It started as a conversation, turned into a debate, and somehow became a debate to decide which one of you is absolutely right about everything and which one of you is a fool, discredited on every front.
How did it come to that?

Sometimes it’s deliberate, for example, when talking to a know-it-all who, right out the gate wants to declare himself the infallible champion. In early SNL skits, Dan Aykroyd parodied this know-it-all move with his rebuttal, “Jane, you ignorant slut.”

jeremy-e-shermanI’ve had the luxury of circumstance to spend the second half of my life wondering carefully without a lot of social constraints. I write, teach and research full time. My income doesn’t depend upon it so I don’t have to curb what I think to keep myself fed. I take good insights where I find them. I’m a very fussy shopper among interpretations, not that it ensures that I find good ones. A lot of my articles are about the art of science, the art of shopping among interpretations. I’ve latched onto some reliable sources of insight, chief among them my mentor, collaborator, debate partner and friend Berkeley Professor Terrence Deacon, the fussiest shopper I know. 
Editor: Nadeem Pasha

Still, we can fall into such infallibility battles even when we’re not arguing with a know-it-all. We often slide into them gradually and unwittingly, even with generally reasonable people. It happens through unconscious gradual and mutual escalation, each side insisting with increasing vigor, defending their point of view.

We get exasperated with each other and impatient to prove our point. To keep our boats afloat we start rocking each other’s boats. Pretty soon the goal is sinking each other, proving once and for all that the other person is a complete nincompoop.

The economist Robert Frank highlights a pattern that explains accelerated escalation in all sorts of interactions including debates. Call it the “winner-takes-all, loser-still-pays” pattern. It goes a long way toward explaining why when we’re in a hole we keep digging.

The pattern shows up in wars, elections, keeping up with the Joneses, gambling and investing and even informal arguments. We invest and then, having invested, are unwilling to let go. We’re willing to pay almost anything to keep from losing, but so will our competitors, which only increases both sides’ investment and unwillingness to surrender it all.


Think of how that plays out in wars. Casualties in the thousands for each side. Loser still pays –– neither side can allow those soldiers to have died in vain, so they throw more soldiers at it, thereby increasing their unwillingness to tolerate even more soldiers having died in vain.

The same goes for political campaigns. Candidates pour millions into them and, facing the possibility of all that money lost with nothing gained, they’re willing to say and do anything to keep from losing.

Closer to home, we end up in absurdly escalating debates with people saying things like “You think Ringo was the Beatles’ first drummer? You’re crazy. You don’t know anything.”

We can end up on the slippery slope toward such battles without even noticing. We don’t notice the threat we feel coming through each other’s comments, nor the threats we make, in so many words, hinting that we have a good mind to just declare the other person an idiot. And often not even in words – a sigh, an eye-roll, a grunt of disgust.

It doesn’t take much to move things toward brinksmanship, a game of chicken in which we expect that if we just hint that we’re not going to back down others will, surrendering their sunk investment in maintaining their self-esteem, dignity and confidence because we will have finally proven them unworthy.

Or we notice their attacks but not our own, saying, “you started this” which adds fuel to the fire. It’s like saying, “See, I’m the good one and you’re the bad one.” In the midst of an infallibility battle, such accusations invariably draw counter-accusations (“No, you started it”) with both sides assuming it couldn’t have been a mutual slide, a product of the winner-takes-all, loser-still-pays pattern.

Here are a few things you can do to prevent and de-escalate infallibility battles:

  1. Blame it on the pattern: Recognize that the escalation may be neither your fault or theirs but simply a product of the pattern. And watch out for your own contribution more than theirs. Why? Because you’ll already be good at watching out for their contributions.
  2. To name it is to tame it: Call out the risk of falling into an infallibility battle, or better yet, in an ongoing relationship, develop a common understanding of the pattern so you can refer to it without a lot of explanation. Be inclusive, not finger-pointing. Don’t say “It looks like you’re trying to drag me into an infallibility battle,” but rather “Neither of us wants this to turn into an infallibility battle, right?” Highlight how absurd these battles get, but not as though you know it and they don’t. Only know-it-alls like these battles. We’ll get to them below.
  3. Take a breather but with a commitment to return: There are thin lines between, “Hey, let’s take a breather,” “I’m not going to waste my time arguing with an idiot,” and “Alright, I give up, you win. I’m an idiot.” but these lines can be managed with a little clear signaling that you want to return to the topic after hitting the reset button on the escalation. Say something like “I’m happy to come back to this because it’s important to us, but for now, I’m taking a breather.”
  4. Just listen for a while: If you have calm fortitude and self-confidence that they don’t seem to have in the moment, lay back, let them talk. Just listen to understand, only speaking up to mirror them, basically making their case for them to demonstrate that you’ve understood it, (wholly independent of whether you agree with it). Sometimes this is enough to de-escalate the battle. And sometimes it isn’t.
  5. Watch for signs that you’re dealing with someone who loves these infallibility battles: If you listen well or pull out of the escalation cleanly, and they come back guns ablazing to shoot you down, you may be dealing with someone who can’t resist the infallibility battle approach with you – for any of a range of reasons, including that they have a chip on their shoulder, or the opposite – a swelled head. Here’s a list of clues for guessing whether you’re talking to a know-it-all.
  6. When they don’t care what you think, stop caring what they think about you: It’s very hard to pull out of infallibility contests without feeling like you’ve lost. If you’re dealing with know-it-alls, they’ll do their best to keep you engaged (they like it) and get you to feel like exiting is surrender. In response to your exit, they’ll claim victory, saying things like, “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings,” or, “Wow, couldn’t take the heat, could you?” as if you’re leaving because you’re wounded. Remember that you just concluded that they’re not listening to you and that they’ll say anything to feel like their winning the battle. If they’re not listening, don’t listen to them and don’t defend yourself. And don’t get smug about it either. Find something else to do that distracts you and prevents you from trying to get the last word with someone who insists on getting the last word at your expense.

At any time, any of us can act like a know-it-all arguing with a know-nothing. We have to battle this tendency in ourselves and others, but don’t assume that you can purge it in everyone. If you think you have to convince any single know-it-all that he doesn’t, you’re still feeling the downward tug of the infallibility battle. Just let it go.