Argument Pedagogy and the Boomerang Effect, Part 2

July 13, 2016 Les Lynn Professional Capacity Development, Research, The Debatifier

By Gordon Mitchell, Ph.D.

Part one of this blog post explored how recent social psychology research on “motivated reasoning” troubles key premises underlying traditional argument pedagogy. In particular, the “boomerang effect,” documented by Lewandowsky and colleagues, occurs when deployment of certain argument strategies causes interlocutors to recoil and cling even more tightly to their settled views. The Lewandowsky group recommends several “debiasing” strategies that may help arguers mitigate boomerang effects.

The following discussion focuses on the pedagogical sweet spot located at the intersection point between this social psychology literature and argumentation theory. Michael Gilbert’s theory of “coalescent argumentation,” Josina Makau and Debian Marty’s “cooperative argumentation,” and Michael Mendelson’s “antilogical” argumentation pedagogy are considered in turn, with an eye toward identifying key elements from each approach that have potential to inform the conversation. The aim is to further illustrate how social debiasing strategies might address the motivated reasoning predicament in argument pedagogy. Left unaddressed, the predicament can interfere with efforts to use debate to achieve a deeper understanding of an issue and instead result in a hardening of opposition on each side.

Coalescent Argumentation

Recall the Lewandowsky group’s insight that debiasing efforts can backfire if discussion unfolds purely on the surface level of argumentation (e.g. “repeating the myth increases familiarity, thereby reinforcing it”). This view resonates with Michel Gilbert’s observation that argumentation scholars too often take claims to be central artifacts in their analyses. This claim-based perspective can be prone to blind spots, since as Gilbert points out in his book Coalescent Argumentation, “claims are best taken as icons for positions that are actually much richer and deeper,” and a “position” is “a matrix of beliefs, attitudes, emotions, insights and values connected to a claim.”

Gilbert elaborates procedures for practitioners and analysts to understand their interlocutors’ argumentative positions (not just their claims). This can be a challenging endeavor, as it requires “exploration of all the available modes of argumentation,” including not only the logical dimensions of a surface claim, but also the “emotional, visceral, and kisceral (or intuitive) aspects of a view.”

With a firmer grasp on this multifaceted substructure undergirding an argumentative claim, interlocutors become better prepared, in the “coalescent stage” of argumentation, to locate points of contact and commonality between positions. In this way, Gilbert concludes, “the shared goals, values, and attitudes held by both participants form the starting point for further discussion.”

Gilbert’s theory of coalescent argumentation provides another way to operationalize the Lewandowsky group’s guideline regarding the importance of affirmation in debiasing dialogues. Options to “affirm the worldview or identity” of an interlocutor may seem elusive if arguments remain limited only to the exchange of conflicting claims (e.g. “global warming is a hoax” vs. “it’s a fact that the ice sheets are melting”). However, if an interlocutor’s position is understood to encompass a much broader web of emotions, beliefs, and commitments, selected affirmation of some of those emotions, beliefs, and commitments may enhance the likelihood that debiasing strategies will be received in a more deliberative and reflective posture.

Cooperative Argumentation

The “overkill backfire effect,” according to Lewandowsky and colleagues, occurs when arguers inundate their interlocutors with a phalanx of challenging facts and claims.  Since people generally prefer simple to complex explanations, intricate critiques, even if logically cogent, may prompt interlocutors to cling more tightly to misinformed beliefs rooted in simpler explanations. This backfire effect may be pronounced in cases where the challenging argument is presented in a threatening way.

Building from feminist critiques that view the “argument culture” as one in which arguers deploy violent metaphors to gain the upper hand in “winner-take-all” fights, Josina Makau and Debian Marty advance a perspective on argumentation informed by an “ethic of interdependence.” This ethic calls on us to

“view those who disagree with us as resources rather than as rivals.” The principles and practices associated with their program of “cooperative argumentation” may be especially salient for arguers seeking to avoid the “overkill” and “worldview threatening” backfire effects posited by the Lewandowsky group.

Makau and Marty propose a number of classroom exercises designed to hone student skill in cooperative argumentation. One activity invites students to critique television talk shows or congressional debates to explore the impact of “competitive exchanges” on the participants and audience members. Following this, students are asked to “envision cooperative alternatives to these competitive exchanges.” To the extent that such exercises enable students to transcend the “overkill” and “worldview threatening” performance frames isolated by Lewandowsky and colleagues, potential for transfer of these skills beyond the classroom space may be promising.


The name of Michael Mendelson’s pedagogically inflected program of “antilogic” gestures toward the “two-logoi” fragment left by the Greek sophist Protagoras (“there are two opposing logoi present concerning everything”). In Protagoras’ “human-measure” doctrine, Mendelson locates the taproot of a dynamic tradition that privileges oppositional argumentative multivocality. Tracing the evolution of this tradition from Protagoras through Carneades to Cicero and Quintillian, Mendelson articulates a pedagogical approach that emphasizes respect for communicative partners and suspension of judgment in argumentation.

Carneades emerges as an important transitional figure in the rich historical narrative underwriting Mendelson’s project. Succeeding the sceptic Arcecilaus as the third head of Plato’s Academy in the third century BCE, Carneades endorsed Arcecilaus’ insistence that all dogmas, including the very idea of certain human knowledge itself, should be subjected to critique. The wise person, on this view, should strive to achieve a mental state of ataraxia (inner tranquility) by learning how to reserve judgment on any claim of fact or opinion. Carneades modified Arcecilaus’ absolute skepticism by developing an account of plausibility that moves beyond purely negative critique to incorporate positive criteria for making practical decisions. Carneades carried the Hellenistic tradition of argumentation to the Roman world, making a famous visit to Rome in 155 BCE. On the first day of his visit, Carneades delivered a public speech praising the Roman system of justice. On the second day, he gave a different address that presented a dramatic refutation of what he said the day before. The “coup de theatre” spectacle sparked Roman interest in Greek antilogical techniques, indirectly influencing (through Philo of Larissa) Cicero to make arguing on either side of the case a central feature of his writings on oratorical eloquence.

Imitating Plato’s writing style exhibited in the Socratic dialogues, Cicero developed many of his pedagogical and philosophical positions in fictional dialogue form, with principles emerging from the interaction between characters. Mendelson points to one such dialogue in particular, the exchange between Antonius and Crassus in Book I of De Oratore, as paradigmatic of Cicero’s views on argumentation: “Cicero’s pedagogical stance, as represented by the dialogue’s leading figures, is uniquely compatible with his rhetorical theory and particularly instructive for contemporary teachers of argument.” Antonius and Crassus model respect for communicative partners and suspension of judgment, deploying rhetorical devices such as courteous contradiction as they iteratively adjust and update their positions in response to the ebb and flow of the dialogue.

The Lewandowsky group’s “affirm worldview and identity” social debiasing strategies find correlates in the concept of respect for communicative partners, while the “foster healthy skepticism” strategy mirrors the prominent role of suspension of judgment in antilogical pedagogy. In the epilogue of Many Sides, Mendelson describes specific classroom exercises borne of these ideas, such as disputatious analysis of model texts and simulated dialogical argumentation, modeled on Quintilian’s controversia declamations.

In the antilogical approach, students hone argumentation skills through artful imitation of exemplars – ones that teachers can identify from their own reading (possibly even of the ancients) or consumption of popular media (including possibly exemplary exchanges from the upcoming political debates or from analysis of these political debates). A central premise underlying this pedagogical orientation is that the human imagination can be enlarged by exposure to model performances that enact virtuous qualities such as respect for communicative partners and suspension of judgment.


An important limitation of the approach sketched in this blog post stems from the fact that Lewandowsky and colleagues’ findings may not be generalizeable beyond the specific argumentative situation involved in one party’s attempts to “correct misinformation” held by another party. For example, although so-called “direct-contrast” arguing strategies, such as withering critique, may prove suboptimal for correcting misinformation, such approaches may still be effective, and perhaps indeed essential, in other contexts. Direct-contrast and cooperative theories of argumentation, on this view, necessarily lack universal scope. Rather than striving for some grand resolution of the perennial debate between “direct-contrast” and “cooperative” camps of argumentation theory, perhaps a more promising pedagogical approach involves diversifying students’ skill sets, enabling them to become proficient in a wide array of different argumentative tools, including Maynes’ “metacognitive skill” (discussed in Part I of this blog bost) to help inform choices regarding when and how to deploy those skills.

Further Reading

Cicero, De Oratore, Books I-II, trans. E.W. Sutton and H. Rackham (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1948).

Michael A. Gilbert, Coalescent Argumentation (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997).

Josina M. Makau and Debian L. Marty, Cooperative Argumentation: A Model for Deliberative Community (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 2001).

Michael Mendelson, Many Sides: A Protagorean Approach to the Theory, Practice and Pedagogy of Argument (Dordrecht, NL: Kluwer, 2002).


Dr. Gordon Mitchell, an academic partner of Argument-Centered Education, is Associate Professor of Communication and Assistant Dean of the University Honors College at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Mitchell’s research program focuses on rhetoric, argumentation and debate, especially in military and medical contexts, and he serves as faculty liaison to Pitt’s College in High School program that brings argumentation pedagogy to 24 Pennsylvania high schools.  In his 21 years as a debate educator, Mitchell’s competitive debate teams won three national championships and he convened hundreds of public debates.