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Art of persuasion not so simple

John Dickson

People believe what they want to believe, often in defiance of fact and logic.  ''Facts'' alone rarely persuade us to change our minds on anything significant. In fact, they frequently entrench a contrary view.  Psychologists call this the ''backfire effect'', where counter-evidence, far from changing our views, actually strengthens them.

Numerous studies underline how impervious to evidence our strongly held convictions are. Whether on political, religious or ethical issues, it seems our minds have an unusual power to reorganise contrary facts in order to support our beliefs.

A study by Brendan Nyhan of the University of Michigan and Jason Reifler of Georgia State University concluded, "Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a 'backfire effect' in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question."

The backfire effect is a kind of self-protection mechanism. When you are confronted with data that threatens your convictions, your mind works overtime to defend you. It reorganises information and re-establishes arguments allowing you to continue believing what you already believed.

It seems that most of us do not let the facts get in the way of a strong belief;  no one is immune to the buried power of self-deception and the backfire effect.

Gregg Elshof explores the ubiquitous nature of self-deception in public and private life, in secular and religious communities - or what he calls "the amazing human capacity to break free from the constraints of rationality when truth ceases to be the primary goal of inquiry".

The historian in me can't resist saying that Aristotle worked all this out more than 2350 years ago. In On Rhetoric he argued that there are three controlling factors in persuasion. Logos is the intellectual dimension. He said that as rational beings we like to know (or think) that our beliefs are grounded in reality. But logos alone does not move people to adopt new beliefs or behaviours.

Pathos, the emotional or psychological dimension, also plays a role. Beliefs are formed not only by rationalisation but also by "attraction". Arguments we "like", whether because they are presented beautifully or because they resonate with our hopes, will usually be more persuasive than ones we find unpleasant. I think this partly explains why, despite having some great minds in the cause, atheism continues to be an important minority viewpoint. Whatever its intellectual credentials, taken seriously it offers a very bleak outlook. 

However, logos and pathos do not fully account for why we believe what we believe. Aristotle reserved a special place in his theory for what he called ethos, the social or ethical dimension. Not only do we tend to believe ideas we like, we also tend to accept the ideas of people we like.

We now call this the ''sociology of knowledge'' but Aristotle put his finger on it centuries ago: "We believe good-hearted people to a greater extent and more quickly than we do others on all subjects in general and completely so in cases where there is not exact knowledge."

What counts in debate is a combination of intellectual, aesthetic and social factors.  To be persuasive are not just more facts but a narrative that stirs our hearts and a social movement that wins our trust.  John Dickson, 09/07/11 SMH   Excerpts

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/art-of-persuasion-not-so-simple-20110708-1h6m9.html#ixzz1RahE2WJH

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Goebbels’ 14th Principle of Propagada, which reads: 

Propaganda must label events and people with distinctive phrases or slogans.

Goebbels stressed the value of particular phrases to characterise events. These phrases “must make use of painting in black-and-white, since otherwise it cannot be convincing to people”. For example, to portray English unrest in 1942, he used the phrase ‘schleichende Krise’ [creeping crisis] as widely as possible in German propaganda”, both domestically and internationally.

We’ve been swamped by such phrases in the domestic immigration context over recent years; we have to “stop the boats”, we need “border protection”, we must repel the “illegals” and “unauthorised arrivals” so we can ensure “secure borders”. The Coalition government fear mongers about “losing control of our borders”, an audacious propagandistic translation of “letting refugees flee to safety”.

There are many other dishonest logical tricks according to Robert Thouless.  One is called "The Nudge".  

Skilled legal minds with low standards of integrity are able to mould and manipulate public opinion, popular beliefs and, ultimately, the direction of arguments. The majority of the population in most places is not alert to this kind of deceptive manipulation. They are more or less defenceless against such clever 'perception management'."

 We don't always do what's best for ourselves, thanks to cognitive biases and errors that make us deviate from rational self-interest. The premise of Nudge is that subtly offsetting or exploiting these biases can help people to make better choices.

Casuistry, Sophistry, also known as Eristic or Specious arguments; involve the use of subtle, sophisticated, and sometimes deceptive argument and reasoning, especially on moral issues, in order to justify something or to mislead.

Socrates considered the debate in such settings unedifying, pointless and unworthy—in a word, “eristic”. Eris was the Greek goddess of strife (the Roman Discordia). It was Eris who cunningly dropped a golden apple with the inscription “to the fairest” into a feast, inciting three goddesses—Hera, Athena and Aphrodite—to bicker over who deserved it and thus launching the ten-year Trojan War. 

Eris is present in presidential debates, in court rooms and wherever people are talking not to discover truth but to win.

Socratic dialectic attempts a search of honest discussions that lead to truth

Socrates’s alternative was “good” conversation or dialectic. To converse originally meant to turn towards one another, in order to find a common humanity and to move closer to the truth of something. Dialectic, in other words, is decidedly not about winning or losing, because all the conversants are ennobled by it.

Even Socratic dialectic can be misused in an attempt to persuade.

Dogmatic assertion is the tyrant’s “stock in trade”, attempting to confer the air of authority and bully us into grudging silence, compliance and acceptance rather than inspiring confidence and belief in the judicial system.

It is the deceit of words and sleight of hand which may not involve any deliberate falsehood, but inferentially manipulates our perceptions, what Wittengenstein calls the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language and eristic argument.

British Science writer Richard Doyle claims language is a powerful lens for shaping reality that we frequently forget it is a tool at all and take it for reality.

As Karl Rove put it, about the Bush imperium in 2004, laying out the case for a new way of perceiving the universe, “when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”

In this view, reality is expressly the realm of power, and the rest of us become hapless victims, reduced to wordless observers. Rove’s prescient words could have been an instruction manual for Donald Trump.

And in the face of this coming wave, it matters more than ever that we have ways of reconciling the experience of our lives with that of the larger world – a world in which we find false words are routinely used by power to deceive, dissemble and disempower. It matters that there might be a society where some are allowed the possibility of questioning, of not agreeing, of saying no, of proposing other worlds, of showing other lives.

Finding dark motives is another stock-in-trade ploy of advocates attempting to smear their adversaries. It's easy work. Slamming your opponent's motives means you don't have to grapple with facts; you don't have to answer arguments; you don't have to do any home work; and you can't be disproved.  In this environment, those taking a contrary (or even a more nuanced) view quickly become "damaged goods", reputations are undermined and the information that informs judicial understanding diminished.  It can become one of the clearest indicators that rather than being a disinterested arbiter, someone is an engaged participant in the arguments.   Richard Flanagan

The unwarranted, unjustifiable, indefensible and irredeemably prejudicial attack on the applicant’s motives is also a prime example of “white is black” casuistry.  

When powerful people in remarkable positions of strength use their authority not to discover the facts but to attack opponents, then we have a severe problem with the credibility of our institutions and the lack of oversight by government which should shoulder the responsibility.  

Platitudes are empty meaningless phrases used by insincere people for ulterior purposes.  Synonyms are: Blandishments – flatteries, cajoleries, praises, fulsome, effusive, insincere, disingenuous, rhetoric, oratory, banality, prosaicism, clichéd, bromides, cant, hollowed language,  husk, shell,

Base words are uttered only by the base
And can for such at once be understood;
But noble platitudes — ah, there's a case
Where the most careful scrutiny is needed
To tell a voice that's genuinely good
From one that's base but merely has succeeded. 
 W.H. Auden, Collected Poems

           "Words empty as the wind, are best left unsaid"  Homer

Language can have some subliminal effect upon the listener, an almost hypnotic or haunting counterpart.  We can be caught or mesmerized by the spell woven by the lulling descriptions, the direct colloquial narrative, the lilting rhythms, regular ‘rimes’, rich tapestry of images, symbols  and the searing feelings of the narrator.  Incantatory repetitions, alliteration and use of onomatopoeia can have a hypnotic, haunting effect on us.  Many religions use these to cast a spell and suspend people’s reasoning processes. 

 Critics have for centuries debated the effect of repetitive sound patterns – predominantly, rhyme assonance and alliteration – upon our standard cognitive mechanisms.

No firm conclusions have been reached but by consensus it is accepted that they interfere with our ability to make sense of language. They create a layer of echoes that runs as a counter-current to the conventional relationship between phonetics and semantics, sound and meaning.  A Definition of Poetry : the double pattern, Professor Richard Bradford, Professor of English, University of Ulster


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