Trying to change the world one opinion at a time
May 2, 2012 7:43 AM   Subscribe

What is the most effective method of persuasion? Can I/how can I apply the best ones? I would love an in-depth, research-supported answer... anecdotes are also fine but I do have some personal caveats that I suspect will complicate things.

Here is the short question: I am interested in trying to sway people's opinions. I want these approaches to be results-based. I am interested in what the research supports but also am seeking advice for my own 'approach'. This applies to a wide variety of things encountered in life, but I am specifically wondering about issues regarding things like politics and policies, social justice and racism, environmentalism, etc. What are the (preferably demonstrated or proven) effective ways of changing people's minds?

This Ask did help a bit but I'm hoping more for studies.

Here are the caveats:
So I'm interested in this question because I would love to utilize these methods to full-effect. Full disclosure: I am a 'goddamn liberal', as my late grandfather lovingly (really) called me. The only one he could ever love.

Here is the potential problem. I would love honest and correct answers (preferably backed by research), but if what you are finding on the topic--like some things I've read--suggests that lying, extreme rhetoric, or fear are the best options for actual results can you offer me any alternative ways of making these arguments or utilizing these 'tools'?

Unnecessary details:
I really, really can't lie to people. I've tried, and it just doesn't work. I lean naturally towards reason and evidence-based arguments and logic, and as a result have and may change my mind from time to time if new, viable ideas/evidence present themselves. I also have a tendency to understand (though not necessarily agree with) where my fellow discussion partner is getting their opinions and why they might have them. Sympathy or mutual understanding seems to undermine arguments sometimes as it is seen as 'weak' but without it you can't really call what you're doing a discussion, you're just two sides entrenched in your own opinions, yelling at each-other.

I understand that some parties are simply not going to be swayed by whatever you present them, and that things must be approached differently for different groups (family vs. friends vs. street-strangers vs. internet). And for the record I do not initiate most conversations with the intent to proselytize, but more and more the topic seems to trend naturally towards things I feel strongly about, and when these opportunities occur I would like to make the most of them.

At current, my 'approach' is to simply have a respectful discussion. An example is my high school reunion: a classmate who I genuinely like had a good discussion with me in which he admitted his unfortunate racism and racist views, to which I really couldn't say that much (difficult to explain) out of concern of driving him off (he is a friend, still). He discussed Obama's intention of taking away his guns to which I gently asked what made him think that and what laws had Obama tried to pass to restrict them. I came up with one that really wasn't that restrictive (closing loopholes) and he didn't couldn't really come up with much else. We briefly discussed immigration issues. I made jokes about how we shouldn't be talking politics because we were about as far away from each-other as we could probably be, but we still talked until the conversation sort of petered out naturally. Still good feelings all around; I don't think he's stupid, just maybe a little ignorant and misguided.

With my dad I think I've contributed to some very good progress; he no longer buys the Fox News spin hook, line, and sinker.

Basically I guess I just go with repeated but respectful exposure to the reality of these things and hope that, eventually, it either takes or at least dampens extreme viewpoints that don't necessarily reflect reality. Is that the best I can do? Any suggestions?
posted by six-or-six-thirty to Human Relations (19 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
You might find this thread interesting--but there was also some reportage in the past few months, possibly noted elsewhere on the Blue, to the effect that facts are not helpful in changing opinions on political matters.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:53 AM on May 2, 2012

I'd recommend Robert Cialdini's Influence.

I was in sales for years and years and the information is very useful and interesting.

Although I really have to wonder why you'd bother with something as inconsequential wingnut politics.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:56 AM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

You should read How to Win Friends and Influence People. Or for something more modern, Blink has a lot of interesting info on how people make decisions and judgements.
posted by Jairus at 7:57 AM on May 2, 2012

Barking Up The Wrong Tree: Digest - Things you didn't know about negotiation, persuasion and influence

Bakadesuyo is not "in-depth" but everything he reports links to sources, studies, research, etc. and then you can follow up on those for more information.
posted by flex at 7:57 AM on May 2, 2012

Influence is a great book. It has been referenced many times on the green. It is a great read in and of itself but at the same time if you want to delve deeper there is a lot of footnotes that reference the academic works that the thrust of the work is based on.
posted by mmascolino at 8:02 AM on May 2, 2012

Response by poster: Although I really have to wonder why you'd bother with something as inconsequential wingnut politics.

Because I can't seem to not try. And my father, to be honest, was pretty 'wingnut'... but the influence of his weirdly liberal nuclear family and a few well-timed tv subscription switches (less Fox News, more Daily Show, which we kind of pressed him to watch) has really shifted him to something nearly moderate.

Thank you all for the ideas thus far, this is great. Guess it's time to get reading.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 8:06 AM on May 2, 2012

Why Changing Somebody’s Mind, or Yours, is Hard to Do
Self-affirmation conditioning studies find that if, before you start to try to change somebody's mind, you first ask them to remember something that gave them a positive view of themselves, they're more likely to be open to facts and to change their opinions.

How facts backfire
Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information.
posted by flex at 8:13 AM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

What is the most effective method of persuasion?

This is more properly a philosophical question than a scientific one, as "most," "effective," "method," and even "persuasion" are all subjective terms. Which is why "'...all subsequent rhetorical theory is but a series of responses to issues raised' by Aristotle's Rhetoric."

You want to learn persuasion? Start with the master, or, at least, a discussion thereof.
posted by valkyryn at 8:44 AM on May 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

As a professional rhetorician (which I don't get to say often), a couple of things spring to mind. First, from Aristotle on down, a fundamental precept of persuasive speaking is: know your audience. What arguments you make need to appeal to what an audience will find persuasive. Also important is understanding the context in which your argument takes place and the purpose you are trying to achieve.

Related to purpose is a second point. Be aware that you'll rarely be the person with the argument who changes another's mind. More often, your arguments will have a more cumulative effect. If you want to get someone to change their mind on a position they deeply believe in and have held for a long time, it won't happen quickly. At first, they'll see the alternative as outrageous and beyond the pale. Then, over time and with continued exposure, they'll see it as less and less radical, and, perhaps, one day they will be persuaded.
posted by audi alteram partem at 9:46 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Find out their basis for their decisions. Explain why your belief meets their basis for decision.

When I was in law school we debated Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council in front of our dean in property class. In the case, Scalia invalidated a mandated use of beach front property as an unconstitutional taking. I'm a leftie and was in a sea of rightists in law school. Scalia said that in each state, the state's test for a legal nuisance should be the standard for a taking. If it qualified as a nuisance use, it was not a taking.

The other leftists in the class argued about the terrible environmental impact. I took the other tack--I said the decision was wrong because with 50 separate standards, how are businesses supposed to deal with the question--there are many companies that have an interstate presence, and they would have to expend valuable legal time in each state figuring out the local standards for nuisances and how they are applied.

Our very conservative dean at the end said that the Scalia folks had it in his mind, but then singled me out and said that my ideas were very persuasive and required more thought.

The idea is this, if they are a right winger, appeal to right wing values to show why your way is doing it the right way. It holds true for a lot more than political argument.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:29 AM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Aristotle is great and all, but his style only works with people who have spent years of their life training to think rationally. Outside in the real world, people let their emotion drive them, and if you don't take that into account while delivering your argument, you'll achieve very little/

Arguments are won by constructing and maintaining trust, while addressing the emotional needs of the person you are talking to, while making a compelling case on a rational basis. But without the first two, the third will fail.

Everything I use these days about convincing people comes from two book:

  • John Cook's The Debunking Handbook.

  • Marshall B. Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.

  • posted by gmarceau at 10:30 AM on May 2, 2012

    Aristotle is great and all, but his style only works with people who have spent years of their life training to think rationally.

    Emotion and trust are absolutely essential to persuasion, which is why the first half of Book 2 in Aristotle's rhetoric is concerned with appeals to emotion (pathos) and building a trustworthy character (ethos). (A note of warning: the linked text is not the most readable translation. If you're interested in pursuing Aristotle, find a copy translated by George Kennedy.)

    There's plenty of rhetorical theory that revises or is only tangentially related to Aristotle as well. A major 20th century texts is Chaim Perelman & Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca's New Rhetoric, though his shorter The Realm of Rhetoric is much more accessible. Another is Kenneth Burke's Rhetoric of Motives, though this shorter discussion of his theory of identification will likely be more useful for your purposes.
    posted by audi alteram partem at 11:07 AM on May 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

    Stick with the first paragraph in that Wikipedia page on identification. The rest is a largely unsuccessful attempt to condense the complexity of Burke's arguments.
    posted by audi alteram partem at 11:10 AM on May 2, 2012

    George Lakoff and Frank Luntz are two authors I like a lot. Both suggest that it's not facts you present, but how you communicate, that can influence people. Both also suggest that you can't really change people's minds - you can just get them to look at particular things in a different way.
    posted by natteringnabob at 11:11 AM on May 2, 2012

    I found Aristotle Book 2 doesn't work in practice.

    Establishing authority and respect is not the same thing as establishing trust. Making an appeal to emotion is not the same as genuinely ensuring that the person's emotional needs are meet.

    I read a lot of Plato and Aristotle, it wasn't until I read the two books I mentioned that I started being able to break argumentative stalemates.

    The master didn't have the knowledge we now have of cognitive biases. The backfire effect which is discussed on Cook's book, in particular, is a really recent discovery.
    posted by gmarceau at 11:21 AM on May 2, 2012

    Read this book: Dynamics of Persuasion.
    posted by TwelveTwo at 3:53 PM on May 2, 2012

    Response by poster: Wow.

    Thanks for all of the answers guys, this is pretty fantastic. I'd been sort of off-and-on about asking for a while now and I wish I had sooner because as always you guys pull through like crazy. It's going to take me a few days to even get through looking over all the options you gave me.

    Also, quite a few of you made me feel better about how I do things currently. So, thanks.
    posted by six-or-six-thirty at 7:54 AM on May 3, 2012

    You can never change anyone's opinion. Only they can change their opinion. Because of this, arguing tricks will only take you so far, for if you trick someone into changing their opinion, that change will last only so long as they remain tricked, and you aren't going to be able to stand by their side for the rest of their lives.

    Also, it's largely a myth that you can change someone's mind immediately through direct argument. You make the argument now; the mind is changed days or weeks from now, when the person is lying awake at night, trying to make sense of the world. What you might do is weaken the structure of that opinion a bit, make him a little less sure of himself. That is as it should be; else, we'd be constantly changing our opinions.
    posted by JHarris at 12:56 PM on May 3, 2012

    « Older Help me destroy a printer in the most satisfying...   |   MLB Gameday Audio damper? Newer »
    This thread is closed to new comments.