As humans, we all want self-respect – and keeping that in mind can be the missing ingredient when trying to change someone’s mind

Why is persuasion so difficult, even when you have the facts on your side?

As a philosopher, I am particularly interested in persuasion – not only how to convince someone, but also how to do so ethically, without manipulation. I have discovered that one of the deepest insights comes from the German philosopher Immanuel Kanta focus of my research, who was born 300 years ago: April 22, 1724.

In his last book on ethics, “The Doctrine of Virtue,” Kant writes that each of us has a certain duty when we seek to correct the beliefs of others. If we think they are mistaken, we should not dismiss them as “absurdities” or “poor judgment,” he says, but rather assume that their views “contain some truth.”

What Kant describes may sound like humility – simply recognizing that other people often know things that we do not. But it goes further than that.

This moral obligation to find the truth in the mistakes of others is based on helping the other “to maintain his respect for his own understanding,” Kant claims. In other words, even when we encounter patently false views, morality calls us to help the person we are talking to maintain his self-respect – to find something reasonable in his views.

This advice may seem condescending, as if we should treat other adults like children with fragile egos. But I think Kant is onto something important here, and contemporary psychology can help us see this.

The need for respect

Imagine if you had to postpone lunch because of a meeting. With only 15 minutes left and a growling stomach, you leave to get a burrito.

However, along the way you meet a colleague. “I’m glad to see you,” they say. “I hope I can change your mind about something from the meeting.”

In that scenario, your colleague has little chance of convincing you. Why? Well, you need food, and they get in the way of you meeting that need.

As psychologists of persuasion have long recognized, attention is a key factor in persuasion, and people don’t pay attention to persuasive arguments when they have more pressing needs—especially hunger, sleep, and security. But less obvious needs can also make people difficult to convince.

A brunette woman with glasses peeks around a wall of an office and looks at the photographer.

One that has received a lot of attention in recent decades is the need for social connection.

The psychologist Dan Kahan gives the example of someone who, like everyone in his community, wrongly denies the existence of climate change. If that person publicly corrects their beliefs, they may be ostracized by friends and family. In that case, Kahan suggests, it may be “perfectly rational” for them to simply ignore the scientific evidence on an issue beyond their direct control in order to satisfy their social need for connection.

This means that a respectful persuader must take into account others’ needs for social dignity, for example by avoiding public settings when discussing topics that may be sensitive or taboo.

…and self-respect

Yet external needs, such as hunger or social acceptance, are not the only ones that hinder persuasion. In a classic 1988 article on self-affirmation, psychologist Claude Steele argued that our desire to maintain some degree of “self-respect” as a good, competent person profoundly influences psychology.

In more philosophical terms, people need self-respect. This may explain why, for example, students sometimes attribute low grades to bad luck and difficult material, but explain high grades on the basis of their own abilities and efforts.

Steele’s approach has produced some surprising results. For example, in one study, female students were invited to write down values ​​that were important to them – an exercise in self-affirmation. Afterwards, many students who had done this exercise received higher grades in a physics course, especially girls who had previously performed worse than male students.

This study and many others illustrate how strengthening a person’s self-esteem can equip him or her to tackle intellectual challenges, including challenges to their personal beliefs.

With that in mind we return to Kant.

Politics is personal

Consider Kant’s claim: When we encounter someone with false beliefs, even absurdly false ones, we should help him maintain respect for his own understanding by recognizing an element of truth in his judgments. That truth could be a fact we had overlooked, or an important experience they had.

Kant is not just talking about being humble or polite. He draws attention to a real need that people have – a need that persuaders must recognize if they want to be heard fairly.

For example, suppose you want to change your cousin’s mind about who to support in the 2024 election. You have well-researched evidence and carefully choose a good time for a one-on-one conversation.

Despite all that, your chances are slim if you ignore your cousin’s need for self-esteem. In a country as polarized as the US is today, a discussion about who to vote for can feel like a direct attack on someone’s competence and moral decency.

A bearded man looks into space while a blurry woman at the same table speaks to him.A bearded man looks into space while a blurry woman at the same table speaks to him.

Providing someone with evidence that he or she needs to change their mind can directly tap into their need for self-esteem – our human need to see ourselves as intelligent and good.

Moral maturity

In other words, persuasion requires a lot of juggling: in addition to presenting strong persuasive arguments, a persuader must also avoid endangering the other person’s need for self-respect.

The actual juggling would be a lot easier if we could slow down the objects. That’s why juggling on the moon would be about twice as easy as on Earth, thanks to the moon’s lower gravity.

However, when it comes to persuasion, we can slow things down by controlling the pace of the conversation, freeing up time to learn something from the other person in return. This shows that you take them seriously – and that can boost their self-esteem.

To be ethical, this openness to learning must be genuine. But that’s not difficult: each of us has limited experience with most topics. For example, maybe Donald Trump or Joe Biden confirmed some of your cousin’s frustrations with their local government in ways you couldn’t have guessed.

This approach also has an important benefit for you: it helps you maintain your own self-esteem. After all, approaching others with humility shows moral maturity. Recognizing others’ need for self-esteem can not only help you convince someone, but also in ways you can be proud of.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit organization providing facts and trusted analysis to help you understand our complex world. It was written by: Colin Marshall, University of Washington

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Colin Marshall does not work for, consult with, own shares in, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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