Persuasion and the Limits of Logic and Reason

Christopher Witt —  November 29, 2016 — 1 Comment

persuasionWe can’t reason people out of beliefs, opinions, judgments, prejudices, and behaviors that they didn’t reason themselves into.

We can’t change people’s ways of thinking and acting simply by giving them new information and leading them step by step through a logical process of analysis and understanding.

We can’t, in short, persuade people to change by logic and reasoning.

There are two main reasons for this.

First, we form our basic beliefs and behavior patterns as children, when our ability to reason is underdeveloped, if not entirely lacking. For the most part we adopt, without thinking, the beliefs and behaviors of those around us.

When we question our beliefs and behaviors later in life—if we question them at all—we’re still inclined to give them credence. Reinforced by habit, they “feel” right, natural, proper.

And second, we aren’t rational beings. At least, rationality isn’t our primary way of understanding and relating to the world.

The process of reasoning—gathering and assessing information, questioning assumptions, forming opinions, analyzing them and revising them when necessary—doesn’t come naturally to us. It’s a skill we have to learn.

Reasoning takes time and effort. And in a world that comes at us like a Mack truck, at a thousand miles an hour, with horns blaring, demanding an immediate response, we tend not to reflect but to react.

We don’t say, “Whoa, hold your horses. Give me some time to think this through.” We don’t, in short, reason our way through each new situation. We fall back on our tried and true ways of understanding the world and of coping with its incessant and clamorous demands.

I’m not arguing in favor of abandoning reason and logic.

I am proposing that if persuasion is our goal—if we want to change how people think and feel and act—we have to develop strategies and techniques that build on something more than reason and logic.

The question, of course, is how? Any suggestions?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

One response to Persuasion and the Limits of Logic and Reason

  1. Storytelling. Make it personal, make it emotional. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” persuaded millions of Northerners to fight for the abolition of slavery by dramatizing it. Every politician tells a story. Every company tells a story. Disney animation made a huge comeback when it concentrated on storytelling. Great storytelling can change people.

    NOTE — I don’t know if this is the “answer” to the descent into white nationalist Fascism this country is suffering. Darth Vader was right. The Dark Side is powerful. But it’s the best weapon people have who want to persuade — not another squishy “position paper” no one will read.

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