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The psychology of arguments (1): Why fighting is so hard

5. April 2016 in
The psychology of arguments

Arguments – you could very well do without them. Right? Unfortunately, they are indispensable. Conflicts arise wherever people with different opinions, intentions or needs come together.

A study found that US employees spent nearly three hours of their weekly working time on dealing with conflicts. And the fighting doesn’t stop after leaving the office. Partnership and family cannot only be a safe haven but also a pretty explosive trouble spot. However, the secret of a long-lasting relationship is not to have few disagreements. It is being able to resolve conflicts in a constructive, respectful way.

The problem is that conflicts are not only unavoidable – at last as long as you are not stranded alone on an island or ready to concede other people whatever they want. Conflicts are also hard. Nature did not provide us with the best prerequisites, but don’t worry. It is far from being hopeless. A look at the psychology of arguments can help you master them better.


How stress makes you bad at arguing

In order to survive, humans developed a pretty good instinct to immediately respond to threats. This doesn’t only apply to the dangers that come from poisonous snakes and saber-toothed tigers. There are more subtle threats than that: The reason behind a fight might endanger your status, material goods, emotional needs or your self-perception. And that is bad enough to cause you stress.

This stress, in turn, puts your body into the archaic fight-flight-freeze mode. This is rather inconvenient. Successful conflict-solving demands a lot from you. But blunt attacks (“fight”), storming out (“flight”) or playing dead (“freeze”) are exactly those things that are not particularly helpful for winning an argument. To make it even worse: Stress puts you in a state that makes complex reasoning and creative thinking harder. Danger usually requires you to take quick action, not to ponder about possibilities. However, this can be very different in an argument. Here, analyzing the situation and coming up with something new – a compromise – is usually a quite promising strategy.

The effects of stress are especially inconvenient if you’re afraid of conflicts. In that case, you can easily fall prey to a vicious circle: You’re afraid of conflicts. Therefore conflicts stress you a lot. This extreme stress makes you very irrational in arguments. Therefore, fights usually turn out bad for you and your initial fear of conflicts is strengthened even further. Circle complete!


Why anger limits your horizon

Additionally to stress, there is another feeling that dominates fights: anger. Anger is a psychological reactions to injuries – injuries for which someone is held responsible. And just like stress, anger triggers some effects that can be cumbersome for arguments.

Anger is a defensive mechanism. One of the things from which it effectively defends you is: accepting your own short-comings. Instead, angry people are quick to blame others. They aren’t only indignant about the fact that something could be their fault but also that it could be nobody’s fault – just a coincidence.

Anger, in general, narrows people’s horizons. It makes them more likely to resort to simple thought patterns, such as stereotypes and thumb rules. At the same time, the attention they pay to the quality of an argument is diminished. It is evident why this can be a hindrance for constructive conflict-solving.


Why you hate to change your mind

Speaking of arguments: It might be counterintuitive, but good arguments have relatively little power in a fight. It’s not that they are useless. However, people tend to be stubborn about their opinions and not very keen on changing them. This has to do with something psychologists call cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance emerges when you feel that some of your beliefs and behaviors or certain information from the outside world don’t really fit together. For example, many people know that smoking is unhealthy but still do it. These pieces of information clash and, thus, they produce cognitive dissonance. Since cognitive dissonance is an unpleasant state, people want to avoid it. How can that be done? Most easily by altering a very unimportant belief or distorting an information. Or by adding something new, such as an exception: “It is very unlikely that I will suffer the consequences of smoking”. Voilà: problem solved!

You see: People don’t want to fiddle too much with their system of beliefs and behaviors. Unfortunately, this makes fighting even harder. When you tell someone in an argument that they have been wrong and should change something about their behavior, this piece of information doesn’t fit at all into their set of beliefs. Of course, one possible solution would be: admitting their faults and trying to do better. But what’s a lot easier? Right: Deciding that you’re an idiot! This solution is especially obvious once stress and anger have shut down complex thinking and activated the blaming and stereotyping mode.


You probably see now why fighting is so hard for you. But don’t worry, you will not have to move to that deserted island. Just wait for our article next week. We will give you some tips on how to be better at arguing.



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Susanne Krause

About the Author

Susanne Krause
Researcher and author. As a graduate of psychology and philosophy as well as an experienced journalist, she knows not only where to find the information but also how to put it into words best.

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