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Facts, Values & Frames

How Not To Win An Argument

By Erin Arnett
Oaktree Email Team
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Why Facts alone can't win the debate

Let’s say you’re having an argument—or debate! Let’s call it a friendly debate—with someone, and you’ve articulated it like a boss. Not only have you been eloquent, but you have done your research: you have backed up your claims with facts.

However, despite all your research, despite all your hard work and totally legit knowledge, and despite the fact that the facts are literally staring your opponent in the face—they still remain unconvinced.

Image by Ineuw (Wikipedia user), 2013

“What do you mean, it’s a duck?? Are you quackers? It’s clearly a rabbit.
Maybe you should make like a rabbit and up your carrot intake—it might improve your eyesight.” 

At this point, you relent, exasperated. You wonder to yourself "how could someone possibly deny the facts; the fundamental truth of the matter?" But the fundamental truth, in truth, is that you don’t know the fundamental truth.

And the truth is that you’re not going to convince someone with the facts.

Didn’t hear me right? Let me repeat that for you: you’re not going to convince someone with the facts.

How could that be? It’s a fair question. Like you said, facts are the fundamental truth of any matter. If cold, hard, solid evidence is not going to convince someone, then what will?

The answer lies in the framing.

Framing the facts

We humans are highly subjective creatures. We each view the world through our own lens, which is inevitably coloured by our experiences, our environments and—most importantly—the way we view the world. Think of a person, or a current issue, or just observe something in your environment. Now try not to have a subjective thought about it.



Yes, it’s a plain door frame. 

So why are we built this way? It’s because we are guided and motivated by values—and largely on a subconscious level. Values form our internal compass, and if any obstacles (including facts!) should arise to threaten its path, the natural response is to find ways around this unexpected road bump. It is literally human nature to ignore that which does not fit our world view or to rationalise it away so that it then fits within our ‘frame’. 

The Power of Values

Despite being subjective, values form a highly complex system. According to Eleanor Glenn from Common Cause, they can be subdivided by category, and these categories can interact with one another. The key thing to note is that some values are intrinsically motivated whilst others are extrinsically motivated. And if you want to convince someone of something, it’s more effective to frame your argument with intrinsically motivated values.

So, if you convince someone to have two-minute showers purely to cut down on their water bill, you haven’t really won the argument. Sure, they’re doing what you wanted them to do, but not for the right reasons.

By encouraging them to value their wealth, you are reinforcing their cluster of values that relate to power. Power-related values are extrinsically motivated, and they operate in contrast to those associated with universalism—which, in this case, is the value of protecting the environment. Every time you encourage self-serving behaviour, you are actively discouraging the intrinsic motivation to fight for better and more equal world. This is called the seesaw effect.


Scrooge McDuck, blatantly showcasing his value of wealth—and, hence, dominant value cluster of ‘power’.

Image by Andrei Niemimäki (from Flickr). Usage license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

You can prime intrinsic values, too. Everyone is a product of their environment, so you are most likely being primed right now. This comes back to our values being a largely subconscious thing. And you can use this knowledge to your advantage when arguing your case.

So, how do you win an argument?

I can’t really tell you; honestly, I don’t even like arguing or debating.

But if everyone’s worldview is like a door, you’re not going to be welcomed if you come at it with a wrecking ball. First and foremost, you need to observe its frame—and maybe then they’ll think about letting you in.

Want to keep reading? Check out Poverty Porn, Radi Aid and Accountability in the NGO World