Masthead member Justin recently asked us to investigate “the best science on persuasion.” Social media, he says, can feel like Thanksgiving dinner, with people on either end of the political spectrum talking past each other, never getting anywhere. Today, we’re looking at the art of persuasion. I asked a writer—Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic—and a psychology professor—Matt Feinberg at the University of Toronto—the same question: How do you change someone’s mind? Then, to close us out, Conor reflects on a few articles that succeeded in persuading him to see an issue in a different way.
HOW TO PERSUADE PEOPLE IN AN UNPERSUADABLE AGE
Staff writer Conor Friedersdorf is known—both in the Atlantic newsroom and in the wider world—for his “level-headedness” and “willingness to explore all sides of an issue,” as Michael put it on our Facebook group. I asked Conor and Feinberg, a professor who specializes in political attitudes, to reflect on the best methods of persuasion.
- Start with a common understanding. If you want to convince someone of something, Conor says, begin by making sure you understand what they actually believe and can characterize it in a way that won’t alienate them. Then look for the point of divergence: the dividing line between what you agree on and what you don’t. “It can be as simple and general as, ‘Look, we’re talking about this controversial policy, and ultimately we all want what is best for the country, but we disagree on how to get there,’” Conor said. You can also be more specific. “We agree on ABCDEFGH, but I is where we start to disagree.” Then go from there.
- Narrow your argument. “I’m always trying to say to the reader, ‘There are a million and one things we may disagree about, but let me explicitly set aside a bunch of those things so that you don’t raise objections to them,’” Conor said. He wants the reader to focus, without getting distracted by tangential arguments. In the fall of 2015, Yale administrators clashed over whether the university should advise students to select politically correct Halloween costumes. After that exchange—which garnered national attention—most of the discussion centered around which party was in the right. Conor sidestepped that debate, and focused instead on the value of having the discussion in the first place. “The piece was explicit about articulating what I wasn’t saying. I wasn’t saying that students at Yale had no legitimate grievances. Rather, I wanted to highlight the striking degree of intolerance present when such questions cannot even be raised.
- Emphasize the person’s values over your own. In a recent study, Feinberg researched how liberals and conservatives can reframe arguments to convince each other to see issues from the opposing point of view. The study centered around the Moral Foundations Theory, the idea that several “foundations” give rise to different sets of morals. These foundations include concepts like fairness/cheating, care/harm, liberty/oppression, and loyalty/betrayal. Certain foundations, like fairness and care, are more popular among the left, while others, like liberty and loyalty, appeal more to those on the right. In a series of written arguments, Feinberg reframed certain issues to emphasize different values. “If you want to persuade a conservative that same-sex marriage is a good thing, it might not be useful to highlight fairness—the idea that everyone deserves equal rights,” he said. “Instead, think of something that is more in line with conservative notions of morality.” In a message to conservatives in the study, he appealed to loyalty, emphasizing that same-sex couples are patriotic, proud Americans who serve in the U.S. military and contribute to the U.S. economy. “By highlighting that notion of morality,” Feinberg said, “the argument was much more persuasive.”
- Try not to reference prominent partisans. If you’re one of the few people who has succeeded in keeping politics off social media, try to keep it that way. Christopher Wolsko, professor of psychology at Oregon State University, tested how Feinberg’s research held up if the author of the argument was a prominent member of the opposing political party. “It lessened the effect of moral reframing,” Feinberg said. “Which makes perfect sense—now, the salient element is who is speaking, and party affiliation, as well as what information is being shared.” You’ll have a much better chance of persuading someone if they don’t automatically associate you with a political party other than their own.
Five Articles That Persuaded Conor Friedersdorf
Every year, Conor curates a list of stellar reads. I asked him to single out a few that changed his mind. Here’s what he wrote.
The essay “A Golden Manifesto” changed my thinking by exposing me to a notion that I'd never thought about before: that adversarial debate among philosophers is not an inevitable approach to practicing philosophy–and that more diversity in the field could reveal different methods of finding truth. Similarly, before reading “McDonald’s: You Can Sneer, but it’s the Glue That Holds Communities Together,” I would never have seen the fast food giant as a provider of vital social ties.
Other articles helped me to see a subject with fresh eyes. In bygone culture war debates about gangsta rap, for example, I often defended the genre for its portrayal of communities and social ills that would otherwise go unnoticed. “Dispatches From the Rap Wars” chronicled a subgenre within gangsta rap where the songs do not merely portray violence, they brag about and incite actual murders. It made me aware that there are limits to the musical expression that I am willing to defend. And “Doing the No No,” an interview on the innovative podcast Love+Radio, made me realize that while I am generally excited by and inclined to celebrate difference, there is a limit to that predisposition as well, as I explored in an essay of my own published in December.
Yet another article, “The Empty Brain,” revealed a view I hadn't even realized I had: that the brain is like a computer. I'd internalized that simile without even realizing it. And it's largely wrong! “We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not.”
Finally, if one of my acquaintances in college was suddenly revealed to be a prominent leader in a white supremacist movement, I would have immediately disassociated from the person, stigmatized them, and felt certain all the while that I was doing exactly the right thing. But the college classmates of the main character in “The White Flight of Derek Black” made a different choice. They decided to attempt to lovingly engage their classmate in hopes of persuading him away from his hateful views. And it worked. They took an important leader in the white supremacist movement and got him to break with his own father and become a detractor. That persuaded me that persuasion is more possible than I'd have guessed.
—Conor Friedersdorf, Atlantic staff writer
Today’s Wrap Up
- Question of the day: Would you like suggestions from our Masthead community about what to read? We’re working on an experiment in literary matchmaking. If you’re interested in volunteering, send us a note.
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- What’s coming: Tomorrow, I’ll talk to Kordel Davis, one of the fraternity brothers featured in Caitlin Flanagan’spiece on hazing at Penn State, about what it was like to speak up about Tim Piazza’s death when the rest of his fraternity told him to stay quiet.
- What we’re thinking about: Over the past few days, some great debates have sprung up on the Masthead Facebook group—about contentious matters like gun control, Bob Corker’s feud with the President, and the way The Atlantic should cover politics. These conversations have been thoughtful and respectful—not something you see every day in this tense political moment. Thank you for that.
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