The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle was confident that truth and justice are better than falsehood and injustice. So why doesn’t the fact that something is truthful or just win the argument?
This is partly a problem of design. Some people will not be persuaded even if you present the most accurate knowledge, he points out. Scientific claims are designed to instruct and these people can’t be instructed.
He claims that when speaking to ‘the multitude’, “our proofs and arguments must rest on generally accepted principles.” Aristotle is telling us to take into account the frames an audience might have around issues.
So a discussion of the economy in the UK may have to take in the lower-level frame that it’s like a pot, where people put value in and take it out again. If this idea isn’t dealt with, you’re not actually going to communicate with, never mind persuade, an audience that believes it.
But we also have to hold the advocates for what is true and just responsible for not making the best case to their audience.
Reason, or Logos
Aristotle thought that there are three ways to persuade people. The first is by having really good logical arguments.
In deduction, you claim that your premisses provide sufficient evidence of the truth of your conclusions.
Premise: All men are mortal
Premise: Socrates is a man
Conclusion: Socrates will die
In induction, you claim that the truth of your premisses mean it’s probable your conclusion is true.
Premise: If you work hard, you’ll succeed
Premise: If you succeed, you’ll be happy
Conclusion: If you work hard, you’ll be happy
Aristotle – and the Western cultural tradition that followed him – placed a lot of value in logical arguments. But more recent study shows that it draws on just one mode of thinking we have, and which is not the default circuit. Daniel Kahneman, drawing on decades of psychological study, presents the ‘Linda problem’ in his book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’.
Participants in this experiment were told about a bright, outspoken, young woman called Linda who was concerned by issues of discrimination and social justice as a student. They were then asked a probability question. Is it more likely that Linda is a bank teller, and active in the feminist movement? Or is it more likely that she is a bank teller? The overwhelming response was the first option – 85% of students in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business gave this answer. But it violates the laws of probability – as there are more bank tellers than feminist ones.
What this problem – called the conjunction fallacy – demonstrates is that two modes of thinking coexist in our minds. A System 1 provides intuitive answers based on association and metaphor – what are sometimes called heuristics. A System 2 slows down thinking to provide analytical, consciously-directed mental focus on a problem. The trouble is that System 2 thinking requires effort. We have quite sensibly evolved not to spend mental effort unless we really need to.
Emotion, or Pathos
When you address an audience, you are trying to connect with people who already have an emotional agenda. An attempt to communicate that doesn’t take the emotional temperature of the audience is unlikely to succeed. Aristotle thought that seven emotions, and their opposites, could “cause men to change their opinion in regard to their judgements”. Each emotion, in his view, is “accompanied by pleasure and pain.”
In a pivotal book, Drew Westen argues that the central nervous system in humans “is essentially a living fossil record of its own history”. Consider the large marine snail, Aplysia. It only has a few small neurons, which make it easy to study – as Eric Kandel did in the 1960s and 70s. When a harmless-looking thing causes it pain, the neuron that detects that thing and the one that helps Aplysia retract its delicate parts begin to change. These neurons eventually develop connections. The thing and the feelings of pain it created become linked in Aplysia’s nervous system.
Evolutionary theory suggests that thinking and feeling developed together. So smell and taste convey information – this food is rotten – but they also arouse emotion. The amygdala is a part of the brain that’s involved in a lot of emotional processes. Chimpanzees without functioning amygdalas can recognise things that normally elicit an emotional response – like unappealing food – perfectly well, but they no longer avoid eating them. Thinking can go on without the evolutionary advantages feelings provide in anticipating and curbing risky behaviours.
But feeling often looks after our evolutionary interests without help from thinking. “The amygdala can respond to stimuli even when the person has no awareness of having seen them”, Westen writes.
The capacity for rational judgment evolved to augment, not replace, evolutionarily older motivational systems. The emotional systems of simpler organisms are ‘decision-making’ systems that initiate approach, avoidance, fight, or flight. The neural circuits activated during complex human decision making do not function independently of these more primitive systems.
This has major consequences for communications. When an audience is primed to respond to emotional cues – because, for example, they are scared or angry – a logical argument isn’t going to move them.
Character, or Ethos
To Aristotle, this is the most important mode of persuasion. It’s not about your inherent qualities. Does the way you communicate make you worthy of confidence in the eyes of your audience?
To convince an audience requires an orator to show good sense, virtue, and goodwill, in Aristotle’s view. Without good sense, an orator may express opinions which are wrong. If their opinions are correct, they may lack the virtue to say what they think. They may have both sensible and good arguments, but it’s still possible that a lack of goodwill between orator and audience distorts communication.
In October 1992, George H Bush needed to get ahead against Bill Clinton. They faced each other in the first ‘town hall’ discussion in the history of televised election debates – in front of 209 undecided voters from Richmond, Virginia and the local area.
This was an election fought on economic issues, and the US was in a recession. Bush, the sitting President, was desperate to turn the discussion around to Clinton’s personality in the first debate but had failed to land a blow. A voter asked, “how has the national debt personally affected each of your lives?”
Bush checks his watch. He says, “I think the national debt affects everyone”. The debate presenter and the questioner herself both repeat the question – how has he been personally affected by the economic climate?
It’s Clinton’s turn. He gets to his feet, looks the questioner in the eye, and walks towards her. He asks how she has been affected. He repeats her answer back to her. He says:
“I’ve been governor of a small state for 12 years…Every year, Congress and the President sign laws that make us do more things and gives us less money to do it with…I have seen what’s happened in this last four years when – in my state, when people lose their jobs there’s a good chance I’ll know them by their names. When a factory closes I’ll know the people who ran it. When the businesses go bankrupt I know them…Most people are working harder for less money than they were making ten years ago.”
Clinton won the debate – and went on to win a historic victory. So what did Clinton do?
He immediately shows goodwill towards his questioner. He answers the question within the personal terms it has been addressed. He then demonstrates a virtuous position in relation to her concerns. His feelings, his role and his actions are in alignment. He feels the emotions she feels. He is personally connected to others who also feel this way, and as Governor of Arkansas he makes their concerns his responsibility. Finally, he makes a sensible-sounding connection between this shared experience of economic powerlessness, the economic facts of stagnant wages and limited job opportunities, and what he considers to be the failure of ‘trickle-down economics’.