How would I organize a graduate seminar on the philosophy and methods of persuasion? Hmm...
Here's one way of approaching this. Organize the material around the different domains of application where persuasion skills are deployed (people skills, sales and marketing skills, persuasion in advertising, etc.).
In this episode I begin with some general points about the science and practice of persuasion, and then discuss the first two of the nine areas on this list. Next episode we'll move down the list.
In This Episode:
"There’s a reason why at Hogwarts, “Defense Against the Dark Arts” is a required subject for every student, from first year to fifth year. Dumbledore gets it.As a good wizard, you need to know what the bad wizards are throwing at you, so you can anticipate them and learn how to defend against them."
"If you study the persuasion practices that have evolved over decades and in some cases centuries, within any these communities, you’re going to learn something important about human nature. "
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This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 5!
Hi everyone and welcome to the Argument Ninja podcast. I’m your host, Kevin deLaplante, and I’m a philosopher and critical thinking educator.
I spent 20 years teaching philosophy at universities in Canada and the US, 16 of those years at Iowa State University, where I was a tenured professor and for a time served as Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies.
In 2015 I left that job to become a freelance philosopher of sorts. Now I run the Critical Thinker Academy, which is a video training site, and I produce the podcast that you’re listening to, which is where I’m sharing my latest thoughts on how to teach critical thinking and what it means to be skilled in the art and science of “rational persuasion”.
What I’m calling “rational persuasion” is what happens when you combine rational argumentation and psychological persuasion, when you harness the power of unconscious psychological mechanisms of persuasion in the service of the higher ideals of critical thinking and rational argumentation — ideals of truth-seeking, openness and responsiveness to reasons, critical inquiry, intellectual curiosity, integrity, responsibility, ownership of one’s beliefs and values, and so on.
You won’t find a textbook on this subject, because historically these two topics — rational argumentation and psychological persuasion — have been treated like oil and water, like they’re incompatible at a fundamental level.
The standard view is that persuasion techniques undermine the core values of reason and independent critical thought, because they work by bypassing our conscious, rational faculties and directly engaging the unconscious, emotion-driven centers of the brain. How can bypassing our conscious, deliberative reasoning processes promote the goals of critical debate and discussion? Isn’t that just manipulation?
On the face of it, there seems to be a genuine problem of how to combine these in a way that doesn’t alter what it means to have and offer good reasons to believe something.
I’m not going to deny this, I agree it’s a problem. And maybe the integration that I’m suggesting will require that we give up some of our intuitions about what it means to be a rational agent.
But before we get to that, I think we need to spend some time getting familiar with the art and science of persuasion.
Even if you’re skeptical about the integration that I’m proposing, every person who aspires to be an independent critical thinker needs to be aware of these methods and how they work, if only for self-defense.
There’s a reason why at Hogwarts, “Defense Against the Dark Arts” is a required subject for every student, from first year to fifth year. Dumbledore gets it. As a good wizard, you need to know what the bad wizards are throwing at you, so you can anticipate them and learn how to defend against them.
[The Argument Ninja move is to learn how to harness those techniques in a way that serves the good, that doesn’t turn you into a bad wizard.
But that’s looking ahead, we’ll get to that later.]
First, we need to get a lay of the land. So in this episode, my goal is sketch out a very high-level, 20,000 foot picture of the landscape of persuasion techniques and persuasion science.
To help me think this through, I asked myself, if I had to teach a graduate seminar on the history and philosophy of persuasion techniques, how would I organize that course? What topics would I cover? What themes would I focus on? What would I include in the reading list?
So, let me present to you what I think I would say, in the first introductory lecture for such a course.
By the way, I’m going to split this discussion across a couple of podcast episodes, two for sure, and maybe three.
Here’s part one.
The first point I would make is that, neither the science nor the practice of persuasion is a unified thing. There is no single science of persuasion, and there is no single school of persuasion practice.
On the science side, what you see is a collection of specializations that study different aspects of human behavior that are relevant to understanding why people behave and think the way they do. But both the behavioral phenomena in question, and the theories that attempt to describe and explain these behaviors, are a heterogenous mix, not a single unitary thing.
So, there are different research programs within neuroscience, cognitive science, behavioral psychology, sociology, political science, anthropology, evolutionary theory, and more, that all have things to say about human behavior that are relevant to understanding how persuasion works. Some of these more self-consciously focused on persuasion and influence than others, but there’s no single theory or model that brings them all together.
To give an analogy, the science of persuasion is the like the science of humor — it can be studied at multiple levels of organization and through the lens of multiple disciplines, but there’s no single science of humor.
That’s on the science side. On the practice side, what you see when you survey the landscape is a collection of communities and traditions that are involved in some way with persuasion and influence, and within which there is a collection of persuasion methods that are taught and passed down within the practice.
Just to name a few, think about speech writing, as a profession. Think about magicians and the practice of stage magic. Think about the origins of stage magic in confidence games, the trade of con artists. Think about the seduction and pick-up-artist community. Think about door-to-door sales. Think about advertising and marketing professionals. Think about professional negotiators. Think about PR specialists. Think about military strategists. Think about paid psychics and palm readers.
If you study the persuasion practices that have evolved over decades and in some cases centuries, within any these communities, you’re going to learn something important about human nature.
The second point that I would make is that, in spite of the diversity of these communities and traditions, it is possible to extract some general principles from observing the persuasion practices across a subset of these traditions.
If you’re a social scientist, you might even turn this question into a scientific research program. That’s what Robert Cialdini did. He’s a Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing and Arizona State University, and he’s regarded as one of the leading authorities on the social science of persuasion.
In 1984 he published a book called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, that was based on three “undercover” years applying for and training at used car dealerships, fund-raising organizations and telemarketing firms, to observe persuasion in action.
We’ll talk more about Cialdini’s work in a future episode, but he’s famous for showing that a huge range of persuasion techniques can be captured in terms of six principles of influence: reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity.
What Cialdini set out to do was to figure out what makes a person say “yes” to a purchase or a request, even when in hindsight they didn’t want it. His research began by observing the practices of people in these influence industries — salespeople, marketers, lobbyists, copywriters, etc — and looking for common patterns.
He then extracted behavioral principles from those patterns, and because he’s a social scientist, he designed social experiments to study the effects of these principles in a more controlled way.
So, not only can he show you that perceived scarcity has an influence on one’s willingness to buy a product, he can give you quantitative data showing how different types and degrees of scarcity have a differential impact on willingness to buy.
This kind of research has proven to be enormously valuable and has spawned a whole new field of social science research.
I don’t want to take anything away from Cialdini’s work, but I’ll use him make a third point.
The third point is that we have to be careful not to overestimate the scope of what a particular research program is claiming about persuasion and human nature.
I find that there’s a tendency among persuasion enthusiasts to see everything through the lens of their particular framework and the persuasion methods that they’re familiar with.
I’m not saying Cialdini is guilty of this, but lots of his followers in business and marketing are like this. When you ask them about the science of persuasion, they’ll refer you to Cialdin’s work, as though that exhausted the science of persuasion.
But it doesn’t, of course. It’s just a piece of a much larger pie.
For example, it’s worth noting that Cialdini’s work is fairly superficial, as behavioral science goes. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. I mean that it’s mostly descriptive rather than explanatory. It’s target is observable social behavior, not the underlying biological or psychological mechanisms that might explain this behavior.
The principle of scarcity, for example, says that offers that are available only for a limited time increase willingness to buy and encourage sales. The principle of reciprocity says that people tend to return a favor. The principle of liking says that people are more easily persuaded by people who they like.
These principles may be very powerful — they may allow us to predict human behavior and craft persuasion strategies around them. But they don’t tell us WHY these strategies work, only THAT they work.
In his original research, at least, Cialdini didn’t spend much time speculating on the cognitive or neurological mechanisms that might explain why these principles work the way they do. He’s a social psychologist, not a cognitive psychologist and not a neurologist. His disciplinary training, and the research tools at his disposal, limited the kind of questions that he could answer.
And that’s fine, that’s the way science works. But it follows that if you want a deeper explanation for this behavior, you’re going to have to step outside the Cialdini framework and look elsewhere.
So, my third point is that there’s a natural tendency for people working in the field to see all persuasion phenomena through the lens of their disciplinary background and their preferred persuasion framework, and to not wander too far beyond the boundaries of this framework.
Scientists are prone to this because of disciplinary specialization, for the most part. Practitioners are prone to this because it’s tied up with a “guild” mentality, where your introduction to the practice is based on close relationships between students and teacher within a particular community or tradition, like the con artist community, or the pickup artist community, or the sales and marketing community within a particular industry.
You learn the secrets of the guild, you identify with the guild’s philosophy and methods, and it colors your perception of human nature. It’s hard to break outside that mentality to appreciate the limitations of your framework, or how other approaches to persuasion, that may be quite different, understand the same behaviors that you think you understand so well.
So, this is just a cautionary note. The landscape of persuasion science and persuasion methods is larger and more diverse than people in the field tend to think it is.
Now, let’s get back to this hypothetical curriculum I’m organizing.
There are lots of different ways one could organize this material.
One way is to organize material in terms of the intended domain of application of a certain set of persuasion techniques. This overlaps with the “guild” notion that I mentioned, where there’s a specific context where persuasion is being applied, and a certain level of secrecy surrounding the techniques that are being used.
Within each of these domains there are influential figures that everyone knows and reads, but that people outside the guild may never have heard of. When I hit these figures, it makes sense for me to pause and elaborate on them a little bit, because that lets us see the differences in theoretical frameworks that I just mentioned.
So that’s what I’m going to do.
1. For example, I might start the curriculum with a unit on learning people skills, where the primary goal within this domain is to get people to like you and trust you.
For people skills, Dale Carnegie’s How to Make Friends and Influence People is a classic, and Cialdini’s discussion of factors that contribute to people liking you is relevant.
Since the 1970s, however, a major player in the interpersonal persuasion field is the Neuro-Linguistic Programming camp, or NLP, as it’s commonly called.
NLP is an approach to communication and personal development and behavior modification that is the brainchild of a psychologist, Richard Bandler and a linguist, John Grinder.
I’ll devote a whole episode to NLP at some point, I don’t want to get into debates about it here. I just want to point out in that a huge industry has arisen in the personal development and social skills space, aimed at business and marketing professionals, that is all about teaching NLP techniques that aim to show you how to establish rapport with someone and make them disposed to like and trust you, and respond positively to what you say or what you suggest.
So for example, there’s a popular little book called How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less, by Nicholas Boothman, and that book is basically an easy-to-read handbook of NLP techniques. The author trained with Richard Bandler, it’s mentioned in the preface, but the rest of the book doesn’t play up the NLP language, so a person could easily read it and not think they were being taught Bandler’s NLP system.
There’s another point about NLP that I would have to mention here. One of the major influences on Bandler and Grinder was the work of Milton Erickson, who was a medical doctor and a pioneer of hypnotherapy in the 1950s.
Interest in Erickson’s work increased through his association with NLP, and how successfully Bandler and Grinder marketed the NLP method through their training and workshops.
Some students gravitated to Ericksonian hypnosis specifically and paid less attention to the other elements of the NLP framework. I sometimes call these people “Ericksonians”, and they talk a lot about the power of hypnosis to influence thinking and behavior.
Early in his career, Tony Robbins, the well known self-help and performance coach, studied with Grinder and for a time taught workshops on NLP and Ericksonian hypnosis.
Now, when these people talk about hypnosis, for the most part they’re not talking about the stereotype of direct hypnosis where a therapist puts a person into a trance state. They’re talking about indirect methods of altering or suspending people’s conscious reasoning that makes them susceptive to a more direct connection to their unconscious mind. And these methods you can use in ordinary conversation with people, with no trance state.
Scott Adams, the cartoonist behind Dilbert, who I mentioned in episode 001, is an Ericksonian. He talks a lot about persuasion, and he credits a lot of his own success to the positive effects of a training program in Ericksonian hypnosis that he completed in his 20s.
When Scott Adams talks about Donald Trump as a master persuader, more often than not, he’s specifically thinking in terms of Ericksonian methods of indirect hypnosis.
And he says this explicitly. On his blog, Scott has a persuasion reading list, and on the topic of hypnosis and Erickson he says this:
“Milton Erickson influenced Pierre Clement, who taught my hypnosis instructor, who taught me.
Milton Erickson influenced Bandler and Grinder, who developed NLP, which influenced Tony Robbins (a self-help hypnotist). Tony Robbins (probably) influenced Donald Trump, by association. They worked together on at least one project.
When I listen to Donald Trump, I detect all of his influences back to Erickson. If you make it through this reading list, you might hear it too. I don’t know if Donald Trump would make a good president, but he is the best persuader I have ever seen. On a scale from 1 to 10, if Steve Jobs was a 10, Trump is a 15.
You know how the media has made fun of Trump’s 4th-grade-level speech patterns?
The joke’s on them.
He does it intentionally.”
That’s Scott Adams. We could talk about his views on persuasion and hypnosis at much greater length, but we’ll save that for another discussion.
Let’s move on to another domain of application for persuasion skills.
2. Sales and marketing. In this context, the goal is to influence people to say “yes” to an offer. People skills factor in here, but the skill set for selling and marketing necessarily goes beyond people skills.
Because all the persuasion material on people skills applies, in the literature these usually go together, or at least side-by-side, with applications to sales and marketing.
Dale Carnegie talked about “how to make friends and influence people”. Influence how, for what reason? Your personal relationships, yes, but more often he’s talking about professional relationships, like how to network, how to make people disposed to your offer, and how to close a deal.
Now, alongside Robert Cialdini’s influential work on persuasion and influence, over the last forty years there’s been what can only be called a revolution in the psychology of human reasoning, that was initiated by the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1970s.
This is the cognitive biases and heuristics revolution. And the research on cognitive biases has had a huge impact on sales and marketing strategies, by showing how cognitive biases like anchoring and framing effects can influence consumer behavior and willingness to buy.
FYI, I have a whole video course on the topic of cognitive biases and their importance for critical thinking, which you can find at the Critical Thinker Academy, at criticalthinkeracademy.com.
So, at this point in this proposed curriculum, I would pause and talk about cognitive bias research, and how it’s relevant to persuasion.
That’s a big topic. But I would also want to point out the differences between this approach to understanding human nature and persuasion, and other theoretical frameworks like NLP, and the difference in status that these approaches have within the scientific community.
It’s important for people to know, for example, that mainstream psychology is very keen on cognitive biases and the research programs that have sprung up around them, and very critical of Neuro-Linguistic Programming as presented in the work of the founders, Bandler and Grinder.
The fact is, among mainstream cognitive and social psychologists, NLP is viewed as a kind of pseudoscience. NLP has thrived outside the halls of academia, not inside.
In a proper course on persuasion, I would spend some time talking about why this is the case, what the criticisms are, and how proponents of NLP respond to these criticisms, when they respond at all.
They don’t have to of course, because the market for NLP training and coaching seems to be as big as it’s ever been.
But this highlights a point I made in the introduction, that persuasion enthusiasts are vulnerable to a kind of myopia. They may identify quite strongly with their particular school of persuasion psychology, and consequently may not be all that interested in examining alternative frameworks, or addressing criticisms of their framework.
So, we’ve talked about two domains of application for persuasion skills: people skills, that focus on how to get people to like you, and sales and marketing skills, that combines people skills with specific techniques for getting people to say “yes” to an offer of some kind.
I think I’m going to stop here for this episode, I don’t want these episodes to be too dense, so we’ll pick it up our tour through the curriculum next episode.
Just looking ahead though, let me list the categories I have on my list, so you have an idea of what’s coming.
Third on my list, is seduction skills, where the goal is to attract a romantic or sexual partner. Within this field there’s a more narrow subdomain, called the pickup artist skill set, that is almost exclusively male-oriented and is focused on how to attract and “close the deal” on a sexual partner within a short time frame.
This is a very active niche area for persuasion skills, and I want to talk about some of the main players in this area and the kinds of methods that are taught. I’m not interested in making moral judgments about this field at this stage. I’m interested in the principles they teach, what theoretical underpinnings they may or may not have, and whether they actually work or not.
For example, in this area there’s lots of talk about lessons to be learned from evolutionary theory and evolutionary psychology about how men and women view the dynamics of sex and courtship and marriage differently, because of their biology and their different roles in reproduction.
That’s worth talking about. It’s part of the “guild philosophy” in a way that you don’t see in any other persuasion guild.s
Another closely knit persuasion community is associated with magic and mind reading skills. These are the methods used by stage magicians and mentalists to manipulate the attention and the mental states of audiences.
I love this topic, I’ve been a huge fan of magic since I was a kid, and I think there’s a ton that we can learn from magicians about the psychology of persuasion. And this material intersects beautifully with previous insights from cognitive bias research and other branches of psychology.
Fifth on my list is an even more secretive guild. It’s the tradition of confidence games and the trade of the con artist, where the goal is to successfully manipulate, deceive and ultimately defraud people.
Put this material back-to-back with the insights you get from magicians, and it will humble you, I guarantee it. Maria Konnikova has a book out called The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It … Every Time, and she has some great examples.
Sixth on my list is a more publicly acceptable form of persuasion: advertising. Here the goal is to craft advertising campaigns that create desire and demand for a particular product or service. This is another huge topic, but I would highlight some of the distinctive persuasion methods that advertising campaigns employ.
Seventh on my list is persuasion in politics, where the goal is to influence the public’s perception of political candidates and political issues. This is all tied up with media messaging and institutions of propaganda, and that’s a whole other level of persuasion.
Number eight on my list is persuasion in the internet age. How Google and other internet forces influence how we think and behave. This is a new area of concern and research and it’ll only grow in importance one time.
Number nine: Power and propaganda. Lots of interest in this. I want to talk about what propaganda is, give a brief history of propaganda, talk about how propaganda messages pervade all aspects of modern life, how propaganda is connected to power, and the maintenance of power.
What’s distinctive about this domain is the scale of application, and the nature of the mechanisms of control and influence that are employed. There’s a lot of controversy about the methods used in this domain, because it’s tied up with conspiracy thinking about the intentions and resources at the disposal of governments, but putting that aside, there’s still a lot to talk about that makes it a distinctive domain for persuasion and an important one to understand.
Well, that’s a lot, but I think it’s worth saying a few words about each of these domains, like I did with the first two topics today, on people skills and sales and marketing skills.
We’ll get into some of these areas in greater detail in later episodes, and eventually I’m going to want to talk about we can best defend ourselves from manipulations that employ these methods, and how we can harness their power for good rather than for evil.
But first things first, right?
I want to thank you for listening.
You can find show notes for this episode at argumentninja.com, episode 5, with links to the references mentioned in this episode.
As I mentioned, I have a whole two and half hour video course on cognitive biases and their importance for critical thinking, which you can find at criticalthinkeracademy.com, along with a number of other courses on topics related to logic and argumentation and critical thinking.
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