The art of persuasion hasn’t changed in 2,000 years and applies to coronavirus

Carmine Galloof wrote in the Harvard Business Review last year that ideas are the currency of the twenty-first century. The ability to persuade, to change hearts and minds, is perhaps the single greatest skill that will give you a competitive edge in the knowledge economy — an age where ideas matter more than ever.

More than 2,000 years ago Aristotle outlined a formula on how to master the art of persuasion in his work Rhetoric. A summary of Galloof’s article appears below.

1) Ethos or “Character”

Aristotle believed that if a speaker’s actions didn’t back their words, they would lose credibility, and ultimately, weaken their argument.

2) Logos or “Reason”

Once ethos is established, it’s time to make a logical appeal to reason. Use data, evidence, and facts to form a rational argument.

3) Pathos or “Emotion”

According to Aristotle, persuasion cannot occur in the absence of emotion. People are moved to action by how a speaker makes them feel. Aristotle believed the best way to transfer emotion from one person to another is through the rhetorical device of storytelling. More than 2,000 years later, neuroscientists have found  his thesis accurate. Studies have found that narratives trigger a rush of neurochemicals in the brain, notably oxytocin, the “moral molecule” that connects people on a deeper, emotional level.

4) Metaphor

Aristotle believed that metaphor gives language its verbal beauty. “To be a master of metaphor is the greatest thing by far,” he wrote. When you use a metaphor or analogy to compare a new idea to something that is familiar to your audience, it clarifies your idea by turning the abstract into something concrete.

Those who master the metaphor have the ability to turn words into images that help others gain a clearer understanding of  their ideas — but more importantly, remember and share them. It is a powerful tool to have.

5) Brevity

Here again, Aristotle was ahead of his time. “Aristotle had discovered that there are fairly universal limits to the amount of information which any human can absorb and retain,” writes Kings College professor Edith Hall in Aristotle’s Way. “When it comes to persuasion, less is always more.”

Brevity is a crucial element in making a persuasive speech. An argument, Aristotle said, should be expressed “as compactly and in as few words as possible.” He also observed that the opening of a person’s speech is the most important since “attention slackens everywhere else rather than at the beginning.” The lesson here is: start with your strongest point.

Sorta like journalism.

Increasing vaccine compliance: Coercion and persuasion, shock and shame only work so much

James Colgrove, Ph.D., M.P.H., of the Department of Sociomedical Sciences, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, New York, writes in this commentary, in recent years, vaccine refusal and associated declines in herd immunity have contributed to numerous outbreaks of infectious diseases, consumed public health resources, and provoked increasingly polarized debates between supporters and opponents of vaccines.

vaccinationAlthough the prominence of the Internet as a forum for information and misinformation has given these conflicts a distinctly 21st-century character, they have deep historical roots. Many of the scientific, ethical, and political challenges that physicians and public health officials face today in dealing with vaccine refusal would be recognizable to their counterparts of previous eras. The heart of their task entails balancing the use of coercive and persuasive approaches.

Coercion is the older tradition in public health. During the 19th century, many states and localities passed compulsory-smallpox-vaccination laws covering both children and adults. These laws were of a piece with an expansive network of public health regulations that arose in that era concerning practices such as quarantine, sanitation, and tenement construction. Vaccination laws imposed various penalties, including exclusion from school for unvaccinated children and fines or quarantine for adults who refused vaccination. The effectiveness of the laws was soon demonstrated — jurisdictions with them consistently had fewer disease outbreaks than those without — and their constitutionality was upheld in numerous court challenges that culminated in the 1905 Supreme Court case of Jacobson v. Massachusetts.

The use of coercion has always raised concerns about state intrusions on individual liberty and the scope of parental control over child-rearing. Compulsory vaccination laws in the 19th century typically contained no explicit opt-out provisions. Today, all states offer medical exemptions, and almost all offer religious or philosophical exemptions. Nevertheless, even a law with an opt-out provision may exert a coercive effect, to the extent that the availability of the exemption may be limited and conditional and the consequence of the law is to make the choice to withhold vaccination more difficult (if only marginally so) for the parent. These laws continue to be the target of antivaccination activism.

Persuasion became an important part of the public health tool kit in the 1920s, with the rise of modern forms of mass media. Health professionals began to draw on techniques from the emerging fields of advertising and public relations to sell people on the importance of childhood immunization against diphtheria and pertussis. Such appeals began to acquire a more scientific basis in the 1950s, after the development of the polio vaccine, when sociologists, psychologists, and other social scientists began to identify the attitudes, beliefs, and social contexts that predicted vaccine-related behaviors. Their efforts brought increasing theoretical and empirical rigor to the study of why people accepted or declined vaccination for themselves and their children, and health professionals used these insights to develop approaches to increase uptake of vaccines, such as enlisting community opinion leaders as allies.1 Persuasive approaches, because they are less restrictive, are ethically preferable and more politically acceptable, but they are also time consuming and labor-intensive, and evidence indicates that by themselves they are ineffective.

Vaccine refusal revisited — The limits of public health persuasion and coercion

October 12, 2016, New Engl J Med; 375:1316-1317, DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1608967