Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The puzzle of persuasion.

What makes someone change their mind?

It's a fundamental problem in almost any kind of activism, and a major one in feminism. How do you persuade someone that what they're thinking is wrong, and they should think like you instead? Sometimes it feels almost impossible--people will come up with all kinds of justifications and defense mechanisms to defend their beliefs. (I sure do!) And the situation is unquestionably worse on the Internet, where politics often takes the form of a direct battle, and changing your mind would be tantamount to "losing."

But people do change their minds. Check out this graph of the growing acceptance of gay marriage:

That represents millions of people going from "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!" to "they're here, they're queer, and I'm getting used to it."

I might be the worst person to write about persuasion, because I was a high school and college debater and had a major in Rhetoric. The techniques of formal debate and classical rhetoric are terrible for changing minds. They assume that the most logically sound arguments will win, that emotion is a mere flourish and facts are the most important thing for winning, and--worst of all--that "winning" is the same thing as persuasion. If I wanted to learn how to really get inside people's heads, I should have studied advertising.

I also, frankly, don't really try to change minds with this blog. Sometimes I find out that I did, and that's a wonderful thing; but I'm under no illusions that this is an outreach project. I'm mostly trying to educate and entertain people who already agree with most of my basic beliefs.

But feminism, if not this blog, has to go beyond preaching to the choir. If we want to sell the most fundamental beliefs of feminism--"men and women have equal potential and deserve equal treatment," "women deserve control of their bodies and lives," "differences in gender expression and sexuality should be respected"--we have to learn how to persuade people who aren't our buddies. Here's what little I know about that.

What Doesn't Work
•Calling people assholes. It's useful (and cathartic) when rallying the anti-assholes, but you're never going to convert someone with the pitch "agree with me and be my friend, asshole." (This is a problem that's particularly bad with religious--or atheist/skeptic--arguments, where it's traditional to call nonbelievers deluded morally-bankrupt sheep, then ask them if they'd like to join your club.)

•Direct debate. Especially the kind with point-by-point deconstruction of opposing arguments. Again, fun for the choir, but too intellectual and too combative. This is the fundamental flaw of formal debate--no one ever changed their mind because their points were systematically refuted. Worse, debate has the tendency to create "sides," and once someone's established loyalty to a side it takes a lot to get them to cross over.

•Facts as a primary argument. Facts can back up an emotional argument, but I don't think people come to favor gay marriage because they learn that children of gay parents have similar outcomes to those of straight parents, but because they feel better about gay marriage. (Also, in most of the major gender and sexuality debates, each side has its own statistics, so everyone's choosing their facts anyway.)

What Works
•Education. Here's who we are, here's what we believe, and briefly, here's why. We're not trying to persuade you; we just want to teach you. Never mind what our opponents say, or what we aren't--this is our honestly presented story on what we are. We're matter-of-fact, upbeat, and not defensive; we speak as if it's taken for granted that our cause is legitimate and straightforward, and hope you'll share that assumption.

•Polish. Take a look at the website for Fathers & Families. Now at the website for Fathers 4 Justice. They're both fathers' rights organizations, but F&F has a professional-looking website and speaks in what I can only characterize as "grown-up language." F4J has a website straight outta 1994, nominates an "Asshole of the Month" (and it's the President), and uses all caps and exclamation points like they're going out of style. Which they are. Both groups are advocating similar positions, but the one that looks like a "legit" organization is the one that made me go "hm, these guys sound pretty reasonable actually."

•Social pressure. I suspect that one of the biggest factors helping the increased acceptance of gay marriage is... the increased acceptance of gay marriage. When everyone else at your work or in your family believes a thing, it's easier to go along than not, and easy to think it's the "normal" belief. Obviously this one is pretty hard to get started, but you can create the impression of social pressure even when you're in the minority by presenting your view as socially normal and accepted by lots of nice-looking folks-next-door types, and by painting your most vocal opponents not as major threats but as fringe lunatics.

This, by the way, is where "asshole" rhetoric can be useful. Not in calling people assholes directly, but in picking out a particularly egregious and not very popular opponent, and telling them "you're too smart to listen to that asshole."

•Friendship. Man, when did my sex blog turn into Mr. Roger's Neighborhood? Next post is on buttfucking. But it's true; this is the most powerful form of social pressure. I can argue with strangers on the Internet all day long, I can ignore education, I can snark on ads. But when my friends tell me that they sincerely disagree with something I believe, that's when I give it real consideration. If I care about someone, and care what they think of me, then I'm going to take their opinions really, really seriously.

An organization, even a social movement can be a "friend" in some ways--it can have a particularly charming person who serves as a human face, and it can build a welcoming community of friends among its followers. If you can convince someone that you (or your group) are just nice people who are nice to be around, then convincing them of your actual positions is often secondary. Whatever arguments you make, the real argument is "You'll fit in and be liked if you agree with us."

Does any of this sound evil or manipulative? It's only evil if you use it to advance evil positions. And as for manipulation--you know, none of us came to our beliefs by cold logical analysis of all possible options. All argument is psychology, so I don't think it's unethical to happen to do psychology right.

Being professional and friendly and shrugging off insults isn't cathartic. It doesn't make for a ripping blog post or good entertainment for the converted. (And that's why I don't do it very much.) But if your goal is to truly change minds, I think that's where you have to start.


  1. As one of the editors of Hollaback Israel, I found that most of the poeple who changed their minds about street harassment did so after reading some posts on our site, not after long conversations about the subject.

    And this is the thing about the site - we don't try to persuade anyone about anything. In fact, we don't even care what our readers think. All we do is provide a welcoming environment for women to share their stories.

    Surprisingly, this strategy has a very strong effect on our male readers. The stories on the site can sometimes be quite emotional, and are always very personal. This is why our readers can *relate* to them. Emotionally. They develop sympathy for the writers. They imagine the women they care for in these situations. And they learn, if only by the sheer amount of reports we have, how common this problem is.
    The most common reply we get from men is "you opened my eyes to a world I didn't even know existed".

    This led me to the conclusion that changing people's minds is an emotional, not logical process. You need to make the feel, you need to give them role model they can relate to, you need to invite them to join you by appealing to their better side and you should never, NEVER alienate them by telling them that they are the problem.

    Of course I sometimes just fight with people on the internet, but I don't try to convince anyone in anything like that.
    Fighting people on the internet is just plain fun.

  2. Waitwaitwaitaminute. Let me get this straight. You're in favor of the argument, "people are irrational sometimes, therefore we should eschew rational argument and pander to their irrationality to support our cause." No? Because that sounds a lot like what you're saying.

    And the problem with that is it works just as well for the other "side."

    Not to mention that it creates "sides" just as much, if not even more, than formal debate.

    Pursuing strictly rational, fact-based truth-seeking (not even formal debate!) may not be as effective from a gut psychological point of view, but it has the great advantage that once you've established a truth, you can say rightly: "I *know* this is true" rather than "I feel this is true" or "In my experience this has been true." Plus, you get the opportunity to make people better thinkers for themselves!

    And a downside of "advertising-like" outreach is that people who can spot it will spot it, and will write you off as a manipulator.

  3. This kind of looks like a guideline for 'how to get people to join our cult'. You just need to replace 'Feminism' with 'Our Great Earth Mother Bagel'. I don't think I'd feel comfortable joining any cause that used 'pressure' on me rather than 'debate', and 'education' rather than 'facts'.

    I agree that this post is right, but... it just looks creepy when you break it down like that. Advertising is more effective on me when I don't realise how they're manipulating me.

  4. is an excellent read and well worth a look.

  5. "And a downside of "advertising-like" outreach is that people who can spot it will spot it, and will write you off as a manipulator."

    Yes, this is true.

    However, the majority? Will not spot it, or will not fully recognize it/care. And this is the point of "persuading". It's why ads exist anyway, even though us intellectual know what they're really about.

    If you're only going after the people who are swayed by intellectual discourse and meaningful conversation, you're not going to get a lot of people.

    bad-dum tish! But it's true. Advertisers almost never go wrong pandering to a lower common denominator (stupid dad ads, anyone?).

  6. (Here I go arguing. But like I said, knowing the rules doesn't mean I follow them.)

    Anon - You know how I know people are irrational? Because I'm irrational. There's no superiority here. I looked up that data on childrearing way, way after I decided I should support gay marriage because my friends did and the people who opposed it made me angry.

    I'm smart (I'd like to think), but I'm not above emotion. I'm just better than average at ex post facto justification of my emotion.

    Sasha - Advertising can be targeted at different audiences, too. "Feminism is about hugging and this puppy wants you to join" is a message that can exist simultaneously with "feminism is a movement to correct sexual and gender oppression in our society." They're bothforms of advertising (and, I'd argue, both emotional appeals), but they're at different intellectual levels and neither one of them contradicts the other.

  7. There's one principle from debate that's very useful here: values. At the beginning of a debate (at least in parli? never understood the strange ways of those policy folk), you declare the fundamental values your arguments will be relying on--something like "life is better than death" or "prosperity is better than poverty."

    Then all your factual arguments are about explaining why [whatever] would prevent death or promote prosperity. But the values themselves are unsupported.

    I can prove with facts and logic that feminism would promote personal freedom and reduce suffering; I cannot prove why personal freedom is a good thing or suffering is a bad thing. It simply has to be accepted as a value, and that's entirely a matter of bias and emotion. Even the most Spocklike arguments eventually come down to that.

  8. Oh yeah, definitely. I don't think the presence of one certain appeal negates another, and I think both have merit and should exist for all to see.

    I just don't think there's any shame or...wrongness? in using the tactics you've described along side other things. It's smart, and it can be a gateway into more serious discussions and research by an individual. Like you said, you did eventually look up the childrearing data, but after you made your (more emotionally based?) decision.

  9. Anonymous at 8:03 - now hold on, it's not like Holly's saying to go put subliminal messages into the commercials during Fox News. This isn't "sneaky sneaky" manipulation, it's actually pretty basic stuff. You can have all the facts in the world on your side, but those facts are going to be accepted a lot more readily if they're presented a) calmly, b) courteously, c) professionally, and d) by someone you like, respect, and/or would like the good opinion of. It would be nice to think that this isn't the case, that facts would win out despite everything else, but it's simply not true - if someone is calling me a bitch and misspelling every other word, I'm really not interested in whether their facts are right or wrong - I don't want to listen to them. In order to get people to give your facts a chance, sometimes you do have to do some minor manipulation - and I still think it's less "manipulation" and more, as Holly said, "talking like a grownup."

    Another thing I'd mention is patience. I've read several blogs and comments from people who've changed their minds on certain social issues, and one thing that I hear fairly often is "I dismissed it at the time, but her words kept coming back to me. I couldn't stop thinking about it, and eventually I had to admit that she might have a point." What this tells me is that it's not common for someone to hear the one magic convincing thing and then, lo, the scales dropped from their eyes and they saw the truth. It takes time. Most likely the person who actually persuaded them walked away from the argument feeling like she had failed to get through to them at all, never knowing that her words were the ones that would prompt them to really think about the issue. So... if you're trying to be persuasive, and it doesn't seem like you're immediately persuading people, that doesn't mean that it's not making a difference.

  10. This is my take on the question of persuasion; people are both rational and emotional. Emotions influence our decisions, and logic influences our our decisions. Some people pay attention to one more than another, but many people are both strongly logical and strongly emotional. I definitely consider myself in that category. If one side consistently has worse arguments than another, that is going to pave the way for me to change sides, but I generally need an emotional push to get me started. In my experience, the emotional persuasion is necessary for people to change sides, but the logical persuasion is necessary to keep people from changing sides again. The more logical sides do the best job of keeping the intelligent, analytical people from switching, or splitting off.

    I also want to make the point that just because a decision was influenced or even caused by emotions, that doesn't necessarily mean it was irrational. My decision to break away from the homophobic culture I was raised in had more to do with meeting gay people than reading statistics. However, I'd still consider that a rational decision. I was being told a particular group was sinful and their relationships were invalid. When I met gay people and they seemed no different from anybody else. I was detecting a serious contradiction in the data being presented. Going with what I had experienced was a rational decision. I just came to it emotionally.

  11. It's also worth noting that a lot of people who are anti-gay have not actually met a gay person in any sort of social situation. Where do the nastiest anti-gay politicians come from? The deep south, where many gay people are closeted for their own safety.

    So I think the solution is just to get prejudiced people to meet gay people, bi people, trans people, [adjective here] people. Like the bowling post you had a few weeks ago. I challenge anyone to meet my cousin and her fiancee and be able to maintain any negative stereotype.

  12. Hershele OstropolerJuly 27, 2011 at 1:37 PM

    Honestly only the friendship approach strikes me as manipulative. I couldn't articulate why that seems manipulative and social pressure doesn't. Probably because even social pressure as a technique relies on the intermediate step of the target sincerely reconsidering their views.

    •Facts as a primary argument. Facts can back up an emotional argument, but I don't think people come to favor gay marriage because they learn that children of gay parents have similar outcomes to those of straight parents, but because they feel better about gay marriage. (Also, in most of the major gender and sexuality debates, each side has its own statistics, so everyone's choosing their facts anyway.)

    •Education. Here's who we are, here's what we believe, and briefly, here's why. We're not trying to persuade you; we just want to teach you. Never mind what our opponents say, or what we aren't--this is our honestly presented story on what we are. We're matter-of-fact, upbeat, and not defensive; we speak as if it's taken for granted that our cause is legitimate and straightforward, and hope you'll share that assumption.

    These seem very similar to each other, why is the first classified as "not working" and the second as "working"?

    My speculation: facts as a primary argument is "Fact Fact Fact, therefore my belief"; education is "fact fact fact" and laves the "therefore" part unstated. Facts as an argument is then more likely to be perceived as slanted. Also, by leaving out the (overt) argument, you avoid challenging people's beliefs, so they feel less need to defend those beliefs, even in their own minds, or to dismiss the facts presented.

  13. I don't think friendliness and professionalism are manipulative! If you are in a conversation, either in person or online, you are going to give people some impression of you, whether you put effort into making that a positive one or not. It's like how there's no most honest photo of yourself. Photoshop would be manipulative, but picking one where you're not half-squinting isn't.

    I can see how changing other people's minds is a bit of a manipulative goal, but I think this is just an unpleasang byproduct of democracy (which I still enjoy, btw, I don't want to sound like I don't like democracy). If you bring the general public in on the policy-making process, someone who wants to get something done has to go convince them of it. Everyone gets frustrated by lobbyists bypassing the democratic process and changing politicians' minds - this is potential lobbyists being democratic instead and lobbying the people.

    I also don't see how it's illogical to frame your discussion as "this is why I believe X," rather than "X is utterly superior to Y." The second assumes that X is always superior to Y for everyone, which often isn't even how the choice is structured. If you're discussing religious affiliation or dating strategies, it's more logical and true to suggest that a person might also want to consider X, and show them how well it worked for you.

  14. Any post on persuasion that doesn't mention foot-in-the-door phenomenon seems lacking to me. As does compliance breeding acceptance.

    But then, as you pointed out, you come from a debate background, and mine's psychology.

    But basically:
    if you can get a person to agree to one tiny little tenant of what you're saying, and go back again and gain a little ground, that's good. Though one should be careful of attitude inoculation - if you go in too easy, and they squash your argument they'll be FIRMER in their position.

    And: your justification of your views follows the formation of your attitudes. You'll act on emotion and then justify your views. So if you can get people to act, just a little, like they believe women are equal to men or heterosexuals equal to homosexuals or trans folks as cis folks, they will gradually come around to reconsider their position.

    But all in all? Fantastic post. But golly gee, Holly P., you sure directed this post at people who already believed with you more than you normally do. You jumped right in with two feet on where feminism goes wrong and tacked the disclaimer on manipulation on the end. Interesting, but I predict you'll get a spike in riled comments just from the arrangement, never mind the content.


  15. Fia - You got me there; I've taken a lot of classes on abnormal psychology for job-related reasons, but I've got almost no formal education in normal psychology.

    Thanks for adding those.

    As for riling people... well, knowing how to make people like me never did mean I would do it. (Not that I'm too good to, I'm just too unfocused. A lot of my blog posts have no action item other than "hey! enjoy this post!")

  16. As a card-carrying liberal, rationalist and humanist, I will admit that it drives me crazy that direct debate and presentation of facts don't change minds, and that fuzzy and unquantifiable feelings do, but that's neither here nor there. The facts are, it's not about facts, it's about how people feel - so we have to appeal to emotions. More to the point, we have to stop thinking it's wrong or underhanded to make emotional appeals.

    I know way too many liberals who feel that emotional appeals are Inherently Bad Form and Dirty Pool. Many of them created the disastrous anti-Prop 8 ad campaigns that leaned heavily on - what again? oh, that's right - presentation of facts rather than emotional appeals. Meantime, the opposition presented emotional appeals all over the place, never mind the facts, and of course they won. Whether we like it or not, people react more than they act. We can accept this, or we can resist it and keep losing.

    Also, making emotional appeals doesn't mean ignoring or twisting facts. Facts can have a huge emotional impact if they're presented correctly. This may, in fact, be what has swung the pendulum in our favor recently. Many people saw people like us in pain, inside and outside courtrooms, and they were affected (and made to think about it, because it bothered them).

  17. Social Pressure absolutely works.

    The rappers we hang out with are very against homophobia. This is the purely the work of one of the rappers who simply refused to accept homophobia from anyone in his presence. You say "gay" as an insult and he will call you out. You say something negative about gay people and he will make you explain it until you are left stuttering and admitting that you just feel its squicky. And he does it so forcefully yet politely that you just can't not respond to him.

    It's quite something to watch.

  18. RE: Holly

    I've taken a lot of classes on abnormal psychology for job-related reasons, but I've got almost no formal education in normal psychology.

    Everyone: That's because it doesn't exist! *rimshot*

    RE: Personal Failure

    Rogan: That guy sounds awesome, and I would pay money to see one of his takedowns. It'd be a thing of BEAUTY. (That I imagine him doing it in rap form helps, admittedly. Screw haiku; take down someone in RAP. It's practically what the genre's MADE for.)

  19. Also, there's a problem here that very few people ever seem to acknowledge: trying to prove some things logically is IMPOSSIBLE.

    Once, I believed myself above such puny, silly things like emotional appeal. I believed only in pure, rational, scientific fact.

    Then I tried to figure out if I existed or not.

    And I COULDN'T. And no, science was no help. I was classified as a persistant dissociative illusion. I had no body of my own, no physical actions I could use as proof I existed. By all methods of measurement I could think of, I wasn't real; I just thought I was.

    It got pretty bad for a while. Finally, I had to cave and realize that if believing in my existence made me deluded, it also made me a lot happier and saner. It made me FEEL better, and in the long run, that was more important. My understanding of reality might be fundamentally flawed... but hey, at least I can function.

    I lost a lot of my respect for pure logic after that.


  20. The EGE,

    "Where do the nastiest anti-gay politicians come from? The deep south..."

    Currently? Minnesota, actually.

  21. Emotional appeals are "manipulation" when they are built on lies. "The government will force churches to marry gays!" is an emotional appeal which is also a lie; that's why it's bad.

    As for arguing with people on the Internet, it's useful in a couple of cases:
    1) when an otherwise thoughtful person is simply repeating something they haven't thought through, and is responsive to logic, or
    2) when you're making an example of somebody for the benefit of others reading.

    So I know that Joe Homophobe isn't going to change his mind. But other people who might have thought Joe had a good point are going to lose sympathy for him when he throws a tantrum, or when it becomes clear that his 'logical' arguments boil down to "Fine, but I still hate gays."

  22. I think this post, as well as subsequent comments,have said many wonderful things. I wanted to add 2 quick things.

    A "truism" which I have run into in the atheist community is that a debate is not designed to convince your debate opponent, but rather the audience. And yes, we are well aware that you cannot reason a person out of a belief that they did not reach by reason.

    Also, concerning the issue of fundamental values which Holly referred to in the comments: I am wondering if you have read Sam Harris' book The Moral Landscape, and if you think that the premise of this work might have implications to that question. I think it does (and I liked the book).

  23. The Mormon church uses the "What does work" approach to get people on board with all sorts of wacky, racist, and homophobic attitudes. PR rules the world and the hearts of many.

  24. This might go under "Social Pressure", but I think Visibility is important. I think high-profile, positive examples of something do a lot to make people more comfortable with it. For example, I think Ellen Degeneres being on TV and being as high-profile as she is has made a LOT of people who were previously sort of iffy about it to feel significantly more comfortable with homosexuality, and I have a lot of friends in theatre, several of whom admit to have been "weirded out" by transgenderism and transexuality before seeing the character of Angel in the show (or movie) Rent.

    I don't know exactly how regular people not involved in film, television, and theatre can help advance this, but I think just putting more likable, three-dimensional, human examples of pretty much anything worth gaining more acceptance for will help to make a lot of progress.

  25. McAllisterGrant: I know I'm late to the party, but it's easier than you think to write a short story. Or recommend a series that carries a positive message. The sort of thinking that it's other peoples responsibility is directly pointless, and indirectly quite harmful. (Haranguing people to do your work for you can be effective in the short term, but it kills you in the long term.)

    In general: If you're working on long-term solutions, I'm surprised you're missing a big point: Don't let other people shit in your pool. Someone who calls anybody who doesn't want to engage in homosex homophobic, or who insists that bisexuality is a sign of open-mindedness and being more evolved, is taking a giant dump over LGBT PR. Feminists who take pride in their ability to infuriate white boys, very much the same. (Examples of the above are not horribly hard to find, although the gay community is doing a good job marginalizing its lunatics.) You don't get to insist that you're exempt from your own radicals, any more than the Catholic church gets a free pass on altar boy jokes or the republican party gets to pooh-pooh their tea party courtings. You have to take those people down when they start making trouble, otherwise you'll have people alienated from the word go.