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Arguments and Persuasion Techniques in Writing

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: August 28, 1999
E-Mail Faculty on the Site.

Use of Fear to Persuade
Use of Authority to Persuade
Use of Prestigious Spokesperson to Persuade
Use of Debate to Persuade

References



Use of Fear to Persuade

by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Part of the Writing Tools Series
Copyright August 1999. "Fair Use" encouraged.

This material is taken from Jones and Gerard, Foundations of Social Psychology, John Wiley and Sons, 1967. That happens to be the book Jeanne has at hand. For newer research in the field consider key terms: fear, attitude change, persuasion, "belief and value appeals". The section referred to here can be found on pp. 437 - 467.

Fear is often used as a means of producing behavior change. Classic examples covered in the Jones and Gerard text are studies on getting children to brush (and today, floss) in the interest of preventing tooth decay (and today, gum disease) and on getting children not to smoke. In one study (Janis and Feshbach) researchers found that a strong appeal to fear (such as the depiction of gross tooth decay) had the reverse of the expected results. Children reported improved practice in brushing their teeth in response to the milder appeals that did not invoke fear and anxiety. (pp. 459 - 463)

Fear as an attitude and behavior change mechanism is a risky choice. Putting a student in fear of bad grades may motivate the student to work harder. But it may also have the reverse effect of causing the student to give up in expectation of failure. Jones and Gerard deal with fear and grades on p. 467. They also summarize Goldstein's conclusions from another study that: "when a person is threatened . . . there are two things that he can do. He can cope with the threat by adopting the belief advocated by the communication and subsequently chanage his oral hygiene practices [this was the tooth decay study]; or he can avoid anything and everything that might sustain the fear in the present or re-arouse it in the future. [Some of us just avoid dentists like the plague.] If he reacted defensively with avoidance, he would be less likely to show concern with dental hygiene practices subsequent to the threat." (Jones and Gerard, p. 462.)

Fear as an Element of Persuasion in Writing

You are unlikely to write materials to discourage children from letting their teeth rot from lack of adequate brushing and flossing. So what do we want you to transfer from this concept of "fear as a tool of persuasion" to your own writing? We want you to recognize that the invocation of fear often underlies the policy or the position you take. If the threat backfires, your communication may have the opposite effect from the one you are trying to create.

Example: Ethan Bronner, "Israelis Defend Plea Bargain With American," New York Times, August 26, 1999. The plea bargain was made with a 19-year-old American who fled to Israel after a particularly grisly murder of another teen-ager in Maryland two years ago. His father, who was born in what is now Israel, in 1944, claimed Israeli citizenship for the son, and the consequent invocation of Israeli law which provides that Israeli citizens shall not be extradited, but tried in Israel.

The Israeli Prosecutor accepted a plea of guilty in exchange for a 24-year sentence. The following paragraph appears in the article:

"The chief prosecutor in Montgomery County, Md., State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, publicized the agreement on Tuesday and called it "an insult to justice" because in Israel most prisoners serve only two-thirds of their sentences."

The pejorative "insult" comment combined with the violence of the crime, which included dismembering of the victim, and U.S. concern with violent crime, has the effect of producing fear of turning loose violent perpetrators on society. Mr. Rubinstein, the Attorney General of Israel, pointed out that the accomplice in the murder had committed suicide on the eve of his trial in the U.S. and greatly weakened thereby the chances of proving that it was the defendant who had actually committed the murder. "He added that wile most sentences were reduced to about two-thirds, that was not always the case." Mr. Steinbein, the defendant, was 17 years old when the crime was committed. Consider how the statement quoted above fits into our fear of the "violent child."



Use of Authority to Persuade

by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Part of the Writing Tools Series
Copyright August 1999. "Fair Use" encouraged.

Another frequent tool for persuasion is appeal to authority. Notice that we have an entire file on this site to provide "scholastic references." What, indeed, do those references represent but an appeal to academic authority?

I once gave a thoroughly researched and referenced lecture on a postmodern dilemma: the fact that young men today in U.S. society are being offered very little to entice them into marriage. Families and children are expensive. Hard to afford them and still afford swanky cars and the accoutrements of the "fast life" of the young batchelor. Women, on the other hand, are being reminded of the ticking of the biological clock. Children are becoming more expensive to raise, what with the schools often failing to provide all that is needed. All of this might lead us to consider that sometimes, when Mother preaches you must marry before having sex and chidren, a widely shared value and a religious sanction for many of us, there aren't any available men to marry! Not having an answer to this, I suggested that my young students accept that the world is different and forgive themselves for the extent to which they feel this conflict. It is complex and not wholly of their making, or ours, for that matter.

One young woman asked, "Do you know what my mother would say if she heard this lecture?" Yes, of course, I do. Just what I and most other mothers would say. "Our values are important and you must hold to them!" But we also say to our sons that they must choose carefully, and we worry for them that the young women are trying to "trap" them. Our values are important, for both our daughters and our sons. That will not ease the conflict that all of us feel as our infrastructure changes, and as we adjust to unprecedented global changes in social relationships.

The young woman who asked that question was absolutely right. I gave her academic authorities on empirical research that compared the cost of marriage for young men to similar factors in Victorian England. Those authorities wouldn't mean diddly squat to her mother, anymore than they would to me as a mother. The authorities that count for us as we counsel our sons and daughters are the cultural, moral, and religious authorities. Weddings are becoming popular again in the 90s. That doesn't mean that families and children are more affordable in our infrastructure. It just means that different authorities are turned to and relied upon.

Don't try to persuade your mother of a "deviant" position counter to her moral, ethical, cultural, and religious norms, by appealing to academic authority. This is why it is so important to clarify who your audience is. Don't try to convince your social science professor that certain social relationships simply cannot exist because your mother says so! That won't work either. But notice how often we appeal to authorities. Notice how often we ask people identified with the cause we support to speak for that cause in the media. Here, representativeness of certain values counts along with the recognized authorities. Boy Scouts stand for "doing good deeds" and "being prepared." So when a Boy Scout is asked to advertise a product we are appealing to that expectation that he represents "doing good deeds" and "being prepared." The conflict we experience between differing value systems within our own culture depends on the changing structural patterns as much as on individual and collective perceptions of those patterns. All of that encompasses appeal to authority.

I am reminded of the best example I ever heard of the ultimate appeal to authority. Jean Paul Sartre, in Existentialism est un humanism, one of his early works on existentialism, told the story of a priest he met on a train. The priest informed Sartre of his certainty of his beliefs, for he had been "called" by God. "But," replied Sartre, who was insisting that we are each ultimately responsible for our own beliefs, "who interpreted the call?" The ultimate authority rests within us. We must choose to believe. Especially in a postmodern world, in which there are so many perspectives to consider, the conflicts we face are many, and we must ultimately interpret the "call." The philosophy sprung up in post-war France, where many said "I was just following orders."

The ultimate responsibility for the actions that result from those orders is still being argued by courts today over "war crimes" long distant from World War II. To what extent can authority guide us? To what extent do we retain the responsibility for our actions? These are still real world questions, as much with us as they were in the late forties. The tension between the individual and the community to which she belongs is as much a source of consternation as it ever was. The only answer that we, as teachers, can provide is to teach you to think critically, always knowing that someday someone may hold you ultimately responsible for the authority you follow.



Use of A Prestigious Spokesperson to Persuade

by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Part of the Writing Tools Series
Copyright August 1999. "Fair Use" encouraged.

In the previous section on appeal to authority, we spoke of the appeal to someone like a Boy Scout who represents certain values to champion our cause. William A. Scott, in Values and Organizations, wrote an excellent piece on methodology. He spoke of how we could effectively measure values by comparing groups that had acknowledged commitment to different values. The Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts would provide such groups. A conservative church group is very likey to reflect "family values." Young people in a popular "singles" bar would be more likely to reflect a more liberal attitude towards social relationships.

Perhaps the best example in 1999 is Charlton Heston in his role as President and spokesperson for the National Rifle Association. He represents a commitment to the value that U.S. citizens have an important right in the "right to bear arms." Those who oppose gun control appeal to his popularity and longevity as a well-respected actor to persuade people that because they like him, and because they feel a certain affinity to the person he represents, they agree with his appeal. Milton Rokeach, in The Open and Closed Mind, on dogmatism, reminds us that we tend to like people whom we perceive to be like ourselves. And cognitive dissonance theory would persuade us that if we like him, we probably like what he expresses as his opinion, for to like him, but not like his opinions, would represent dissonance, which balance theory (Heider) tells us we try to avoid.

About this time in the millennium, as we approach new elections, you should see lots of appeal to prestigious spokespersons. That's how campaign funds are usually amassed.



Use of Debate to Persuade

by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Part of the Writing Tools Series
Copyright August 1999. "Fair Use" encouraged.

Debate, as we have traditionally recognized it in competitions, allows each side to present its best arguments, completely and in the order in which they are most likely to persuade. The problem with this technique, in terms of persuasion, is that in many informal debates, questions raised by one side are never fully answered by the other. For the most effective argument, each point raised needs to be dealt with effectively by the advocates for each side.

Appellate advocacy in the courtroom, is perhaps a good example. Although each advocate presents her case in the best light possible for her client, the Appellate Court often persists in raising the difficult issues it wants the counsel to address. Once questioning begins in the Appellate Court, in oral argument, counsel must deal with the issues. They do not get to return to their polished prepared argument, earlier presented in their written briefs to the Court. They must persuade the judges on the issues the judges are struggling with, those issues the judges feel were not adequately persuasive in the written briefs the Court receives long before oral argument.

This is one great difference between legal advocacy and debate. In legal advocacy, in the Appellate Court, there is a quick exchange of reasoning on your feet, a challenge by the judges on the issues to which they seek clarification. An outstanding debater will, of course, anticipate such focus and answer in her argument. But in the debate, there is no one to skewer her with questions, on the spot, to which answers must be given. This is what provides some of the courtroom excitement, the direct and immediate fending off of challenges to one's thinking and conclusions.



References

Jones and Gerard, Attitude and Persuasion Theory.

Hirschman, Rhetoric of Reaction.

Gilman, Academic Writing.