The science of sounding smart (and winning arguments)

Useful tips for whether you’re hoping to become a political pundit or just a plain old Trinity hack

Our world is now more connected than ever before, and ideas are becoming more transferable than ever. Much of our societal responsibility regarding education has been dispersed so thinly that it is only the privileged that get the opportunity to thoroughly engage with novel ideas.  Public discussion has grown to be more about spectacle than content and, unfortunately, our innate response far too often is to side with the person that shouts the loudest or spins the best yarn. With this being the current landscape of discourse, it is very important that we equip ourselves with the cognitive tools to differentiate good ideas from bad ideas phrased nicely.

First up, anyone wanting to sound smart may want to be careful of their use of jargon. Those who feel like people are following their argument well enough to poke holes in it might feel motivated to throw in a few terms like “postmodernism” here and there to sound impressive. But this mightn’t be the best course of action to feign intellect. Those who don’t have an understanding of the jargon but are afraid to ask may defer to the speaker’s authority on the subject, but this will not be true of people familiar with the field, such as professors. Daniel Oppenheimer, professor of Psychology in the University of California, Los Angeles, addressed this in the aptly named paper, “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly”. This paper found that the overuse of unnecessary terms made people more sceptical of a speaker’s grasp of the concept being discussed. Another fascinating way in which jargon can bring people to the speaker’s side is if a new piece of terminology is broken down to someone so they can internalise it. Because of the cognitive effort of learning something new, people will convince themselves that it is valid. For example, as soon as you learn the meaning of the words proletariat and bourgeoisie – two Marxist terms – it is very difficult not to view the world in terms of wealth inequality and class conflict. This is due to linguistic relativism as proposed by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which propounds the idea that the structure of a person’s lexicon determines how they perceive and categorise experiences.

If you can, make sure to drop lots of unnecessary references to books, studies, and hypotheses too. This way, the people listening may feel they only have a fraction of the story and therefore the only person qualified to speak is you because you hold the missing information. Experts with a great understanding of their field shouldn’t defer to authority in this manner.  It is their responsibility to build a bridge between their understanding of a topic and a lay-person’s conception. Many great intellectuals from Einstein to Feynman have had the quote, “if you cannot explain something in simple terms, you don’t understand it” attributed to them; a simple but good mantra to live by.

“It makes people more likely to follow their minor premise and conclusion because their cynicism towards the speaker has been swayed by the major premise.”

Using analogies can strengthen your argument. Take this quote, for example: “If you were to own a piece of machinery, you are more likely to care for it than if you rented it.” Makes sense, right?  Except when it is taken in the context in which it was used; to argue against the abolition of slavery. It is clear from our perspective that this analogy misses out on a few important factors. This type of argument is known as a syllogism. Take the major premise, “plants need carbon dioxide to live,” for example. A minor premise would be: “Oak trees are a type of plant.” The conclusion, therefore, would be: “Oak trees need carbon dioxide to live.” In the case of machines and slavery, the major premise is that people look after things they own more than things that they rent. The minor premise is where the trickery happens as it suggests that slaves are property like machines are property. This is an oversimplified argument and implies the conclusion that slaves are better cared for when owned rather than rented; that slaves are better as slaves rather than as wage labourers. It is easy to see the flaws in this argument from our historical perspective. However, when this technique is implemented in less cut and dry arguments, it is impressive to see how well it works. It allows the debater, when challenged, to fall back on their major premise, which is often an obvious truth. If one were to use an uncontroversial truth such as “men and women are biologically different” as their major premise, it makes people more likely to follow their minor premise and conclusion because their cynicism towards the speaker has been swayed by the major premise.

Another factor that can decrease cynicism in an audience is the halo effect, a type of cognitive bias in which we assess someone’s skills in various unrelated areas, based on our overall impression of them. For example, if people like somebody’s appearance or composure, they are also more likely to think that that person is intelligent, and that their arguments are more valid than they are. This is also true if someone has proven themselves in a specific domain. We think skills in one field are far more transferable to other areas than they are. For example, if someone has proven themselves to be successful in business, then people might think that they would have the skills required to successfully represent them in a democracy. Kind of crazy, right?

“Interestingly, the more people rated their understanding of the topic as high, the more made-up terms they claimed to know of.”

Moving on from sounding smart to others, let’s talk about sounding smart to ourselves. The Dunning-Kruger effect has come up in pop culture a lot recently.  It is the idea that those who have the least amount of knowledge on a topic rate their own understanding as the highest. It is well-described in the words of the writer Charles Bukowski when he said: “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.” Individuals are not good at monitoring their own knowledge and this is thanks to self-serving biases. These self-serving biases may explain why almost everyone believes they know more than they do, and that they are more rational than they are. The way in which the Dunning-Kruger effect was investigated in a 2015 paper from Cornell was by asking participants about terms that have no real-world basis but sound real. In response, 91% of participants claimed to be familiar with at least one meaningless term. This phenomenon is known as overclaiming. Interestingly, the more people rated their understanding of the topic as high, the more made-up terms they claimed to know of.

For the uninitiated, it is very hard to differentiate true expertise from just well-phrased or fancy-sounding nonsense, but how do experts do in similar tests? If people recognise a section of a word, they often believe they have deciphered all of the word and its true meaning. The more people claimed they knew about biology, the more they claimed to be familiar with made up biology terms such as “bio-sexual” and “ultra-lipid”. This has also been confirmed within the field of finance, where one study tested people’s knowledge of real financial concepts via a quiz, and found that people who did better on the quiz were also more likely to overclaim.

In a study published in the journal Cognitive Science, psychologists asked participants to solve several reasoning problems and give reasons for their answers. They were then asked to judge the answers of other participants. Without their knowledge, one of the answers the participant was correcting was swapped for their own. Of those who didn’t recognise their own answer, over 55% rejected it when they thought it was someone else’s. This is down to our bias blind spot, our personal version of the halo effect which we apply in order to keep our sense of illusory superiority. It’s not simply that we think we are above average, but we are also more thorough in our evaluation of other people’s ideas than we are of our own.

Just as there was a cultural shift when human beings were knocked off our pedestal, down to just being a smarter-than-average animal by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, perhaps the results produced by psychology may knock us down a peg from rational to non-rational beings. And perhaps, identifying our individual failings and ignorance can help us progress as a collective. After all, Socrates said, “I know that I know nothing,” and he was a certified smarty-pants.

Daniel Giffney

Dan Giffney is a Junior SciTech Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Sophister Neuroscience student.