Toxic Conversations & Objective Truth


In a key moment of the final Trump-Clinton presidential debate, Donald Trump turned to a question regarding Russian president Vladimir Putin:

“He has no respect for her,” Trump said, pointing at Hillary Clinton. “Putin, from everything I see, has no respect for this person.”

The two debaters then drilled down to try and gain a more nuanced understanding of the difficult policy issues involved. Clinton said, “Are you suggesting that the aggressive approach I propose would actually fail to deter Russian expansionism?”

To which Trump responded, “No, I certainly agree that it would deter Russian expansionism; it’s just that it would also serve to destabilize the …”

Just kidding. That’s not at all what happened. Actually each side aimed to attack and defeat the other. Clinton really said, “Well, that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States.” To which Trump retorted, “You’re the puppet!”

Episodes like this one have become such a staple of contemporary political discourse that it is easy to forget how radically different they are from disputes we often have in ordinary life. Consider a couple of friends trying to decide on a restaurant for dinner. One might say, “Let’s try the new Indian restaurant tonight. I haven’t had Indian for months.” To which another replies, “You know, I saw that place is getting poor reviews. Let’s grab some pizza instead?” “Good to know—pizza it is,” says the first. Each comes in with an opinion. They begin a discussion in which each presents an argument, then listens to the other’s argument, and then they both move toward an agreement. This kind of dialogue happens all the time. In our research, which involves cognitive psychology and experimental philosophy, we refer to it as “arguing to learn.” To read more from Matthew Fisher, Joshua Knobe, Brent Strickland and Franck C. Keil, click here