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2008 December 31 -- The Psychology of Persuasion

The prolonged dispute that brought a long friendship to its end got me thinking about the psychology of intellectual combat. Why do we attempt to persuade people? I guess I can only speak for myself, but these seemlike universal ideas. What do you think?

Improve Their Life. If somebody is wrong and correcting their perception will make their life better, it is a good and noble thing to try to help them see the light. If they do not wish to be helped, and our efforts only drive them away, then continuing in this effort is counter-productive. Jesus said "Shake the dust off your feet" [on your way out the door]. In other words, have nothing to do with them. The Apostle Paul put it more bluntly: "Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him." [Titus 3:10, NIV]

Validate My Opinion. If I'm unsure of an idea, one way to confirm (or deny) it is to try to convince somebody. If they buy into it, their opinion now confirms mine, as in "two heads are better than one." If they refuse, I might should think carefully whether I am in error. Truth is not determined by majority vote, but sometimes (all other things being equal -- which they are usually not) plurality offers a good first cut. And then there's politics...

Competitive Win. High-school and college debate teams learn how to apply forensic skills to win the debate independently of which side is right. Lawyers are also trained to win, as one of them once said: "If the facts are on your side, argue the facts; if the law is on your side, argue the law; if neither is on your side, just argue." This implies a zero-sum game, where there are winners and losers. Last week I pointed out that life is not a zero-sum game. My goal in persuasion is not to make a loser of the other person.

Domination. Forcing my opinions on other people establishes me as the "shot caller" or top dog.

In the case in point, my point of view is not particularly helpful in life. My former friend is siding with the majority. I just happen to think they are in error, but it's not a catastrophic thing that could damn their souls to Hell or get them killed. My position is socially more awkward than his, so I do him no favors by convincing him. After two years of debate, it's also obvious that neither he nor I am about to budge, so his contrary opinion neither contributes to nor detracts from my confidence. And I'm certainly not in it to win at any cost. Besides, my personality type favors letting the other person make the decisions -- unless it is a matter of Truth or Justice. Maybe he still wants to be my friend, but right now I think winning this issue is more important to him than our friendship or even truth. That's his problem, not mine. I have a more robust proof of truth than his opinion, and I have other friends. I certainly don't need to win.


One comment:

>> Why do we attempt to persuade people?

Also Partnership.  I guess it could be something like the motivation expressed in "Validate My Opinion", but I see a distinction.

The quickest way to make the point is from the general example of doing Christianity.  Being partners in the gospel (1 Thes 3:2) requires a common world view.  If as a lay person, I don't agree with the preacher, it will be hard for me to support him financially.  If as a preacher I don't agree with a lay person, it will be hard for me to agree to let him teach the Sunday school class.  Thus, the church is multiply divided with its various doctrinal views.  (Churches can split over doctrine or personal conflict.  Hopefully denominations only split over doctrine.  Even there I suppose personal issues may hinder one side or the other from seeing the other side's doctrinal point of view.)

So, the actual motivation to persuade is not to bolster my ego (as in "Validate My Opinion", or "Competition" or "Domination").  Neither is it ministry (as in "Improve Their Life").  Rather it is calling.  There might still be a selfish element as in "I need you to be on the same page as me", either for my mission (selfish), or for God's mission (our reflecting God's jealousy).

When it comes down to it, salesmen have this motivation to persuade as much as any of the other four.  As far as I'm concerned, it is a stronger motivation for me than any of the other four.

2009 Jan 7

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