The 3 Obstacles to Reason – A PR Guide for Activists

muleThe biggest conundrum facing many Free World advocates, and indeed any activists, is how to convince people of the necessity of the changes we’d like to see. Too often we’re faced with people clutching on to the old paradigm, giving reasons such as “it’s the best we have” or “your idea will never work”. While we may have an arsenal of science and logical points to launch a counter, this often seems to fall on deaf ears. Seems like there’s something more in play beyond plain reasoning, doesn’t it?

That’s right, it’s not only about good arguments. In fact, it’s basically got nothing to do with good arguments and all to do with psychology. Human psychology is a funny thing that often gets in the way of reason. Grab a copy of Dan Ariely’s witty Predictably Irrational and you’ll soon see why. Our prehistorically evolved mental toolbox leaves us stuck with ways of thinking that can’t grasp the amount of data we have and the general vastness of a global interconnected world woven through with mass media, social media, computers and clever but greedy people taking advantage of all of that. We need to learn how those in control have done so, to undo it.

There’re three main aspects of how people are influenced to make certain decisions in life. The first of these is identity.

1. Identity

Convince-CartoonWe like to belong, and thus we like to identify with something. And this identity is then hard to shake. Try telling a car lover to switch to public transport and you might as well be trying to coax a fish to come live on the land! A person’s identity can be formed of many things, they could be interested in sport, they could have strong family values, perhaps have strong roots in their local community. Often they’ve been fed an identity by the mass media which makes it “cool” to be something. You need to understand this identity and realise you can’t dismantle it overnight. Sometimes you don’t even have to. You can advocate your ideas in an angle that is compatible with, and supports their values. Then you don’t have to convince them of anything. You’re only building on what’s already there.

If you want to be sneaky, there’s a little trick you can use called foot-in-the-door. This means you start out with small requests which are easy to do, but get the other person to make your idea a part of their identity. Later you can make larger requests and they might just be happy to help now!

2. Other People

The second main influence is other people. Again, people’s desire to belong to the herd overrides reason a lot of the time. In an experiment comparing four types of leaflet, even appealing to people’s money-saving self-interest wasn’t as effective as appealing to the herd mentality – people were most likely to conserve energy when they were told other people are doing it. This is of course difficult if you’re supporting a minority viewpoint, so take care to avoid painting it as such. Try instead to look for statistics showing support for your cause is on the rise, or target areas where it’s more widespread. Go for the low-hanging fruit, so to say. And also lead by example. Preach by example – but without being preachy – or you might come to odds with someone’s identity!

3. Emotions

Finally, we’re also easily influenced by emotions. Despite building a hefty layer of neocortex on our brains through evolution, we still possess the more primordial “lizard brain”. We like happy things, we don’t like sad things. Ugg. Environmentalists have long suspected that the doom ‘n’ gloom stories have not been working very well, and we’re also quite aware of how seeing extreme poverty is unpleasant and makes us want to turn off the telly. The good news is that the world we’re advocating *is* a hell of a lot happier than what we have now. And aspects of that world are already present in today’s world. You see amazing acts done by volunteers to help people in need, you see people taking initiative to improve their worlds, plant trees, green the deserts.

Stop following mainstream news and look for the positive stories. Give people a flavour of what the whole world could be like, if already within our current system you can see such pockets of awesomeness. Get them to visualise that ideal and never let it go. Maybe they’ll also make it part of their identity, and surround themselves with people who feel the same way. Now that would be a cocktail of motivation one couldn’t ignore!

What is one small thing you could change in your approach today? Let us know in the comments!

Further reading/watching:
“Change of Heart” by Nick Cooney – pretty much an activist’s Bible
“Predictably Irrational” – as mentioned, it’s a nice introduction into just how unbelievably irrational we are!
Mel’s ZDay talk on the topic
Lecture by the author of “Change of Heart”

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4 thoughts on “The 3 Obstacles to Reason – A PR Guide for Activists

  1. Thank you for reminding me of that!
    I can see myself improving little by little in my ability to inspire without being preachy.

  2. There is anothrr factot that goes under psychology I suppose. 4% of humans are psychopathic meaning that the region of the brain where empathetic responce is normally felt doesn’t funtion properly. This is measurable. The science is still pretty new but from my perspective it would be wise to test people who want to be our leaders. For instace I’ll bet most of the banksters would show interesting test results.

    • Yep, that’s another unfortunate reality! If you know more on the subject, you could write a blog post on how to recognise one, so people wouldn’t vote for them 😉

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