We’ve Gotten Too Good At Being Persuasive

According to my Facebook News Feed, today is Election Day in the United States.

As people’s attention converges on “swing states” such as Ohio, exit polls and the statistical wizardry of Nate Silver, I’m reminded of an old short story by Isaac Asimov, Franchise, where the U.S. election results — from the President down to every local municipal leader — are determined by a supercomputer named Multivac which asks a series of indirect questions to a single person who has been selected to be the “most representative” member of the U.S. population.  Based on the chosen person’s responses to the questions — which are recorded verbally and non-verbally / bio-chemically — Multivac uses statistical models to determine which candidates would have won an election had one actually been held.

Asimov’s story was written in 1955 and was set in the distant future… the year 2008… and while we haven’t (yet) seen a computer with Multivac-levels of omniscience, we are seeing enough polarization in politics to make Asimov’s idea realizable:   As each of the two main U.S. political parties tighten their grip on the minds of those-who-might-lean-to-one-side, an ever-fewer number of individuals become the significant point of focus for determining a given electoral outcome.

In the meantime, political discourse in the U.S. (and Canada… and Europe… and everywhere else…) has become more rancorous and annoying than ever.

The reason for all this?

Over the past few months I’ve been collecting and writing down my observations of online and offline political discussions and have come to the conclusion that we’ve gotten too good at being persuasive… and I think I know who is to blame for it.

It’s My Fault

The reason we’ve stopped listening to each other is because we’ve learned how to talk too well, too convincingly, too often… and it’s mostly my fault — or rather, the fault of people who have been doing what I do, over the course of the past 80 years… the Dale Carnegies of the world… communication skills coaches and trainers, motivational speakers, marketing gurus, advertising executives, social scientists and so forth.

We the people who say, “the first rule in speaking well is learning how to listen well,” have developed and distributed the weapons of effective speech and influence without requiring a ‘good listener’ ID check.

So now, everyone knows how to shout and repeat themselves, too well, too often.

Everyone tries to control the flow of information, dialogue and debate, too often.

Everyone has mastered the art of telling Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics.

Everyone knows how to answer a Number of Dollars with a Percentage of GDP, and how to answer a Percentage of GDP with a Dollars Per Capita.

Everyone can tip the scale by appropriately scaling graphs, over time.

Everyone can Reframe the Timeframe of comparison and insinuate that since 1950 (yes, it’s usually 1950… hey, let’s face it, 1950 was awesome), based on all the things that have happened since then,  the one or two policies they are trying to advocate for are the primary factors that have driven the changes in whatever statistic they happen to be selecting.

Everyone can qualify, disqualify, restate, spin, and repeat, cycling through endless combinations of convincing, sometimes subtle, logical fallacies.

Worse than that — everyone knows that logic and statistics are boring… and a sorry excuse-for-a-sideshow of intellectual one-upmanship, not nearly as convincing as a good ‘ol fashioned knife fight… and everyone knows that if they want to impress someone, they need to start with the heart.

Yes, in addition to statistics, everyone knows how to tell powerful stories of ordinary, hard-working and/or oppressed people.

Everyone can stir a potent brew of metaphor and analogy, and top it off with a little alliterative soundbite that just rolls off the tongue.

Give them the power of pictures and memorable quotes? Forget about it.

Everyone can get more and more people onto Their Side,  even as the Other Side does the same.

No Rest for the Fence-Sitter

“Clowns to the Left of Me
Jokers to the Right
Here I Am
Stuck in the middle with you.”

– Stealers Wheel

I’ve noticed myself listening less, lately.

Notwithstanding my desire to bump up against diverse ideas, recently I’ve found myself tuning-out good friends online, who have become never-ending streaming open fire hydrants of condemnation and doctrine.

Have you noticed how sometimes your friends or family won’t be very forgiving if you don’t go along with Their Way of seeing things? Particularly if it’s regarding a debate that is close to their heart? Haven’t you also noticed that, for some people, almost every debate is close to their heart?

I know a mother of two children who was incredibly angry — incensed, actually — that one of her children chose to vote for one of the two main candidates of the last U.S. election. Nearly four years later this ‘transgression’ still felt, to the mother, like an open wound. This woman made me appreciate a rule that my grandfather and grandmother used to have: they never talked about who they voted for.  Now I understood why.

Another person I know — a vocal supporter of one major U.S. political party — was recently outraged because his friends — supporters of the other major U.S. political party —  wouldn’t post a response to his demand; he demanded that they write a public admission on his Facebook page, validating his scathing critique of  statements made by their preferred party’s presidential candidate. My friend described himself as “shocked” and “embarrassed” that they wouldn’t go along and declare him correct and criticize their favored candidate.

The thing is, staying “neutral” or “in the middle” isn’t a very good option either. Insisting on a “middle” only encourages people on a given Side to pull more to their own extreme, thus distorting and enflaming the surrounding debate even more

Once upon a time I read articles and arguments discussing the ethical implications of each stage of human embryonic development, and how those stages correspond to the notion of a “human life” and a “potential human life.” Nowadays, those articles have been replaced by expressions of deep concern and sincere outrage about potential murder and rape. No, I don’t support murder or rape… and no, framing the debate that way doesn’t “nudge the center-point” for people who are still sorting out the issue — it just shuts them down, or makes them feel like they don’t have a say in the matter unless they are personally affected. Either way, here is my advice to the advocate of a Side: Pulling to the extreme makes the “middle” listen to you less.

Tipping Past the Boiling Point

This brings us back to Multivac, or rather, the end-result of everyone becoming too good at being persuasive.

“There’ll be no shelter here
The front line is everywhere”

– Rage Against the Machine

If every issue is a Defining Issue,  if there is always an Angle that can Hook any person who would otherwise be impartial, then the only refuge from permanent anxiety is for us to deepen our cynicism… or to deepen our understanding of our values, wherever we may stand.

If we resist the easy temptation of becoming cynical, we have a chance at becoming more aware of our own actual, underlying values… and more aware of the actual, underlying values of those who we compete against, on any given issue.  The key words here are “actual” and “underlying,” as opposed to “imagined” and “alleged.”

In the end, effective debate is about developing stronger and more refined values, not just stronger and more refined arguments.

Perhaps, once we all get really good at being persuasive, we’ll have such a huge stalemate that we’ll be forced to be honest, too.

About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on November 6, 2012, in Communication Skills, Social Media and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Although the they say that statistically, people don’t change their minds at all with all the ads…we just get angry at everyone else who doesn’t realize how brilliant we are.

    • Well said. The masterful emotional hooks of political campaigning seem to charge — but not fundamentally change — people’s minds. We have created ideal conditions for the sale of advertising: a mind-boggling amount of ad “inventory” was manufactured and sold in this most recent U.S. election, right up until the overtime, late-night game finish.

      Meanwhile, in the post-election process of everyone returning back to their pre-election levels of anger and angst, I find myself noticing the fear and loathing that have been permanently activated within their brains.

      “ready to move to Canada,” declares an American conservative, not realizing the irony of their statement… or perhaps he meant it as an ironic equating of the U.S. with the Neighbor to the North…. either way, an exaggerated sense of dissociation with his own national context. Or, get this, from a Canadian liberal, who doesn’t see how she is symptomatic of the problem she describes. “so incredibly relieved…but still concerned for the intense polarization and how anything can move forward in that kind of environment…but for now….just so so so relieved” From Canada’s point of view, Romney or Obama would have been about the same, especially in terms of trade implications… but having been nursed on a steady stream of social fear and anger media, she is now — temporarily — “relieved.”


  1. Pingback: The Choices We Make: Guinness Commercial | Dan Spira

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