Bradley C. Love

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The Psychology of Persuasion

Published on July 16, 2021, by Bradley C. Love

When we are on the right side of an argument, most of us believe presenting the facts and supporting evidence should be enough to persuade others. Instead, we are baffled when friends and family continue to vote for policies that run counter to their interests or pour the milk before the tea. Presenting evidence is not enough for persuasion because people are motivated reasoners driven by their core values and community membership. Rather than weight the evidence in an unbiased fashion, people construct narratives or stories to understand themselves and the world.

Decision Making as Story Telling

Imagine a jury sitting on a murder trial. The jurors aren’t weighting the probabilities of all the possible scenarios taking all the evidence into account. Instead, they are considering whether the story told by the prosecutor or defence is more coherent and persuasive. Once they settle on a story, evidence is interpreted in light of that narrative. Oddly, a story might be more compelling by only focusing on the strongest points at the expense of mentioning all the supporting evidence.

In our personal lives, we also tell stories about ourselves. We aren’t going to be receptive to information that conflicts with our personal story, such as being told we are racist. We also understand our actions through story telling. For example, we come to like what we purchase in the supermarket rather than simply purchase what we like. After all, why would we buy and eat something that we didn’t like? When it becomes difficult to explain a choice, such as when confronted with an aisle full of different jams that all would do, we can lapse into inaction.

The Story Teller Matters

We are rarely persuaded by our enemies. Common ground and shared values are lubricants for persuasion. For example, someone denying climate change in the presence of overwhelming evidence may do so because of broader motivations, such as fearing increased government regulations and being forced to give up their car. Someone on the same “team” who shares these values and goals is best positioned to make the case for climate change, whereas an environmental campaigner who favours more socialist policies and rides a bike to work is likely to be discounted presenting the same evidence. A blowback effect could even occur where the climate change denier takes the environmentalist’s “lies” as further evidence for the hoax whose true aim is to dismantle their way of life. People tend to follow community norms.

Persuasion to Action

Persuading someone does not guarantee action. For example, many people support politicians but don’t vote. To translate beliefs into actions, people need specific plans and triggers. A potential voter would need to reserve time in their diary and arrange transport to the polling station. Action happens when the environment supports it. Indeed, the basic idea of Nudge is not to persuade per se, but to make it easier for people to make the “right” choice, such as when organ donation is the default option. Like persuasion, action is not all about education. Facts matter, but sadly not as much as we would like to believe.


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