About Nick: i am an economist based in malaysia. I write about development economics, while sneaking in a pop culture reference or two.

Persuasion in a Rashomon World

Published in The Edge Malaysia, November 2017.

When I was 9 years old, my parents gave me a book called, “The Mysterious Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. That book launched a life-long obsession with Sherlock Holmes and, in particular, the personality of Sherlock Holmes. I was totally hooked on the idea of a perfect reasoning machine, a logician of the highest order to whom emotions were akin to “Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses.”

About five years ago, I read a book called, “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman which describes, among others, the many ways in which humans convince ourselves that we are rational despite the fact that we simply are not. Just by virtue of the way our brain is wired, we make all sorts of cognitive biases all the time, using mental shortcuts or, in Kahneman’s terms, ‘heuristics’ that may seem to us to be rational, but are really not.

For someone who idolises Sherlock Holmes and the idea of the perfect logician, that Kahneman book cut deeply. It provided a treasure trove of social scientific evidence that the individual human being cannot be truly rational. To be fair, it was not the first time I had heard this – my background was, after all, in Economics and a fundamental assumption of modern Economic theory was that of homo economicus, the perfectly rational individual economic actor. Homo economicus had long been debunked in practice, but until Kahneman’s book, I had never been truly convinced. Sherlock Holmes, even as a non-fiction character, was too farfetched!

Last year, my boss and mentor, Hisham, introduced me to the work of Harvey Whitehouse, an Oxford anthropologist whose research focuses on the evolution of social complexity. In particular, Whitehouse’s work zooms in on the concept of “identity fusion” which is the extent to which our personal identity is tied in with the identity of the group or groups in which we belong. Therefore, it says that our rationality, or lack thereof, is not just due to individual cognitive biases but also a product of the groups with which we identify – Christian, Muslim, Taoist, African-American, Southeast Asian, Sherlock Holmes fan, Harry Potter fan, working class, Cambridge alumni, engineer, economist, and so on.

Therefore, even in an increasingly ‘Post-Truth’ environment – Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 word of the year was ‘Post-Truth’ – there is still room for truth and for facts; it is just that views of the world are becoming polarised towards the stories we tell ourselves. For any given individual, the narratives we tell ourselves about how the world works or how events play out becomes our ‘truth’ and can very easily take precedence over facts. The ‘truth’ of a situation becomes entirely subjective to us, and depends largely on our individual cognitive biases and our identity fusion.

A great illustration of this is in the movie, “Rashomon” by Akira Kurosawa. In the movie, four people recount different versions of the story of a man's murder and the rape of his wife. Each version is dependent on the background of the individual. Today’s world, accelerated by the transmission of information and ‘news’ via social media, has become somewhat of a Rashomon world where any given event is given contradictory interpretations by different individuals involved.

Therefore, if you want to change someone’s mind, you can forget about just showing a table of facts, or charts of numbers and hoping that they will be persuaded. In fact, “Confirmation Bias”, one of the cognitive biases described by Kahneman – a bias where we look for information or arguments that just confirm our position – is doubly potent. Not only do we only look for ways to reinforce our initial stance, we also dig deeper into our own stance when presented with contradictory evidence. Instead of becoming more open to an alternative perspective, we treat that perspective as hostile and double down on our initial perspective.

As such, in a Rashomon world, persuasion by facts alone is difficult. Indeed, this may always have been the case. After all, Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher once argued in “On Rhetoric”, his treatise in persuasion, “Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds…Persuasion is achieved by the speaker's personal character when the speech was so spoken as to make us think him credible…Secondly, persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions…Thirdly, persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question.”

The first mode is the ethos. A large part of a speaker’s credibility depends on whether we see the speaker having the moral or ethical high ground. Naturally, if the speaker belongs in one of our ‘groups’, we are more pre-disposed to see the speaker as having the moral high ground. The second mode is the “pathos” – appeals to emotion and therefore, the narratives of the listeners. The third mode is the “logos”, which is an appeal to logic and reason. All three are important, necessary even.

However, as we think of the world in which we live, in which it is now so much easier to get information, particularly tailored information that is designed to re-inforce our confirmation biases, it stands to reason that logos carries far less weight. We saw this especially in the Brexit vote where any appeals on economic facts did not go very far. Indeed, narratives that focus on ethos and pathos are becoming more and more weighty. It is altogether clear that, as human beings, we always want to have the moral high ground – indeed, it is one of the great abilities of human beings that we are always able to reverse rationalise acts we or others we like do as moral acts. It is akin to having a football player from an opposing team who we truly dislike, but would love if he were on our team.

The greatest rhetoric actors in today’s world – politicians – understand all of these very well. It is why one of the best ways to take down an opposing politician is to undermine their moral high ground; make them lose their ethos. Next, given that human beings are, at their core, emotional rather than logical creatures, double down on pathos and loosen up on logos. Appeal to the heart, rather than to the brain. Contrary to the Sound of Music which says, “Somebody kind who touches your mind, will suddenly touch your heart”, it is much better to touch the heart, then touch the mind.

Therefore, in today’s Rashomon world, attempting to persuade people by using only facts – only logos – is doomed to fail. Aristotle clearly understood that, arguing that you cannot just use logos in Rhetoric, you need pathos and ethos as well. How far those arguments take us depends on our irrationality and our sense of identity fusion. Indeed, I will argue in a future article that it is via these lenses of Rhetoric that we build institutions and, indeed, nations.  


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