To Be Persuasive, You’re Going to Need More Than Facts

Bill Nye, Barack Obama and Neil deGrasse Tyson selfie.

When is the last time someone told you a fact that caused you to change your mind? It’s likely you can’t think of a verifiable example. And yet, when it comes to trying to persuade others, we often employ facts in an argument thinking they will change the mind of the other person. But that’s not how it works.

Persuading others, and even ourselves is about more than just putting facts out there and letting the chips fall as they may. You simply can’t have the impact you want with facts alone.

Kathryn Schulz did a fabulous TED talk on what it’s like to be wrong. Schulz argues the first thing we do when people disagree with us is attempt to educate them by giving them the facts. When this fails, when people have the same information we have and reach a different conclusion than we have, we consider them idiots.

“Faced with a choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy with the proof.”

— J.K. Galbraith

Persuading Others

As Neil deGrasse Tyson argues, in this brief clip that you while you have to understand the facts and arguments you really need to understand what’s already in their head and how those ideas got there in the first place before you can change someone’s mind.

As Tyson says:

Persuasion isn’t always here’s the facts, you’re either an idiot or you’re not. It’s here are the facts and here is a sensitivity to your state of mind. And it’s the facts plus the sensitivity when convolved together creates impact.

So why are we so ineffective at persuading others?

We have to understand where they’re coming from. Humans are tribal. We evolved in small groups where it was a bad idea to stand out. While people might have believed something the tribe didn’t, they would rarely speak out. Why risk death by openly defying the group? When your life is on the line, it’s best to keep facts and opinions to yourself or, even better, start believing things that aren’t true.

As Steven Pinker put it in Language, Cognition, and Human Nature: “People are embraced or condemned according to their beliefs, so one function of the mind may be to hold beliefs that bring the belief-holder the greatest number of allies, protectors, or disciples, rather than beliefs that are most likely to be true.”

When we’re faced with a choice between being correct or being accepted, more often than not we choose the ladder. Think of the last time you were with friends for dinner and someone said something that you not only disagreed with but was also factually incorrect. Did you correct them? Or did you sit there quietly, keeping your knowledge to yourself because you didn’t want to confront the person? It’s dangerous to argue in a group setting.

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”

— Leo Tolstoy

Solomon Asch did a lot of experiments to prove that we conform. In one, subjects were shown a drawn line and asked to identify a line of the same length among three lines drawn on another card. Actors were instructed to say aloud the wrong answer. Although the answer was obvious, a shocking number of the subjects gave the incorrect answer to conform with the others in the room.

In another, a subject walked into an elevator with a group of actors who immediately turned and faced the back of the elevator. What do you suppose the subjects did?

Despite our best intentions to override our evolutionary programming, we often fall short.

We’ve been brought up to believe that changing our mind is akin to a loss in social status.

Psychological Safety

We need psychological safety in order to change our minds. We need to know that we’re not going to cease being part of the tribe. We need to know that we’re not going to lose a friend. We need to know that promotions are not affected by disagreement.

One of the reasons it’s easier to argue with a spouse is because of that ring on your finger. A wedding band represents a promise to each other that you are not going anywhere (easily). And it is this promise that helps us feel safe in a relationship of marriage. It is this safety that gives you perceived permission to disagreeable and try to persuade the other person that you are right and they are wrong.

Friends are another interesting example. If we are arguing with a friend, we know that we have disagreed with them before and we have not lost the friendship. We feel some level of safety and comfort.

In both of these cases, we have a psychological safety net. And yet, because of this trusted relationship, we sometimes view changing our minds as a loss of status. In this sense, we choose optics over outcomes and end up on the wrong side of right.

The psychological safety net makes it easier for us to try and change someone else’s mind. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it makes it easier to change our own minds.

When it comes to changing our minds two things that stand out are: (1) it’s best done by someone we like, and (2) group settings influence what we think.

We’re most likely persuaded by people we like. When’s the last time you didn’t like or respect someone and they convinced you to change your mind? It almost never happens.

Reading is a great example. We can be friends with the eminent dead and argue with them all night long. It’s not like they are going to argue back. As long as we do the work required to hold an opinion this can be an excellent way to change our minds.

People we don’t like can’t persuade us. All the logic in the world won’t change your mind if you dislike the person being logical.

You need to sell yourself before you can sell your ideas. 

Advertising companies use celebrities because they know you are more likely to be persuaded by someone you like and respect. And celebrities have a large cohort of fans who like and respect them.

Changing our minds is painful. Going through that alone is easier than in a group. the Asch experiments weren’t about changing our mind, they were about giving the answer in the first place.

When we’re alone we don’t have to admit to others what changed our mind. In fact, we often don’t know what changed our mind. If we watch a documentary on sugar and resolve to eat less sugar we might not know which part of the argument changed our mind, we only know that we’re convinced.

We also know that there is a difference between changing our mind and socializing it. We don’t have to tell others we’re eating less sugar — that’s very specific. Instead, if they notice that our diet has changed we can simply tell them we’re eating healthy and avoid a possible confrontation.

The Bottom Line

We evolved from tribes and group status is important. For many years being left out of the group meant death so we said things that we didn’t believe and sought to avoid confrontation. This evolutionary programming was hard-coded into us at birth — It’s the reason we don’t call our aunt out at Christmas dinner when she’s incorrect. Yet there are subsets of groups where we feel safe enough to voice an opinion, two notable examples being friendship and marriage. And yet if we’re on the other side (that is the side attempting to be persuaded), it’s still difficult to change your minds. Changing our minds can result in a perception that we’re losing status. Friends who agree with us on most things are the most likely to persuade us. They are even more likely if we’re not in a group setting.

If you want to change minds, you first have to see the world through the eyes of the other person.

Understanding Over Correcting

Before you try and persuade others with facts, first seek to understand their position and why they hold it. Identify with them. Then, and only then, have you done the work required to try and persuade someone else.

Footnotes