Persuasion Methods: Ranked From Strong to Weak

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Do you tend to appeal to logic or emotion when trying to persuade someone? What’s the best method to convince someone to make a decision or come over to a point of view?

There are broad categories of persuasion methods, ranging from logical reasoning to appeals to emotion. In his book Wing Bigly, Scott Adams considers some persuasion methods to be terribly weak and others to be formidably strong.

Here’s an overview of Scott Adams’ persuasion methods in the descending order of effectiveness.

Scott Adams: Persuasion Methods Ranked

In his book Win Bigly, Scott Adams describes the persuasion methods politicians use in their campaigns and how you can apply these strategies to be persuasive yourself. We’ll cover his ranking of methods, starting from strong to weak.

Rank 1: Appeal to Fears

Fears trigger stronger reactions than positive emotions like hope, and is the strongest persuasion method of all.

Nuances of fears:

  • Personal fears are more persuasive than generic large-scale problems (losing your house vs general climate change)
  • A fear you think about more often is stronger than one rarely thought about.
  • A visual fear is scarier than one without.
  • A fear you’ve experienced firsthand (eg a crime) is scarier than a statistic.

Examples:

  • In the 2016 US Presidential election, Trump engaged people on fears of losing jobs and crime. 
  • Clinton couldn’t use the same fears because of her brand, so she used Trump as the object of fear, portraying him as the next Hitler.
    • The painting of Trump as Hitler contributed to the militancy of Clinton supporters. If you had a chance to stop a literal Hitler and save millions of lives, you have moral authority to kill people to do it.

Rank 2: Identity

People like to back their tribe. If you seem like you’re on a person’s team, they’ll more likely support you.

  • We evolved to feel safer with people who are like us, and oppose people who were different who seemed to be trying to hurt us.

People like to think of themselves as honorable and trustworthy. If you want to correct someone’s behavior, appeal to this high ground by asking if that is what the person wants to be.

When you identify as part of a group, your opinions tend to bias toward the group consensus.

Examples:

  • Sports teams use local geographical tribes effectively.
  • Trump reminded voters they were Americans first. Clinton appealed to women, minorities, and LGBTQ.

Rank 3: Aspirations

While a person’s aspirations don’t trigger as strong a reaction as fear, they still create powerful, uplifting feelings. To persuade, graft your story onto people’s existing aspirations.

Examples:

  • Apple stresses personal creativity. 
  • Financial services companies stress being financially independent.
  • Trump played to voter aspirations of being wealthier, safer, and greater. In contrast, Clinton used the weaker “Stronger Together,” which is more defensive than aspirational.

Rank 4: Habit

Instead of changing habits, try to piggyback onto existing habits.

Examples:

  • Turn vitamins into once-a-day morning rituals like brushing teeth and shaving.
  • Morning shows tie to the time period specifically. “Good Morning America,” “Morning Joe,” “Coffee with Scott Adams.”

Rank 5: Analogy

Analogies are relatively weak persuasion methods. They’re useful to explain a new unfamiliar concept and to be directionally correct.

However, analogies are so imprecise that they invite criticism on narrow grounds – “that analogy doesn’t work because of this detail.” Your opponent then uses this detail to invalidate the directional accuracy.

This is a form of persuasion by association – if two things have something in common, surely they must have many more things in common.

  • To use an analogy – the analogy is the holster, and the negative association is the gun. The analogy (holster) is a vehicle for delivering the negative association (the gun).

These are more effective when piggybacking on other biases, like confirmation bias, visual imagery, and fears.

  • The analogy of Trump to Hitler was effective for Clinton’s base, since it fit their confirmation bias, and to voters new to Trump, since it explained a new concept. It wasn’t effective for Trump supporters since they could poke holes in the analogy.

Rank 6: Reason

This is much less effective than people think. We tend to make our decisions first emotionally, then rationalize them later. Most topics are emotional – our identity, relationships, career choices, politics. 

We deceptively think most of our lives are rational because many smaller decisions are rational – brushing teeth to avoid cavities, using coupons to save money, following the GPS navigator to save time. But the big decisions in life are actually mainly emotional.

Reason is most effective when there is no emotional content to a decision, like shopping for the best price of the same car across multiple sellers.

Example:

  • In Jimmy Kimmel, people were presented Trump’s policy positions framed as Clinton’s, and asked if they agreed with those positions. Many said they did.

Rank 7: Hypocrisy

A persuasive attempt based on hypocrisy is arguing that the other person also did something they’re complaining about. 

This is ineffective because it frames both parties as naughty children – there is no winning here.

Resist the reflex of feeling unfairly attacked and having to sling back mud. Appeal to the high ground: “I agree with you. We’ve learned a lot since that mistake. Let’s try to find the best way forward and stick to that.”

This frames yourself as the wise adult in a room of children and small thinkers – someone who knows how to solve problems.

Rank 8: Word-thinking

Word-thinking is an argument based around semantics. One person can adjust the definition without any appeal to reason or logic. 

This is Scott Adams’s lowest ranked form of persuasion. If two people disagree on a definition, there is no room to go.

Examples:

  • Trying to convince someone of your abortion viewpoint by changing their definition of what “life” is. 
  • People argued about whether Trump was “conservative enough” to represent the GOP. 

General Notes on the Rankings

For all of these methods of persuasion, visual persuasion is stronger than oral persuasion. A visual argument lower on the list can be more effective than a verbal argument higher on the list. For example, an analogy invoking a strong image may be more effective than an oral appeal to aspirations.

During an argument, when people exhaust the better techniques, they go progressively down the list to weaker techniques, since they run out of ammunition. So if you’re using reason and someone argues back with an ad hominem, you can realize that they’ve run out of logic and are now desperate.

Persuasion Methods: Ranked From Strong to Weak

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Scott Adams's "Win Bigly" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Win Bigly summary:

  • The persuasion tactics Donald Trump used throughout the 2016 presidential campaign
  • Why Hillary Clinton's campaign fell short
  • How to leverage people’s biases and irrationality to persuade on your point of view

darya

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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