“Character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion.” -Aristotle
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could trust that everyone who tried to persuade us had impeccable ethics? Or if we knew they had our best interests in mind? Thankfully, we can generally trust the people who are speaking to us. But that doesn’t mean we should be gullible.
In this first part of a 2-part blog series, we’ll examine some common persuasive fallacies used to trick or mislead people. When we are familiar with misleading persuasion and deceptive arguments, it helps us know what to watch out for in other messages. But it also teaches us what to avoid in our own presentations.
This type of argument promotes the assumption that once something happens, an inevitable trend is established that will lead to disastrous results. You’ve seen this type of argument before in the children’s books series If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Or you may remember the DIRECTV marketing campaign that made fun of slippery slope arguments by pushing them to hilarious extremes. Like this one, called “Don’t Wake Up in a Roadside Ditch.”
When people are actually trying to trick us, the slippery slope won’t be quite so obvious. Watch for natural relationships between choices and consequences. If these are blown out of proportion or you start to feel like something is inevitable (when it’s actually not), you could be at the beginning of a slippery slope argument.
A red herring is one of the more famous types of persuasive pitfalls. Also called a smoke screen, this type of argument uses irrelevant material to draw attention away from the real issue(s). It’s a distraction technique. In an interview with Kermit Pattison, Professor Gloria Mark talks about her research into the cost of interruption and distractions. She says, “I argue that when people are switching contexts every 10 and half minutes they can’t possibly be thinking deeply.” That means if a speaker or salesperson can distract you, it might prevent you from thinking critically. Be wary of people who change the subject quickly or who seem to be deflecting or diverting attention. They could be putting up a smoke screen.
Most of us became well acquainted with this type of defective persuasion in middle school. A bandwagon argument tries to convince you that because others are doing something, it must be right. But surely this doesn’t affect us as adults, right? Well, when is the last time you bought into a trend that you first thought was frivolous or even downright ugly?
Even as adults, it can be tempting to believe that if everyone is doing it, it must be right. Here’s the kicker: it might be. In fact, Yale School of Management published the story of Opower. This creative company began a program based on peer pressure and bandwagon arguments that asked neighbors to report and compare their energy usage. Once homeowners saw that others were signing up and making the effort to use less energy, the program snowballed, leading to savings of $1.1 billion.
But numbers of people participating or purchasing alone doesn’t make something right or wrong. The bandwagon argument works like the others. It tries to make you check your rational decision-making skills at the door.
The final type of argument trick has the potential to be incredibly damaging. Ad hominem arguments attack a person via labels, name-calling, or character questioning rather than addressing the issue at hand. Sometimes speakers will use ad hominem attacks to deflect when they aren’t knowledgeable about the issue being discussed. This gets the uncomfortable spotlight off of them and puts it on someone else. When you see someone resorting to ad hominem attacks, if you are able to, call it what it is and help steer the conversation back to the issue. And resist the urge to stoop to this type of argument in your own communication.
Now that you know these 4 persuasive tricks, you can guard yourself against falling prey to them or using them in your own arguments.
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