There are often two key abilities that enable someone to be a truly great debater: a strong grasp of the facts, evidence and logic relevant to the debate, and strong grasp of how human understanding works and how to communicate your point in a way your judge would understand. This second ability aligns well with the concepts of psychology and I’ve found that many of the classes I’ve taken for my psychology minor in college have also increased my understanding of debate. So here is one of many psychological principles that I think are relevant to debate.

System 1 and System 2 thinking

The human brain operates in two different modes of thought, often called “system 1” and “system 2.” The first one is fast, subconscious and more or less automatic. This system takes less brain power, and people tend to use it wherever possible. For example, when you went to eat breakfast this morning, you probably didn’t deliberately think about every step you took to walk to the kitchen or meticulously weigh the pros and cons of each option for breakfast. It was probably a mostly thoughtless process. While this system is low-energy and efficient, it’s not perfect and can be a bit more prone to error than system 2 thinking. System 2 thinking, also called slow thinking, is the slower, more deliberate thought that we normally think of when we talk about thinking. It is the kind of thought process you use when constructing arguments for a debate or when making big life decisions. The advantage to this system is that it has fewer errors than fast thinking, but the disadvantage of this system is it takes far more effort and so is not used for the vast majority of situations.

So how is this relevant to debate? Well many studies have found that the system of thinking we are using affects how we are persuaded. They found that when audience members were using their primary system of thinking, they were persuaded by more central areas of the presentation like the arguments and evidence. However if they were using their secondary system of reasoning, audience members were more likely to be persuaded by more peripheral details such as what the speaker was wearing and whether or not they came across as likable.

Your judge has the potential to be using system 1 or system 2 when judging your round, and which one they’re using can affect what methods of persuasion are most effective. If you believe your judge is using system 2 thinking because you see them paying attention, taking notes, and clearly getting into the debate, then you may want to put a stronger focus on the arguments and evidence. Efforts to endear yourself to your judge through stories and jokes won’t be as effective as in other rounds. Conversely, if you have a reason to believe that your judge is using their system 1 thinking, such as their seeming distracted, lack of note-taking, or yawning, you may want to put less effort into your arguments and put more effort into other areas like endearing yourself to the judge by telling jokes and stories and making yourself seem more credible or put-together.

Overall, psychology is highly relevant to debate, and I firmly believe having a stronger grasp of how the human mind works will improve your ability as a debater.

D. J. an economics major at North Carolina State University. Her debate philosophy is that debate should be fun for everyone, so keep it ethical so your opponent can enjoy the round, keep it entertaining so the judge enjoys it, and keep it lively and humorous so you can enjoy the round too.

To learn more about D. J. you can read her bio here: or book coaching with her here:

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