Politicians play a game of gather-and-grow.
First, they gather us all under an umbrella that we can agree on. “Democrats are pro-choice! Democrats believe in fighting climate change! Democrats are for gun control!” The vast majority of left-leaning Americans all agree on those points. We all identify with those points of view, so Democrats associate them with being a Democrat.
Next, they use those associations to pull us in: if you identify with those stances, and Democrats identify with those stances, then you should vote for Democrats! Easy!
Finally, and most importantly, they use your identification to influence your other beliefs. Maybe you're on the edge about supporting more immigration... but Bernie and Elizabeth and Pete and Kamala are all getting up and saying that DEMOCRATS support more immigration.
And you identify as a Democrat, don't you? All of your peers must believe in immigration, then, right?
Not one politician on that stage needed to convince you that what they were saying was 100% right.
Sometimes they'll try. But other times, they just need to convince you that everyone around you thinks that what they're saying is right.
That's the golden move. YOU will lose most arguments. YOU will fail to convince most people of anything. But influence is a group game, and you need to know how to work the group.
Keeping Your Identity Small
In 2009, Paul Graham wrote an essay called "Keep Your Identity Small".
I read it for the first time in 2016, but it didn't really hit me until I re-read it this past year. He says:
You can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn't engage the identities of any of the participants.
He explains that politics, like religion, becomes part of your identity, "and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that's part of their identity. By definition they're partisan."
That's a really strong point to make, but I think it's generally true.
When someone identifies themselves with a belief (e.g. "I am pro-Palestine" [identity] vs. "I support Palestinian liberation" [not identity]) then you can almost never convince them otherwise — you would be personally attacking them. Left unchecked, the argument devolves into an attack on that person.
So many of our beliefs naturally be part of our identity. Part of that is a direct result of how we talk about them: "you ARE a Democrat," "you ARE pro-immigration." And that's not to say that some of those beliefs that you hold closely are not objectively true — many of them are.
But often we cannot convince people of the truth, or what we think is the truth, because its difficult to accept facts when they clash directly with who you see yourself as.
That's why studies show that emotions are clearly more persuasive than logic. One study even showed that 90% of decisions are made based on emotion, but that people use logic to go back and justify their decision.
You'll never win an argument by trying to convince someone they're wrong.
The Power of The Crowd
However, all hope is not lost. Although YOU cannot convince them, they CAN be influenced.
Just not by you. Or by any individual, really.
But there's a reason that politicians gather us together and have us identify with each other. They don't want to persuade us of anything. They want the crowd to do the work for them.
In Robert Cialdini's book "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion," he argues that one of the strongest "weapons of influence" is similarity: if I establish that I am like you, you are more likely to agree with me.
Political parties — or brands or teams or religion — are just parts of our identity that we can easily relate on. When people who I share that crucial part of my identity with talk, I'm more likely to listen.
We can take this one step further, though...
Studies have shown that influence is not only a one-on-one phenomenon, but a social one. That's not a new revelation, but the implications that has here are really interesting.
If I see a bunch of people who I consider "like me" believing something, even if I don't believe in it, I'm more likely to challenge my own beliefs. Nobody has to convince me of anything — I'll question myself because people who I identify with have beliefs that fly in the face of mine.
Sounds like "peer pressure," right? But it's true! You see them as YOUR friends, YOUR family, etc. There are exceptions to the rule ("my whole family is pro-Trump but I'm a mega-liberal!!") (don’t worry that’s not actually true, lol)... but for the most part, I'd die on this hill.
Go after the middle...
Rewind though... who are we trying to convince?
Well, let's say you're a huge supporter of Issue X and you want everyone to be pro-X! But there's a group of people who are anti-X. They identify as X-haters. They will do everything in their power to stop X from ever happening. With few exceptions, you will never convince the X-haters.
But you could and should target the middle — the people who currently don't hold an opinion one way or the other. Why?
- First, they don't hold issue X as part of their identity. As a result, they will be much easier to convince because your opinion doesn't seem like a slap in the face to who they are as a person.
- Second, they're your crowd. The larger you grow your group of Pro-Xers, the more likely it becomes that Anti-Xers begin to challenger their own beliefs. Maybe their family becomes Pro-X. Maybe people from their place of worship. I identify with those people, they think, so why am I not Pro-X.
A study from the Planck Institute in Germany supports this — they found that, empirically, as more neutrals in a social circle become Pro-X, Anti-Xers feel more compelled to challenge their own beliefs.
The key here, though, is that the social circle matters. If I convince neutral, suburban college students to become pro-X, I'm not necessarily going to influence those of a more rural background — they don't identify with the neutrals we are convincing, so they aren't going to care whether their opinions aren't the same.
...or maybe not.
This phenomenon is not without consequences, though.
What I’m describing is a huge factor in political polarization: by nature, this social process makes people see black or white, and eliminates all of the grey over time. It is not “identity politics,” but it certainly shares a lot of attributes.
If I were to take two things away from this piece, it would be:
- If you’re an activist or a business with a really polarizing brand, go after the middle. The gains will be slow, but it’ll win you the war in the long-term.
- Every individual should regularly audit their beliefs: why do you believe what you believe? Is it family? Is it because you’ve reviewed the facts and found objective truth?
That's the power of social influence. Nobody cares until everybody cares. You can't win an argument, but if you can get enough people on your side, network effects can do magic like no other.