The 1989 Tour de France was decided in the last stage, a 15.2 mile time trial into Paris. The leader, Laurent Fignon, held a fifty second advantage over Greg LeMond. Both riders were strong time trialers. To make up fifty seconds in such a short race seemed impossible. Most observers assumed that Fignon would hold his lead and win the overall title.
In most time trials, coaches radio the riders to inform them of their speed, splits, and competitive position. In this final time trial, however, LeMond turned off his radio. He didn’t want to know. He feared that, if he knew too much, he might ease up. Instead, he raced flat out for the entire distance, averaging 33.9 miles per hour, a record at the time. In a stunning finish, LeMond gained 58 seconds on Fignon and won the race by a scant eight seconds. (Here’s a terrific video recap of the final stage).
LeMond’s strategy is today known as information avoidance. He chose not to accept information that he knew was freely available to him. LeMond knew that he might be distracted by the information. He chose instead to focus solely on his own performance – the only variable that he could control.
While information avoidance worked for LeMond, the strategy often yields suboptimal outcomes. We choose not to know something and the not knowing creates health hazards, financial obstacles, and a series of unfortunate events. Here are some examples.
In some ways, information avoidance is the flip side of the confirmation bias. We accept information that confirms our beliefs and avoid information that doesn’t. But there seems to be more to avoidance than simply the desire to avoid disconfirming information. Other contributors include:
Information avoidance can also teach us about persuasion. If we want to persuade people to change their opinion about something, making it scarier is probably self-defeating. People will be more likely to avoid the information rather than seeking it out. Similarly, bombarding people with more and more information is likely to be counter-productive. People under bombardment become defensive rather than open-minded.
As Aristotle noted, persuasion consists of three facets: 1) ethos (credibility); 2) pathos (emotional connection); 3) logos (logic and information). Today, we often seek to persuade with logos – information and logic. But Aristotle taught that logos is the least persuasive facet. We typically use logos to justify a decision rather than to make a decision. Ethos and pathos are much more influential in making the decision. The recent research on information avoidance suggests that we’ll persuade more people with ethos and pathos than we ever will with logos. Aristotle was right.
Greg LeMond’s example shows that information avoidance can provide important benefits. But, as we develop our communication strategies, let’s keep the downsides in mind. We need to package our arguments in ways that will reduce information avoidance and lead to a healthier exchange of ideas.
Aristotle defined rhetoric as the ability to “see the available means of persuasion”. In other words, what will it take to persuade the audience to agree with your proposal? It may be an eloquent speech. It may be a brief video. It may be a nice bouquet of flowers. We aim to understand the dynamics of the situation and select the best available means of gaining agreement. To find the best persuasive approach, Cicero said that we need to consider five principles: Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery. (Click here for brief definitions of each).
Many books on rhetoric present Cicero’s five canons rather formally. They may seem forbidding and perhaps somewhat outdated. But the canons are actually quite useful in finding the best available means of persuasion. To understand the canons and use them effectively, it helps to think of the questions each canon raises.
Let’s begin with the first canon: invention. We seek to invent the most persuasive argument for a given audience. Here are the questions to consider.
Remember that you’re just trying to invent the argument at this point. There are many more questions to ask round out a persuasive argument. If you can answer these questions, however, you can greatly enhance your chances of success.
Let’s say that Suellen and I have an argument and I notice that all the verbs are in the past tense. According to Aristotle, the verbs tell us that the argument is about blame. I may think it’s about who left the door unlocked or forgot to pay the mortgage. But it’s really about blame.
Let’s also say that I win that argument. (This is very hypothetical). I’ve successfully pushed the blame away from myself and on to her. It’s not easy to win an argument, so I do a little victory dance. Meanwhile, how does Suellen feel? Probably a mixture of emotions – irritation, annoyance, anger, … perhaps even a desire to get even. Suellen is the woman I love. Why on earth would I want her to feel like that? That’s the problem with arguing in the past tense. Even if you win, you lose.
Arguing in the past tense is generally known as forensic rhetoric. In many legal situations, we do want to lay blame. We want to establish guilt and make sure that the appropriate person is appropriately punished. Most of the testimony in a trial is in the past tense. Similarly, characters in crime dramas speak almost exclusively in the past tense. The goal is to lay blame and Aristotle and others give us rules for how to argue the point.
Outside of the courtroom, however, arguing in the past tense is essentially useless. We can’t do anything about the past. We can’t change it. We can’t enhance it. We can lay blame but, even then, we will argue endlessly about whether we got it right or not. Did we blame the right person? If so, did we blame them for the right reasons? Did we learn the right lessons? Did history teach us anything? Or did it teach us nothing?
The next time you’re in an argument, notice the verbs. If they’re in the past tense, you’re simply trying to blame the other person. Does it do any good to “win” such an argument? Nope. By “winning”, you just give the other side motivation to come back stronger next time. This is how feuds get started. The Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, had it right: “Small-minded people blame others. Average people blame themselves. The wise see all blame as foolishness.”
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.
In my Persuasion class, I teach that the best way to disagree is to begin by agreeing. By acknowledging common ground – or common objectives – we show that we respect the other side, even if we disagree. This helps us build trust, which ultimately is the basis of all persuasion.
In today’s world of hyper-partisanship and angry denunciations, how do we begin by agreeing? How do we find points of common interest? The simple answer is that we begin by understanding the other side’s perspective. We read articles and authors that we disagree with. (This may be good for our mental health a well as our political wellbeing).
But trolls are everywhere – on both the left and the right. How do we find conscientious authors and sources that can help us understand a worldview and not just an angry index of insults? Here are some resources:
Bridge-The-Divide.com – this website has two CEO’s – a West Virginia Republican and a California Democrat. They aim to “understand each other’s point of view without compromising their own values.” The organization seems small but promising and has already recruited ambassadors in 22 countries. You might want to apply.
Cortico.ai – where bridge-the-divide.com relies on ambassadors, Cortico.ai focuses more on artificial intelligence and media analytics. They aim to “analyze the public sphere” and “give voice to the common ground”. Though small, they partner with MIT’s Media Lab and are backed by Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, so they may have some staying power.
Renewing The Center – a service of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, this service publishes a newsletter that seeks to explain why traditional left/right distinctions matter less than they used to.
The Guardian/Burst Your Bubble – this English newspaper tilts to the left but publishes a “Burst Your Bubble” feature every week. The editors select interesting conservative articles and videos – usually about a given topic – succinctly summarize the key ideas and explain why you should read them. For recent examples, click here and here.
New York Times/Right and Left – similar to Burst Your Bubble (but not as pithy), The New York Times regularly surveys how authors on the left and right treat a given topic. For recent examples, click here and here.
These five sources provide a pretty good starting point for finding a balance in a partisan world. But I hope that there are more. If you know of others, please let me know and I’ll update the list.