As Nicholas Kristof endorses persuasion...


...Dolly Parton shows one way it's done: We don't love the headlines on Nicholas Kristof's new column. The headlines in question say this:

How to Reach People Who Are Wrong
In the post-Trump era, research suggests the best ways to win people over. 

In this column, Kristof comes down on the side of persuasion. We urges us liberals to get off our tribal high horse and learn how to "win people over."

That said, "How to reach people who are wrong?" According to major experts, the best way to win people over is to stop insisting that they have to tell you that they were "wrong."

We don't love Kristof's headlines, but we agree with his overall point. Still, he panders to us in Our Town just a bit. This is the way he begins:

KRISTOF (3/4/21): The Trump years were a time of high passion, of moral certainty, of drawing lines in the sand, of despair at the ethical and intellectual vacuity of political foes. But now it’s time to recalibrate.

From my liberal point of view, Democrats were largely vindicated. From the Muslim ban to the separation of families at the border, from the mishandling of the pandemic to the Capitol insurrection, Democrats’ warnings aged well. Yet one of the perils in life is being proven right.

The risk is excessive admiration for one’s own brilliance, preening at one’s own righteousness, and inordinate scorn for the jerks on the other side.

It isn't hard to be "proven right" when Donald J. Trump is the opposite standard. To his credit, Kristof warns about our tribe's excessive self-admiration—but only after feeding that familiar old bugbear a bit.

"I wonder if we liberals, having helped to preserve American democracy over the last four years, are getting cocky and self-righteous," Kristof writes at one point. 

We're getting cocky and self-righteous now? Where the heck has Kristof been since maybe the 1960s?

In fairness to Kristof, he explicitly comes out, in the end, in favor of using the tools of "persuasion." To see persuasion at work in the world, take a long look at Dolly Parton.

In this report, NPR includes the four-minute video Parton released when she received her first Covid shot this week. In that video, you see someone endorsing a "blue world" prescription in "red world" raiment and language. 

She's speaking across cultural lines, recommending our prescription in a way Others may accept.

As we noted last week, Bill Clinton also knew how to do that. More specifically, he knew how to "like and admire" people with whom he disagreed.

What's the best way to win people over? For starters, stop telling them how much you loathe them. (It helps if you can honestly say and show that you don't.) Stop saying how evil they are.

You can never win everyone over. It probably helps if you can remember that you're not trying to do that.

You also won't win the least persuadable people over. It helps if you remember that you're trying to reach the most persuadable people—and if you remember that no one's required to agree with you or with your point of view.

What's the best way to win (some) people over? According to experts, we should stop insisting that they all just have to be evil and stupid and bad!

It helps if you can believe that they aren't. Or at least, that's what top experts have said.


  1. Oh dear Bob, this is sooo cute. Brings tears to our eyes.

    So, dear Bob, are you ready to be won over? Or are you one of those least persuadable ones?

  2. Persuasion doesn't work on people who are arguing in bad faith, e.g., lying or making self-serving demagogic statements to manipulate others. That is the major flaw in applying this to Trump or most of his supporters. They are not persuadable because they do not care about truth. They only care about getting their own way.

    That makes Grant's research inapplicable and it makes Kristof's discussion similarly irrelevant to the situation we find ourselves in as a nation.

    Those who are acting in bad faith are not nice people. They are not people you simply disagree with. They are people who are doing bad things on purpose. There is no other name for them than deplorable, despicable, evil. The more we treat them as normal human beings, the more vulnerable we make ourselves.

    Repeat -- Grant is not talking about such people and it is wrong to apply his work to them.

    Grant also says that the more sure you are that you are right, the less right you probably are. That applies to Somerby and Kristof too, although you would never know it by their tone.

    "It helps if you can believe that they aren't."

    And no, it doesn't help to mistake a sociopath for a normal person. It just makes you his patsy. Grant is not arguing that we adopt beliefs we know to be wrong, just to discuss with another person. He is arguing that we keep an open mind to the possibility that our belief may not be correct when discussing with others, so that we can fully hear their arguments. That is far different than deliberately adopted a false view in order to hold a conversation. That is called "collusion with a delusion" and top experts recommend against it, because it confuses everyone about what is real and what is not. A person who believes a delusion needs to hear truth in order to find their way out of their own confusion. You don't humor such people (according to top expert psychiatrists).

    In his article Kristof adopts exactly the authoritative stance (about persuasion) that Grant speaks against. And he seems unaware that he is doing it. He is the perfect illustration of what Grant says to not do. And neither Kristof nor Somerby has any sense of irony.

    Grant offers no exemption for people who actually are experts on a subject. But presumably such people have been trained in the skepticism of science (not of Michael Shermer) which trains someone to have an open mind about their own research, not just that of others. People are all too human, so science uses peer review to impose critical thinking. We non-experts use our friends as sounding boards, or we did until Fox and Alex Jones became the new sources of wisdom. These are not normal times and Grant's ideas are going to be ineffective until we get a grip on propagandistic media, especially from the right wing.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Adam Grant, he was mentioned by Kristof in his article that Somerby is quoting from. He is a professor of organizational psychology at Wharton Business School and wrote a book.

    3. “He is arguing that we keep an open mind to the possibility that our belief may not be correct when discussing with others, so that we can fully hear their arguments.”

      So do you think that’s a realistic possibility?

    4. What has anyone got to lose?

    5. Well that depends on our belief. If our belief is that a 1.9 trillion dollar stimulus package is what is needed, the argument that it isn’t is deserving of some consideration . Our belief that Jews aiming lasers did not cause California forest fires is non negotiable. As is our belief that Joe Biden won the election. As is our belief that Republicans through gerrymandering and other ploys are anti democratic. As is our belief that the Laffer curve is pure trickle down rubbish. But if you want to talk about a 1.4 trillion dollar stimulus bill, I’m all ears.

  3. "You can never win everyone over. It probably helps if you can remember that you're not trying to do that.

    You also won't win the least persuadable people over. It helps if you remember that you're trying to reach the most persuadable people—and if you remember that no one's required to agree with you or with your point of view."

    What on earth makes Somerby think we don't already know this, and haven't already been trying to talk to those who might be persuadable? That's how we won the last election and the popular vote in 2016.

  4. "Bill Clinton also knew how to do that"

    In Clinton's autobiography, it is clear that he did not try to win the Pentecostals over to anything. He was not trying to persuade them, especially not on anything related to their religious beliefs or practices.

    Clinton is thus not an example of persuasion at all. He is an example of the way an extroverted person tends to embrace the world and all of its people, uncritically. Clinton does not embrace Trump or Trumpism that way. Implying that he does is inappropriate, especially given that his wife lost an election to that sociopath.

    Clinton is puppy-dog friendly, but he is no fool.

    1. Totally stupid comment. Clinton is an example of, like Parton, speaking across cultural lines, recommending our prescription in a way Others may accept. Clinton is an example of liking and admiring people with whom one disagrees.

    2. It totally makes sense that whole concept totally makes no sense to you.

    3. It is only fair to read Clinton's book and see what he says about this in his own words. Nothing about his relationship with Pentecostals was about persuasion. He visited them because people, in all their variety, interested him.

    4. It completely makes sense that the whole concept, from top to bottom, is completely and totally lost on you in every way and that armed with your customary complete lack of understanding, you would post a totally stupid reply unsuccessfully attempting to defend your totally and completely stupid original comment and full and complete lack of understanding of the issue.

  5. "After #MeToo, progressives embraced the slogan “believe women” but struggled when a woman accused Joe Biden of sexual harassment. " Kristof

    Actually progressives take #MeToo to mean that women's accusations should be taken seriously and investigated, not that they should be believed unconditionally.

    Similarly, defund the police means that budget money should be reallocated to other services that can better address problems previously left to the police, such as homelessness and mental illness. It didn't mean "create a six-block street with no policing" so that right-wing agitators can attack protesters with impunity, as they did.

    The mischaracterization of progressive/liberal issues doesn't help Kristof's argument and it is an annoying defamation of those who are trying to work toward meaningful change.

    It doesn't help persuasion when someone like Kristof (or Somerby) distorts what others believe in this way, as a way of making others seem ridiculous. That surely must impede persuasion, not just mutual understanding. I do not think kindly of people who start a conversation that way.

  6. People in power are less empathetic and thus make terrible arguments to justify what they're doing. When Israel blocked vaccines to a trickle for occupied Arabs they compared it to helping dolphins.

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