Persuasive Politics: Science and Advice

Changing minds is hard. Really hard. And most of us are terrible at it... especially in politics.

It happens to be the case that politics engages a tribal part of our brains that's just really inhibitive to reasoned consideration. We often want things to be true, because our identity is tied up with a certain lens of reality. So not only do those listening tend to be more resistant, but we also tend to put up pretty lousy arguments because they're an expression of our emotional attachment to that reality.

But politics is a game of persuasion. Your vote matters, but your ability to get others to agree with you--and vote the way you want--matters a lot more. We've written enough about how sharing Facebook memes doesn't help you (it might even hurt you) in this regard. 

Good news: someone with a lot more grad students on their hands than we have did a bit of research into the science behind persuasion. And it's pretty cool. 

Chris, a fellow Considerate, turned us onto an article by Ana Swanson of WaPo, "How to change someone's mind, according to science." She pointed to a paper from Cornell in which researchers went to the subreddit "ChangeMyView" (in which someone makes an argument and asks others to challenge it), and analyzed what kinds of arguments caused people to declare that their minds had been changed. If we look at most of these elements, they'll make intuitive sense... and we are also likely to recognize that we use them far too seldom.

What they found:

  • Be calm and don't use emotionally aggressive language
  • State your key point up front
  • Bring a new perspective--most people with a viewpoint have heard a lot of tired-out arguments before, and if you're using them you're going to convince them that your point is just like the others they've already dismissed
  • Be thorough and explain your point fully, down to core principles
  • Be specific and show supporting evidence where you can
  • Use examples to illustrate
  • Hedge--that is, don't declare 100% certainty where something is not certain (the latter will indicate that you're overly-confident and don't see the "greyness" in something and get someone to shut down). Saying stuff like, "if" and "I think in this case" telegraphs that you're considering the point rather than ratcheting off stock talking points. 
  • Most importantly: Get someone to declare early that they're open to changing their mind. That is, ask them whether they are open--they'll say yes, otherwise don't waste your time--and once someone has done that their brains actually pivot to being more open-minded to new ideas. 

Some other advice from us:

  • Disaggregate your argument from identity--with gun control, for example, don't use "pro" or "anti" whatever language; talk about specific policy ideas and their potential impacts. This engages an entirely different part of the brain.
  • Argue directly to their point, not the cluster of opinions you assume are associated with their point based on what you heard from other people.
  • Remember your goal is to convince, not to "win." Walking away feeling like you shellacked someone can feel good, but it's a pyrrhic victory: you'll have likely entrenched them further and created an emotionally negative association with talking with someone that disagrees with them.

It's election season, and a lot's at stake: go out there and persuade.


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.