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3 SUBTLE PERSUASION TECHNIQUES

Gabriel Wilensky
E very day advertisers, politicians, and all sorts of people want to persuade you to believe one thing or another. They may use one or more different persuasion techniques to achieve this. Sometimes it’s through the things they say; other times it’s with what they do not say. Yet other times it is through how they say it. The common denominator is the words used, and there’s a very good reason for this: language is very powerful.

It is for this reason that anyone trying to convince you of their position will choose their words carefully. These manipulators know the ordinary meaning  these words have. But words have another meaning, that of connotation. This is the suggested meaning, one that is implied and is influenced by culture, location and the times. This implied meaning can be very powerful, and of course people trying to convince you use these terms with full knowledge of their additional implied meaning, and with the full knowledge of how they can influence you.

How are they actually influencing your thoughts or actions?

They are doing it by:

  • Selecting certain words over others in their carefully crafted messages.
  • By phrasing questions in such a way that they elicit a specific response.

Example

Consider the following situation: someone you know plays the guitar in a rock band. He parties hard, hangs out with some unsavory people and is rarely home with his family. How would you describe him?

  • Reckless
  • Free-spirited
  • Talented

The words you choose to describe someone not only says something about him, it also says something about what you think of him. Even though each of those three words could be used to describe that person accurately, by choosing one you will be revealing your own bias: from positive through neutral to negative. Whichever term you choose will convey your perception of him, regardless of whether you intended to do so or not.

This sort of thing happens all the time. As a consequence you are constantly influencing others by imparting your opinions about something or someone, and of course others are just as frequently consciously or unconsciously manipulating you as well!

The words you choose to describe someone not only says something about him, it also says something about what you think of him.

Unmasking What’s Behind that Wording

By using subtle persuasion techniques manipulators can sway your opinion in the direction they want, often with you not ever realizing they did that. But here is some good news: just like knowing how a magician did a stage trick ruins the illusion, knowing what these subtle persuasion techniques are and how they operate on you cancels their effect on you!

So, as a critical thinker you must learn how words can influence you so you can avoid being manipulated, because the antidote is knowing how the stage trick is performed. If you recognize the persuasion techniques, they lose their power.

Let’s examine the following three subtle persuasion techniques:

  • Replacing a negative or disagreeable expression by a gentler or more positive one
  • Replacing a positive or gentle expression by a more negative or disagreeable one
  • Asking biased questions

As critical thinkers you must learn how words can influence you so you can avoid being manipulated.

1. Replacing a negative or disagreeable expression by a gentler or more positive one

In this scenario you attempt to diminish the potentially negative impact of something you say by expressing it in milder or more positive language. This is known as a euphemism, and it happens to be the most common of the subtle persuasion techniques. We all use euphemisms from time to time, and it does not necessarily mean we have bad intentions. Often, we are just trying to be polite. But they can also be used to manipulate, and indeed they often are.

For example, there are many ways to say that someone is fat. The term is neutral in that it simply conveys the meaning of being overweight. The word does not imply a value judgement. Yet, often we use softer terms to describe the same thing:

  • Plus-size
  • Curvy
  • Heavy
  • Big-boned
  • Portly

The same device is used when someone wants to be politically correct. Thus, we tend to find all sorts of alternative words to say what we want to say, under the assumption that the original term might be offensive. This leads to the use of terms such as a reduction of personnel to explain that someone was fired, living in an economically depressed neighborhood instead of in a slum, or buying a pre-owned vehicle instead of a used one.

This is pusillanimous use of language as it avoids, shifts or denies responsibility. It hinders or conceals true thought or feelings.

2. Replacing a positive or gentle expression by a more negative or disagreeable one

Just like you can use a positive expression to mask what you might perceive to be a negative one, you can sometimes do just the opposite and replace a neutral or positive expression with a negative. A negative or unpleasant expression is called a dysphemism.

For example, you may choose to veer towards the offensive when deciding not to use the word fat:

  • Greedy hog
  • Chunky
  • Heavy set
  • Well-upholstered

Both euphemisms and dysphemisms are common subtle persuasion techniques regularly used by politicians, advertisers and others who may want to influence your thoughts or feelings. They can be used to mask something, to prevent you from seeing the truth. They may be used as a cover to avoid something that may be unpleasant or feared. They can be used to conceal meaning, to deceive or to confuse you. Indeed, this type of verbal deception is commonly employed by politicians or advertisers as a form of spin used to portray or sell you an idea, policy or product as good or desirable, when it could very well be just the opposite.

Euphemisms and dysphemisms are a  type of verbal deception commonly employed by politicians or advertisers as a form of spin.

3. Asking Biased Questions

The third subtle persuasion technique we’ll examine here is that of biased questions. These types of questions are commonly used by political organizations, advertisers and others with an agenda who may use them with the intention of eliciting specific results.

Someone bent on influencing your views may implant a thought or steer you in a particular direction by asking you a biased question, with the expectation that you will answer in a certain way. That answer tends to reinforce the concept the questioner intended, and thus ends up influencing you.

Imagine you are presented with a survey about the feminist movement. The survey has many questions, but two in particular catch your eye:

  • Do you support the feminist movement position that women should be able to take men’s jobs?
  • Do you think the feminist movement should encourage women to work outside the home and neglect their children?

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Irrespective of your views on feminism or the women’s liberation movement, the more likely scenario is that you will want to answer no to these questions. The reason why is because these questions are phrased unfairly and are biased. Built-in into those questions is a certain negative attitude towards the feminist movement. If you answer yes to the first question you would appear to support allowing lots of men to lose their jobs, and if you answered yes to the second question you would seem to be supportive of the idea that neglecting your children is acceptable. The questions are unfair because they are prejudiced negatively. They are biased through the use of dysphemisms.

There are two mechanisms at work in their construction:

  • They are negatively prejudiced with the intention of pressuring us to answer in a certain way.
  • They associate feminist movement to negative terms such as neglect and take.

Biased questions are commonly used by political organizations, advertisers and others with an agenda who may use them with the intention of eliciting specific results.

Now imagine the people conducting the survey wanted to elicit yes answers. In this case they may use euphemisms to bias the questions in the opposite direction:

  • Do you support the feminist movement position that women should be able to add new perspectives and talent to the workforce?
  • Do you think the feminist movement should encourage women to join the workforce and potentially create new business opportunities for everyone?

Now the tables are reversed, and it’s much easier for you to answer yes to these questions. The reason why is because otherwise you would appear to be opposed to the idea of adding new perspectives and talent to the workforce. And who would argue that that is a bad thing? In the case of the second question, answering no would makes you look as if you thought that creating new business opportunities for everyone was a bad thing, so you will most likely answer yes.

How should these questions be phrased, then? They should be written impartially, without prejudice and bias. In other words, they should sound neutral and should not push us in any given direction.

Here’s how the questions should be phrased:

  • Do you think all jobs should be open to men and women?
  • Do you think women should be encouraged to join the workforce?

Beware of these persuasion techniques

I n conclusion, in normal discourse you are typically faced with the use of various persuasion techniques such as euphemisms, dysphemisms and biased questions. You must be alert and recognize them for what they are, because the consequence of not doing so is you’ll be manipulated. Euphemisms are used to replace negative expressions or concepts with positive or less harsh ones. Dysphemisms do the opposite: they replace positive or neutral expressions with negative ones.

Biased questions are meant to elicit a specific type of response and thus make it very hard for you to answer fairly. In so doing they steer you in a direction you might not agree with, and influences your thoughts and actions. 

Recognizing these subtle persuasion techniques will help you avoid being manipulated because once you know how the trick is done the magic is gone. You should always think critically and independently. It’s very important you always arrive at your own conclusions and you recognize when people try to influence your thoughts or actions.

What do you think?

Share your thoughts with the Thought Academy community in the Comments section below.

DON’T LET PEOPLE INFLUENCE YOU WITHOUT YOU EVEN REALIZING

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