How to convince people: Ivory Embassy looking at a pile of books.

How to convince people: Evidence is not enough

Evidence alone is often insufficient to convince people. You might sit on the most trustworthy data, but guess what? Whoever you’re trying to convince will most likely keep believing the bullshit, pseudoscience, and propaganda they originally bought into, maybe even more now, because of your evidence-based articles. However, your chances of persuading someone will drastically increase with four easy-to-implement tactics. It’s true; a scientific mindset will change your approach to reality. Once you start thinking like a scientist and learn to identify trustworthy information, you’ll notice that dubious and inflated claims surround you. It’s a bittersweet feeling. On the one hand, it attests to your newly found UV-light laser goggles (scientific thinking), but the same goggles also reveal stains on the wall. But what if you want to clean those stains, correct the baseless information, and convince someone their ideas are corrupt? How do you do that? I’ll give you a hint: flooding someone’s inbox or social media wall with evidence will unlikely change anyone’s mind. Neither will weak arguments. However, a mindful dialogue might – which, granted, sounds like a hippie message but will make sense eventually. As a well-informed individual (scientist or not), who wants to convince people of evidence-based information, you’ll find this article helpful. Of course, the points will also apply to marketers and salespeople, including snake-oil salespeople. But recognizing their tactics can also make you less of a prey once you’re about to be persuaded by someone. Of course, these are all general recommendations based on psychology and communication. People’s susceptibility to these tactics (or lack thereof) may differ depending on the person with whom you’re discussing. Also, debates differ from conversations because debate participants aim to convince others, often an audience. Although possible, convincing a debate opponent might require additional methods not mentioned here.

Why you want to convince people

Don’t frown. Although some convince others disingenuously to manipulate them, it’s a vital part of our professional and everyday lives. Everyone’s part of the game; you try to persuade others, and they’ll try to return that favor – forever. Take knowledge sharing as an example. Scientists constantly promote their projects, topics, or experiments to other scientists to receive funding, publish articles, or find collaborators. Also, in a connected world where everyone has “done their research,” the best scientists (and non-scientists) tell stories to communicate trustworthy information. Or think about the question “Why are you the best candidate for the job?” in most work interviews. You might get the job if you convince the interviewer you’re the best candidate. However, if you pass on the question, you might leave the interview humming Femi Kuti’s No work No job No money. The list goes on: sales, marketing, politics, religions, relationships, babies, pets, shopping… I don’t need to sell you this point; you already know almost every human interaction includes some form of convincing.

Why you can’t rely on evidence alone

Your approach to a conversation or debate will dictate whether you’ll convince your opponent. (Note: with “opponent,” I don’t want to create an “us vs. them” mentality; however, for lack of a better term, “opponent” will indicate the person with whom you’re discussing.) Especially in polarized discussions, such as vaccines, censorship, or world conflicts, it might seem reasonable to smack up an evidence-dense article on your opponent’s forehead. I confess I’m also guilty of this, thinking link-dropping equaled mic-dropping. Nevertheless, evidence alone will only change a few minds – if any.

Confirmation bias

One reason it won’t change minds is the warm, fuzzy feeling humans feel whenever we read or hear arguments that align with our views. This is called a confirmation bias, a cognitive bias where you favor information that confirms and strengthens your beliefs. Researchers have proposed several explanations for why people suffer from confirmation bias (or other cognitive biases). One theory suggests that we use mental shortcuts, known as heuristics, to make quick and efficient decisions. Since mental processes are energy-consuming and often slow, mental shortcuts can help you decide quickly (sometimes saving your life). However, they can also make us overlook or dismiss information contradicting our beliefs. For example, suppose you believe that vaccines are harmful. In that case, you may be more likely to remember and accept information that supports this view. Consequently, you’ll dismiss or forget data that show vaccines are safe and effective, regardless of the evidence’s strength. Confirmation bias can also result from so-called motivated reasoning, where we selectively seek out and interpret information in ways that support our pre-existing beliefs. In other words, we are motivated to find evidence confirming our beliefs rather than objectively evaluating all available evidence. This motivation can arise from our need to maintain cognitive consistency, a powerful incentive to maintain our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors consistent. Inconsistencies can cause discomfort or dissonance. So, to eliminate these stressors, we reduce or eliminate inconsistencies to, consequently, restore cognitive consistency. Clearly, confirmation bias can prevent people from changing their minds based on evidence alone. In other words, if you want to convince others successfully, you need to take a more nuanced approach that considers the role of emotions, identity, and values in shaping beliefs.

Ineffective ways to convince others

If you roam the social media landscape enough, you’ll witness scientific experts, quack-exposers, and evidence-based truth-tellers debate misinformed opponents. You’ll also experience how some of them mock, patronize, and attack the character of skeptics of the scientific consensus. Sure, a snake oil salesperson deserves to be called out on their bullshit; after all, they dupe unaware people (the prey) for profit or influence. But if you’re debating non-scientists, which, after all, are the majority, you should ask yourself why you’re confronting their claims and choose your approach accordingly. Maybe it’s to:
  1. Boost your ego and prove that you can drop a mic in debates.
  2. Highlight “idiotic beliefs” (often to an audience, followers, or your social-media tribe).
  3. Share trustworthy information and convince misguided or neutral individuals about the scientific evidence.
Did you tick options 1), 2), or both? That’s cool; sometimes, we must highlight idiocy to others, and occasionally, we all need acknowledgment, but this article will not help you achieve those goals. On the other hand, if you want to share evidence-based information and help people choose the right decision (according to you, of course), then keep reading and avoid the following strategies:

Insulting, mocking, or name-calling

Insulting, mocking, or name-calling will undoubtedly put your opponent on the defensive and shut down any possibility of a productive conversation. Why should anyone trust a hostile or condescending person? You’ll also deviate from the main topic and risk dedicating large portions of the conversation to discussing the insults and “why you would do something like that.”

Being overly aggressive or confrontational

Approaching a conversation with a combative attitude can quickly escalate an otherwise fruitful conversation into a shouting match (or worse). An aggressive or passive-aggressive attitude will leave your opponent feeling frustrated and unheard. Plus, violence begets violence.

Fear mongering

Trying to persuade someone by instilling fear or panic can cause the other person to become defensive or resentful. Even if your intentions are good, such as saving the planet, exaggerated fear can backfire and kill trust in you.

Making broad generalizations

Sometimes, simplifying complex information into digestible content that people can process is necessary and helpful. However, overgeneralizing or oversimplifying complex issues can give the impression that you’re not fully informed or haven’t researched the topic. It’s a tricky balance.

Refusing to listen

Refusing to consider the other person’s point of view or dismissing their ideas outright will make them less receptive to your arguments. Would you listen to someone who bulldozers over your opinions without any concerns about what you say?

Using emotionally charged language

Using inflammatory or emotionally charged language can come across as manipulative and make it harder for the other person to take you seriously.

Presenting weak or flawed arguments

Easily debunked arguments or claims based on faulty logic will set doubt on your message, making your opponents less receptive to your claims. Although a person might know little about a specific topic, people are more sensitive to weak arguments than you think. These conversation-killing approaches are far from uncommon in discussions. People tend to forget their intentions when discussing and shift the focus to winning – or at least not losing. But, conversing with someone who disagrees with you gives you a golden opportunity to learn more about a topic and common strategies your opponents use. Also, apart from off-putting, the tactics above say something about you, the person delivering the arguments. For example, attacking an adversary rather than their ideas is a fallacy called ad hominem. As you can imagine, ad hominem attacks are off-putting and provocative. They also signal to your audience that you have gaps in your knowledge, are uninterested in maintaining a conversation, or both.

Read more about fallacies

What are fallacies, and how can you avoid them? Falling for fallacies: the differences you need to know between formal and informal reasoning errors.

Effective ways to convince others

So, you’ve done your research, read the original publications, prepared your arguments, and are ready to convince your aunt Viviane to drop her “silly standpoints.” How do you approach a discussion with her and make her susceptible to your ideas?

Acknowledge the range of opinions and find the root cause of the beliefs

One of the most important aspects to consider before trying to convince anyone is the range of people’s opinions. According to the social judgment theory proposed by psychologists Carolyn Sherif, Muzafer Sherif, and Carl Hovland, we all have individual ranges of attitudes toward a given issue or topic. They offered a framework that divides our ideas or attitudes we think are acceptable or unacceptable into three zones (or latitudes): acceptance, rejection, or non-commitment. You keep ideas with which you agree in your latitude of acceptance zone. By contrast, unacceptable or objectionable ideas enter your latitude of rejection zone. Finally, ideas or attitudes toward which you’re neutral enter the latitude of non-commitment zone. When you receive a persuasive message, you’ll first evaluate the message based on your pre-existing attitudes or beliefs. You’re more likely to agree with a statement within your latitude of acceptance zone and more likely to disagree if it falls within your latitude of rejection zone. In other words, the further a message is from your latitude of acceptance zone, the harder it is to convince you. Studies also suggest that we’re more readily convinced if an idea falls within our latitude of non-commitment zone. (You can also check out Cognition Today’s interesting article on combating pseudoscience through the latitude of acceptance.)
How to convince people: Demarcation of latitude zones. Latitudes of acceptance, rejection, and non-commitment.
So, let’s say you want to convince your aunt to reject homeopathy. Your arguments need to fall within or near her latitude of acceptance zone. By contrast, chances are that she will disregard your claims if they fall too far from her latitude of acceptance zone or, even worse, into her latitude of rejection zone. But how could you know where the latitude zones are for each person and topic?

Active listening

Actively listening differs from merely listening to someone in that the former requires (as the name suggests) you actively try to understand someone’s motivations and intentions. Active listening includes showing interest in the person’s arguments, keeping eye contact, asking genuine questions, reflecting on their opinions, and being present. Show your opponent that you take their ideas seriously, which lowers their guard and increases susceptibility to new ideas. However, active listening also reveals your opponent’s thinking, motivations, and overall beliefs related to the topic. Knowing the underlying thoughts allows you to estimate the range of the latitude of acceptance zone. For example, let’s return to Aunt Viviane, who experiences chronic joint pain. Her doctor told her to try an over-the-counter homeopathic remedy that may relieve her pain. She has no clue about homeopathy, but since you actively listened to her arguments, you know that she greatly respects medical doctors’ opinions and recommendations.

Latitude  of acceptance

You: “I’ve seen you walking around with extreme pain; it must be terrible. Most rheumatologists specializing in chronic joint pain recommend different treatment options to patients with your condition. They may recommend anti-inflammatories, corticosteroids, physiotherapy, and lifestyle changes. Why don’t we get a second opinion?” Here, you found common ground and recognized her concerns. By acknowledging her pain and redirecting her focus to other medical doctors (a profession she respects, after all), you’ve given her reasons to accept your arguments.

Latitude of rejection

You: “Well, your doctor seems to be a complete dum-dum, that’s for sure. Forget homeopathy; they’re lame and don’t work. Take anti-inflammatories instead, go to a physiotherapist, and change your lifestyle. And, while you’re at it, make me a sandwich.” In this scenario, you’ve not listened to Viviane’s concerns about the pain and completely discredited her doctor, whom she highly respects. You’re in the rejection zone, and she will not be easily convinced. In fact, your discussion might even develop into an increasingly polarized debate – especially after requesting that sandwich the way you did.

Latitude of non-commitment

You: “Trying a new remedy can be confusing and intimidating. Homeopathy is a complementary therapy based on the idea that the body can cure itself or that like cures like. It uses highly diluted substances to stimulate the body’s natural healing process. But the direct effects are not backed by science. Some people find it helpful for chronic pain, likely due to placebo effects, but most don’t. It’s ultimately up to you to decide what treatment options you want to explore. Let’s talk more about it and gather more information before deciding.” In the non-commitment zone, you attempt to present information in a neutral and informative way without directly challenging or confirming Aunt Viviane’s belief. This approach can provide her with new information. It encourages her to reconsider her beliefs and doesn’t attempt to persuade her one way or the other. Allowing your opponent to reflect on the issue and reframe their concerns loosens the tension. It lowers the risk of them feeling they’ve lost face. Of course, you’ll need to know how to support the new claims, but Viviane won’t be impressed by a pile of research papers.

Storytelling

In the past, advertisers used to promote products through second-person commercials, showcasing an actor who would pitch directly to the viewer: “Hello! Do you feel thirsty and out of energy constantly? Drink Caca Cooler with energizing sugars and moistening oils for your mouth.” Remember those? Well, I hate to break it to you, but those times are long gone. Today, advertisers understand that third-person stories sell, even when they’re not directly telling you to buy the product (or idea). Sometimes, you don’t even know much about the product (or idea) but somehow know you want it. What’s going on? Humans have told stories since the beginning of time—or at least since humans learned how to communicate—and our brains are wired to seek out and remember narratives. Stories increase our brain levels of the so-called love hormone oxytocin, which makes us feel connected and engaged, as well as dopamine and endorphins. Advertisers have realized that compelling stories tap into your emotions and desires, which increases the likelihood of a sale. They may depict a heartwarming scene of a family getting together over a Christmas meal or tell an inspiring story of a girl overcoming adversity. Regardless of the specific narrative, storytelling captures our attention and persuades us to take action. Rather than data, storytelling will increase your chances of persuading Aunt Viviane to forget about homeopathic remedies. You don’t need to be a professional storyteller to knit together a narrative that captures her attention and triggers her emotions. By sharing stories of people impacted by homeopathic products or explaining the science behind them, you help your aunt understand why they’re more useless than anything. But honesty is king.

Honesty

Finally, honesty will take you far in your mission to convince others. Be equally honest about your existing knowledge and limitations. Although you might think your opponent might ridicule your lack of knowledge, they’ll likely respect your honesty. Dishonest and overly exaggerated arguments will eventually backfire on you. Vaccination, environment, veganism, economy, homeopathy, or politics, you name it. If your opponents sense dishonesty, they will turn into the three monkeys (see no evil, hear no evil, say no evil). Who trusts a charlatan?
Three wise monkeys in how to convince people
Even if you get away with dishonest claims, convincing your opponents on the spot, they’ll stop trusting your judgment the day they find out. In other words, be honest to yourself and Aunt Viviane. If you realize you’ve exaggerated, correct the argument, tell her you’re unsure, and propose a study task for your next encounter.
The featured image is modified from an image by günter from Pixabay.

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This is Ivory Embassy

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