In emotions, persuasion, sparks, stories

Aristotle accepted that people are not wholly rational, that they are often driven by their emotions. Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia has managed to show just how strong these emotions are.

He has suggested that if the emotional brain were the size of an elephant, the rational brain would be the size of a small boy riding on top. In certain cases the boy can control the elephant, but if the elephant wants something different to the boy, there’ll only be one winner. Logic alone won’t convince people; we need to make sure the audience feels something.

This can be done in a number of ways. Rather than using statistics to highlight the plight of, say, people in a poverty-striken country, it’s almost certainly more effective to lead with a story of one individual person’s struggle to survive. We find it far easier to empathise with one person than with three million, and that act of empathy pushes us to want to help.

Self-interest is another powerful emotion. It could be worth highlighting the benefit of our proposal to our audience – the WIIFY: What’s In It For You? If they can see what they stand to gain, they’ll be much more likely to accept our arguments.

A third option is not to tap into self-interest, but to appeal to the audience’s sense of identity. It’s been noted that, politically, people frequently seem to vote against their own economic self-interest. The reason is likely to be that they vote for the party which most closely reflects the values of ‘people like us’. If people are prepared to give up money for these beliefs, identity may – at least sometimes – be a more important motivator than self-interest.

Once we have found a way to tap into the feelings of our audience, we may not even need to provide too much extra logic: they will begin to find the logic for themselves. When you really want to do something, it’s not so hard to find reasons to do it.

Recent Posts