The Disadvantages of Debates

Man debating with coworker
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Spirited debates can engage even normally apathetic students in important talk about pressing issues. Debating also helps limit the scope of conversations about complex issues into manageable chunks. Despite these and other advantages, debates do have disadvantages of which teachers and professors should be aware.

1 Debates Can Be Hurtful

According to Professor Daniel Yankelovich, author of "The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict Into Cooperation," taking a side and doggedly defending it can hurt relationships and thwart problem solving. Arguments, even intellectual ones, can generate hard feelings between opposing camps. Although academic arguments are supposed to be driven more by logic and research than by emotion, many students will feel threatened or even demeaned by views that challenge their perceived rights or sense of identity. For example, a position against immigration into the United States from south of the border, no matter how well researched, may offend many Mexican-American and Latino students.

2 Assigning Sides Sways Opinions

A 2012 study titled "Assigned Positions for In-Class Debates Influence Student Opinions" by Emily L. Lilly, a professor at Virginia Military Institute, found that assigning positions to student debaters significantly interfered with students' abilities to come to their own conclusions based on their research. "Prior to debating, only 41 percent of students [observed] happened to agree with their assigned position, yet following the debates, 77 percent of students agreed with their assigned positions," Lilly writes. The study, which was published in the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, raises questions about the value of debates to sway opinion based on the actual merits of arguments.

3 Repetition Shapes Views

A 2007 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that repetition of an opinion increases its popularity. The study, titled "Inferring the Popularity of an Opinion From its Familiarity: A Repetitive Voice Can Sound Like a Chorus," suggests that the side switchers in a school debate may have been drawn to the position they became most familiar with -- their assigned position -- rather than to the most reasonable and best supported claim.

4 Confirmation Bias Can Occur

The National Speech and Debate Association claims that "students in debate come to thoroughly understand both sides of the resolution, having researched each extensively, and learn to think critically about every argument that could be made on each side." However, studies cited by Lilly show that watching debates probably intensifies a priori opinions and leads students to cherry-pick evidence that supports their pre-existing positions while ignoring contradictory evidence. These behaviors result in arguments that suffer from what's known as confirmation bias.

Anthony Owens taught language arts at secondary institutions from 1999 to 2004 and has been teaching writing and literature at post-secondary institutions since 2010. He holds a Master of Education in instruction and learning from the University of Pittsburgh and a Master of Fine Arts in literature and creative writing from Bennington College in Vermont.