In This Episode
- Introduction to questions about the ethics of persuasion, and why this matters to my project.
- South Park on the rules for getting bigger tips.
- A case study: Derek prepares for a lunch date with Carla. Is it ever okay for Derek to use persuasion techniques to get Carla to like him?
- Dale Carnegie’s six rules for getting someone to like you.
- Robert Cialdini’s five principles for getting someone to like you.
- Do normal social skills involve unconscious psychological persuasion?
“The persuasion techniques that I’m talking about involve the intentional use of our knowledge of human nature for the purpose of manipulating the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of people, at an unconscious level. If you prefer we can call it “intentional unconscious persuasion”. The shorthand that I sometimes use for this is “mind control”. “
References and Links
- My critical thinking education site, Critical Thinker Academy.
- How you can support this site (my “Thanks and Support” page)
- Book: How to Win Friends and Influence People (Dale Carnegie)
- Book: Influence: Science and Practice (Robert Cialdini)
- Daniel Wendler’s TEDx talk: My Life with Asperger’s
Subscribe to the Podcast
Play or download the mp3 file for this episode
This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 3!
Hi everyone and welcome to the Argument Ninja podcast. I’m your host, Kevin deLaplante, and I’m a philosopher and critical thinking educator.
You can go to argumentninja.com to learn more about this podcast, my background, and my other online projects, including the Critical Thinker Academy, which hosts over 20 hours of video tutorials on a wide range of topics related to logic, argumentation and critical thinking.
I’m using this podcast, whose full title is “Become an Argument Ninja”, as a platform for me to work out some new ideas on how to combine principles of good argumentation, with principles of effective persuasion, that are grounded in our best current understanding of how human beings actually form beliefs and make decisions.
The skill set that results from this integration, this merger, is what I’m calling “rational persuasion”.
Ultimately, what I’m trying to with his show is develop the outlines for a program of instruction, in the art, science and ethics of rational persuasion.
What’s the connection between rational persuasion and the title of the podcast?
This expression, “argument ninja”, is a little tongue-in-cheek. Obviously I’m drawing on the recent trendy use of “ninja” to refer to any technique or strategy that is very effective, and that is usually only known to practitioners with lots of skill and experience.
If you google “ninja tips” or “ninja tricks”, you’ll get hits like “10 tips for the work-at-home ninja”, “How to Become a Photoshop Ninja”, “Ninja Tips for Healthy Living”, and so on.
So, I’m using “argument ninja” in a loose way to refer to effective argumentation and persuasion techniques that are only known to a select few.
But I’m not just using it in this loose, colloquial way.
As I’m articulating this conception of rational persuasion, I’ve found myself pushing a martial arts analogy.
And in the last episode, episode 002, I shared some reasons for taking seriously this idea that we should treat rational persuasion as a martial art, not just figuratively, but literally.
Now, in this episode, episode 003, I want to introduce another important element to our discussion of rational persuasion.
This is the ethics of persuasion, the morality of using persuasion techniques to achieve your goals.
We can ask this question independent of argumentation, and it’ll probably help to do that, at the start.
Is it ever morally okay to use your knowledge of the psychology of persuasion, to get another person to do what you want them to do, or to believe what you want them to believe?
That’s the general persuasion question.
When talking about persuasion and argumentation, the question is this:
If I’m giving you an argument that is intended to persuade you to accept a conclusion, is it ever morally acceptable for me to use my knowledge of the psychology of persuasion to influence how you respond to my argument, to make you more inclined to accept it, than you otherwise would be?
I’m going to need an answer to this, because what I’m trying to develop in this show is an approach to argumentation that integrates the standard logic-based principles of good argumentation, with psychological principles of effective persuasion.
It would be a bad start for me if it turned out that there is no morally acceptable way of doing this.
Now, to help understand why there’s any moral issue at all, let me clarify how the kind of persuasion that I’m talking about works.
The persuasion techniques that I’m talking about involve the intentional use of our knowledge of human nature, for the purpose of manipulating the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of people, at an unconscious level.
If you prefer we can call it “intentional unconscious persuasion”.
The shorthand that I have sometimes used for this is “mind control”.
Now, that term, “mind control”, is a loaded term, in the sense that it’s almost always used to convey something negative or sinister, so I have to be careful how I use it.
But I don’t want to prejudge the issue, and I’m not defining this kind of persuasion as inherently good or bad.
These techniques aren’t exotic or mysterious. You don’t have to understand theoretical psychology or the cognitive mechanisms underlying the techniques, to learn how to use them effectively.
Many effective influence strategies are embedded in the tips and tricks that people pick up when they’re learning a job that involves persuasion, like learning to be a salesperson, or learning to be a courtroom lawyer.
Restaurant servers, for example, learn early on that a short, friendly conversation with a customer can increase the size of the tip they get.
Many restaurants leave small gratuities with the bill — like a mint, or a chocolate — as a matter of policy, knowing that doing so is correlated with larger tips.
The TV show South Park did an episode that illustrates this kind of training.
The scene is set in a restaurant named Raisins, inspired by the Hooters restaurant chain. All the young girl servers are named after sports cars: Porsche, Mercedes, Ferrari, etc.
It’s Ferrari’s first day, and Mercedes goes over the basics with her.
Here’s the clip:
[Mercedes: First of all, there’s a five foot rule. If you come within five feet of a customer, you need to acknowledge them, even if they’re not at your table. “Hey, cutie.” (waves and winks) When you’re not serving food or talking with customers, you need to dance around and have fun. We use things like Hula Hoops, silly strings, and water guns to play with the other girls. Be sure to giggle a lot, and be sure to show off your raisins.
Now, when you take a customer’s order, you need to sit down at the table with them and make them think you’re interested. Write your name down for them and make them feel special. “Oh man, I am so bored. Thank God you guys came in.” If you want good tips, the most important thing is physical contact. Just a simple hold of the arm can mean the difference between five and twenty dollars. “I’ll be right back with your order, guys.” (holds Ferrari’s shoulder)]
In this episode, Butters falls in love with one of the servers because he thinks the attention he’s getting at the restaurant is sincere.
This kind of training goes on in any profession where a central aim is to get people to perform some kind of action — purchase a product, sign a donor card, vote for a political candidate, sign a contract, negotiate a treaty, and so on.
Principles of effective persuasion are learned through experience and passed down through training and mentorship, without having to be framed in the language of neuropsychology and cognitive science.
Indeed, in many contexts we don’t think of these practices as manipulative in any negative sense. We may think of an effective salesperson simply as “good with people”, not a mind controller.
Our first piece of critical thinking advice on this issue is to distinguish the descriptive issue of what does or does not constitute unconscious psychological persuasion, from the normative issue of whether any particular instance of such persuasion is good or bad, justified or unjustified.
To give another examples of why we need the distinction, consider stage magic for entertainment purposes.
Persuasion techniques are used extensively in magic acts, they’re fundamental to the practice.
But in the context of stage magic the manipulations and deceptions are used to delight and entertain us, not to exploit or hurt us.
Intentions and goals matter to our assessment of these cases. We don’t condemn stage magic or mentalist acts simply because they use mind control techniques. But when the very same techniques are used to con or scam people out of money, we rightly condemn the practice as unethical.
So, let’s agree that we can imagine cases where what I’m calling mind control is unobjectionable, and we can imagine cases where it’s deeply objectionable.
Now, if you bring up the topic of mind control in the context of interpersonal relations, I guarantee you’re going to divide people.
But I think the questions that naturally arise in these situations are important ones, and they’ll push us to think harder about when using these techniques is acceptable and when it’s not.
I’m going to describe three scenarios, three different descriptions of an interaction between a man and a woman, Derek and Carla.
I want you to think about your own responses as I describe these scenarios.
Okay, here’s the first one.
Derek is a young man preparing to meet a young woman, Carla, for a lunch date. He was introduced to her briefly at a party the previous night. He likes her and wants to make a good impression.
Derek takes time to shower and shave, style his hair and pick a nice flattering shirt.
He greets Carla outside the restaurant, holds the door open for her and they go inside.
Derek compliments Carla on her shoes.
As they wait for a server he begins a conversation about the most recent episode of Game of Thrones, which he had overheard Carla discussing at the party.
They talk about their mutual appreciation for the show and various theories for how the story will unfold.
Derek asks Carla several leading questions about her background and interests, and shares a humorous story about a mutual friend.
Overall, the two have an enjoyable and engaging lunch date.
So, what do you think about Derek’s overall conduct in this scenario? Positive? Negative? Neutral?
Now let’s consider another version of this story.
Derek is a young man preparing to meet a young woman, Carla, for a lunch date. He was introduced to her briefly at a party the previous night. He likes her and wants to make a good impression.
Derek has recently finished reading Dale Carnegie’s classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People, first published in 1936.
He is also familiar with social psychologist Robert Cialdini’s seminal work on persuasion and influence, summarized in his 2001 book Influence: Science and Practice.
Dale Carnegie has a section in his book titled “Six Ways to Make People to Like You”. Here are his six rules:
Rule 1: Become genuinely interested in other people.
Rule 2: Smile.
Rule 3: Remember that a person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound.
Rule 4: Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
Rule 5: Talk in terms of the other person’s interests.
Rule 6: Make the other person feel important— and do it sincerely.
Robert Cialdini’s book surveys six proven principles of persuasion.
One of these is the principle of “liking”: people are more easily persuaded by people who they like.
The chapter on “liking” discusses factors that can cause us to like someone.
Here is the list:
Physical Attractiveness – “Research has shown that we automatically assign to good-looking individuals such favorable traits as talent, kindness, honesty, and intelligence.”
Similarity – “We like people who are similar to us. This fact seems to hold true whether the similarity is in the area of opinions, personality traits, background, or life-style.”
Compliments – “…we tend, as a rule, to believe praise and to like those who provide it, oftentimes when it is clearly false.”
Contact and Cooperation – “…becoming familiar with something through repeated contact doesn’t necessarily cause greater liking. […we must be] working for the same goals…we must ‘pull together’ for mutual benefit.”
Conditioning and Association – “[Compliance professionals are] incessantly trying to connect themselves or their products with the things we like. Did you ever wonder what all those good-looking models are doing standing around in those automobile ads?”
Derek is familiar with all of these principles, both the Carnegie principles and the Cialdini principles.
He wants Carla to like him, and he sees that some of them can be applied to his upcoming date.
So, Derek does a quick Google search of Carla and finds her profile on Facebook.
He skims through the entries and notes some of the topics she mentions or likes.
He notes a link that she shared on Game of Thrones theories, and he reads the associated story.
Derek plans his date with Carla. He thinks through how we wants to present himself and how the conversation should go: clean up, remember to smile, compliment her shoes, share a funny story, bring up Game of Thrones, pay attention and listen, ….
Derek also knows from his reading that physiological arousal in human beings can be triggered by dilated pupils.
Pupils dilate during sexual arousal, and experiments show that seeing someone with dilated pupils can trigger a mirroring physiological response, which can make the person with the dilated pupils appear more attractive to you.
Under dimmer lighting, our pupils naturally widen. Derek knows this.
When he and Carla enter the restaurant he looks for a booth that is more dimly lit and leads her there, hoping that he will benefit from the pupil dilation response over the course of their lunch date.
And from here, the remainder of the lunch date unfolds as described in scenario 1.
Now, what do you think about Derek’s overall conduct in this scenario? Any different from the version described in scenario 1?
The common response when I present these scenarios is that almost everyone has no problem with scenario 1. In fact, Derek’s conduct on this date seems admirable to many people. One friend of mine said “I only wish my son had social skills like that”.
By contrast, many people have a strong reaction to scenario 2. They believe there is something objectionable about Derek’s attitude and behavior as he prepares for his date with Carla.
Here are some written quotes from a survey I gave at a talk when I presented this case.
1. “Derek googling Carla to get information on her that he can use to his advantage … that’s just creepy.”
2. “In the second scenario, it doesn’t seem like Derek is treating Carla like a person. He’s treating her like an object that he can manipulate to get what he wants.”
3. “He’s being intentionally manipulative. He’s fooling her into thinking they’re having a spontaneous, genuine conversation, when it’s really not.”
4. “Derek is running a “pick-up artist” playbook, and I find it all offensive.”
However, not everyone is so judgmental:
5. “There’s nothing wrong with learning how human behavior works, and applying that knowledge. Why not use what you know to your advantage?”
6. “We plan conversations in our heads all the time, when we anticipate talking to someone and we’re a little bit anxious about it. I do that practically every time I walk into a faculty meeting.”
7. “If we can assume that Derek isn’t intentionally lying to her about anything just to get her to like him, and is genuinely interested in Carla as a person, I don’t see a problem with any of this.”
I find this range of responses fascinating. They point to something important about how we view ourselves, and how want to view ourselves. What exactly this is, is something I’m going to return to in later episodes.
Now, just to add a new spin, consider this third scenario.
Derek has had difficulty all his life with social skills and “reading people”. He often failed to pick up on social cues, and that lead to frustration and isolation.
Derek considers himself as operating at the high functional end of the autistic spectrum, closer to Asperger’s.
As a highly intelligent teenager, Derek decided to undertake a study of human social behavior, with the goal of “cracking the code” of normal human social interaction.
He read self-help and psychology books, kept notebooks in which he wrote down the patterns he found were associated with pro-social behaviors, wrote out checklists of what to do or consider in different scenarios, and worked hard at practicing these skills.
Over time Derek’s social skills improved dramatically, and he learned to function well with other people, acquire and maintain friends, and so on.
But because of the way Derek’s brain works, he still has to anticipate and plan social interactions in a more conscious and deliberate way than most people. He hasn’t internalized these principles in the intuitive, unconscious way that most people do.
At the party, Derek noticed Carla and was attracted to her. He wanted to ask her out, but was naturally anxious about this prospect.
To prepare, he consciously implemented some of the social strategies he had learned, based on his research and experience.
The rest of the date plays out as described in scenario 2.
Now, what do you think about Derek? Is he still a manipulative creep, or are you less judgmental of his behavior?
Almost everyone I ask, when given this third scenario, is more understanding and sympathetic to Derek.
Here are some quotes from that survey:
1. “Now I wouldn’t describe him as manipulative. Actually, there’s something charming about how hard he’s working to impress Carla.”
2. “The difference for me is now we understand his underlying motives better. He’s had to struggle to learn social skills that the rest of us take for granted, and this is just his way of compensating.”
3. “I still don’t like the pupil arousal thing, I still find that weirdly manipulative. But I don’t have as much of an issue with him planning out the date in the way that he did.”
So, what do you think of these cases?
What do they tell us about the factors that matter to us when it comes to judging what forms of “mind control” are acceptable and what forms are not?
I’m going to pick this up next episode, but I would love to hear your thoughts on this.
You can leave comments at argumentninja.com, episode 3.
And as an epilogue to this episode, I want to add that my description of Derek in scenario 3, where he struggles with learning social skills and has to teach himself to be more deliberate and self-conscious about his interactions with other people — that description is based on a real guy that I ran across, who wrote a real book on this very topic.
His name is Daniel Wendler, and you can watch him talk about his journey in a TEDx talk on YouTube. I’ll link to it in the show notes, but if you search “My life with Asperger’s”, “Daniel Wendler”, you’ll find it.
Here’s a short clip from that talk.
I think there are lessons to be learned from this example, but I’ll save that for another episode.
Thanks for listening, and I’ll see you next time.