What behavioral processes may be happening when we argue? They may not be what we think.*
Let’s dive straight into an example. Sadie has just commented online in a dog training group, expressing an opinion I find to be dangerous and wrong. I write a carefully crafted post that I believe addresses her argument with clear and concrete evidence. I am polite. I’m also focused on building a strong argument.
What happens next?
Likely this. First, Sadie keeps right on arguing her point, frequently and more vociferously. Second, some of Sadie’s friends join in, criticizing me for being “punishing” and “not force free.” But how can it be punishing if Sadie’s behavior of writing her opinion is still going on, even perhaps increasing?
Let’s look at the learning and behavior processes involved. For the moment we will pretend that my comment is the only thing affecting Sadie’s behavior, and let’s agree that it got under her skin. Here’s how it went. (See the bottom of the post for a note on the analysis of verbal behavior.)
- Antecedent: There’s a discussion about a topic that interests Sadie on the Internet
- Behavior: Sadie writes and posts her opinion
- Consequence: I post a counter-opinion
- Question: Does her behavior of posting on the topic decrease, maintain, or increase?
Possible Outcome 1: Behavioral Decrease Through Positive Punishment
Outcome #1: Sadie doesn’t post on that subject anymore. Her behavior of writing about the topic has decreased. That would likely be the learning process of positive punishment at work. My post was immediately and severely aversive. I think this is what we usually expect to happen when we argue with someone, even if it almost never does. The idea is that they will either change their opinion or shut up. In both cases, they have ceased the behavior of arguing their opinion. This does happen. The person will leave the group or discussion. But it’s not the most common response, in my observation.
Possible Outcome 2: Behavioral Decrease Through Extinction
Outcome #2: This one is less likely, but let’s not forget extinction, another way for the behavior to decrease. Maybe Sadie didn’t see my comment or doesn’t give one whit about my opinion. But nobody else chimed in and encouraged her, so she drifted off to greener pastures of discourse. This is extinction, where a behavior that has been previously reinforced gets no reinforcement, then decreases.
Possible Outcome 3: Behavioral Increase Through Positive Reinforcement
Outcome #3: Sadie keeps posting at the same or an increased level. The behavior is maintaining or increasing. This could be the process of positive reinforcement. Perhaps Sadie is thick-skinned and doesn’t care what I think, but my comment indicates that someone is paying attention so her posting behavior increases. Or Sadie may be a troll, and this is fun for her. My response means she continues her game.
Possible Outcome 4: Behavioral Increase Through Negative Reinforcement
Outcome #4: Sadie keeps posting the same or at an increased level. The behavior is maintaining or increasing. This subsequent behavior can be a result of a negative reinforcement scenario. I think it is the most common occurrence and quite an interesting one. We tend to visualize a zinger of a response as a one-time deal. Pow! and done. Positive punishment. Knock the person out, and they don’t come back to the discussion. That can happen. But we are humans. What usually happens when we receive a verbal correction? We get upset. We obsess about it! It’s not a one-time aversive; it has duration. The comment is still there. People are reading about it. Sadie is thinking about it. And that sets the stage for the next set of behaviors. We know what a duration aversive leads to, right? Some action to escape it. And how will she likely escape the discomfort? By writing more words on Facebook.
If this happens, what does the analysis of Sadie’s next behavior look like?
- Antecedent: Sadie is uncomfortable because of what I said to her on the Internet
- Behavior: Sadie posts back to argue her case
- Consequence: Sadie’s stress of being corrected or publicly embarrassed is relieved
- Prediction: Sadie will continue to respond when argued with
This is negative reinforcement, and it often leads to an infinite loop.
The Infinite Argument Loop
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, what is happening to me? Potentially the same thing that’s happening to Sadie. When I post, she becomes uncomfortable. She relieves it by arguing back. And when she argues back, this is aversive to me. If I get pulled in, I take action to relieve the discomfort by posting again. Ad infinitum. When both people are sucked into ego responses, the loop is sure to keep going and going.
There are probably other behaviors spinning off from the aversive exchange as well. Sadie or I may be having intense conversations with friends. We may be sending each other personal messages. One of us may have a drink or perform some self-soothing behavior. But if Sadie started off by posting in a public forum, she is probably continuing to do so at a more and more intense level. And so am I.
The Argument of Tone
Kindness and respect don’t always erase the human response to being corrected. I’ve specified that my original response in this scenario was polite and kindly for a reason. A big problem with humans is that no matter how nice it is, we can receive criticism or correction as meanness, even if it’s not coming from that place at all. We are a social species and discord can touch very deep, survival-related feelings in us. This can send us back into some primitive responses.
There’s a name for this one. Objecting to some words because they “feel mean” is the argument of tone, a rhetorical fallacy that positive reinforcement trainers get pummeled with all the time. It’s a type of ad hominem attack, or just pure insult if it doesn’t address the content of the argument. No matter what your motivations or how respectful your discourse, someone is going to pop up and say, “You’re not force-free with people!” Make no mistake: if all you’ve done is to present fact or an opinion that they disagree with, this is a diversion and an insult.
It can also be true. I’m not a mud-slinger, but there have definitely been times when I have been less than thoughtful. Oh yeah. But I do my best at being kind and respectful when I am in the position of contradicting someone. Much of the time now I can tell the difference between my arguing principally to relieve pressure and “be right” and arguing to exchange and further knowledge. Because if we work for it, good argument can happen, even if one or both parties feel stung. We can put on our big girl panties and concentrate on the issues rather than our feelings.
What To Do
This post was born because I started thinking of the misuse of the term punishment. But negative reinforcement involves an aversive, too. The more I think about this infinite loop of argument, the more I can see how so much of this unhappy discourse works. Here are some observations about the loop and how one might escape it.
- Recognize that even kindly critique presented in a constructive way can be unpleasant. This negative reinforcement loop can happen even when people are being very nice.
Don’t assume that someone else is being mean when you are the recipient of critique. Try to identify what is contributing to your response. Sometimes it takes me days before I can lose my righteousness enough to see another point of view. When you get to that point, you may still disagree, but you can see your way through to answer decently. Arguing with the goal of mutual learning greatly lessens the aversive state, in my experience.
- At the same time, don’t stick around and put up with rude behavior and cognitive fallacies. If it’s in an environment where you can exert some control, you can do that. For instance, you can have a comments policy and enforce it when you are on your own Facebook page or on your blog. But if it’s out of your control, consider quitting. If someone persists in cognitive fallacies, you aren’t going to get through.
- Clarify your goals. Is your goal to persuade this person? Is your goal to shut her up? (Be honest. It’s possible for this to be a valid goal when her statements are dangerous or provocative.) Is your goal to persuade lurking readers? Is your goal to have an argument that is polite, fair, and furthers knowledge on both sides even if you don’t reach an accord? Are you just pissed off and want to vent? (That’s a good time to wait a while.) Your goal should help you make a plan.
What are the ways the cycle can stop? Some things I do are 1) agree to disagree then stop reading the thread; 2) continue writing but with the other people in the thread in mind—the silent lurkers—and don’t engage with the original person from then on; or 3) take some notes and go write about the situation somewhere else. I don’t mean to go and Vaguebook. I mean leave the personal stuff and the grudges out and address the topic itself after some time has elapsed. (Ahem. Like this post.)
When I’m the recipient of correction, I make an effort not to blame others for my emotional response. When I succeed with this, and the other person does too, we may get to experience one of those great arguments where both parties are reasonable, nobody takes pot shots at anybody else, and everybody gains some understanding. It can happen!
Have you been part of a fair and productive argument lately?
Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson
*ABA with humans involving verbal behavior is a whole separate branch of learning theory. I am not touching on that part; just the major motivators. Thank you to the board-certified behavior analyst who looked over this post and agreed that what I covered, I got right. I’m open to other ideas about what is going on, of course!