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Is Arguing With Passion The Most Effective Way To Persuade Opponents?


This is, of course, election season, and we're hearing plenty of heated arguments from politicians. But here's a question. Is framing an argument with passion the most effective way to persuade your listeners? There is some new research suggesting that it is not the best way to explain this finding. We're joined by NPR social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam. Hey, Shankar.


GREENE: So passion not effective. I've got to hear this.

VEDANTAM: Well, often it's not effective, and here's why, David. When we get passionate about making an argument, it's usually because we very clearly see the justice of our cause. So a patriotic Republican, for example, might get passionate about the threat of ISIS because the Republican sees ISIS as being a threat to the integrity of the country. A Democrat might passionate about an argument about fairness because a Democrat says this reflects the concerns that he or she has about income inequality. The problem is that the arguments that we make are the arguments that usually convince people who are like us. They don't speak the language of our opponents, and when you think about it, the only people you need to persuade are the ones who don't agree with you.

GREENE: Well, Shankar - I mean, we don't want to over-generalize. I mean, you would have a lot of Conservatives who would say they care deeply about equality and fairness. You would have a lot of people on the left who say they care deeply, deeply about national security, obviously. Right? I mean, it's...

VEDANTAM: ...I think that's absolutely fair, David, but there is research data that shows that in general, these are the frameworks that Liberals and Conservatives have when they actually are not thinking about it very carefully and not poll-testing their answers. Liberals tend to care much more about fairness and protecting people from harm. Conservatives tend to think much more about loyalty and patriotism.

GREENE: Gotcha (ph). OK, well, what you're really talking about here is a politician's ability to win over someone who does not agree with him or her. So what exactly is the evidence that passion plays sort of a role that is not helpful if someone's doing that?

VEDANTAM: So the data comes from Matthew Feinberg at the University of Toronto, and along with Robb Willer, they find that both Liberals and Conservatives tend to fall back on the moral frameworks of their own side when making arguments. When the researchers asked Liberals and Conservatives to make arguments - for example, they asked Conservatives to formulate arguments about why English should be the official language of the United States, overwhelmingly, Conservatives used the argument that having a united country meant speaking the same language. Very few appealed to a liberal moral framework by saying, for example, when people speak English, they are less likely to face racism.

The same thing happened with Liberals on the subject of gay marriage. Instead of painting same-sex marriage as a patriotic issue, most Liberals framed their support for same-sex marriage using arguments about fairness. Now it should be no surprise that when Liberals and Conservatives actually used arguments that spoke to their opponent's moral framework, they were actually far more likely to persuade their opponent.

GREENE: So I guess the lesson here if you're a politician and you're trying to sort of whip up a lot of emotion in your base - I mean, people who, you know, are sort of - tend to agree with you, you just want to get them to turn out to the polls, you can be passionate. But maybe think about your strategy and what you're doing if you're trying to win over swing voters or people on the other side.

VEDANTAM: Right. So we've known for a very long time that the messages that politicians give during primaries are very different than the messages they deliver during the general election. And it reflects what we're seeing here, which is that when you're trying to rile up your own side, speaking to them in your shared moral language makes perfect sense. When you're appealing to a general election electorate, you want to make sure that you're including people whose moral frameworks do not coincide with yours. Here's the interesting thing, David. Both Liberals and Conservatives seem to recognize, when they're put on the spot, that framing an argument using their opponent's moral language makes the argument stronger. And yet, when they're actually asked to do it, most of the time they forget to do it. The moral of the story, I think, is if you want to win political arguments the next time you're sitting down at a family debate, stop for a second and ask yourself - what is the moral framework of the person whom I am arguing with? And frame your argument using that person's moral framework.

GREENE: Shankar, thanks as always.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, David.

GREENE: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam. He joins us regularly on the program to talk about social science research, and he's also the host of the new podcast, Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.