Universal Translator

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Logic of Ethos

A few years ago I was in Charlotte attending a seminar necessary to keep my professional education credits current.  It was entitled Persuasive Negotiating or something similar.  The man presenting the seminar relied upon Aristotle’s three categories of persuasion:  Ethos, Pathos and Logos.  Loosely translated, these mean “credibility,” “passion,” and “logic.”  Of all these, ethos is regarded as the most important – one cannot be persuasive unless one is credible.

Now, this may seem to make sense but – if you think about – it really, really doesn’t.  Technically, if someone who obviously doesn’t believe what he is saying nevertheless lays out an utterly logical, convincing argument, then I can still agree with the argument even as I completely disregard the speaker’s credibility.  (Until they finally got the joke, I think this is why Conservatives used to tune in and watch Steven Colbert.)  The speech will persuade me even if I personally think the speaker is a tool.

In fact, the idea that anyone should be persuaded on the basis of anything other than Logos has always kind of offended me.  But apparently I am in the minority on this one.  Logos is considered the weakest of the three persuasive types.

In any event, when the man running the seminar asked us if we could think of an example of Ethos being used to persuasive effect I raised my hand:

“Well, isn’t that used in basically every political campaign these days?” I asked.  “How many times have we heard a politician running for office say something like:  ‘You may not agree with me, but at least you know where I stand’?”

“Yes,” he said, “that’s a perfect example.”

“Yeah, but it’s really, really dumb,” I complained.

“It’s not dumb,” he protested, “it’s –”

“No, it’s dumb,” I insisted.  “Think about it.  When someone makes that argument what they are really saying is ‘That other guy, my opponent, he might kind of agree with you.  But I really, really don’t agree with you.  I absolutely hate what you stand for.  Vote for me.’  And yet . . . people do.  This is considered a winning campaign approach.  That’s dumb.”

The man decided he didn’t like me.

But I think I may have just figured out why Ethos is such a persuasive tool.  Not because people are idiots, but because people are ignorant.

I’ve mentioned before the idea of “information externalities” and how social cues can powerfully shape our own thinking, but let me just repeat a passage from Duncan Watts’s Six Degrees:  The Science of a Connected Age:

[i]magine you are walking down the street in a foreign city, looking for a place to eat, and you see two restaurants, side by side, with similar-looking (and equally unfamiliar) menus, indistinguishable prices, and much the same decor.  But one is bustling and the other is deserted.  Which one do you pick?  Unless you have a specific problem with crowds, or you feel sorry for the beckoning waiter in the empty restaurant, you do what we all do in the absence of better information – you go with the crowd.  After all, how could so many people be wrong? (p. 209)

I imagine that something very similar must take place that accounts for people being persuaded to vote for a candidate who tells them very strongly that he disagrees with them:  what those people are reacting to is not the fact the candidate disagrees with them, but that he feels strongly about the issue. 

My guess is that – for this to be persuasive – it must apply to something about which the audience has formed only a tentative opinion and still does not really understand.  When a candidate forcefully comes out on the other side of the audience’s tentative belief, the audience implicitly assumes the candidate must know what he or she is talking about in order to have developed such a strong opinion.  Which means that when the audience ends up voting for the candidate they are doing so not out of a sense of self-disregard but because, on a more subtle level, the candidate’s forceful disagreement with the audience worked to persuade them that their earlier opinion must have been wrong.

That, at least, makes a little more sense to me, and now I don’t feel so bad about people voting against their self-interest.  At least they’re not knowingly doing so.

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