In the current political climate, it can be hard to find any consensus around hot-button issues, like abortion and climate change. Many of us can be pretty rigid in our thinking and in our communications with others.
Now, a new study illuminates three factors that can lead to better, more persuasive disagreements with others. It turns out that women, liberals, and those with more intellectual humility seem to be more convincing. To lead author Jeffrey Lees of Princeton University, these results should give us hope.
“If we think about democratic discourse of people around the dinner table or in the coffee shop talking about politics, knowing who is entering that space and who might be more effective at communicating and less polarizing could be really helpful,” he says. “Women and people who are actually humble, as well as people who are less identified with their political party, might be better at it.”
In the study, researchers recruited 597 Democrats and Republicans to write a persuasive argument on a political topic of their choosing—for example, the economy, health care, or immigration. “Persuaders” were asked to write their argument as if trying to convince either an in-party member, an out-party member, or an “average American.”
To incentivize them to do their best, they were told that if their argument was in the top 25% of the most persuasive, they would receive a financial reward.
The researchers then presented these arguments to over 3,000 people—a mix of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents—with each Democratic and Republican “judge” reading and rating four arguments made by persuaders writing specifically to convince them (some from within, some from outside of their party). Independent judges read four arguments targeting the “average American.”
The judges rated each argument on many factors, including how much effort the person made; how valid, clear, sensible, or reasonable their argument was; and how convincing it might be to others. They also reported how intellectually humble the persuader appeared to be, by rating things like how much the writer seemed to recognize the value in differing opinions, accept they may be wrong, and be willing to change their opinion in light of new evidence.
This resulted in 54,686 judgments across 18,236 persuader-judge pairings. In each case, the judge was aware of the party affiliation of the persuader, but was given no other information, such as the age or gender of the persuader. By analyzing the data, the researchers found some provocative patterns.
Women and liberals make better arguers
First, women made more persuasive arguments than men across the board, regardless of their political party or to whom they were speaking. This was true after controlling for several other factors, including the length of their argument, how humble they appeared to be, the topic they chose, and what kind of language they used.
Though women did tend to write lengthier arguments and use less dominant language, this didn’t completely explain why women still prevailed as the most convincing arguers.
“We were absolutely surprised to find this effect,” says Lees. “We wanted judges to focus on the content of the argument rather than trying to imagine something about the person’s identity, and they preferred the women’s arguments.”
Lees doesn’t know for sure what’s going on. He hypothesizes that women may just be more strategic than men when it comes to arguing, perhaps better able to anticipate another person’s potential reaction or to use different emotional tones with different audiences.
“They may just be putting more thought into what they could do to persuade another person than men might,” he says.
Though he can’t explain it, he does believe his finding is not a fluke. The nature of the experiment—done in a very naturalistic way, with people having a lot of discretion about what they write about, and with lots of judges on both sides of the political aisle—suggests his conclusion about women being more persuasive is valid.
“I’m quite confident this gender effect is real,” he says. However, in the real world, women face gender discrimination (unlike in the experiment, where their gender wasn’t revealed), which means in an everyday context, biases against them could impact how others receive their message, says Lees.
“The [scientific] literature tends to suggest that women face a lot of gender biases and are penalized for that, especially in these sorts of domains that are perceived as [involving rational thought],” he says.
Anyone can try to be humble
They also found that liberals were more persuasive than conservatives, overall—and so were those who were more intellectually humble. The two factors weren’t related: Liberals probably do not have more intellectual humility than conservatives, according to both this study and others.
Lees thinks it makes sense that an intellectually humble argument would be more persuasive, because it involves an ability to be self-reflective and aware of one’s own biases, which could lead to more perspective taking and openness. Prior research suggests intellectual humility is good for decreasing political polarization.
“When people argue from a place of humility and admit that they’re not 100% certain and acknowledge other possible explanations, the judges respond to that in kind,” says Lees. “Black-and-white language is less persuasive in an argument.”
Since it’s not so easy to just change political party or gender, for most people, the best path to persuasiveness, suggests this study, is to cultivate intellectual humility. How can you do that? Start by reading Greater Good’s one-page guide to becoming more intellectually humble.
These results give Lees hope, particularly since his past research looked at how misperceptions around political viewpoints can increase polarization. Not only does it suggest that some people are better able to persuade, but, he notes, the “judges” in his experiment put so much effort into their task and had high levels of agreement around what made for a convincing argument. In other words, they could treat opposing arguments fairly. To Lees, knowing who can make good, persuasive arguments is a step forward.