Calm the Elephant

On heated debates & having the right tool for the job

A fork is a wonderful tool. Just not for eating soup.

Likewise if you trade your hammer for a spatula, that fence is going to take a while to build. Hedge trimmers will turn your shrubs into your neighbours’ envy -- and your haircut into a cry for help.

It’s not enough to have the right tool. You need to have the right tool for the job. Obvious, right?

Apparently not, when it comes to the way that people try to settle heated debates.

Humans reliably suck at changing each other’s minds. So much so that despite our staggering accumulation of moral, scientific and technological progress, we don’t seem to be much more on the same page in 2021 than we ever were -- even as it relates to questions of fact. You’d think that by now, we’d have at least extinguished any debate over things that can be answered empirically. Nope. Squabbling over climate change and vaccine efficacy is still very much a thing.

Why? Because we keep bringing a fork to a soup night. We mistake these debates for intellectual conflicts and use (or at least pretend to use) the tools of rational argumentation to try to resolve them. The truth is that these are not intellectual conflicts at all -- they’re emotional ones. Appeals to reason are the wrong tool for the job.

There’s this great analogy for thinking about the rational and emotional parts of the human brain, about “the elephant & the rider”. The rational brain is the rider, the emotional brain is the elephant. The crux of the analogy is about which party is in control under what circumstances. When the elephant is calm, the rider can steer it down the path, no problem. But if the elephant is spooked or in a rage, it’s going wherever it wants -- rider helplessly flapping in the wind.

Translation: an appeal to a person’s rational brain only works if their emotional side is at peace. In the case of any emotional turbulence -- fear, anger, indignation, and so on -- appealing to the rational brain is pointless. Resolving a disagreement therefore requires accounting for your opponent’s emotional security, and then appealing to their rational side -- in that order.

Social media and comment sections have been lit up in recent months with faux intellectual debate about the ethics and efficacy of vaccination against SARS-CoV-2. At their technical core, one side’s arguments are evidence-based and the other’s are a fabrication -- and yet, both sides are wrong. The science is clear; that’s the easy part, and one side is wrong about that. The other side, meanwhile, is wrong about what’s likely to change their opponents’ minds. 

Once an issue becomes as politicized as this one, emotions take over and what might have otherwise been a rational conversation becomes a stampede of elephants going berserk. To those on the evidence-backed side of the conversation, it’s baffling and deeply frustrating that there even is an “other side”. So they dig their heels in, appealing to reason more and more strongly, then -- when that doesn’t work -- with mounting vitriol.

Fork, meet soup.

To help the misguided see the light, whether on this topic or any other, you may not be able to appeal to their rational brain directly -- and you definitely won’t be able to scold them into changing their mind. Trade the sledgehammer of cold, hard facts for the olive branch of compassion and you’ll find you have a much better tool for the job.