Humans like arguing. Ever since we developed big brains, we have sought ever more complex ways to disagree with each other. When we stop to think about it, all these ways of arguing can be sorted multidimensionally, so that we have a better idea of what we are doing when we argue. If we are more aware of what we are doing, we can gain greater control over our responses.
Here are 8 ways in which we argue:
#1 RESOURCE COMPETITION
When young, we fought for the limited time and attention of our carers, and for limited supplies of food and toys. When adults, we do the same when our interests are pitted against other people’s.
If we spot a weakness in another person, we may start to undermine them, with the aim of reducing their power still further. This can be because we ourselves feel weak in another context and are compensating. Or we may not be able to resist pushing people further down when they are down.
#3 TRYING TO FIT IN
If we wish to fit in with our social group, we may choose to argue against the enemies of our social group. This has the dual effect of consolidating our relationships with our peers, while increasing the status of our secure in-group.
If we feel we are under attack, we will take an antagonistic posture against others. The motivation is to protect some aspect of ourselves. Sometimes we are protecting our spiritual health, our mental health, or our physical health. Sometimes we are protecting an imagined identity which we feel fragile about.
#5 PERVERSITY, PRACTICE OR PLAYFULNESS
Sometimes we argue and challenge just because we can, and want the practice. We don’t feel the need to agree and acquiesce, but we do feel the need to push back and disagree. We may, for instance, be tired of everything in our world being controlled in a certain way; so we seek to stretch our freedom muscles.
#6 DEFENCE OF A PRINCIPLE
We may feel particularly attached to a principle or an assumption. This could be a belief in a god, or a belief in a particular way of seeing things or doing things. In this case, we may choose to argue with others if we feel they are challenging our belief.
#7 SEEKING LOGICAL CONSISTENCY
Sometimes we are using our minds to apply a set of rules, and to work through whether a statement is consistent or inconsistent with those rules. For example, religious academics often work through disputes with one another in order to test specific propositions in the context of their religion’s accepted ethical framework.
#8 DEFENCE OF OTHERS
Sometimes we take on the role of protecting others. At such times, we try to come up with arguments which defend their interests against the world. For instance, in defending an oppressed population, we may be keen to find arguments to delegitimise the perceived oppressor.
Here they are again in a list:
- resource competition
- trying to fit in
- perversity, practice or playfulness
- defence of a principle
- seeking logical consistency
- defence of others
Most of these are not uniquely human motivations.
Motivations such as resource competition, attacking the weak, and trying to fit in socially, are observable in nature in many types of animals. They are harder to observe in ourselves, because we do not like to think of ourselves as animals.
Moreover, self-defence and playfulness are characteristic of many animals, and can form part of their childhood behaviour (e.g. indulging in mock fights).
The defending of principles, ethical and religious, is harder to find in the animal kingdom, partly because of humans’ reliance on language as evidence of principle. The same is true of the search for logical consistency, which is easier to evidence in humans because of our reliance on linguistic proofs.
Interestingly, the defence of others, or selflessness, is also seen in the animal kingdom, even though humans like to consider it one of their highest behavioural principles.
If we want to be self-aware, we can pay attention to our own motivations whenever we get involved in an argument.
We can ask ourselves the following questions:
- Am I simply competing for limited resources (money, food, safety, status, space)?
- Am I exploiting weakness in another?
- Am I trying to fit in by supporting my in-group and criticising the out-group?
- Am I trying to protect my health or survival? (or even some fake identity I have generated?)
- Am I just arguing because I want to play, and to exercise my freedom muscles?
- Am I defending a principle? If so, what principle, and is it worth it?
- Am I arguing because I am seeking logical consistency in myself and others?
- Am I trying to defend someone else’s interests? If so, whose, and why?
The aim of mindful reflection is to prevent us wasting too much energy. We may be indulging in animal habits just because they are there inside us. If we can notice our own motivations, it can help to focus our efforts. We may decide to relinquish much of our argumentative habit, once we appreciate the reason for it. We may choose, instead, to become more peaceful, only challenging when we feel it is truly helpful.