When in Doubt, Shout August 8, 2011

When in Doubt, Shout

This is a guest post by Laura Shiley. She is a junior at the University of Colorado – Boulder and a member of the Secular Students and Skeptics Society (SSaSS).

Putting down the megaphone and putting on a thinking cap

Man yelling into a megaphoneIf you shout for 8 years, 7 months and 6 days you would produce enough energy to warm a cup of coffee. Yelling is inefficient. Save some time and just use a microwave.

Have you ever noticed how debates tend to turn off the critical reasoning abilities of your opponent? (Although, certainly, never in you.) This is not just your imagination.  David Gal and Derek Rucker examined this phenomenon in their article, “When in Doubt, Shout!: The Paradoxical Influences of Doubt on Proselytizing.” According to this study, people whose confidence in closely held beliefs was undermined went on to engage in more advocacy of their beliefs.

Leon Festinger was the first to popularize this theory in his book, “When Prophecy Fails,” in which he infiltrated Dorothy Martin’s cult which predicted the apocalypse on December 21, 1954. Festinger observed how the followers reacted when doomsday failed (yet again) to arrive. At first they were shocked. Then they began crying. And then cognitive dissonance kicked in and they realized that they had saved the world through their dedication. Where before Martin and her cult were quiet and reserved about their beliefs, afterwards their encounter with doubt fueled them to go on and proselytize to anyone who cared to listen and to many who didn’t care to.

These observations led Festinger to develop the cognitive dissonance theory. This theory predicts that people modify their beliefs in order to resolve inconsistencies with their attitudes, beliefs, or actions. Blaming, justifying, or denying are some of the most popular ways to lessen cognitive dissonance. Consider the fable of the “Fox and the Grapes” by Aesop.

Aesop's The Fox and the GrapesHoity fox says, “I’m sure they are sour.”

In this story, the fox comes across some grapes dangling high above the ground. He tries every way possible to reach them, but to no avail. To cope with the frustration of failing to attain his goal, he justifies not being able to eat them by concluding that the grapes are probably sour anyways.

To quickly summarize Gal and Rucker’s study (see Ed Yong’s blog for a more in-depth summary), they examined how people advocate for their beliefs after being induced to experience doubt. Those in the doubt-condition wrote more on essays advocating for their beliefs on animal testing, eating preference, and computer preference (Mac or PC) than did those in the confident-condition.

Yet these effects are lessened when the subjects affirm an important value prior to entering the doubt-condition. For example, if people first write about an unrelated value with which they self-identify, (e.g., “I am a good student/parent/friend/musician/etc,) then their self-esteem will be bolstered against the biasing effects of the incongruent information. This affirmation is a means of offsetting the threat and convincing the person that, while they may not be perfect at everything, they have other positive traits or values.

This is referred to as self-affirmation theory and it begins with the premise that people are motivated to maintain the integrity of the self (Cohen, 2006). In one study, participants who were threatened with negative feedback on an intelligence task showed more stereotyping of a gay male than those who received neutral feedback (Fein & Spencer, 1997). Yet these effects disappeared in the affirmation condition. This is because the people no longer felt the need to make downward comparisons in order to raise their self-esteem since affirmation inoculates people against threats and allows them to view information more objectively.

These results should not be surprising to anyone who’s ever found themselves in a debate with a stubborn adversary. After all, you are bringing to light flaws within a concept that is important to their self-identity. Their reaction is a normal one, caused by the need to maintain their integrity. The underlying hope here is that they will be able to convince you of their merits and you will switch to their side. This is because there is comfort in numbers. If others also believed, their internal conflicts would lessen.

A man yelling at Basil to cause it to grow
No matter how hard you try, this will not work. It’s time to reconsider our strategy.

So what can we take from this study? Simply going into a debate armed with logical artillery will not work. With the first logical fallacy you attempt to destroy, the person in your line of fire will recoil behind their cognitive dissonance barricade. View them as more than just an idea with which you disagree. View them as a human. Take the time to pause and get to know them or they will just attack with more fervor and less logic. Find out their merits until you discover something that you can appreciate. Compliment it, genuinely and truly. Maybe then you can continue with the debate in an effective way after creating this background of respect and (subtle) affirmation.


Fein S, Spencer SJ. Prejudice as Self-image Maintenance : Affirming the Self Through Derogating Others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1997;73(1):31-44.

Gal D, Rucker DD. When in doubt, shout! paradoxical influences of doubt on proselytizing. Psychological science. 2010;21(11):1701-7. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20943939.

Sherman D, Cohen G. The Psychology of Self‐defense: Self‐Affirmation Theory. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. 2006;38(06):183-242. Available at: http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0065260106380045.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • MariaO

    Not on the main theme, but a case of unimaginative overpedagogy gone wrong. When the fox-and-grapes story was translated to Swedish the translator noticed that grapes are NOT sour, so the grapes where replaced by rowanberries (mountain ash) which are very sour indeed. So the the fox is right and all sense is gone by this corrective translation – which is still the official one after several hundred years.

    I guess this sort of thing also happenes a lot when translating religious texts…

  • OttawaAnon

    Why would I ever want to share common ground with the likes of William Lane Craig, Rick Warren, DI, the Pope, etc.?

  • It depends whether you’re trying to change the mind of the person with whom you’re debating, or the minds of other people. If you can make your opponent look ridiculous to everyone else, then you probably still won’t have changed their mind, but you might make other people less likely to want to have anything to do with them.

  • Anonymous

    I agree that this can be a valid tactic. I think it can often be more useful to move a few fence-sitters than barely nudge one diehard believer.

  • Anonymous

    The “get to know them and share humanity” technique seems to require two cooperating parties.

  • Anonymous

    That’s interesting, and funny, and sad.

  • Charon

    You make a very good point, but unfortunately religion is so central to many people’s identities that it’s possible it’s resistant to a “complement then criticize” approach. I can see this working with Mac v. PC or opinions on gays in a way that it wouldn’t with an entire worldview, which quite literally forms the basis for how someone looks at everything. Any criticism at all is such a fundamental attack that it causes the person to retreat into a cognitive dissonance shell.

    BTW, a good book on this is Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, by Tavris & Aronson. I like that each chapter gives an example of someone managing to overcome this powerful reality-distorting self-justification. Given my hobby interest in science-based medicine, I only wish they’d included a section on so-called alternative medicine, and someone like Edzard Ernst.

  • Charon

    Oh, and I should add, go CU  🙂  I’m glad my new academic home (as a postdoc) is turning out such fine undergrads.

  • Anonymous

    Agreed completely, but it has to be used with caution. We must be careful not to make ourselves look like assholes (no insulting the opponent) or just dicks (point out flaws, but do so clearly, in layman’s terms, and not in an overly condescending way) in the process. It’s a bit of a trick to learn, really.

    But definitely, you’re far more likely to have an impact on the audience than the actual person with whom you’re debating, even on the interwebs. If everywhere that a creationist spoke, a rational person were there to answer, it would be much, much harder to indoctrinate people to believe in creationism in the first place.

  • Kenneth Dunlap

    OttawaAnon sharing common ground with those people would only add up to one cooperating party…

  • Anonymous

    I don’t understand you.

  • Cutencrunchy

    We too often engage with the idea of being right or wrong and winning or losing – such attitudes move us towards defense and attack. When we approach with genuine curiosity and the desire to grow a general understanding it changes the relationship and often leads to surprising revelations.

  • Coyotenose

    Meaning, no matter how much we do or even might try to debate cooperatively with them, they cannot return the favor. Among other things, their wallets depend on nonnegotiable belief systems.

  • Centricci

    that’s exactly right. one of the major reasons why a lot of debates turn into shouting matches, is because a lot of people insist on treating a debate as a contest.something you either win or lose.

    a debate is an exchange of viewpoints.nothing more.

    you get to hear what i have to say….i get to hear what you have to say and if what (or some of what) you say makes sense, i can alter my viewpoint accordingly and if not, well then at least i know where you coming from.

  • Sarah

    This exactly. If you make them look ridiculous then you will affect your audience against that point of view, but if your attempts to make them look ridiculous instead make yourself look obsessive/too aggressive/a dick/callous/uninformed/etc in the eyes of your audience, then you will affect them in the opposite direction.

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