The Psychology of Persuasion | Educational Podcasts

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Humanity has been described as a reasoning animal; and everyone likes to think that the description applies to them. In reality, we do not, usually, act rationally in the sense that we first carefully calculate the means to realize our objectives, and only then act. Even when we do make such calculations, the fundamental source of our actions is always some instinct or emotion that they seek to satisfy.

To say this is to say nothing derogatory about human nature. Indeed, as we all know, to act on impulse is often much more respectable than to act from reasoned calculation. If much of the wrong-doing of the world may be attributed to the uncontrolled working of selfish impulses, it should also be remembered that impulse is the source of art and science, and of many of the best things in life.

Impulse is one of the non-rational elements in our nature, but this does not imply that it is necessarily irrational, or that it works against reason. Persuasion is, fundamentally, a non-rational process, dominated much more by the emotional and impulsive part of our nature than by the rational. But this does not mean that persuasion is, of necessity, irrational.

The starting-point of all persuasion, of ourselves or others, is a belief or wish. Holding a certain belief (or desiring that a certain course of action shall be pursued) we set out to justify our belief and the conduct that it implies. Thus, before a professional speaker begins a speech, he or she (whose aim is persuasion) has already present in their mind a belief or wish, fully formed, from which all their arguments and appeals flow.

When we persuade ourselves, it also is true that the belief or wish we seek to confirm is given before-hand. In this respect persuasion differs from the process of rational logic.  When we employ the process of rational logic, our object is either to discover or to demonstrate. We may desire, for instance, to discover the conditions under which a candle will burn, and this we may do by a process of induction from a series of experiments. The mere fact that we are seeking to discover a true conclusion indicates that it is NOT given beforehand.

With persuasion, the belief precedes the process, instead of following it. Our effective beliefs regarding human life and conduct are determined not by reasoning but by many unconscious and frequently irrational factors. We believe because we wish to believe, so that we may satisfy our instincts and emotions and sentiments, because our environment, experiences, and education have made certain beliefs seem necessary.

In self-persuasion, the belief from which the process starts is often held by us unconsciously, having its origin in many remote factors. In the persuasion of others, we begin with a conscious belief, and the subsequent process is a conscious, deliberate, and more or less systematic attempt to impress our belief on others. In both cases, our purpose is to gain approval (our own or that of other people) for beliefs or wishes already formed and accepted by us.

Our beliefs and wishes, from which the process of persuasion starts, depend mainly on the emotional elements in our nature. The motive force that compels us to action is always some instinct, tendency, emotion, sentiment, or passion. We accept a belief or wish, and act so that it may be realized, primarily with a view to satisfying some aspect of our emotional nature.

Take, for instance, the case of a person who (their country being at war) wishes to volunteer for service in the military. Underlying this wish may be one or several emotional tendencies: for example, beyond pure feelings of patriotism and duty; the person may wish to escape an unhappy home life; to prove themselves worthy in the eyes of others; to realize a dream of adventure, or enact revenge on the enemy. Whatever the person’s particular motives may be, if they are to act in accordance with their wish, their mind must be possessed and dominated not by the mere intellectual perception of a certain state of affairs, but by some powerful emotional tendency.

Thus the fundamental character of persuasion (as a process that aims at modifying conduct and inducing action) is that it is an emotional process. In this respect, again, it differs from the process of rational logic, which should have no tincture of emotion, or so little that it may be considered negligible.

Persuasion resembles rational logic in that it consists essentially in a series of judgments, but there the resemblance ends. Rational logic starts from a general or a particular proposition, and travels to its conclusion through a series of propositions that constitute a rigorous chain of reasoning. The logic of persuasion, on the other hand, starts from a belief or wish, and proceeds to its conclusion, which is really predicted beforehand by the initial belief or wish and the consequent satisfaction of its underlying emotion.

A speaker whose aim is to persuade an audience to act in accordance with his or her beliefs, makes a series of judgments essentially related to one another only by the way that they will assist the speaker to realize a goal. There may be little or no logical connection between these judgements; they may be, and often are, even logically inconsistent with one another; but they will be accepted by the persuader as valuable in proportion to the closeness of their relation, real or imagined, to his or her ultimate aim, and in proportion to their capacity to satisfy the emotions, sentiments, or passions that arise in the audience.

For this reason there will always be found (in the arguments of a speaker, writer, or politician whose end is persuasion) an appeal to the emotions and sentiments that seem likely to lead to the action that the persuader desires. Before an individual will act, they must be persuaded that the action will answer some end; and that which gratifies no emotion or sentiment in their nature can never be an ultimate end for them.

The judgments, then, that constitute the process of persuasion, are judgments of approval or disapproval, or judgments of value, in which we estimate the value of things relatively to the emotion that underlie our beliefs or wishes. Underlying or motivating our judgments of approval there may be admiration, gratitude, self-regard, honor, pride, interest, patriotism, or any other emotion or sentiment induced through sympathy; while our judgments of disapproval are prompted most frequently by shame, reproach, scorn, anger, or fear.

All emotions may serve to vitalize our beliefs and motivate our actions, but they fulfil this function more effectively when they are aroused within the circle of a more widely organized system of emotional tendencies, as is denoted by the term sentiment.

A sentiment, such as love or hate, differs from an emotion, as, for instance, anger or fear, in that it is not merely a transient mental state, but an enduring tendency to experience certain emotions. Thus, we may be said to love or hate a person even when they are not actually present in our thoughts.

Beliefs that have become crystallized into widely prevalent or national sentiments (and that are not the product of merely passing emotions) are the most powerful sources of appeal in persuasion.

It is sometimes said that speakers who wish to move others to act, must appeal to their passions. If, however, the term “passion” be used not loosely but in its stricter and more scientific meaning, the statement can hardly be accepted as correct. Passion differs from emotion in being more enduring and more dominating. On first consideration, it might therefore be thought to be a more potent source of appeal than emotion.

But, for the politician or speaker who seeks to persuade a large number of people, it cannot be so regarded. For so dominating is a real passion that comparatively few people are capable of experiencing it; and, when it is experienced, it generally operates only during some particular or limited period.

Again, passions vary with individuals to a much greater extent than do emotions and sentiments; and the number of passions that can coexist in the same individual is limited. While emotions, and many sentiments, are common to almost all people (or to all of a particular race or nation), the passions are more individual marks of character, and therefore do not constitute so universal a ground of appeal.

All of this does not imply that there are no intellectual elements in persuasion. If we examine a political speech, or any other instance of verbal persuasion, we shall find in it arguments of all kinds, deductive and inductive, from principles, examples, analogy, and cause and effect. But, while the forms and mechanism of rational logic are employed in the logic of persuasion, their use is often more apparent than real.

In persuasion the ultimate value of a series of judgments that constitutes the process is relative to its capacity to realize the dominant belief or wish, as well as to satisfy the emotions and sentiments underlying it. If we analyze any concrete instance of persuasion, it is nearly always possible to express the arguments in the form of rational logic; but, when we have done so, the resulting forms differ essentially from persuasion, because they do not express in any way the emotions by which all its judgments are inspired.

A third constituent element in the process of persuasion is the imaginative element, which is closely related to the intellectual and emotional elements, modifying both the presentation of the case and the reasoning that we bring to bear on it. Every belief or wish with which our persuasions concern themselves generates a series of images appropriate to it.

The best examples of persuasion, in books and speeches, are marked by a large imaginative quality; they convey to the reader or listener a sense of long vistas, a comprehensive and significant view of past, present, and future, a perception of the far-reaching sequence and connection of cause and effect. And the imagination works in conjunction not only with the intellect, but also with the emotions, which it enlivens and strengthens.

The situation that we frame or describe need not be actually present. If we imagine it as being either likely to occur or possible to realize, it may be powerful to excite in ourselves or others curiosity, exhilaration, hope, fear, or anger.

For this emotional result to occur, the consequences involved in the situation need not affect us personally: by depicting vividly the consequences for others, we may arouse pity, resentment, or moral indignation, and so persuade ourselves and our listeners or readers to a particular course of action.

Vice-versa, our emotional tendencies react on the imagination. The fearful person, seeing (or thinking they see) danger approaching, invents means to ward off or stop it. So, in persuasion, the emotions by which we are animated draw out our creative activity, and stimulate us to the discovery and invention of the means to gratify them.

The intellectual, emotional, and imaginative factors of persuasion, therefore, work together. By a characteristic interplay and the organic fusion of the three, true persuasion is constituted. As a creative and organic process, it implies a unifying principle, and the principle that unifies persuasion is the ultimate goal that we seek to realize.

Lastly, let us recognize that persuasion is process that can easily become degenerate and perverted, one that can be used to exploit our neighbors and serve exclusively our own self-interests. The misleading persuader invokes the aid of arguments that he or she knows to be flimsy and specious. They drag in illustrations and images merely to attract and allure, or to turn the listener’s attention from the point at issue.

Like ignoble politicians, they disguise unfavorable or unpleasant facts with their rhetoric. They fling ridicule at their opponents, so that they may stimulate the unconscious desire of the audience to feel superior. They appeal flamboyantly to emotions that are not inherent in the subject-matter, and represent situations and events falsely, in order that they may arouse the emotions favorable to their purpose.

The deceptive persuader plays especially upon the listener’s more selfish impulses and desires, which (to a large extent) includes their vanity, their greed, their hopes and suspicions, and their fears.

But before we rush to judge such persuaders too harshly, we need to admit that there is something of them in all of us. Most speakers, however honest they may be, and however strongly convinced of the rightness of their cause (even if they should disdain to employ any of the other arts of false persuasion), unconsciously feel, and may probably act upon, the impulse to attain their ends at least by some adroit cajolery or flattery. It should be added that this impulse often has its origin not in merely achieving a desired objective, but in a kindly feeling, and in the desire to be on good terms with others. We may therefore rightly distinguish between this and deliberate or elaborately sustained attempts to exploit the mental weaknesses and defects of others.

Our persuasion of other people should rest on the same grounds as those we use to persuade ourselves to be stronger, kinder, wiser, and more loving—disdaining to employ any arguments, any images, any ideas, or to appeal to any emotions that we have not first appealed strongly to ourselves. If we do this, our attitude will be at least sincere and uplifting, even if our conclusions may be untrue.

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