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How to Be Unpersuasive

How to Be Unpersuasive

    I’ve been teaching you how to be persuasive for the past year. But I should also tell you what doesn’t work for changing people’s minds.

    Analogies: Analogies are good tools for explaining a concept to someone for the first time. But because analogies are imperfect they are the worst way to persuade. All discussions that involve analogies devolve into arguments about the quality of the analogy, not the underlying situation.

    Hypocrisy: Pundits like to point out that politicians often criticize others for the very things they have done. That sort of observation is good entertainment but it is an intellectual exercise with no emotional power. You need emotion to persuade. And hypocrisy is such a universal human quality that it’s hard to get worked up about it when you see it.

    What if the situation were reversed? Lately it has become common to address any criticism about your team by speculating that the situation would be viewed differently if the other team were being accused of the same misdeeds. While this might be true in some cases, it is an intellectual point in the same way as hypocrisy, and thus it has minimal persuasive power. The only power it might have is embarrassing the media toward a more even-handed approach in the future. But it won’t change anyone’s opinion about the current topic.

    What about this irrelevant data? Even relevant data has limited persuasion power unless it is substantially new information. People tend to only believe data that fits their existing opinion. Irrelevant data (such as the fact that Clinton won the popular vote) is even less persuasive than relevant stuff.

    Appeal to Experts: As long as there is at least one expert on the other side of a topic, the experts as a whole are not persuasive. To be clear, if you are introducing yourself to an unfamiliar topic, the number of experts on each side might matter. But for familiar topics such as climate change, it only matters that some experts are on the other side. And there are always experts on the other side of controversial topics. For example, here are a handful of climate skeptics: http://read.bi/2i0uKz2. That’s all you need.

    You can identify the pundits that know nothing about persuasion because they use all of the approaches above and none of the ones that work. I’m excluding the hosts of mainstream media and Internet opinion shows because they are more about entertainment than persuasion. The hosts might understand persuasion but that won’t necessarily translate into using it unless it is also entertaining.

    The “So” Tell: When you see an argument on the Internet that begins with the word “So…” you can be sure that what follows is a mischaracterization of the other side’s point followed by sarcasm and derision over the mischaracterization (but not the actual point). The sarcasm and derision are good persuasion because they act as an emotional penalty for maintaining the opinion that is under fire. But generally the “so…” structure of an argument causes both parties to debate the characterization versus debating the actual point.

    Word-Thinking: I have never heard of anyone winning an argument by adjusting the definition of a word. But that doesn’t stop people from trying. We argue over whether a fetus is “living” at any particular point. We argue over the definition of a true “conservative.” We argue about whether or not Trump won in a “landslide.” We argue about Trump being a “fascist.” I doubt any of this word-thinking changed minds. 

    I’m working on a new book about persuasion, using the election as a teaching tool to support the point. That’s due out in October.

    You might enjoy my current book on the topic of systems versus goals because it is cold outside.


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