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The secret sauce of persuasion

by Greg Krehbiel on 7 March 2017

No, I’m not going to pull a Scott Adams on you and explain the logic of persuasion. I couldn’t if I wanted to, and that’s not my point here.

I accept that there is some sort of science to persuasion — that some methods or tactics work better than others, and that by studying these methods you can become more persuasive. But I will also claim that there’s a mysterious layer beneath that probably can’t be explained. At least not yet.

Imagine two very similar people — from the same culture, with the same education, with comparable intelligence, and from similar backgrounds. Put those two people in the same room and have a lawyer present the same case to them. Will these two similar people come to the same conclusion?

Maybe, but maybe not. The very same arguments might convince one of them but not the other. Why?

Because the idea of “similar people” is flawed. People bring different prejudices and memories and thoughts and feelings into that room. The same word might have a different connotation to the two of them. “Patriotism” might make one of them feel warm and fuzzy and make the other feel threatened.

These prejudices mean they’re not even hearing the same argument to begin with, and they’re applying different rules and standards when they evaluate it.

Now, rather than having two different people in the same room, do a mental experiment with the same person hearing the same argument five years apart.

The exact same argument is different now … because the man is different.

Scott Adams deals with the general rules of persuasion — i.e., what is likely to work on most people most of the time. And I’m sure there’s a lot too that. (I’ve read about similar things in sales and marketing books.)

Frank Herbert’s Bene Gesserit took this to the individual level. They could read a person and know how to manipulate them.

And nowadays Facebook can do precisely that, so ….

No, that’s not my point today. My point is rather that we need to keep all this weird stuff in mind when we find ourselves persuaded (or not persuaded) by some argument. We all have a bewildering array of prejudices that we’re not even aware of.

Given that — and I think most Crowhill readers know about this — on what grounds do we get so upset with people when they disagree with us?

2017-03-07  »  Greg Krehbiel