attracted to arguments that harmonize with their personal values, but it takes effort to reach outside of your value system when you present ideas.
Finally, your fatigue may be exacerbated by thinking or assuming that debate is a zero-sum struggle—that you win if, and only if, your opponent loses. But sometimes you’re better off seeing an argument as a collaborative effort to find the truth—less like angry neighbors fighting over their property line and more like a pair of land surveyors. The surveyors map terrain together by viewing it from multiple angles. Similarly debate can help you triangulate a view between your perspective and the other person’s. Ask yourself a humbling question: Do I know all there is to know here, or could the other person show me something new?
Examining your own role in deadlocked debates can make your arguments more persuasive—and, perhaps more importantly, reduce strains on your social ties. In our research thus far, 28 percent of participants have cited persuasion fatigue as the reason for cutting someone out of their life. Persuasion fatigue portends breakups. Though many of these splits were doubtlessly justified, others could have been avoided with a little more self-reflection.
The tendency to blame others for wearying debates has real consequences. In our exhaustion, we may neglect to see when our frustrations stem from a deep desire for connection. Recognizing persuasion fatigue—and how we contribute to it—may help us pass through contentious social terrain without leaving those we love behind.