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The Irrational World of Persuasion

I am making a presentation about public affairs at FSI in a few weeks.  It is a short presentation to mid-level officers. Below is some of the raw material thinking I have been doing about irrationality and reciprocity in persuasion. I figure that all of the stuff below will distill into one or two short paragraphs, but thinking it through is useful and I think better when I can write and ramble.  Since I have it written out, I figured I would post it.   

We like to think the truth will always come out, but isn’t necessarily so. Similarly, people are often not persuaded by facts or even their own experience. Persuasion just is not logical in the way we want. 

If people do not always (or even usually) respond rationally to arguments and persuasion, they do tend to respond in recognizable patterns. Marketers and salesmen have known this intuitively – and used it effectively - for many years. Only recently has science or at least academics, recognized and tried to explain the phenomenon. Here are some of the books that talk about that. There is some overlap with a list I made earlier about decision making that you can see at this link

I won’t try to convey all the information in all those books on the lists above. Suffice to say that people respond differently to identical sets of propositions or incentives depending on how they are stated, framed or presented and that people’s preexisting predilections, prejudices and perceptions determine not only which arguments are most persuasive but also which facts are considered salient or even heard at all. That is why attempts to “set the record straight” usually only work with those already inclined to believe you. If the bad news is that people do not make decisions rationally, the good news is that they make their irrational* decisions in patterns that can be understood if not perfectly predicted. The bad news that comes after the good news is that these patterns can also be manipulated by those whose motives and goals we abhor, so the lesson is that we are playing this game, whether we like it or not. 

So if we are talking about actual persuasion, it probably won’t help just to make information available. Providing information was a key to our success in the Cold War because accurate information was in very short supply. Today in all but the dwindling coterie dictatorships in the world’s most benighted places, information is already available.  It is how that information is put together - the contexts, relationships and the narratives - that counts. As persuaders we need to acknowledge what we know, what salesmen and marketers have long understood and what even science is beginning to explain. We are not in the information business. Information and facts are part of our raw material, but our business involves persuasion that is less like a library and more like a negotiation paradigm and rational decision making is not enough to achieve success. 

The first persuasion decision you have to make is whether or not to engage at all. No matter how urgent a problem, you should not engage unless you have a reasonable chance of success.   There are times for aggressive action, times for more passive approaches and times when you just have to hunker down until conditions improve. It is hard to know when the times or right and even harder to manage the transitions among them, which is why people who are good at knowing make the big bucks and are sought after or reviled (depending on which side they are on). 

There are some folks who say that you should be out there always and they are right that you should never fold entirely if it is something you care about and you have the capacity to stay.  But standing in front of an irresistible wave not only depletes your resources but also makes you less able to fight again another day. It is much better to let the wave expend its energy and then come back in.

Once you are engaged, think of it in a negotiation paradigm, not usually a negotiation between you and an adversary, but more of the win-win with you among a large number of participants.  Most people involved are not direct participants, but they are often the ones you want to persuade.   The committed radicals are not the targets of your persuasion.  There is no argument you can use and no concession you can make that will persuade them.  Your job is to talk over, around or through them.  Luckily, few people are really committed radicals and you can find some common ground with almost anybody.

Let’s talk about common ground. What if you have some monumental disagreement with somebody?  You might think that you cannot make any progress until the big thing is solved and then lament that the big thing is unsolvable. This is the wrong way of looking at it. In negotiations, it might be possible to set aside the big thing and work on a series of mutually beneficial smaller one.   Sometimes the momentum from successfully addressing the little issues makes solving the big one possible.  Just as often, it makes the big issue less relevant.  Most big problems are never “solved” in the context in which they were created. They are just overtaken by events. The situation might change so that it just doesn’t matter.    

Some families have a rule that you cannot discuss religion or politics. They know that agreement on these issues is nearly impossible, that a dialogue will just create more tension and that they can be safely avoided at family gatherings. 

Denial and avoidance are perfectly good tactics. Many things really do not need to be talked through and resolved and much diplomacy involved making sure sleeping dogs are not disturbed.  Not everybody likes this strategy and there will be persistent calls to “get it out in the open”.   There may be a time for this kind of frontal assault, but if dialogue will merely sharpen differences without resolving them and entrench individuals in their positions it is pernicious.  In the case of any contentious issue, there are also always a fair number of people who are professionally aggrieved.  Their goal is to keep the dialogue alive and fresh as long as possible.  In a rational world, dialogue would almost always produce better outcomes, but we don’t live in a perfectly rational world (see above).

If we are wise to avoid the frontal assault, what do we do about hard issues? When possible go around them, avoid the grievance professionals when possible and deny them a forum when you can. In public affairs, as in negotiation, you never want to be stuck on one issue where you cannot divert or make tradeoffs. One of the strengths of diversity is that it waters down grievances. If you have two opposing groups with one intransigent issue, you have a problem. But you have an interesting community if you have a dozen such groups.   

So in addition to denial, add dilution to your public affairs tool box.

Some people think it is naive to talk about win-win negotiation.  They say that somebody has got to come out on top. Avoid such people if possible because working with them will often lead to such an unhappy result. For most other things, however, we can all get more of what we want.  That is the whole basis of free exchange and cooperation in general. People all do not want the same things most things you get from a free exchange will be worth more to you than what you gave up.  The same goes for the guys on the other side and the same goes in persuasion as in negotiation.

The problem comes with the natural and good human desire to be generous. Win-win doesn’t mean giving away more than you should.  It doesn’t mean sacrifice. Those things are lose-win. It means that you get what you want AND I get what I want. Nobody should go into an engagement unless he/she believes that. But we do.

One of the dumbest things you can do is to make needless concessions.  It is not generous to give away your important positions. It is just dumb and it makes nobody really happy. Everybody will think that you are insincere. Either you didn’t really believe in your own position in the first place or you are lying about your concession, or –even worse – you are patronizing. There are to be a mutuality, a reciprocity.

The basis of almost all human relationships is reciprocity. All human societies believe in reciprocity. It has survival value. You want to be able to give to your fellow man and expect that he will do the same when you are in need. When that breaks down, so does civil society. It is probably a good idea to be SEEN to get something in return anyway, since if you don’t others will impute an ulterior motive anyway.

I know that this sounds crassly materialistic, but the reciprocity need not be material. You might help a person in the “pay it forward” mode, assuming that when he gets the opportunity he will help somebody else. The reciprocity might just be gratitude. But when a recipient is left w/o some way to reciprocate, a good person feels disrespected.  At first they are happy to get something for nothings, but they soon learn to despise their benefactor.  And maybe they should, since his “generosity” is taking their human dignity.

A simple rule in persuasion is that it is often better to receive than to give.  Let the other parties feel that they have discharged their social obligations, maybe even that THEY are the generous ones. You notice that the most popular individuals are rarely those who need or want nothing from others, even if they are very generous. And one of the most valuable gifts you can receive is advice and knowledge.  Let others share their culture and experience.

I have had my biggest successes in public affairs when I genuinely wanted to learn something. My first assignment when I got to Poland a few years back was to write a report on the Polish media. I interviewed dozens of reporters, editors and academics and they became my best contacts, often sending me updates or referring to my questions even months and years later. The most influential thing you can often do with an individual is listen carefully to what they tell you and come back a while later being honestly able to say, “I was thinking about what you said and you were right.” This interest cannot be easily faked.  I have been “played” by people who have taken the course and try to feign interest in my esoteric pursuits or ask my advice. When they praise the insights, but repeatedly fail to act on them, trust disappears. Of course, maybe I have run into people who are just so good at it that I couldn’t tell.  I suppose that would be successful persuasion.


*   I use the term “irrational” cautiously. “Rational” decision making is overrated and under examined. We make decisions based on a variety of preferences and emotional factors, some of which we cannot state. When they are reduced to their “rational” components, they may no longer make sense. There are things that really cannot be reduced to rational parts. The lyrics to “Some Enchanted Evening” actually sum it up well, “Who can explain it, who can tell you why? Fools give you reasons, wise men never try.” Or we can quote GK Chesterton “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. He is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” If we seek only rational decisions, a computer can do it for us much better than we can.

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"One of the dumbest things you can do is to make needless concessions."

You might tell that to Obama. :-(

Some of the best persuaders are the recruiters for cults such as Scientology, Moonies or Al Qaeda. It could be worth studying their methods.

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