Persuasive communication

When the Heart Wins

Heartand mindIn the balance of hearts and minds, which should win? It’s one of the oldest questions in persuasion; Aristotle drew the distinction between logos, which appeals to the mind, and pathos and ethos on the other. His contention was that ethos is the strongest of the three, which put him on the side of the heart.

In more modern parlance, we can view it as the difference between Daniel Kahneman’s distinctions between fast System 1 thinking and slow System 2 thinking.

A central theme of this blog is that content is king: the most persuasive and sustainable arguments are those built from sound logic and verifiable facts. One way of looking at it is that in the battle of hearts and minds, the mind should win. Another way is that need should trump want in influencing others’ decisions. Calm deliberation, judgment and careful weighing of pros and cons should lead to better and smarter decisions, which is especially necessary when you’re making decisions with momentous consequences in terms of money and even lives.

But the reality is that there is often a vast gulf between should and do, and even big decisions can be swayed by appealing to the heart.

A famous quote attributed to Josef Stalin is, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” We saw that played out last night as President Obama addressed the nation about the need to step up military action against ISIL forces in Iraq. A few short months ago, the idea of getting entangled in Iraq again would have been unthinkable; now it is almost unthinkable not to. Before the President’s speech, ABC News reported that 91% (!) of Americans supported increased military action in Iraq.

Why has public opinion changed so fast and so radically? I don’t believe it’s the statistics of the horrifically high death toll from the Syrian civil war – that’s been going on for three years and has claimed an estimated 190,000 lives. But none of those lives distracted our attention long enough to care, until two American hostages died. And it’s not their deaths that galvanized us, it’s the way they died, in revolting and public fashion.

Of course there are very sound geopolitical reasons to get involved to stop the spread of the ISIL “caliphate”, including denying a territorial base that can be used for terrorist attacks, and further destabilization of a volatile and critical region of the world. But those reasons existed before Foley and Sotloff lost their lives. The justification was there, but the drive was not. Without an appeal to the heart, those reasons would not have been enough to drive action.

It’s important not to take this too far. The emotional side attracts so much attention that it’s easy to forget that there has to be a strong logical justification underlying it. As I’ve written before, you can sell the sizzle all you want, but if the steak turns out to be crappy, no one wins. Effective and ethical persuasion requires an appropriate balance between the heart and the mind.

But no matter how smart and rational your idea is, no matter how eloquently you can explain your reasoning, logic will only get you as far as agreement. If you want action, you must appeal to the heart.

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January 12, 2011
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