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emotional manipulation

The Dying Grandmother Gambit

The government abandoned her!

I teach two classes at the University of Denver: Applied Critical Thinking and Persuasion Methods and Techniques. Sometimes I use the same teaching example for both classes. Take the dying grandmother gambit, for instance

In this persuasive gambit, the speaker plays on our heartstrings by telling a very sad story about a dying grandmother (or some other close relative). The speaker aims to gain our agreement and encourages us to act. Notice that thinking is not required. In fact, it’s discouraged. The story often goes like this:

My grandmother was the salt of the earth. She worked hard her entire life. She raised good kids and played by the rules. She never complained; she just worked harder. She worked her fingers to the bone but she was always the picture of health … until her dying days when our government simply abandoned her. As her health failed, she moved into a nursing home. She wanted to stay. She thought she had earned it. But the government did X (or didn’t do Y). As a result, my dying grandmother was abandoned to her fate. She was kicked to the curb like an old soda can. In her last days, she was a tiny, wrinkled prune. She couldn’t hear or see. She just curled up in her bed and waited to die. But our faceless bureaucrats couldn’t have cared less. My grandmother never complained. That was not her way. But she cried. Oh lord, did she cry. I can still see the big salty tears rolling slowly down her cheeks. Sometimes her gown was soaked with tears. How much did the government care? Not a whit. It would have been so easy for the government to change its policy. They could have cancelled X (or done Y). But no, they let her die. Folks, I don’t want your grandparents to die this way. So I’ve dedicated my candidacy to changing the government policy. If I can save just one grandma from the same fate, I’ll consider my job done.

So, do I tell my classes this is a good thing or a bad thing? It depends on which class I’m teaching.

In my critical thinking class I point out the weakness of the evidence. It doesn’t make sense to decide government policy on a sample of one. Perhaps the grandmother represents a broader population. Or perhaps not. We have no way of knowing how representative her story is.

Further, we didn’t meet the dear old lady. We didn’t directly and dispassionately observe her conditions. We didn’t speak to her caretakers. Or to those faceless bureaucrats. We only heard the story and we heard it from a person who stands to benefit from our reaction. She may well have embroidered or embellished the story.

Further, the speaker is playing on the vividness fallacy. We remember vivid things, especially things that result in loss, or death, or dismemberment. Because we remember them, we overestimate their probability. We think they’re far more likely to happen than they really are. If we invoke our critical thinking skills, we may recognize this. But the speaker aims to drown our thinking in a flood of emotions.

In my critical thinking class, I point out the hazards of succumbing to the story. In my persuasion class, on the other hand, I suggest that it’s a very good way to influence people.

The dying grandmother is a vivid and emotional story. It flies below our System 2 radar and aims directly at our System 1. It aims to influence us emotionally, not conceptually. It’s influential because it’s a good story. A story can do what data can never do. It can engage us and enrage us.

Further, the dying grandmother puts a very effective face on the issue. The issue is no longer about numbers. It’s about flesh and blood. We would be very hardhearted to ignore it. So we don’t ignore it. Instead, our emotions pull us closer to the speaker’s position.

So is the dying grandmother gambit good or bad? It’s neither. It just is. We need to recognize when someone manipulates our emotions. Then we need to put on our critical thinking caps.

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