The Psychology of Debate

Debates can be illuminating, or they can be a waste of time.

When is a debate illuminating? When there is a mutual attempt to explore the truth. The form that professional debates take, whether presidential or academic, are rarely an exploration of the truth. And the form that casual debates take, like the one your friends had about geopolitics last weekend, is never an exploration of the truth.

But what is going on here? Why do people waste their time arguing about ideas that they have about the world, when neither is interested in learning anything new?

People want to have fun, and a debate is a mentally stimulating activity that is both social and entertaining.

People want to display their superiority. When in a group, there is a social incentive to try to outshine others by displaying a superior understanding of the subject matter. This tells the people you are around that you are competent and worthy of respect.

A debate is a way to put your thoughts out into the open. This allows you to examine your own ideas in the presence of others, who serve as a sounding board.

No one likes being wrong. When someone’s credibility is put to the test because recent events have challenged their confident convictions, they will go through great pains to protect their depleted ego.

People are uncomfortable with contradictions. If noises are being made in such a pattern, that they offend the noise patterns they have come to cherish and embrace, then they will fight to restore consistency.

For many people, even those who lack a belief in God, the existence of divine beings is a sure fact. These beings can either be dead or alive. They are usually characters who held/or hold positions of great power or left behind works that gained an unusual amount of notoriety. If they sense a threat to these godlike beings, they will prepare for battle.

The way people order the world around them imbues them with a sense of calm and security. When this sense of organization is rattled by an of anomaly, they will react violently. The most vulnerable to this phenomenon are those who take their ideas of the world for granted and refuse to subject them to revision. When someone throws a wrench into their sense-making machinery, they will be motivated to fight back.

People are afraid of the truth because the truth is not necessarily an aid for survival. Lies are more comforting than truths, and illusions can give life more meaning than any factual statement about the world. When their sense of meaning is threatened, they will strive to restore it.

Approaching Debate

It is good to begin with a sense of humility on your part, and on behalf of the person you are debating. If they are not humble, that should not stop you from understanding the limitations of their thinking and taking their arguments with a healthy dose of skepticism.

The next step is to be mindful of the game being played, and to decide whether you want to take part. If you determine that it is a game of a competitive nature, you may be motivated to play, but if you realize that the person is engaged in a battle to preserve their ego or sense of order about the world, then you may decide it is better to not take part.

All terrible discussions end up the same way. Both interlocutors repeat their arguments in slightly different ways until exhaustion. When you encounter this social phenomenon, you should know that it is time to either take a break, stop the debate altogether, or steer the discussion in a different direction.

The grand game you are playing, when engaging in the miniature game of debate, is trying to reach a higher understanding. Your goal should not be grandstanding (unless you are in a political competition) or preserving your ego (unless you are socially motivated to do so).

Take stock of those around you and you will hear them talk in precise terms about themselves and their surroundings, which would seem to point to them having ideas on the matter. But start to analyze those ideas and you will find that they hardly reflect in any way the reality to which they appear to refer, and if you go deeper you will discover that there is not even an attempt to adjust the ideas to this reality. Quite the contrary: through these notions the individual is trying to cut off any personal vision of reality, of his own very life. For life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his “ideas” are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality.

Jose Ortega y Gasset

Originally published at

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