The Hidden (?) Persuaders

It’s hard being your own person these days.

Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t need to follow me, You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!
The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!
Brian: You’re all different!
The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!
Man in crowd: I’m not…
The Crowd: Ssssh!

 Monty Python’s Life of Brian

Okay, maybe it’s always been hard.

We want to think that we’re strong, independent thinkers; that we believe what we believe for rational reasons, and can only be persuaded by good arguments. But that doesn’t appear to be true; in fact, it may well be that the opposite is true.

Okay, okay, so we’re more willing to believe facts that line up with what we believe. But it can’t be that just putting something into, say, a graph form is enough to sway us, right? Oh.

Well, at least we know that, given all the information, everybody is going to come to the right conclusion. A small, fervent, wrongheaded minority can’t take over the public imagination with say, 10 percent of the population, at least. . . . Oh, I see.

(I have some doubts about the above two studies. Ross Perot had some pretty awesome graphs and 18.9% of the popular vote, and he’s not exactly on the currency right now. But I digress.)

And even the things you believe you know about yourself aren’t really true. Good luck getting out of a grocery store with your shopping list intact – every product has more marketing research dollars behind it than you’ll spend on groceries in your life. Nor is our memory any better; even when nobody is trying to do so, it’s trivially easy to get an eyewitness to ID an innocent person in a police lineup. It’s you against the world from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep. No wonder we’re finding out about this “decision fatigue” stuff.

None of us wants to hold a wrong opinion, or believe a false fact. (I mean, maybe somebody gets a rush from being knowingly wrong, but the pleasure of being simply obstinate is different from true righteous indignation.) So we want to be open to persuasion. On the other hand, it seems P.T. Barnum was only partially right: each of us is made a sucker every minute, at least in some small way.

Socrates said, “If I am the wisest man, it is because I alone know that I know nothing.” On the other hand, I’ve read the Dialogues, and Socrates never comes out realizing that, mirabile dictu, he was in the wrong the whole time. So, maybe he’s not the best role model after all, so far as striking a balance between on guard and ready to accept a good argument.

On the other hand, if you don’t know what you know, and you don’t know what you want, and you don’t know what’s right, who (or what) do you trust?


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