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Modern Persuasion

Pratkanis & Aronson (1991) argue convincingly that Western societies prefer persuasion even more than other societies do. Marriages aren't arranged, they are left up to the persuasive tactics of each couple. Unlike communistic countries that control trade, the creation of consumer tastes and choices is left to the advertiser. Arguments aren't settled by clan leaders or religious authorities, but by the wrangling of attorneys. Rulers are not royally born, or chosen because of their ability, but arise through one of the largest persuasion rituals of all, the election campaign. The candidate that has both good looks and a persuasive demeanor almost always wins.

The ancient Greeks had a more grounded approach to persuasion. A Greek citizen could hire a Sophist to help him learn to argue. (Sophists were itinerant lecturers and writers devoted to knowledge--you might say they were the graduate students of the ancient world.) The sophists argued that persuasion was a useful tool to discover truth. They thought the process of arguing and debating would expose bad ideas and allow the good ones to be revealed. A sophist didn't particularly care which side of an issue he was arguing. In fact, Sophists would sometimes switch sides in the middle of a debate. Their stated goal was reasoned argument that exposed the truth. They believed in the free market of good ideas.
Does that sound like our world? No--we rely on the use of persuasive and compliance tactics much more than did the ancients. But does the modern approach to persuasion take the form of reasoned argument and debate? Hardly. Today's persuaders appeal to the masses "through the manipulation of symbols and of our most basic human emotions" to achieve their goals (Pratkanis & Aronson, 1991).

Since the ability to persuade--and to resist persuasion-- is directly related to one's success in life, you'd think the topic would be taught in school.

You'd think people would know their persuasion tactics as well as they know the letters of the alphabet, or the ten commandments, or how to perform CPR. But how many of us can recite ten principles of persuasion? How many of us can evaluate a situation and choose the right persuasive tool for the job at hand? How many of us are even aware of the thousands of times each day we are influenced by someone else?

Do this: take a look in your medicine cabinet, or your pantry, or your garage. Each item you see is a war trophy, representing some company's victory over their competitors. For some reason-- or maybe for no reason at all-- they convinced you to trade your hard-earned money for their product. How did they do that, exactly?

Make no mistake. There are legions of influence agents operating in our society. They thrive--they exist at the pinnacles of power--by getting you to think things and to do things they want you to think and do.

Most people are either unaware of these influences, or when they are, vastly overestimate the amount of freedom they have to make up their own minds. But the successful influence agent knows that if he can manage the situation and choose the correct technique, your response to his technique will be as reliable as the springing of a mousetrap.

But wait. We need to agree on a few definitions before we begin to understand how the influence agents in society manage our thoughts and actions . . .

Copyright © 1997 by Kelton Rhoads, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.

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