On persuasion and anger

Humans are messy and complicated, and there are very few universal rules of human behaviour, so when you encounter a useful one it’s worth paying attention to it, because it’s basically gold dust.

There’s one I’ve had to learn the hard way. Most people seem to know it when you point it out, but very few people seem able to bear it in mind in their actions.

The rule is this: The angrier you make someone at you while trying to persuade them of something, the less likely they are to be persuaded of that thing and the harder they will be to persuade of it in future.

That’s it that’s the whole rule.

Importantly, the rule applies no matter who is correct. Sadly, truth is not nearly as relevant to persuasion as one might hope.

Obviously it’s not actually completely universal – there are always going to be a few exceptions, whether they are people, subjects or specific circumstances – but it’s close enough to universal that I think it’s worth just treating it as true until you’ve got overwhelming evidence that you’re in one of those special cases. Certainly I’ve seen it play out this way a lot, from both sides of the argument.

A little bit of introspection will probably give you plenty of evidence of your doing this. Think of someone condescendingly explaining your error to you, insulting your intelligence along the way. Are you likely to want to listen? What if you’re actually wrong? Will you get the point faster or slower than if they’d just said “Hey, are you sure about that? I think X, Y and Z”.

I was going to include some examples here, but the problem with doing that is that it will just make the groups I use as examples angry and they’ll not be persuaded of this point. Also it’s somewhat unnecessary given that my primary example is everyone.

So if you can’t think of examples of this yourself, feel free to disregard this post, but I wish you wouldn’t because I think it’s really important if you have any desire to change peoples’ belief.

Because so many attempts to evangelise or persuade completely ignore this and instead go straight for making the person you’re talking as angry as possible.

If you lecture someone, or treat them like they’re a bad person for being wrong, or declare your superiority over them in some way, you will make them angry.

If you try and engage with them calmly, try to understand where they’re coming from, and work with them to find common ground and identify where your disagreement lies, you probably won’t. You won’t necessarily succeed at persuading them, but you’re a lot more likely to than if you told them they were an immoral idiot and the correctness of your position was obvious to anyone with two brain cells to rub together.

Most attempts to persuade on issues that people feel strongly about look a lot more like the first form (“How can you disagree with my obviously correct position you monster?”) than the second (“I’m not sure I get where you’re coming from. Can we discuss this?”), despite it being an entirely ineffective strategy.

I’m not totally sure why this happens, but I can think of a couple of plausible reasons:

  • Persuading people is hard. Most attempts are going to fail, so it’s hard to get feedback on what actually works because most of the time nothing does.
  • When we are angry, it takes a lot of self-control to behave calmly, and behaving angrily will tend to cause people to reciprocate.
  • Engaging people constructively is intrinsically hard and doesn’t feel that rewarding. A good rant will make you feel good about yourself and is much lower effort. If you don’t really expect to succeed, why not go for the easy option that makes you feel better?
  • We socially reward posturing and dominance much more than we do a successful conversion. The people who already agree with you (who probably make up a large fraction of your social group) are much more likely to go “Nice put down! You really showed that guy!” than they are “Well done on patiently sitting there educating that person”.
  • There may be other non-persuasion benefits to getting someone angry (e.g. what it reveals to the audience. Though I think this one often backfires)

So we’ve got an easy option that will make you feel good and a hard option that won’t. It’s perhaps not actually that surprising which one we tend to pick.

You probably think I’m going to tell you that you have to do the hard thing, but in all honesty I’m not sure it’s really worth it most of the time.

By and large, persuasion will only happen when someone is ready to be persuaded. If someone seems able and willing to be persuaded and tries to engage you in productive dialogue about it and you feel up to reciprocating, go for it. It might do some good, or at least you might get an interesting conversation out of it.

The rest of the time though? It’s up to you whether you really want to or not. I’m increasingly disinclined to, myself.

But I do recommend doing less of the easy thing, or at least be aware of what it is you’re really doing: If you find yourself shouting at someone, maybe stop being surprised that it doesn’t result in them agreeing with you no matter how loudly or repeatedly you do it, or how obviously correct your position is.

If you want to keep doing it anyway because you’re angry and it feels good, go for it I guess. I’m probably not going to be able to persuade you not to.

(This post was done as a Patreon request, but I won’t try to persuade you to donate beyond noting that here, regardless of whether it would make you angry)

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