America has a Horsemen problem


Viktor M. Vasnetsov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A. Four Horsemen politics

Four major patterns of interaction have been observed to show up again and again in couples whose marriages will eventually end in divorce; namely, these are Defensiveness, Criticism, Contempt, and Stonewalling. Psychologists who study this kind of thing have ominously dubbed them the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

When Alice asks Bob if he remembered to buy the toilet paper, and Bob responds with “No, I forgot. You put a million things on the grocery list that I was supposed to buy, how am I supposed to remember all of them? You should just go next time,” then that’s Defensiveness. Bob took an innocent question and perceived it as an attack, immediately putting his defenses up and turning the attack around on Alice. When Alice responds with, “What? You’re so forgetful. You always do stupid things like this. I can’t believe it,” then that’s Criticism. Alice made a globalized attack on Bob’s character, when really the dispute was just about toilet paper. When Bob turns around and says, “You think I’m the stupid one? You can’t even keep our bills straight half the time. That’s so easy a monkey could do it. Talk about pathetic…” that’s Contempt. Bob sees Alice as inferior to himself, and is trying to make her feel as worthless as possible. When both Bob and Alice eventually retreat to different corners of the house and refuse to engage with each other, that’s Stonewalling. Instead of confronting the issue constructively, Bob and Alice leave the issue unresolved, and the negative emotions simmer until their next encounter.

If these are the criteria, then America needs to go into couples counseling, fast. The Left and the Right are America’s Alice and Bob.

When I look around, I don’t see people just disagreeing with each other. What I see is people full of hatred (read: Contempt) for people of the opposite political persuasion. Instead of debating each other’s political beliefs, we’re debating each other’s identities (that’s Criticism). If you’re a Republican, then you must be an uneducated, racist, sexist homophobe who thinks America is the greatest country in the world, and oh you probably own multiple guns, too. If you’re a Democrat, then you’re probably a naive, hypocritical, elitist snob whose lack of moral values is driving this country to Hell, and oh that’s a nice badge from the PC police academy you got there. Rarely are we so overt, but you can feel these attitudes just below the surface of debates all over the Internet. See: Youtube comment sections, Facebook news feeds, probably Reddit (I don’t know, I don’t Reddit).

“OK, Brian, but everybody knows the Internet is a wretched cesspool where rational discussion goes to die. Nobody really feels that way.” That’s what I want to believe, too. But I think the recent rise in polarized politics is hard to deny. Over the past 20 years, the percentage of Democrats and Republicans that view the other party “very unfavorably” has more than doubled, with 38% of Democrats and 43% of Republicans doing so as of 2014. Think about that for a second. If we boil American down to twenty people living in a neighborhood, ten Democrats and ten Republicans, chances are that eight of them can’t stand half of that neighborhood and want to be as far away from them as possible. That’s going to be a neighborhood with a lot of fences.


And to make matters worse, these eight people are going to be much more likely to participate in the political process. So now it’s in the interest of politicians of [political party 1] to cater to those who hate [political party 2] the most. To get votes, these politicians will make statements that Criticize and are Contemptful of [political party 2], signaling that they are really, really committed to the causes of [political party 1], unlike those other guys that are running that are talking about compromise and stuff. These statements polarize the electorate on both sides, and maybe the eight people grow to ten. Now the politicians are even more incentivized to go down the Criticism and Contempt route; Four Horsemen politics is winning politics. This eventually polarizes the electorate even further, so maybe now the ten grows to twelve. You can see where this is going. The future of that neighborhood does not look good.

B. Truth from trade

All of this would seem very strange to an alien observer, given that everyone should be sharing the same goal: Truth. After all, many of the things that we argue about are empirical questions that have answers, at least in theory. They may be convoluted answers that defy simplification, and they may be difficult to discover, but they are out there nonetheless. Shouldn’t this common goal of Truth unite us to find out the answers to the questions we debate with each other? Shouldn’t we all be holding hands, singing Kumbaya as we march together towards Truth?

And yet our political discourse is not at all optimized for truth-maximization. When we pick our companions to join us on our truth-seeking journeys, we tend to reject those who don’t share our beliefs (that’s Stonewalling). Again and again, we find ourselves off the beaten path, and inevitably we wind up inside an intellectual echo chamber. And once we’re there, it’s really, really hard to get out, because the ideology we subscribe to has become a part of our identity. The walls of the echo chamber have grown outwards into us, and to leave the echo chamber is like leaving a part of ourselves behind.

But this echo chamber usually constitutes only a small part of a whole world of beliefs. If we imagine ourselves as explorers looking to find as many true beliefs as we can, then why constrain ourselves to only a part of the map? Half of us are in Liberal Belief-Land, half of us are in Conservative Belief-Land, and not enough of us are willing to cross between them. It’s like we’re Han China and the Roman Empire, except this time nobody’s on the Silk Road. If we aren’t willing to engage in a trade of ideas, then you won’t get my truth, and I won’t get yours, and as a result everyone is worse off.

Our best shot at Truth comes from exposing ourselves to a diversity of opinion. You may not talk to—or even know—anyone from across the political aisle. Such is the power of the social bubbles that most of us live in, whether we intended to be absorbed into these bubbles or not. But in the age of the Internet, there’s no excuse for us not to read up on worldviews that are very different from ours. If you’re a liberal, read a conservative op-ed every once in a while. If you’re a conservative, browse some liberally-disposed forums and see what you think. You may be surprised by what you find, or you may not be. But we do ourselves—and the goal of Truth—a disservice if we don’t even try.1

However, coming into contact with differing opinions is just the first step. How do we rationally evaluate the arguments that we come across?

C. Here’s how I try to rationally evaluate the arguments that I come across

There’s a silver lining to this whole Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse analogy. Apparently, couples that attended a two-day workshop that involved being trained on how to avoid the Four Horsemen were much more satisfied with their marriages one year later. And maybe similarly, if we as a nation can learn how to un-Stonewall each other and have rational discussions without resorting to Defensiveness, Criticism, or Contempt, then perhaps we can begin a long process towards being OK with one another again.

So here I present to you a list of principles that I try to follow whenever having a discussion with somebody.2 Disclaimer: This list is based off of personal experience, and I didn’t look to see if there is any research out there showing that these principles lead to more rational discussion, if such research is even possible. There’s also probably a ton of other principles you could come up with, but these are the ones that I’ve found most valuable for me. Without further ado:

  1. Think of debates as collaborative efforts, not as adversarial encounters. This is a really important one. Remember, both you and the person you’re debating should be after the same common goal: Truth. This is easy to forget, especially considering that all the vocabulary that we typically use to describe debates implies that there is a winner and a loser. In a debate, you try to “defeat” your opponent; you try to get your opponent to “concede” a point; you try to “attack” your opponent’s argument. Even the idea of having an “opponent” in the first place implies a confrontational situation. But debates don’t have to be framed this way. An adversarial debate is a zero-sum game, but in a collaborative debate, both sides are working together to reach a better understanding of the truth. If you have been convinced by another person to change your mind, in the traditional framework, you have “lost” the debate. But in the collaborative framework, any change in belief that brings that belief closer to the truth is a net positive.

  2. Divorce your beliefs from yourself. If you’re really attached to a belief, your incentives can become misaligned with the goal of Truth. Any evidence against a belief that’s attached to you is an attack on your identity, and it can really hurt. If you’re an academic that has come up with a new theory, it’s in your personal interest to defend that theory as much as possible, even against damning evidence. If your entire network of friends and family is centered around a framework of beliefs, then it is in your interest to defend that framework at all costs, lest it fall down and shatter the world around you.

    Once a belief has been incorporated into your identity, it rigidifies, and even overwhelming evidence won’t be able to pry it loose. It’s best not to let ourselves get into these kinds of situations in the first place. Beliefs should be soft and malleable; they should be shaped by the evidence. You shouldn’t be afraid of changing your mind, and you should shed old beliefs as soon as it becomes clear that they are no longer supported by the evidence. This will be much easier if you don’t view arguments against your beliefs as attacks on you. 

  3. Don’t demonize the other side. When you present yourself as the enemy, all of your arguments become enemies, too. By attacking the other person, you will immediately trigger their defenses; as a result, they won’t accept your arguments, no matter how cogent, out of sheer pride. Their beliefs won’t budge; if anything, they will harden.

    As will yours. When you envision the other person as Satan incarnate, you really won’t want them to be right. This leads to a strawmanning of their arguments, or attacking a substantially weaker version of the argument than the one they are actually putting forth. It’s much easier to imagine that you’re in the right when you portray their arguments as so darn silly. You’ll walk away from the debate even more convinced in your position than when you started.

    This is the opposite of what we should be doing. Feeling good about defeating a strawman is like patting on yourself on the back for scoring a goal on an empty net. No one ever learned anything from attacking the weakest version of an argument. We should instead be engaging with the best possible version of the other person’s argument; this is known in some quarters as steelmanning. A steelmanned argument can be an even better version of the argument than what the other person is actually saying. If there are gaps in the other person’s argument, fill those gaps in for them. If you think their argument needs a bit of fine-tuning, imagine how the fine-tuned version would play out. You’ll learn much more by considering the best possible opposition to your argument than by continuing to score goals on empty nets. 

  4. Find a balance between learning mode and persuasion mode. Often, we will approach a debate with the sole aim of persuading the other person to adopt a different position; we’re in full persuasion mode. But remember Principle #1: Both you and your fellow debater should be trying to work together to reach the truth. And the best way for the two of you to reach the truth is by taking the Silk Road to each other’s Belief-Lands and engaging in a trade of ideas. You’ll need to turn the dial towards learning mode. Ask as many questions as you give answers. Try to find out why the other person believes what they believe. Because if the two of you don’t understand each other’s positions, then you’ll just be talking past each other. Nominally you’ll be engaged in a debate, but really you’re just both talking to yourselves.

D. Practice makes perfect

Every time I go to the gym, I face the same recurring phenomenon. I’ll get set up to do whatever exercise I’m doing, with a mental checklist of all the things I need to do during the exercise to keep proper form: keep my chest up, keep my back parallel to the floor, open up my hips but not my knees, etc. And then I’ll start…only to find that my body is completely disobeying every item on my checklist. My chest drops, my back rounds, and my knees go from bent to locked. It’s just really hard for my brain to keep track of how my form should be at the same time as it’s spending energy on doing the exercise itself.

This is kind of how I feel about the list of principles in the previous section. When I get into a debate with somebody, even a mild one, my body just automatically goes into competition mode, at which point it’s really hard to keep a commitment to rationally evaluating opposing arguments. There’s just something about the nature of a debate that makes me want to defend whatever I’m saying as hard as I can, even if I wasn’t really all that committed to that position to begin with. Because I’m arguing for that position now, so it’s mine. Principle #2 especially should rear its head, but, well, it just doesn’t. My brain just doesn’t bring it up.

But here’s the nice thing about debates that makes them different from exercising. While I don’t know that you could spontaneously start practicing your form anywhere outside of the gym and expect that you’ll perform better the next time you exercise (and anyway you’d look like a crazy person), you can practice these four principles pretty much anytime after a debate ends. Too caught up in the heat of the moment to steelman an opposing argument during a debate? That’s fine—you can do that afterwards in your head. What if you didn’t put yourself in learning mode during the debate and so you didn’t really get to see where the other person was coming from? You can do that afterwards, too; either ask them in casual conversation later, or browse the Internet for people who’ve stated similar opinions. Principles 1 and 2 are more about putting yourself in a different frame of mind than taking a particular action, so practicing those can just involve reflecting on the debate and seeing how you did with regard to those principles.

Once you practice enough, you’ll eventually reach the point where you’ll just instinctively do these things. You’ll have retrained your mind to be open and charitable to opposing ideas. That’s the goal at least. I’m certainly not there yet. In fact, part of the reason for me writing this blog post was to put these principles down in words, which hopefully will help me in the future. If I’m ever in a debate with any of you and I exhibit bad argumentation, please remind me of principle number whichever.

Getting rid of the toxicity that saturates political discourse nowadays might require some sort of systemic change involving the media or public education or something. I don’t know. Finding the answer to that sort of question is way above my paygrade (which for blogging is $0, so I guess everything is above my paygrade). But I think we could go a long way just by each of us individually agreeing not to contribute to a toxic discourse—because Toxic Discourse is an organism, and it will reproduce like cancer if we provide it the means. If the Four Horsemen are the substrates on which Toxic Discourse feeds, let’s resolve to starve that motherfucker out.

The Conclusion Box: Providing information to-go.

A. Psychologists have found that couples whose interactions involve Defensiveness, Criticism, Contempt, and Stonewalling (the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”) are much more likely to get divorced. I think there’s an analogy to be made here with current political discourse, which is putting America down a very bad road indeed.

B. This is strange given that everyone should be after the same goal: Truth. We have a tendency to put ourselves into ideological echo chambers, which obscure Truth by only providing us a limited view of reality. We should leave our echo chambers and try to interact with as many different beliefs as possible, picking up the true ones and leaving the false; we should engage with others in a trade of ideas.

C. I provide a list of four principles that I think help provide an environment for rational discussion: Think of debates as collaborative efforts, not as adversarial encounters; divorce your beliefs from yourself; don’t demonize the other side; and find a balance between learning mode and persuasion mode.

D. While it’s difficult to apply these four principles when you’re emotionally invested in a debate, it’s possible to continue practicing them after the debate is over. If all of us practice having rational discussions with each other until that’s just the default mode of political discourse, then maybe we can start healing the vast divisions in America today.


1Let me be clear that I’m not advocating for some sort of false equivalence between any two beliefs, or between two different clusters of beliefs. Beliefs can be right or wrong, and similarly, clusters of beliefs can contain a high percentage or a low percentage of true beliefs. What I’m saying here is that, a) you often don’t know how many truths are in a cluster of beliefs until you’ve spent some time getting to know it (and in fact you may systematically underestimate it if that cluster of beliefs is opposed to your own), and b) even clusters of beliefs with a relatively lower percentage of true beliefs are worth exploring in order to find the true beliefs that are there (which may be more valuable if they are sufficiently different from the beliefs that you already hold).

2It just so happens that there are also four of them, so I wanted to take the Four Horsemen analogy way too far and name them the Four Horses–because they are unencumbered by the Horsemen, you see–but I don’t really know how to do that elegantly and it’s really bad anyway and so I’m just kind of putting it as an afterthought in this sentence here.


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