'You shouldn't give circumstances the power to arouse anger, for they don't care at all.' -Marcus Aurelius

7 Ways to Win An Argument Online

by Ethan Glover, Wed, Oct 12, 2016 - (Edited) Sat, Jan 13, 2018

In a previous post, "The Image Problem and It's Solution," I went over some important issues within the libertarian community that creates the image problem it has with the general public. I went over some important cognitive biases and heuristics that degrade ones ability to explain and sell libertarianism to a "non-believer." I then concluded with two key factors for having successful conversations about libertarianism and anarchy. Theory of mind; understanding that other people have unique beliefs, desires, and intentions different than your own, which are based on rational thought. And deep canvassing; a style of real world conversation (which is also more effective) that studies have shown is most effective in changing peoples minds on any given topic.

Since then, I've come across a great study titled, "Winning Arguments: Interaction Dynamics and Persuasion Strategies in Good-faith Online Discussions."

As the title suggests, the study focused on online discussions. Specifically, it analyzed the conversations on one of the most popular and active destinations for persuasion and arguments on all topics. A subreddit called "ChangeMyView." The study resulted in seven findings based on looking at what factors are most commonly found when someone changes their mind on the topic they brought up.

Keep in mind that the findings apply to all parties in a conversation or argument. If you follow these findings, it will be easier for you to convince people of a viewpoint. And if others are using these guidelines, it suggests that they are open to changing their minds.

Meaning, no matter what side of the conversation you're on, or position you've taken, these findings show how to recognize when someone is being open-minded, and how to convince those who are open-minded of your beliefs. Not following basic guidelines such as these can very easily, and very quickly close an open mind.

1. Early Responses

Perhaps the most simple finding is that those who reply to or join the conversation the earliest, are most likely to change the original posters mind. The first two people who respond to an online post are three times more likely to change the original posters mind than the 10th person.

However, that doesn't mean you shouldn't post anything if you're not the first person. In the third finding listed here, you'll see that adding in your perspective can have a huge effect on convincing someone to change their mind, even if they don't respond to you in particular.

2. Limits on Back-and-Forth

A back-and-forth style of conversation, in which each person continues to respond to the last thing the other said, is the most effective way in making sure both parties keep an open mind. The more "rounds" the conversation goes, the better. Up to a point. (A "round" is when Person A says something and Person B responds.)

After five rounds of this back-and-forth, it becomes statistically impossible for anyone to change their mind. After five rounds of detailed responses with no movement, it's best to just abandon the conversation and seek another.

3. More Arguments = Better, Mostly

As mentioned in the first point, the more arguments a viewpoint has in the same discussion, the better chance there is of changing someones mind to that viewpoint. However, that comes with a caveat.

If multiple people jump in on the same thread, and try to argue for the same point rather than creating their own in a new thread, they will provide no additional value. This form of helping actually does nothing to move the conversation forward.

4. Keep Calm

This should be obvious, but using emotionally charged or extreme words will harm the chances you will change someone's mind. It is best to keep your language calm and pleasant.

The authors of this study were sure to remind people that it is never, ever useful to either directly or indirectly insult someone or their beliefs. Saying, "If you don't believe X, you're Y," with 'Y' being a negative, is the quickest way to induce the backfire effect and cause the person you're trying to convince to be even more confident in their current beliefs.

5. Keep it Long and Detailed

For both people in the conversation, it is most advantageous that they be as detailed and thorough about their beliefs as possible. Sometimes when someone elaborates on their full opinion, with every point laid out, that alone is enough for them to change their mind.

If you, as someone trying to change the mind of another, give as much detail as possible. It not only increases the chance of the other person understanding you and accepting your perspective, it also helps to avoid the famous backfire effect. If you don't go through your full opinion, the other person will find it easier to use internal rationale and reject it.

6. Make It Pretty

Online discussion provides the opportunity to make discussion look pretty. Using bullet point summaries and formatting links in an aesthetically attractive way gives your arguments greater value.

In my previous post on real world conversation, I mentioned that referring to sources can create the backfire effect. This is still true online. However, if the person you are talking to is open to change but is struggling to understand your perspective, sources help.

That is to say, if the person you're talking to is using all of or most of the points in this study; calm language, detailed arguments, and well-formatted responses, then links are more likely to have a positive effect rather than a negative.

To simplify, linking to sources only works in online arguments when both parties are open-minded. Referring to sources in real world conversation is highly unlikely to have a positive effect, and very likely to produce the backfire effect.

7. Use the Right Language

When someone uses first-person pronouns such as "I," they are much more likely to be open-minded. The same goes for if they are using dominant words that evoke feelings of power and success such as "completion," "smile," or "win."

People who use bold lettering to highlight key points, are more open to change. If they use valent (pleasant) words, such as "lovable," "sunshine," or "beautiful," they are also more open to change.

On the other hand, if someone uses first-person plural pronouns such as "we," this indicates they hold a diluted sense of responsibility towards a group for the view they are espousing. Meaning, they expect you to be able to convince the whole group before you convince them. Which is obviously impossible.

And last, as mentioned before, extreme uses of words like "terrorism," "theft," and "criminal" in situations that do not directly refer to the standard use of those terms (as in, using them as an insult or emotional additive) suggests a person is not open-minded, or will harm your ability to change their mind.


Breaking this down into one pitch, the best way to change a persons mind on the internet is as follows:

Keep your language calm and pleasant. Provide as much detail as possible on your every perspective regarding the topic. Do not jump in on an ongoing conversation and repeat the points/argument already being made. Use bullet points, bold words, and pretty formatting. If the conversation goes for more than five rounds, it's over.

If the person you're trying to convince also uses these standards, it's a sign that they are more open to change. Only use links as sources if they are following these standards as well.

This is only one perspective on the issue of conversion and salesmanship regarding the trading of ideas. Leave a comment below with your thoughts.