The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Elements Of Persuasion

Many posts I write aren’t intended to be persuasive if you don’t already agree with me on some axes. Take, for example, the post “some acts are always evil.” I chose rape as my example: it is not possible to have a justified rape. If you agree with this, you’ll agree that some acts are always evil. If you don’t think rape is never justified, then my argument won’t work with you, and indeed it didn’t work with all the commenters for just that reason.

There are three primary elements of persuasion.

The first might be called beneficence or trust or sometimes even disinterest. If you’re trying to persuade me to do or believe something, I want to know that you have my best interests at heart: that you aren’t trying to persuade me because it’s good for you that I agree, but not good for me. This is the entire thesis of the book “How To Make Friends And Influence People.” It’s the basis of all win/win negotiating methods. It makes a huge difference.

Disinterest is the intellectual version of this, meant more for changing minds than making deals. It is a “I just follow the logic or facts wherever they go and accept the conclusions.” If you’re obviously arguing “from interest” people will tend not to believe what you say about issues unless they share the same interest as you.

The second might be called competence or wisdom or knowledge. This is the “do you know what you’re talking about” check. Perhaps you’re arguing win/win that we should attack that tiger and take its lunch, but if I don’t think you know how to beat that tiger, it sure ain’t looking like a win/win to me. Professionals trade on this sort of thing, “I have training”. The guy or gal trying to tell you how to do well on dates or get a romantic partner needs to have a happy relationship or be constantly seen with beautiful women or handsome men. The person preaching how to get rich has to be rich, and so on.

I used to think this really, really mattered and in my early years of blogging I would write posts tallying up my predictions and how well they had done, with what a friend once called “Stalinist self-criticism.” I thought that if I proved I was usually right about certain subjects, people would trust me on those subjects.

Worked with some people, but not with most. It took me about five years to realize this intellectually, and another 6 years or so to understand it emotionally.

So this factor matters, but it’s only one factor and I would say that in most circumstances it isn’t most important factor.

The third factor of persuasion is what might be called mode. This how you persuade people: perhaps you make that appeal to authority. Perhaps you are friendly. Perhaps you simply make your statements confidently as if no one could doubt you. Perhaps show that what you say follows logically if people accept your premises (this is what I did in the “some acts are always evil post”, using rape as being always evil.) Perhaps you reason inductively “we can find hundreds of samples of this situation an in every or almost all case it went the way I say.”

There are socially dominant modes in different periods, societies and social groups. Scientists, at least in principle, should be convinced by evidence supporting hypotheses. Scholastic academics of the middle ages wanted one to use a combination of Aristotlean logic and biblical revelation. In most societies which have ever existed “this is how we’ve always done it’ was a killer argument. In others “I’ve got a big sword and lots of muscular friends” more or less worked, especially when willing to kill enough people.

In spiritual groups, showing that you appear to have attainments like calm and dispassion or universal love or the ability to concentrate for hours engenders trust in some people. In older societies performing miracles engendered trust (and whatever you think about it they genuinely believed in miracles and appear to have experienced them.) In established religions and with believers showing that the religious texts support what you say is an important mode.

Beneficience, competence and mode. It’s hard to get all three moving at the same time simply because different groups have different ideas of what qualifies one as competent. They shade easily into each other: the mode of arguing from scripture also suggests that the people who are qualified (competent) are priests or monks or theologians, for example. People who believe in the scientific mode of reasoning will tend to trust scientists, giving them more benefit of the doubt than non-scientists even if the non scientists are using the scientific method.

A simply summation of what works best might be “one of us and one of our leaders.” That combines an assumption of beneficience (group members want what is good for group members), competence (has risen to leadership) and mode, because a leading group member will almost always use the mode appropriate to the group.

All of these factors of persuasion can be hacked. Do Biden or Trump or Clinton or Bush care about average Americans? Of course not. There is no beneficience in most senior politicians for the masses. Are they competent? Well, maybe at making the rich richer and at campaigning, but at making everyone better off and safer? Of course not. As for mode, well, they’re usually good at adopting appropriate modes, but the recent example of Trump shows that what modes can work is a lot different from what modes are normal.

I tend to think that the most effective factor is beneficience. People are more tribal than anything else, and if you can get them thinking you’re one of them (even if you aren’t, which is usually the case with politicians) and acting in their best interests, enough of them will believe almost anything to get you what you want.

If you don’t want to be persuaded by con men and psychopaths, don’t believe “one of us” from anyone who either doesn’t have the same interests as you or whose interests, at least, aren’t actively engaged: whose well-being isn’t effected if you believe them or don’t.

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  1. Soredemos

    I simply don’t accept the premise that any act is inherently ‘evil’. Cruel, harmful to individuals, yes. But it is possible to imagine a scenario, even if sometimes very contrived, in which a cruel act serves some greater purpose and reduces overall harm.

    For rape, I can basically guarantee that a scenario that has played out in human history before, probably in the context of any number of wars, is where a sadist has given someone a choice like ‘rape someone for my amusement or I execute a bunch of people’. In that case, to commit rape becomes justified.

    Feel free to moderate this comment so it never appears. It’s not like you didn’t censor me for this same topic in the past. Though I wonder if it was because of my refusal to accept the premise, and this isn’t a free speech zone, or because of the fact that I find that argument impossible to square with all the ‘know your enemies and act accordingly’ type posts. Ian Welsh, you do in fact regularly call for murder and violence; don’t be coy about it

  2. Stephen Jones

    There’s a very useful book titled “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”.
    (Robert B. Cialdini, PhD ) copyright1984

    The Content page

    1. Weapons of Influence
    2. Reciprocation: The old Give and take…and take
    3.Commitment and Consistency: Hobgoblins of the Mind
    4. Social Proof: Truths Are Us
    5. Liking: The Friendly Thief
    6. Authority: Directed Deference
    7. Scarcity: The Rule of the Few

  3. Ian Welsh

    I don’t consider violence, killing and rape to be equivalents and the example of a good rape is confused since it misunderstands who’s responsible for the rape. But that’s not the point, the point is that if you don’t agree that rape is always evil, then the rest of my argument in that post doesn’t follow–in most cases, as with Soredemos, you’re a consequentialist.

    No more comments along this line in this thread. By all means announce you disagree that rape isn’t always evil and then go on to discuss persuasion.

    Again this post isn’t about whether or not rape is always evil, or even whether some acts are always evil, so talk about persuasion.

  4. bruce wilder

    I feel like humanity and politics lost a main chance to understand persuasion, when Aristotle discovered the syllogism and convinced himself that logic made for competent argumentation. Ever since we have been instructed in fallacies and the importance of premises.

    Far better had we studied more acutely the process of the sophists and the production of propaganda. Let us marvel at the saints, who could persuade barbarians that their salvation lay with subscribing to a legend of a god sacrificing his son.

  5. mago

    Gentle Persuasion is a song’s name IIRC—to be all hip and shit by using standard acronyms.
    I vow to avoid cynicism and sarcasm, but fall into habitual patterns.
    How to Win Friends and Influence Enemies is a crock along with NueroLinguisticProgamming and all the other pop tart crap that the would be deep thinking crowd falls into.
    But now I sound arrogant and cynical.
    And that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

  6. capelin

    “The second might be called competence or wisdom or knowledge. This is the “do you know what you’re talking about” check. -snip-

    I used to think this really, really mattered and in my early years of blogging I would write posts tallying up my predictions and how well they had done, with what a friend once called “Stalinist self-criticism.” I thought that if I proved I was usually right about certain subjects, people would trust me on those subjects.
    Worked with some people, but not with most. It took me about five years to realize this intellectually, and another 6 years or so to understand it emotionally.”

    Most activists, communicators, people trying to change the world, never realize this, and thus fail at the first operational hurdle.

    The two stages of it are an important observation.

  7. bruce wilder

    Most attempts at persuasive argument take a form recognizably akin to hypnosis — not the theatrically medicalized version of hypnosis promoted as a kind of therapy, but more the art of the con man or car salesman or street magician or Director of National Intelligence. I will not outline the process, but most people recognize at least some of the basic moves: misdirection, distraction, emotional anchoring, narrative, stimulus and response.

    I think the most important thing we could do is not to build resistance, which is the first thought of many. I think we ought to reassess our ideas of individual psychology, of what the power of persuasion by means of the hypnotic pathway implies about the nature of human “thinking” and mental health.

  8. I would submit that persuasion is inherently evil because, like the R-word, it attempts to force the persuader’s will upon another. Trust, authority, and affect all simply describe different kinds of con jobs.

    Societies have and will disagree on the evilness of different acts of aggression; the more important questions are how justice should respond.

    I, myself, distrust persuasion and state my distrust publicly, Bernays be damned!

  9. Willy

    I never quite got Dale Carnegie after I’d read his stuff. I could see the truth in it, but a part of me rebelled. I wasn’t the most rational kid, fairly confused mostly due to poor, naïve, religious parents full of mental defenses. I had trouble letting go of the idea that people will always, eventually, come around to respect irrefutable logic and reason and empathy no matter how camouflaged it had been at the beginning.

    The good guys always win at the end of the day.

    Maybe it was Hollywood’s fault. At the end of their pop-entertainments, evil is usually unmasked, figured out, and defeated. I knew there were a few out there who preferred to cheer for the antagonist. But everybody else knew they were just assholes and that the majority, consisting of mostly decent and civilized humans, would eventually defeat assholes for the sake of maintaining the health of the group environment. And they wouldn’t need much in the way of persuasion. They’d just figure it out for themselves.

    In later years I learned that I was made differently from the rest. I’d been wired to naturally respect empathy, logic and especially caution. I realized this was a minority temperament. Most people (not all certainly) are wired to respect the authority and tribal strictures of their chosen group. And thus Dale Carnegie-an persuasions must be ‘modulated’ for the emotional frequency of each particular individual, to be effective. Self-interest isn’t enough.

    So I can get how large groups of tens of millions can be persuaded to vote against their interests. I can almost get how that large group can then be persuaded to rationalize their losses afterwards. But I have a helluva time wrapping my head around how large groups will double down on cheering for antagonists after the antagonist has been unmasked, figured out, and even defeated.

    Could it be that beneath all, personal power is what individuals want more than anything else? Power (or perceived power) is the avenue by which individuals of any temperamental flavor are best persuaded?

  10. bruce wilder

    Persuasion is rightly suspect because top-down, a means of domination.

    The dream of democracy – agreeing to disagree while acting together with judicious selectivity in the interests of Justice and the general welfare – dies in the tyrant’s demand for militant uniformity of thought and actions that benefit only a tiny elite.

  11. washer fluid blues

    Again this post isn’t about whether or not rape is always evil, or even whether some acts are always evil, so talk about persuasion.

    Ian, I would like to persuade you that your post is about all these things, and more.

    Let’s begin with the definition of “justified” which is generally defined as “having or shown to have a just, right, or reasonable basis.”

    Ian brought up the case of someone being raped as never being justified. I don’t think anyone in their proverbial “right mind” would disagree with this.

    But here comes Soredemos, who posts here often and seems to be of generally “sound” mind – at least as much as any of us can tell through this medium.

    Soredemos actually posits a believable scenario which has indeed probably happened down through time – hell, it may be happening somewhere in the world right now as I write – whereby some sort of crazed sadist essentially demands that a subject rape another subject in front of her for her pleasure (the sadist in my example is female – think Ghislaine Maxwell, or any number of female politicians currently on the world stage), otherwise the sadist will kill some subjects.

    Perhaps the person being summoned to rape is himself being threatened with execution unless he rapes someone.

    “Rape that woman or I’ll kill you” isn’t a particularly enviable situation to be in.

    At this point, we clearly need new words. Ian is absolutely correct that rape is never justified. Soredemos brought up a situation in which rape would seemingly be justified, but clearly that isn’t the word we would use. We would say that given the practical level of barbarity that the subjects were forced to operate at, rape was committed in the larger interest of saving lives.

    That we don’t have readily available, clearly defined words for such situations is a good thing. We obviously wouldn’t want such scenarios to become anything approaching commonplace.

  12. Ian Welsh

    Evil and justified are two different things and I shouldn’t have used the word justified, yes. It is impossible to have a non-evil rape. It might be possible to have a justified rape (I still think not, but that’s a harder argument.)

    This comes down to the question of whether there is ever justified evil: just war theory and all that.

    But then “justified” packs a book into the very word. What justifies something? This includes the “Do you negotiate with blackmailers” situation? If you never do, there are less blackmailers, but in each individual situation there may be less harm.

    And this sort of unpacking is why I didn’t want to unlock pandora’s box.

    Somewhat breaking my own thread rules here, too, so there’s that.

  13. Astrid


    I mostly ghosted this site after I realized that I’m not really sharing any of Ian’s assumptions anymore. I wish him and the commenters here well, but decided to redirect my energy elsewhere. This post and couple recent ones confirmed my decision.

    I do circle back every so often for a few commenters and you are definitely one of them.

    If you’re a frustrated materialist, I suggest checking out Alexander McKay on Youtube). He’s leading near daily live discussions on Marxist Leninism (aka Stalinism aka OG Communism). It may be completely not your cup of tea but to my delight I’ve found him and adjacent ML talking heads and writers to be pretty sound and hopeful people. It really just lifts some of the veils of liberal late capitalism right off. Plus it means getting doses of Ukraine analysis embedded in historical analysis without all the weird right/libertarian baggage.

    Cheers and wishing you a lovely summer

  14. Willy

    Bad persuasion.

    My grandmother was persuaded to leave Leningrad as a teen after the Bolsheviks disappeared her parents and many brothers, never to be heard from again. She’d gone from being intrigued and hopeful to terrified and getting-the-hell-outta-there-in-a-hurry. Back then, you couldn’t be coming from money when some pissed off Reds came knocking, no matter what your sentiments towards them were. Wouldn’t it have been more persuasive to make the richies go to work all day doing something humbling like milking cows or snapping lids onto bottles?

    I’m old enough to remember when leftist terrorism was a thing. Maybe their goal was to persuade the masses that left was best, but their targets often seemed so poorly chosen. Why piss off the masses, denigrating your cause. Why didn’t they come up with a “Top Ten List” of people, places and things which most capitalism dwellers really hated, then gone after them? And also have been absolutely sure to leave any innocent collateral damage out of it. A good persuader never assumes that everybody thinks and feels just like they do.

    And speaking of those communist genocides, Kristen Ghodsee makes a point when suggesting that it might be more persuasive to try and accurately estimate genocidal body counts under more than just communism, but to include any concentration of power and ideology such as Spanish colonialism and modern capitalism. Actual communist party members have proclaimed that those infamous genocides didn’t occur under actual communist regimes, but during authoritarian aberrations which only called themselves “communist”. This seems reasonable but we still need a successful communist party which doesn’t outwit and outplay capitalists at their own game (IOW, like China becoming pretty damned capitalist just to win).

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