The world is run by Chicken Little.
“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”
So it seems, anyway. The art of persuasion, particularly in the political realm, has been reduced to one key theme:
Disaster looms! Only [your favorite platform here] will prevent it!
While the Chicken Little method may produce great adrenaline rushes, it has little else to recommend it. Hysteria doesn’t bother with facts, and its goal is certainly not to make anything better. It’s simply a technique to grab attention and recruit a choir to amplify the frenzied song: “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”
Disaster snares our attention for good reason. It’s a survival mechanism. When you’re about to be trampled by an elephant, you’d better forget everything else! But Chicken Little activates that mechanism to gain recruits to her misguided cause. Tragically, she leads everyone into disaster instead of away from it. If the other critters hadn’t succumbed to her cries, they might have escaped the fox’s jaws.
Reports of impending doom particularly garner attention when we’re already expecting disaster. This is an example of confirmation bias. We’re more willing to accept what aligns with our knowledge and expectations, more likely to question what conflicts with them. Had Chicken Little squawked her warning at a squirrel, she probably would have been laughed to scorn. The squirrel knows whence came the acorn that struck that silly bird on the head. Those animals who spent their lives on the ground without looking up proved more willing to believe her.
There are two lessons here:
- Responsible fowl check their facts before shrieking their heads off.
- While it’s easy to enlist others by playing to their fears, it’s much harder to recruit those burdened with a different set of fears, even if you are talking facts.
That’s why Chicken Little is such a terrible role model. She’s only heard by those silly enough to take her word as gospel, and she leads them right into the fox’s den. Sadly, you’ll find her everywhere today, on both ends of the political spectrum and anywhere else someone is competing for your attention. Even Weather Channel headlines make developing storms sound like impending Armageddon.
You, of course, don’t want to be a Chicken Little clone. You employ facts to rationally persuade people. Problem is, people aren’t rational. (Confirmation bias again.) It may be tempting to play upon their fears, if only to get their attention. What else can you possibly do?
Well, here’s one suggestion, couched as a statement of the problem:
Not everything that a man knoweth can be disclosed, nor can everything that he can disclose be regarded as timely, nor can every timely utterance be considered as suited to the capacity of those who hear it.
As near as I can tell, this is one of those “wise old sayings.” It is quoted by Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, in his writings. It says that you can’t always tell people everything you know and expect to be heard. Sometimes circumstances are all wrong. (Quantum mechanics would have sounded like sheer lunacy in the 1700’s.) Sometimes the world isn’t ready to listen. (Wegener’s idea of continental drift, while comprehensible enough, met with ridicule for over 40 years for lack of a mechanism to drive it.) Sometimes the individual you’re speaking to isn’t ready to listen. (Neither expect an atheist to accept an argument predicated on God’s existence nor a theist to accept an argument predicated on God’s nonexistence.) Just as you can’t feed an infant sirloin steak, you may have to start with metaphorical milk and gradually introduce new foods.
Essentially, do an end run around confirmation bias. That demands wisdom and patience. Don’t overtax people. Listen to them instead, find out what they believe and why, and seek points of agreement upon which you can build. Even as you try to teach them what you know, be open to learning what they know. Yes, some of what they know may be nonsense, but nobody is wrong about everything, and you certainly don’t have a monopoly on truth
Therein lies the subversiveness of gentle persuasion. Both parties may be changed by the experience. But that’s not a bad thing. Life is change. Growth is change. Yes, change can be good or bad or anything in between, but so long as we draw upon facts and keep our eyes on truth, we can steer ourselves toward change for the better.
At the very least, we’ll give that fox a run for his money.