Lesson 2.5

The Three Kinds Of Debate

Dive into this topic by watching the video, followed by key concepts below:


Key Concepts:


There are three kinds of debates. Understanding the difference can help us get the most out of cognitive friction.

Debate Type 1 is the kind we engage in most often. It’s the debate where the goal is to prove that you're right.

  • For example:

  • A couple argues about which one of them has spent more effort taking care of the baby.

  • A political candidate tries to persuade the audience that his way of thinking is the right way.

  • A VP of Product and a VP of Marketing argue about whose plan is the better one for the next quarter.

  • This kind of debate only makes sense if:

    • you’re actually right;

    • your audience or opponent is open to changing their mind, and;

    • there isn’t a better argument or idea out there than the one you’re making.

  • Debate Type 1 often results in the most powerful or persuasive person getting their way, rather than the best solution winning out.

Debate Type 2 is the kind where the goal is to destroy your opponent, so your idea can win.

  • This is very rarely productive. E.g.:

  • A couple argues that the other partner is an unfit parent.

  • A political candidate tries to persuade the audience that their opponent sucks, and maybe we should even put them in jail. (Rather than arguing the merits of their own ideas.)

  • A VP of Product and a VP of Marketing argue to the CEO that the other one needs to be fired because their plan is dumb.

  • Often the above two kinds of debate happen because, as mathematician and behavior researcher Spencer Greenberg points out, the debate is “really about your group identity, not about the content of the disagreement per se.”

  • In other words, “what the argument is really about is whether my group is better than your group.” That’s a debate that’s not likely to yield progress!

Debate Type 3: The best kind of debate, on the other hand, is the kind where the goal is to explore the mountain range—ideally discovering ideas and solutions to problems that no one member could have come up with on their own.

  • The “winner” is everyone. E.g.:

  • A couple puzzle together over the BEST way to take care of the baby, regardless of who does what and when.

  • Two political candidates combine their viewpoints to debate the merits of new solutions to problems, knowing that regardless of who wins the election, the other one will become the winner’s advisor. (Imagine the world we’d have!)

  • A VP of Product and a VP of Marketing debate different aspects of a company strategy in order to find a better plan than either of them would come up with on their own.

  • Debating the productive way is harder. Arguing that we’re right—and taking out our opponents—is in our DNA; it’s how we picked leaders and survived back in caveman times. But Debate Type 3 is ultimately a better way.


We often inadvertently encourage Debate Types 1 and 2 through the natural incentive structures we have in place at work and in school.

  • We reward people for persuading us that they have the “right” answers rather than for pushing our collective thinking forward.

  • We don’t teach kids to argue in ways that get people to think and rethink. We train them—especially by example—to argue that they’re correct.

But as we’ve discussed, a group of people can only become smarter than its smartest member by mashing different viewpoints together.

  • This explains why research overwhelmingly shows that a good debate is more productive than a group brainstorming session.

  • In the next lesson, we’ll learn ground rules for making a good Debate Type 3 happen!