Pascal on Persuasion

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Source: Quartz
The 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal is perhaps best known for Pascal’s Wager
which, in the first formal use of decision theory, argued that
believing in God is the most pragmatic decision. But it seems the French
thinker also had a knack for psychology. As Brain Pickings
points out, Pascal set out the most effective way to get someone to
change their mind, centuries before experimental psychologists
began to formally study persuasion:

When we wish to correct with advantage, and to
show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the
matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to
him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied
with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed
to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but
one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact
that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot
err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are
always true.

Pascal added:

People are generally better persuaded by the
reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have
come into the mind of others.

Put simply, Pascal suggests that before disagreeing
with someone, first point out the ways in which they’re right. And to
effectively persuade someone to change their mind, lead them to discover
a counter-point of their own accord. Arthur Markman, psychology
professor at The University of Texas at Austin, says both these points
hold true.

“One of the first things you have to do to give
someone permission to change their mind is to lower their defenses and
prevent them from digging their heels in to the position they already
staked out,” he says. “If I immediately start to tell you all the ways
in which you’re wrong, there’s no incentive for you to co-operate. But
if I start by saying, ‘Ah yeah, you made a couple of really good points
here, I think these are important issues,’ now you’re giving the other
party a reason to want to co-operate as part of the exchange. And that
gives you a chance to give voice your own concerns about their position
in a way that allows co-operation.”

Markman also supports Pascal’s second persuasive
suggestion. “If I have an idea myself, I feel I can claim ownership over
that idea, as opposed to having to take your idea, which means I have
to explicitly say, ‘I’m going to defer to you as the authority on this.’
Not everybody wants to do that,” he adds.

In other words, if it wasn’t enough that Pascal is
recognized as a mathematician, physicist, and philosopher, it seems he
was also an early psychologist.

 

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