Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

moderating extremes

Moderating the Extremes

It’s complicated.

Your friend, Mary, avidly and vocally supports a national flat tax. Or maybe she’s convinced that free trade is the only sensible way to stimulate the world economy. Or maybe she actively supports more government programs to ensure equality of opportunity.

Let’s also assume that you disagree with Mary. You’d like her to see your side. But she’s so convinced that she’s right — and everybody else is wrong — that it’s difficult to have a conversation with her. Your attempts at dialogue just devolve into long-winded diatribes.

So how do you move Mary? Here are two different communication strategies:

  1. Ask Mary why she thinks her position is correct.
  2. Ask Mary how her ideas would work in the real world.

If you pursue Strategy 1, Mary will simply launch into her “pre-recorded” sound bites and positions. Strategy 1 does not require Mary to think. It merely requires her to repeat. She continues to convince herself. As a result, Mary’s position will likely become even more extreme.

Strategy 2, on the other hand, requires Mary to think through a variety of complicated, real-world issues. A common feature of extreme political positions is that they’re over-simplified. By requiring Mary to think through complicated issues, Strategy 2 often reveals weaknesses in the logic. It’s not so simple as it seemed. As a result, Mary’s position often becomes more moderate and more nuanced.

The effectiveness of Strategy 2 derives from the “illusion of explanatory depth”. In their article on the phenomenon (click here), Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil explain that, “People feel they understand complex phenomena with far greater precision, coherence, and depth than they really do; they are subject to an illusion—an illusion of explanatory depth.” When you ask people how their ideas would actually work, they start to bump into the limits of their illusion. They don’t understand it nearly as well as they thought. As their explanation falters, so does the certitude of their position.

In this final week of the presidential campaign, many people are stating extreme positions. If you want to have a substantive discussion with another person — as opposed to a battle of sound bites — don’t ask why they believe something. Rather, ask them how it works.

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