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Volume 14, Issue 52;   December 24, 2014: The Perils of Novel Argument

The Perils of Novel Argument

by

When people use novel or sophisticated arguments to influence others, the people they're trying to influence are sometimes subject to cognitive biases triggered by the nature of the argument. This puts them at a disadvantage relative to the influencer. How does this happen?
Head of the philosopher Carneades (215-129 BCE)

Head of the philosopher Carneades (215-129 BCE). This statue is actually a Roman copy of a statue that was on the agora in Athens. Carneades was perhaps the most important member of a group of philosophers known as the Academic Skeptics, who held that knowing is impossible. To the Academic Skeptics, ideas can never be true with certainty, but there can be degrees of probability, which then allow one to act. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Influencing others using any means other than reasoning from the merits of the issue at hand can lead organizations away from their own objectives. That's why knowing how to recognize how people use cognitive biases to influence others is a valuable skill. When we notice such attempts, we're better able to limit the effects of manipulation. With this in mind, let's explore a technique of influence that derives its power from cognitive biases. That technique is the use of novel, sophisticated, or subtle argument.

I'll use the name Aristotle for the Advocate, and Carneades for the Skeptic. Aristotle is trying to persuade Carneades of something; Carneades is dubious. Let's say that Aristotle's argument is difficult to grasp, sophisticated, and wrapped in subtlety, but it's solid nevertheless. As Carneades listens and engages, he has a learning experience. He finds himself in the student role under Aristotle's tutelage. When he finally understands Aristotle's point, he has a sense of intellectual achievement: "Ah! I get it."

Several cognitive biases can help Aristotle as he persuades Carneades. Let's consider three.

Confirmation Bias
Confirmation Bias is our tendency to emphasize and remember information that confirms our preconceptions. Carneades, like most of us would, has a preconception — he believes that he is highly capable intellectually. After he finally understands what Aristotle is saying, he has an incentive to accept the argument, to be persuaded. His success in understanding Aristotle's difficult-to-grasp argument confirms Carneades in his belief in his own intellectual prowess.
The Focusing Illusion
The Focusing Illusion is Some attempts to influence others
succeed not on the basis of
the merits of the argument, but
because they manipulate people
the tendency to overvalue one aspect of a situation relative to its importance. Thus, if Carneades invests significant effort in grasping Aristotle's argument, and if he succeeds, he will have an incentive to place more emphasis on that evidence than might otherwise be appropriate. In effect, he tends to want to justify the effort invested in grasping Aristotle's claims, by overvaluing their importance. The difficulty of grasping the novel or subtle argument can thus enhance the Focusing Illusion.
The Halo Effect
The Halo Effect, generalized a bit, is the tendency for our assessment of one attribute of a person, situation, or thing, to influence our assessment of the item's other attributes. Thus, an unusually attractive person is often judged as unusually trustworthy; an unusually well designed Web site is assessed as unusually credible. With regard to the novel argument Aristotle presents, his role as "tutor" tends to cause Carneades to admire Aristotle's intellectual powers. This leads Carneades to evaluate Aristotle's argument as more plausible than the argument itself might otherwise justify, because the "halo" of Aristotle's sophisticated argument bestows credibility on Aristotle, which, in turn, makes the argument more credible.

These effects are admittedly subtle, and — to some — novel. Take care not to let their subtlety or novelty affect your assessment of their validity. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: Part I  Next Issue

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