Persuasion Hypotheses

TED Talks tend to be really good, so I will recommend you watch all of them, as I have before. The above has inspired some thoughts of my own, which is why it gets special placement.

In the above talk, Ms. (?) Schulz talks about wrongness, and how we all assume we’re right even though we know everyone’s fallible. The main point of her talk is that people should be more open to the possibility of their being wrong, which I totally agree with. However, being open to being wrong doesn’t mean nobody is right. Optimally, I think, everyone would believe they are correct, be open to being wrong, and then argue and experiment until we achieve utopia or whatever.

As a subpoint of her talk, she explains what we assume about people we disagree with in order to maintain the assumption that we are correct. She says we assume that those that disagree with us are either, ignorant, stupid, or evil. This seems relatively true, complete, and self evident to me. So, one lesson from her talk is that you should be aware of your own assumptions, and when making any of these be aware that another possibility is that you are wrong. Another is that if someone disagrees with you, they probably are assuming at least one of the three about you, and that they are unlikely (unless they are as enlightened as you) to listen to anything you say until you dissuade them of these assumptions.

People already know this, but it’s a tricky problem. Some segment of the population assume that if you wear a lab coat you are informed, smart, and well intentioned, which is why so many commercials feature lab coats, usually on smiling attractive people of the target demographic. However, there’s another segment of the population that assume anyone with a lab coat is evil, so those commercials don’t work so well in that case.

Part of the whole trap of assuming we are right all the time is that we eventually divide ourselves into stereotypes. So, the hippies assume the suits are ignorant/stupid/evil and the suits assume the same of the hippies. We insulate ourselves in groups of people that agree with us, making it harder to be made aware of our wrongness.

One interesting problem being worked on by a lot of people is the problem of convincing people of things. Marketers do this all the time, but they tend to focus on tiny shifts in relatively unimportant things, like brand loyalty on soaps, and whatnot. Sure, all the marketing sometimes adds up to something somewhat substantial, but I’m more interested in the problem of trying to change someones strong beliefs.

It seems to me that this video perhaps shows that the approach to changing a strong belief needs four stages. First, convince the audience that you are informed. Second, convince them you’re smart. Third, convince them you’re not evil. And finally, fourth, present your case for your way of thinking.

I think people unconsciously assume that step 4 covers all of it. Clearly my rational argument on the subject will indicate my informed, smart, goodness, but, of course, this is only going to be true of someone who already agrees with you. Avoiding this trap doesn’t make the problem easy, unfortunately. It explains why people listen to their friends and not to youtube videos. A friend has already passed the first three steps by virtue of being a friend, but what is the guy making youtube videos to do?

This idea might explain some of the heightened influence of celebrity. People feel they know the person, and to some might feel they are friends. At least they might be less likely to assume they’re, ignorant, stupid, and/or evil. I think this trend will increase with the rise of internet celebrity, since they tend to have a closer two way relationship with their fans, although the subsequent decrease in size of the fan base might counteract this effect. Still, one plan would be to become a celebrity.

I think of this from the atheist/skeptic perspective. Often we have problems getting our messages across. Sometimes we, in these camps, think that it is because our messages are too complicated to make into sound bites or are just less emotionally palatable, but I’m not sure that’s true. I tend to think if we had the resources of the marketers or the churches we’d be just as good at sloganizing and spinning. That’s not going to happen, though. Luckily, we have the facts, so we don’t have to be quite as good as spin. Still, a large discrepancy in spin can make up for a large discrepancy of fact when considering the population as a whole.

Anyway, the main idea this ignorant/stupid/evil thing brings up to me is that it points the way to a better way of convincing. The best convincers need to be obviously knowledgeable, obviously smart, and obviously nice. Brings to mind Carl Sagan. But, I think, most times things can’t be perfect. There are not that many Carl Sagan’s in the world. So maybe people trying to convince the public of things should figure out their strengths regarding informed/smart/good and play those up, and try to play down any deficiencies. Also, I tend to think that there is a spectrum of people out there. Some people probably have a hard time thinking people are evil, and they might be easier to convince by those who are good at communicating their information, but aren’t the likable type. And some people might assume that people are generally pretty smart, but be suspicious of people’s motives, and need extra evidence that someone isn’t evil.

Another difficulty that occurs to me is the problem of cross subject contamination. I mean, people don’t compartmentalize subjects well. For example, say I’m trying to convince you that evolution is real, and I’m starting to make some headway, but then I mention something about another subject on which we disagree, such as abortion. Now we disagree on another issue, reminding you that I might be ignorant, stupid, or evil and throwing doubt on my progress on the evolution front. This problem suggests to me that focusing on a single subject would often be desirable. However, the same thing could work the other way. We agree on evolution and you listen to me cause I’m always saying things you like and then I mention abortion, on which we disagree. Because we agree on the other thing, perhaps you take my opinion on this new issue more seriously than you normally would and I have more sway. Perhaps opinion makers should take pains to try and separate the choir from the unbelievers and publish differently to each. Knowing your audience, apparently, really is important.

I think I’ve covered enough stray tangents. In conclusion, I think there’s room for a multitude of imperfect approaches to this difficult problem, but in general I think awareness of this whole ignorant/dumb/evil idea might be a good thing to watch out for.