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Winning Hearts with Weak Arguments

Why it sometimes pays to make a less compelling case
speaker



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Politicians ask their supporters for a lot, from monetary donations to holding campaign signs near busy intersections – often in frigid weather. Such big asks would seem to call for strong, cogent pitches. After all, who’d volunteer for a candidate who couldn’t even explain her positions on the issues? As it turns out, lots of us. In fact, recent research suggests that in some cases, providing weak arguments in favor of a candidate or cause leads supporters to engage in greater advocacy than providing strong ones.

In an experiment conducted in the months prior to the 2012 United States presidential election, several Stanford University researchers – Omair Akhtar, David Paunesku, and Zakary Tormala – asked one hundred and sixty five members of a national online sample to report their feelings about President Barack Obama’s bid for reelection. Based on their responses, respondents were categorized into pro- and anti-Obama voters.

The researchers then showed some respondents a series of strong, compelling arguments from other voters in favor of President Obama’s reelection, like these:

I support President Obama because he has done a great job under extremely difficult circumstances. He inherited a broken economy, two wars, and an America with a battered international reputation. He’s made significant progress towards reversing all of these problems.

Obama has my support in the 2012 election because he’s stood his ground and pushed for important social changes, like health care reform and gay rights, even when they weren’t popular.

Other respondents, in contrast, viewed a series of less-than-ideal arguments, like:

One reason I support the president is that he has such a wonderful family. You can tell a lot about a person from the way they raise their kids, and his daughters are absolute darlings! And his wife is so well-dressed. You can tell he makes great choices.

One reason I support Obama is that when he gives speeches, he looks right at the camera to connect with voters at home, or sometimes stares off into the distance like he can see a better future. I find that inspiring.

(Unless you think eye movements are a good indicator of presidential acumen, you likely agree that the first set of arguments feel more solid than the second.)

The researchers then asked respondents a series of questions about how likely they were to take action to support President Obama’s reelection campaign, such as how willing they were to make phone calls on his behalf and persuade others to vote for him.

How did pro-Obama folks respond? They were actually more likely to report wanting to make calls and persuade others when they had just seen the flimsy arguments – as though seeing such poor-quality advocacy made them rouse themselves to engage in more skillful advocacy themselves.

In fact, the researchers traced this increased willingness to advocate to people’s increased feelings of efficacy. In general, people seem to feel that they don’t have the intellectual chops to persuade other people to vote for a candidate. But when they see someone waxing poetic about Obama’s eyes, they become more sure of their ability to argue well (or at least better than that), and this increased feeling of ability leads to increased advocacy.

These effects aren’t just limited to Obama supporters. In a follow-up experiment about a potential new policy for local schools to institute a “vegetarian only” policy in their cafeterias, opponents who read silly arguments from others (“The vegetarians in our town are really annoying” and “My grandfather and great-grandfather were pig farmers”) became more likely to advocate on behalf of meat-filled lunches. 

These results have some odd implications. They suggest that politicians interested in firing up their base – getting people to make calls, knock on doors, and donate money – might in some cases be better off making a half-hearted, logically-flawed, and poorly-delivered case for themselves. Hitting their supporters with a dose of incompetence might motivate those supporters to rush to their phones to drum up more support. And cash.

Nor is getting others to advocate on our behalf a strategy used solely by politicians. Fans of the television program Arrested Development may recall the Bluth family matriarch, Lucille – not the world’s most nurturing mother – winning her estranged children back by uttering a simple but powerful phrase: “I’m a horrible mother.” At which point, of course, her children rushed to her side with effusive praise and promises of devotion.

Sometimes, then, the best way to win is not to make a strong case for your point of view (or worth as a mom), but instead to make the weakest case you can – and let others do the advocacy for you.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and regular contributor to NewYorker.com. Gareth is also the series editor of Best American Infographics, and can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.

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