Convincing People

When you have conceptualized and reaffirmed what you believe to the a profound “truth”, there is a definite tendency to want to share that understanding with others. You want to convince them that you know something that they want to know, too. This ranges from religious zealots seeking converts to Mac fanboys decrying the supremacy of all Apple products, to philosophers such as myself seeking to share a system of understanding with anyone who wants to listen. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to spread the good stuff around, but there are a number of interesting aspects to the pursuit that I’m going to elaborate on.

Firstly, the way in which we become convinced of things. In my experience, anyone can be convinced to believe anything very rapidly provided it doesn’t contradict something they already believe. If they’re neutral, then whatever they hear first gets a decisive advantage. There are generally three stages of being “convinced”- with a sort of “stage zero” of neutrality. The first contact with whatever thought process will put it into your memory, short or long term. Then, at some point, that thought process is confirmed on an emotional level, and this can be by extraordinarily unlikely or irrational circumstance but has lasting effect nonetheless. Finally the person is faced with a situation that tests that belief to some degree, however flimsy or improbable a straw man argument we may be talking about here, and they lock in their new belief by opposing its opposite. This establishes their own behavior, sets a precedent for maintaining consistency, entrenches the belief by cognitive dissonance, represents a “social ecology check,” and locks in that behavior pattern because others have observed it. After that, the person’s belief will be very difficult to dislodge, even if it is patently unreasonable. Now this little model is all well and good, but we need an example we can sink our teeth into. As a simple example, consider advertising. The advertiser’s ideal goal is to establish a behavior in the viewer of consistently buying their product. Stage 1: Mere exposure effect, they see an ad that claims product A is excellent and inexpensive, and only later do they learn about product B serves the same function. A already has an advantage. Stage 2: A different ad targeted to their audience connects with them, such as being humorous or they empathize with someone in the ad, or whatever. Fairly self-explanatory, but the devils are in the details of this stage. More on this later. Stage 3: When given a choice between A and B, right next to one another on store shelves, they purchase A.

Now, that’s a fairly theoretical example and doesn’t really elucidate exactly what I’m talking about. The reason why I bring this topic up in the first place is that becoming convinced that something is true, or being conditioned into a specific behavior depends a great deal on sheer luck unless you’re careful. The first effect is mostly subconscious, and there isn’t a lot you can do about it other than be aware of it and check you’re not doing irrational things. However, the second stage is the source of huge error. Have you ever been talking with someone, and let’s just say they randomly bring up something very specific from a book you’re reading that they could not have divined from you? Or, a more common case, someone else expresses a fairly uncommon thought or preference that you share. You get that instantaneous hit like a shot of familieroin. That exact type of random occurrence not only establishes a connection between you and the other person, but also reacts and reaffirms whatever thought or preference in question. Both of these release tension- social tension, and at the same time internal tension of having to hold non-certain processes in limbo. Of course, there are many others ways this can happen, too. Perhaps you’re reading an article which just reads like the author has a direct line into your brain, and then brings up an opinion you’ve heard of but not yet accepted. You just go, “OK, that’s correct, I don’t have to worry about it anymore” and accept it as valid. True, there is no rational basis for this type of conceptual validation, but it happens very quickly.

I do have a purpose, however. I want to get to my main point. When someone has been emotionally convinced, and has integrated their own emotional self, thought systems, or any other aspect of their identity into a belief, you will be unable to convince them otherwise. If someone believes they are happy, there is absolutely nothing you can do to convince them that they are unhappy. By the same token, if someone believes that believing in God makes them happy, there is absolutely nothing you can do to convince them otherwise. And, because that statement carries the very clever and subtle assumption of existence, because of the implied postulate that believing in things that don’t exist doesn’t make you happy, the believer concludes that God exists. And there is nothing you can do to convince them otherwise once they are invested in it. I don’t want to attack religion in this post- I do that from time to time, but not this one. What I do want to say is that being convinced necessarily includes the possibility of tolerating a contradiction to maintain that belief. We have the miraculous power to hold conflicting mental models and systems in our heads, but the vast, vast majority of people don’t recognize that it is even possible. It’s a capacity that invariably does little more than give you enough rope to thoroughly hang yourself. The thoughtful selection and application in appropriate situations of conflicting models is either automatic or completely absent, never in the purview of the conscious mind.
For someone who has been convinced, they will actively seek to defend that thought or belief. Investing yourself all over the place is a very unhealthy habit. When you suggest a movie to someone and they tell you it sucked, do you try to defend yourself? You invested a piece of yourself in the movie, so when the other person so callously attacked it it appeared to you they were attacking a) something you liked, questioning your taste, b) something you recommended to them, questioning your social judgment, and perhaps c) something you incorporated into your own identity to some extent. I’ll use religion again because it’s something everyone is familiar with. When you tell a religious person that their religion is stupid, you’re not just objectively saying that assertions x, y, and z… are false. This person has probably involved themselves in religious activities, bonded with people who share that religion, done some things that would look pretty damn embarrassing if what you say is true (by design, of course). Stepping on other people’s identity is the easiest way to provoke some serious aggression. However, their identity is also probably in all sorts of places where it shouldn’t be and if they were smart they would rectify that situation, starting by reading this post.

Look at it another way: in our society, we talk about two people “getting along well” as if there are somehow intrinsic properties of different people that for some reason just make them fit together well. This is a result of the randomness of our identity configurations (the geeiker counter just fuzzed out a bit there). If we put value in similar stuff, we get along well, and if we step on one another’s toes all the time then we dislike each other. It’s random because our identity is scrambled all over the place by randomly created emotional convincers in everything from advertisements to sheer randomness in conversations. And there’s no reason for this. If we could each maintain control over our own identity then this sort of situation would be fixed. So you can see the bleeding-through of philosophical or political, or whatever you want to call it, awareness into insensitive redneck behavior.  This, in turn, spurs up defenses, the false self, conformity, violence, and stifles freedom and thought.  So in a not-so-roundabout way, our blindness to our own and others’ identities is the primary instigator, the first cause, of all our modern woes.  In a self-reinforcing cycle, of course.

As a sidenote, the reason why I point out self-reinforcing cycles everywhere is because they are extremely difficult to pick out without extensive searching.  And the reason why there are so many of them is because, well, they’re self-reinforcing.  Barring something dramatic, once begun they’re going to stick around until something dramatic does take them out.  Almost always that involves a restructuring of the environment around them.


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