Is Persuasion Bad for Society?

Ideas. Insight. Inspiration.

Is Persuasion Bad for Society?

July 31, 2008 Must Reads Persuasion 10

Some months ago, I read an article titled “Art and Propaganda” in the online edition of The Nation, and found it to be insightful, challenging, and mildly persuasive, at least in part.

In The Doorway

It’s a terrific article, and worth the read. Milton Glaser, a Fulbright scholar and one of America’s most celebrated designers, wrote, ” The mind’s ability to alter itself is the source of human freedom. Information expands the capacity of the mind to change. Persuasion limits that capacity. Beliefs must be held lightly, because certainty is frequently the enemy of truth.” I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, and I can go along with much of what he said. But it all falls apart for me when it comes to one of his core ideas.

Glaser writes that “Persuading us robs us of our ability to observe things for ourselves.” No, sorry, it (persuasion) does not. It can’t do anything. It is but a tool, a method, a means to an end. It is amoral, meaning it can be used by anyone for any purpose, ethical or not. At best, the use of persuasive communication increases your odds of a successful outcome. But the use of persuasive communication comes with no guarantee. Persuasive skill is naught but a construct of human imagination and ingenuity applied to an outcome, and matched against the formidable and very human capacity to think, to question, to challenge and arrive at one’s own conclusions, I don’t think it stands a chance. Not even a little one. The only thing that robs us of our ability to observe for ourselves is our failure to think for ourselves about information presented to us. And yes, that happens. When it does happen, when we are persuaded when we ought not to be, that’s an opportunity to get feedback about how we think, and to learn how to think even better.

When information is presented non-persuasively, I suppose a case could be made that because it is not compelling, we don’t have to think about it. The idea, I suppose, is that non-persuasive communication is easier on our busy and pitiful little minds. But that’s just whack. The real challenge of life in these modern times is to make note of the fact that compliance professionals (Cialdini’s term) are running rampant up and down the threads of our cultural connections. So whenever communication takes place between people, whether it’s a conversation, a meeting, a radio spot or television ad, the responsibility for our choices falls squarely where it belongs, on ourselves.

Persuasion is an attempt to influence people’s attitudes. I find nothing inherently wrong with the idea of people seeking to influence each other. Indeed, I think that’s how it should be, because an idea presented non- persuasively has little chance at influence, no matter its worth. Attitude drives behavior. Seems to me that persuasive skill is a necessary tool for parents, managers, service providers and a whole host of others trying to either improve their world, their relationships, or their lot in life.

Wise parents persuade their children to think for themselves. Otherwise, the kids won’t be able to protect themselves from peer pressure and other coercive influences. The wise service provider persuades the customer to learn about and take advantage of a system, product or service intended to serve their needs. Otherwise, there can be no trust building for the long term reciprocal relationships necessary to the success of a business. And as for managers, the wise manager learns everything he or she can about what motivates their employees and teams, and uses this knowledge to engage, empower and employ the best those people have to offer. Otherwise, a non-persuasive manager can cripple an enterprise, sow the seeds of a revolt, throw sand in the gears of progress.

I just can’t persuade myself to hold it against anyone that they communicate persuasively. Even if I despise what they stand for, they have the same right as I to try, and if they believe they are right, they should go about their communication the right way, using the art of persuasion. I think it a valuable endeavor for you to improve your persuasive skills, since without persuasive ability, you may have the solution to a problem yet the problem persists; the answer to a question, yet the question goes unanswered; a way to move things forward, yet no progress is made.

Admittedly, people are all too often more emotional than thoughtful in their responses to the signals of persuasion. Yet for this very reason, when hope requires persuasion, without it there is no hope.

What do you think? Better to be persuasive, or leave everything to chance? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

be well,


10 Responses

  1. I am in agreement though certain forms of persuasion are subtle and undetected and yet very powerful and they can be the ones which eliminate the ability to think as an individual. These persuasion tactics are used knowingly or unknowingly by the media, to influence our opinions in various directions.

    I have avoided reading newspapers and watching/listening to the news most of my adult life. Though I manage to keep abreast of things all the same. I can see a difference in how I formulate opinions and how opinions of people I know are shaped by what they read/hear/see via these medium.

    Good example here:
    When Princess Diana died, my mother after a couple of weeks wanted to travel a couple of hundred miles to lay a bouquet at the gates of Windsor castle with other mourners. This struck me (and I told her this at the time) as a very powerful example of media influence, as my mother had NO interest in the Princess when she was alive, don’t think she even liked her and this was the case for a good week after her death. But by the time she had read dozens of papers, seen numerous TV shows on her, she became overwhelmed with grief and wanted to pay her respects.

    Her reaction was bigger than that of when her own father died.

    She also denied her lack of liking for the Princess before she died.

    She had been ‘persuaded’ to love the Princess by all the hype and one wonders how many others were/are influenced by such powerful media messages.

    I have always been interested in persuasive techniques myself as I was involved in selling for many years but I only ever sold people what I believed was best for them and never anything that in good conscience they did not need or was out of their budget.

    On a higher note, persuasion is what keeps a community conforming which is necessary for survival of the group.

  2. Wow, CB, great example!

    Yes, there are hidden influencers being used in all kinds of advertising, and by people who have the gift of having their way with others. We’re witnessing this yet again in the form of political ads, most of which are incredibly deceptive and don’t do voters any service at all.

    My idea is that it is harder to mislead and deceive people who have taken responsibility for their choices and associated consequences to them, and are willing to think about what they are seeing and hearing before drawing a conclusion about the yes/no agree/disagree dichotomy.

    My daughter, as a high school debater, loved to tell me when something was a false dichotomy. She had plenty of opportunities, with me, with teachers, with advertisements she was exposed to, with her peers, etc.

    I think most of what is presented to us by the media falls in this domain. Are you for or against? Do you agree or disagree? I even used this approach in my headline for this blog post. Why? Because it gets attention.

    But my experience in life is that there aren’t many things that fall in the category of a simple yes or no. And the ability to think for yourself, even when you don’t want to, is your only true protection in a world where influence is now understood and utilized by every imaginable agency.

    Part of what I teach in my persuasion training is what kind of questions to ask in order to protect yourself from the things I teach. And I invite my students to apply those questions to what I’m telling them, because may be the only way to have a deep enough ‘AHA’ experience to make the learning truly useful.

    Thank you so very much for the comment, and do come again!! Your comments are always welcome, whether I agree or disagree! 🙂

  3. You have reminded me of something I discovered when reading a book about how to detect lies. I discovered that I ‘had’ (past tense as the discovery allowed me to change my behavior) a rather incriminating guilt complex and my reaction to being questioned about wrong doings was what led to me being wrongly accused of things as a child.

    How did this guilt complex evolve?

    I have a sibling who as a child was in trouble a lot at school, so despite the fact that I was the exact opposite I was always being judged based on his behavior and this was very much the case when I followed him in the year below into high school.

    I was put in a lower set than the rest of my peers despite being top of the class with those same peers. This was the first area of discrimination. I was once beaten by a boy 2yrs my senior and who was known as the school bully , I was on the other hand 2nd smallest girl in the school and skin and bone. Yet when we were called to see the head teacher, I was told ‘I hope you are not turning out like your brother’ and so I had no sympathy as despite the circumstances it was assumed I was somehow in the wrong.

    Anyway, this led to me believing I was always going to be thought to be guilty whereas most people assume they will be thought to be innocent until proved otherwise. This guilt complex resulted in my actually mimicking all the outward signs of a liar! I would become nervous, fidget, turn red and even feel inside myself ‘guilty’ I even failed a lie detection test in school (just a fun thing) when I know I was telling the truth! I was asked if I fancied a boy I hated. I said I did not and the buzzer rang out, the boy in question was chuffed to bits, I however now hate the very mention of polygraph machines!

    Anyway to cut to the chase, this book made me realise that all my protestations of innocence and other things actually made me look more guilty so I have (I hope) altered my behaviour to match the advice in the book with regard to how ‘innocent’ people behave!

    I also learned that what I think I think is not always what I REALLY think. So I find myself looking closely at my own ‘honest’ answers to questions and then realising I am sometimes being dishonest with myself. This is great when considering ones true opinion about something.

    Which brings us back to your reply above, learning how to avoid the persuasive techniques so that you can remain clear to think for yourself. How odd that we use these techniques on ourselves!

    This is all great stuff. I find it very interesting.

  4. Thank you CB for your comment, and examples.

    I’d be very curious to learn more about what honest people do versus what liars to. I’m guessing that the real comparison is between what successful liars do vs what uncomfortable honest people do.

    Whatever, I do know that whenever one defends him or herself against an accusation, it makes that person seem guilty as charged. So the best defense is a good offense, (preferably in a way that isn’t offensive!) in which you turn the accusation around, and seek to learn more about it.

    For example, “Do you like this boy?” “Please, help me understand what you mean by ‘like this boy.” Then I can answer your question instead of answering one you didn’t ask.

    This has a funny effect on people who accuse. 3 possible effects, actually. Maybe the person withdraws the accusation because they realize they are out of bounds. Maybe they clarify and you find in the clarification that it’s a question for which you have a great answer. And maybe, they asked you because there’s something they want to bring to your attention, and inquiring about it helps you gain that information. In any case, it sure beats going on the defensive.

    Do keep your comments and examples coming, please. Your thoughts are a wonderful addition to my blog.

    be well

  5. Hi Dr Rick, the book I read is called ‘never be lied to again’ by David J Lieberman P.h.D.

    He mentions how police conduct interrogations to catch a liar and one great thing I recall reading was something that always puzzled and concerned me in the past and that is the way they will ask in an interview in 2008, ‘where were you on the 5th August 2pm 1994?’

    If the person committed the crime, they would actually KNOW as they will have prepared an alibi, thus by saying what they were doing is a clear sign of guilt as of course the average person has zero clue what they were doing so long ago. My guilt complex was such when I was younger that I actually kept a diary of my comings and goings should I ever be questioned! Funny how ‘knowing’ may have actually incriminated me.

    I can feel an article on ‘overcoming your guilt complex’ coming on! 🙂

  6. I take that back, I just Googled Guilt Complex and it appears I have used the term out of context. It pertains to people who feel guilty, I just worried about people thinking I was guilty, which is something different entirely. I think that’s called ‘paranoia’ *wink* Oh dear.

  7. Hmmm. I think I will blog about that! I did some work on it in a book many years ago that I coauthored, called Dealing With Relatives, Even If You Can’t Stand Them, which is now available as an ebook in my online store at

    It was the chapter on the Martyr, who has the ability to invoke this guilt complex in others. At this moment, my recollection of what i wrote was to strip it, flip it, and nip it in the bud. I’ll explain all of this when I get to my guilty post. Er…post about feeling guilty, 😉

  8. Alex says:

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  9. GodWears[BrandNameHere] says:

    Yo, dude kinda cool how you approached this topic from two different angles… Most of us would only approach it from one angle… (Like I did)

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