healthy discourse | May 08, 2012

Shooting The Messenger: Justin Fox on How Arguments Really Work

The next time you have an argument that rubs you the wrong way, Justin Fox (The Myth of the Rational Market) wants you to think about this: “Is it the argument that bothers you, or the group you think the arguer belongs to?” In his latest Harvard Business Review article, Fox writes that if we don't like the messenger, we're likely to take it out on the message. And vice versa. If we like the individual or group that the content is coming from, we are more likely to agree. Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, writing on this topic in his latest op-ed, says Fox has hit on a potentially harmful and absolutely real issue that he is “glad to see confirmed.”

Here's more from Justin Fox's article, about the ingrained biases we bring to important debates:

I wrote a post on whether the Internet era has been a time of world-changing innovation or a relative disappointment, inspired by comments from author Neal Stephenson, who espoused the latter view. It was a piece juxtaposing Stephenson with MIT's Erik Brynjolfsson, who has been amassing evidence that a digitization-fueled economic revolution is in fact beginning to happen.

When I saw that had republished my post, I cringed. Surely the technoutopians there would tear the piece to nanoshreds. But they didn't. Most of the commenters instead jumped straight into an outrage-free discussion of innovation past and present. That's probably because, if there is one person in the world whom readers consider a "knowledgeable member of their cultural community," it is Stephenson. I'm guessing that readers were conditioned by the sight of Stephenson's name to consider his arguments with an open mind.

Fox is the editorial director of the Harvard Business Review Group and the author of the bestselling book The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward, and Delusion on Wall Street. As one of America's most trusted business journalists, Fox talks candidly about markets, the economy, and how to speak constructively about them.