February 11, 2016

Why are people more persuasive when they use language like “it could be the case”?

I'm reading "How to change someone’s mind, according to science," by Ana Swanson in WaPo:
A new paper from researchers at Cornell University sheds some light on how and why people are convinced to change their minds. The researchers analyzed nearly two years of postings on ChangeMyView, a forum on the internet community reddit where posters present an argument and invite people to reason against them....

Surprisingly, they find that hedging – using language like “it could be the case” – is actually associated with more persuasive arguments. While hedging can signal a weaker point of view, the researchers say that it can also make an argument easier to accept by softening its tone....
Via my son John at Facebook, where I comment:
I think the reason language like “it could be the case” is more persuasive (if it is) isn't so much that it's "softer," but that it establishes your credibility and your concern about accuracy. You're not acting like you know what you don't or can't know. You're showing that you are still in a process of gathering ideas and sorting them out. You're a living mind, not walking propaganda. You're also signaling that you respect the other person's mind and that you want to be in a relationship with them, examining ideas together. That's probably something people want even more than the particular ideas they happen to have in their possession at any given time.

27 comments:

tim in vermont said...

Dale Carnegie said that you can't be truly persuasive unless you can appear persuadable youself.

Shouting Thomas said...

The "according to science" BS is blithering idiocy, particularly coming from two people whose only training is in a literary field, law.

You don't know anything about science, prof. Zero. You work in a field of literary criticism and literary precedent. That's all you've ever done, besides read articles in the popular press.

Unlike lawyers, I actually worked in a scientific field (in fact several) for decades.

My observation is that political and social life is now impaired most dramatically by the inability of people to trust their own experiences and see what is happening right in front of their faces. Political propaganda emanating from colleges that have been practicing ideological blacklisting for decades has damaged our ability to see reality and to give credence to what is right in front of our faces.

Direct observation, of course, would lead one to believe the American women are the most powerful, pampered, protected and privileged people who ever walked the earth. Try looking at the world outside your window, prof. It's very instructive. Your "oppression" theory BS cannot survive honest, direct observation.

Wilbur said...

I had a law school professor, who after several minutes of Socratic debate within his class, would gently stroke his mustache and say "What I'm suggesting is ...".

He had a manner that you'd believe anything he said thereafter.

sinz52 said...

One well-known technique in debating is to anticipate objections before they're actually raised.

You should do your homework and be familiar with possible objections to your ideas.

Then in your talk, you say, "Some might argue that..." and then dispose of their arguments.

Be careful not to create artificial objections--strawmen--just for show. President Obama does that all the time, as do other politicians. They imply that their opponents made an obviously bogus claim, just so they can then dismiss it as bogus.

Daniel Richwine said...

While this could be the case, I doubt the premise. I wonder if the convincing tone of the doubtful arguments worked because there were no real stakes being risked at being wrong, or even worse in not being right.
If I were arguing about whether blue is a better color for my wallpaper or green, a softer argument might be more pleasing to me. If I were lost in the woods in Alaska in the winter and was arguing which is the better direction, I'd likely be persuaded by an argument that went like "if we do this and it's wrong, we die. Let's do this other thing instead."

rhhardin said...

I go with being right.

whitney said...

People hate to be told what to do. Frame everything like a question and you can tell people what to do without them knowing it and, if you're really good, you can make them think it's their idea.
This technique will not work for people that feel the need to prove how smart they are.

tim in vermont said...

Be careful not to create artificial objections--strawmen--just for show. President Obama does that all the time

You are assuming that Obama's goal is honest discussion and debate. Any debates where the outcome is uncertain that Obama engages in are done behind closed doors with trusted people. What he is trying to create with the strawmen is nothing more than a handy rationalization for his followers to rely on when accepting his arguments.

He's not an idiot. He knows most of his followers are either idiots, or willing to go along with his little bit of kabuki theater for the sake of their imagined shared goals. Or maybe he really is an idiot, I can't imagine his actual goal was to gut the Democrat Party but it might have been.

Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

It always seems to me that when someone comes on really strong about their opinion, it makes the other person just dig in their heels all the more, right from the start, and you just get sound an fury.

n.n said...

Humility. People possess a natural aversion to condescension and indoctrination, especially when a topic is subject to negotiation or interpretation.

That sounds vaguely familiar.

tim maguire said...

I think you're right. Saying "it could be the case" says you're open to competing ideas, you arrive at a conclusion after wrestling with different possibilities. This lends credibility to the one you settle on.

Calvin Greer said...

Subjunctive mood is sometimes referred to as "optative" or "hopeful". Who doesn't want to entertain options or hope? (a more subtle "hope and change" strategy?). Better than beating up opponents to create defensive walls.

Henry said...

Weak arguments strengthen opposing arguments.

Social media meme people are oblivious to that fact.

But they're signaling, not persuading.

Owen said...

Tim in Vermont: "What [Obama] is trying to create with the strawmen is nothing more than a handy rationalization for his followers to rely on when accepting his arguments."

True enough. But I think there is a second objective to the "straw man" tactic, which is to discredit the other side. At the first level, a successful straw-man argument discredits or weakens the argument it targets. But at the second level it discredits the intelligence and sincerity of the person making the argument.

Reaching the second level consistently is something of an art. You want to craft the straw man so it is both recognizably the argument you're attacking, and yet also an exaggeration and even a parody of it. If you get that right, you make your opponent look like a fool without ever saying so.

It's awesome stuff, and Obama is very, very good at it. I think he's been using straw men and false-choice rhetoric since his childhood days.

Jack Wayne said...

What's surprising about this? Moderates are always suckers for a "compromise".

Dennis Braswell said...

Humility brings together, pride separates.

chickelit said...

Moody verbs:
Hillary: imperative
Sanders: subjunctive
Althouse: indicative

Owen said...


Jack Wayne: "What's surprising about this? Moderates are always suckers for a 'compromise'."

Tautological but true. It gets at the problem of using language to resolve things "in the world."

We are idea-addicts and word-jugglers but also, and ultimately, we are animals establishing hierarchies of dominance.

Fernandinande said...

Unlike the mindless clashes you often see on Twitter or Facebook, commentors on ChangeMyView explain their reasoning at length.

It sure sounds like commenters on ChangeMyView are not representative of the general public.
(As in: "They found that people from Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (WEIRD) societies — who represent as much as 80 percent of study participants, but only 12 percent of the world’s population — are not only unrepresentative of humans as a species, but on many measures they’re outliers.")

Also, on the internet you can't hold a knife to anyone's throat or otherwise make deals they can't refuse.

Fernandinande said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fernandinande said...

Oops.

It could be the case that commenters on ChangeMyView are not representative of the general public.

Tom said...

It may be that frontal assaults on our mental models can trigger strong emotional responses, bordering on fight or flight (Conversational Capacity, Craig Weber) while less direct probing of our think can allow us to adjust our mental model to new or different data or thinking.

For instance, I didn't think Trump could be a viable candidate. And anyone who said he was was, to me, stupid. Althouse has carefully and indirectly challenged my thinking and I now think Trump could possibly be a viable candidate and I'm now imagining what a Trump presidency might look like - good, bad, and ugly. That's a long way from thinking it was stupid to even consider Trump a realistic candidate.

Owen said...

Ferdinande: "...Also, on the internet you can't hold a knife to anyone's throat or otherwise make deals they can't refuse."

Not yet. Or, rather, not often. What does a Twitter-shaming mean? What does Doxxing mean?

The war is fought in the opponent's mind. If these "virtual" activities can actually influence thinking and behavior, are they not like a knife to the throat?

Fernandinande said...

Owen said...
Ferdinande: "...Also, on the internet you can't hold a knife to anyone's throat or otherwise make deals they can't refuse."

Not yet. Or, rather, not often.


True. Here's an example: Detroit Police Sergeant Under Investigation After Comparing Beyonce’s Super Bowl Performance To KKK He was threatened in meat-space and apologized for his thoughtcrime. But did he actually change his mind?

Gabriel said...

There are people who qualify because they are trying to be careful about what they know and don't know, and are taking care not to mislead.

There are far more people, in my experience, who qualify their statements because they are running motte-and-bailey on you and when you challenge them they will claim that their qualifiers showed they didn't really say that.

When I was in college, in the the early 2000s, an activist group drew a bunch of chalk outlines all over the public spaces, protesting "rape culture" (this has been going on for a while). And some student put a beer can in the hand of one of the chalk outlines. And butthurt levels went up to eleven. One of the activists said to our student newspaper:

"These people are basically taking a step toward advocating rape."

See what he did their with the qualifiers? (That's why I remember it.) He's not accusing anyone of anything, oh no, read what he said again. But what impression did he try to leave?

Josh Sater said...

I THINK and (IF IT IS). Two instances of this the guy himself uses in the article to state his case. Well played, sir. Well played.

Sammy Finkelman said...

Well, you know, I mean really know, not like when Hillary Clinton says "you know" when all you know is that this is she thinks this is a plausible belief - well anyway you know, that's what Benjamin Franklin wrote that he used to say in his autobiography. He was always tentative. (this was circa 1730 and later)