When I was younger, I thought that conversations in real life were much more likely to promote true beliefs and meaningful changes than conversations online, because people in real life were only willing/able to cite evidence they were actually confident in, while those online were able to easily search for arguments favoring their position.

While this is obviously wrong—the concept that people in real life only cite evidence they are justifiably confident in is comically false—I do think the dichotomy illustrated there is interesting. One thing I've noticed is that in general the "rigor" of discussions online is higher (in terms of citations, links to external content, etc.), but that conversations in real life seem still much more likely to actually change people's minds.

I have noticed this effect in both myself and others—what do you think is going on here, and how do you think we might circumvent it? If online discussions could be made more effective at causing people to actually change their minds, this could potentially prove extremely useful.

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I don't think the relevant distinction here is "real life v. online." The distinction is is written communication v. oral communication. I would expect with high confidence that a Skype discussion would more resemble talking face to face, and that actual old-fashioned letter correspondence would more resemble discussion online. The big difference to me, is having the time to research and synthesize relevant evidence before responding; this tends to disrupt the flow of oral communication.

I suspect the persuasiveness in oral communication is related to our susceptibility to favorable impressions of people who mimic our tone, posture, etc.

I think a huge part of what makes face to face (and to a lesser extent, voice) conversations different than text conversations is the simultaneous commitment of attention, so that you can say just one thing at a time and wait for a response (or go on but be ready to be interrupted when something is unclear) instead of having to write whole speeches with anticipations of counterarguments just to keep things going at a reasonable pace.

Another important dimension is real-time communication vs slower communication. If it only takes a few seconds from saying something to hearing the interlocutor's reply, it's much easier to (say) assess inferential distances than if it takes several days. On this axis an IM chat is much like a meatspace conversation and a video message is much like a letter.

BTW, while you can't use intonation and body language in writing, you can use punctuation, formatting, and/or emoticons.

I suspect the persuasiveness in oral communication is related to our susceptibility to favorable impressions of people who mimic our tone, posture, etc.

The non-verbal communication component should probably also be taken into acccount. Face to face discussions can be more dense of information, since tone and posture can also communicate nuances of beliefs and confidence in them that can make one's position more clear (and often more acceptable). Written communication is very often pretty dry in this respect, resulting sometimes in flame wars and people becoming only more stubborn.

conversations in real life seem still much more likely to actually change people's minds.

How about the minds of bystanders?


It's not that people are more willing and more able to tell the truth in person. It's that people are more willing and more able to not tell the truth when not in person. Related: people are more willing to be jerks in their cars and online in ways they would not be willing to do face to face. We fling poo from a distance more than at arm's reach.

It's easier to build rapport in person because sincerity and good intentions are harder to fake (signalling), which makes it easier for people to accept both good and bad arguments. Misunderstandings and potential insults can be corrected real time judging non-verbal communication, so criticism is both easier to give and receive if participants have benign intentions.

Textual online discussions remove most signalling required for this kind of immediate mutual trust, and I'm not sure much can be directly done about that aside from avoiding obvious insults and bluntness if we keep the medium the same. Emoticons don't work that well because a lot of real life signalling is involuntary which makes it more reliable. I suppose meetups work against this somewhat, since people can do preemptive signalling offline. Slowly building a trustworthy reputation should work too. I suspect for rapport reasons downvoting people you want to persuade would not be a great strategy, but perhaps some people think we're above that.

Changing your mind and admitting you're wrong are different things, and the former should be more important to optimize.

Textual online discussions remove most signalling required for this kind of immediate mutual trust

This comment surprised me even though I think it's probably true, because I instinctively interpret "being textually articulate" as a signal of being trustworthy, or at least worth listening to. I'm curious if anyone else here does the same, and if so, how long they've been communicating online (~16 years). I think the two might correlate.

I do this too, but I don't think it's of much help when almost everyone you have discussions with is sufficiently articulate. I think writing skills are more a sign of intelligence than trustworthiness.

I haven't noticed that online conversations are any more or less researched or convincing in general. This forum and maybe a couple of others seem to be an exception. The usual level of written discourse is just as bad as or even worse than face to face. Just look at Youtube comments, 4chan, or even reddit.

This is very much my experience too. There is also a very high variance in quality of discourse in face-to-face situations.

I think it's slightly easier to have moderate-to-high quality discussions in asynchronous online writing (assuming that's what the participants want), because you can treat stuff-you-can-Google-easily as an assumed baseline of knowledge and competence.

A silly idea I have is to model the quality of conversation as a random walk. With no boundary, you will almost-surely sink below the YouTube Comment Event Horizon as time passes. But if you have Wikipedia as a lower bound, the average quality of discussions will tend to increase over time.

You may feel that way because many of your online conversations are with us at the LessWrong IRC, which is known for its high level of intellectual vigor. The great majority of online conversations are not as rigorous as we are. I suspect that IRL conversations with other lesswrongers will have equal dependence on citations, references, for example.

I suspect that IRL conversations with other lesswrongers will have equal dependence on citations, references, for example.

I can"t cite the same number of sources in real life because I don't have all of them in memory. In real life I can't run a quick search for a source.

...unless you carry a smartphone with you. :-)

(But the signalling effects of that may not be desirable in all social circles.)

...unless you carry a smartphone with you. :-)

I do carry the phone with me but taken out the phone interrupts the conversation.

If I take a minute to locate the right source for an argument that's completely fine for a discussion on Lesswrong and even IRC.

It's not fine for a live face to face conversation.

If I take a minute to locate the right source for an argument that's completely fine for a discussion on Lesswrong and even IRC.

It's not fine for a live face to face conversation.

I think that depends on local norms. In one of my old social groups finding information online was practically expected. It helped that conversations were generally between four or five people, so there could be related tangential discussion while someone was looking something up.

“Excuse me, I need to go to the toilet for a sec, I'll be right back.” (But that would probably have the side effect of making you come across as a dick, even if you turn out to be right.)

I suspect that IRL conversations with other lesswrongers will have equal dependence on citations, references, for example.

I've actually noticed that in many real life conversations, I've found myself saying that I'll email people links to articles, essays, etc. Online, it's much easier to do this directly.

Possibly relevant:

Do you think this is true for written and video/oral discussions online or just written ones? I tend to anticipate a decent number of feedback cycles before both of the participants in an online discussion are on the same page and have mutual knowledge of this. Since this requires a significant time investment, I tend to avoid participating in in-depth written online discussions, as I know that I will not be willing to invest sufficient time for me to feel that sufficient communication to have taken place to act on the conversation's conclusion(s).

I'm referring to written conversations primarily. Video/audio chat online seems mostly similar to real life conversations.

Belief change has a lot to do with emotions. It's more difficult to have strong emotional impacts on other people when you aren't face to face.

It even harder when you aren't live and a person might wait between reading your posts.

Face to face to can see when a word that you say raises the level of tension in the person that you are interacting with and use that feedback to target your approach.

When I'm discussing on LessWrong I mainly focus on making arguments. When discussing in real life I take the person I'm discussing with much more into account. What are their emotional needs that I have to fulfill to get them to change their opinion?

Our instincts react to proximity / distance of other people.

Of course they are not calibrated to internet-era distances, but they probably round it to some "far enough" value. Which is probably different for text messages, for phone calls, and for video calls. (I would guess the loudness of the speakers and other technical parameters have an impact, too. Maybe even the font size.)

This is an excellent topic for a post. (upvoted)

I think that the quality of conversations change from an online platform to real life situations. After all, the first one is artificial and the second one is real and showing real emotions and interaction.

Hmm, I don't have a coherent response to the question posed (how to increase online persuasiveness to a level equal to in person), but reading this made me think a few things.

First, I suspect that "online" is too broad of a target for conversations that you want to be persuasive in. What is persuasive in a forum style post may not be persuasive in an instant messenger style conversation. Writing an article that everyone reads and is persuaded by requires a very different skillset than getting the top voted comment on a video.

I suspect you were thinking of a standard text message style conversation, but I'm not certain. If you are looking to influence people through online discussion I'd be surprised if there wasn't an optimal form for this to take, narrowing our target may be of use.

Next, we've had different experiences in terms of in person discussions changing someone's opinion. From what I've seen the use of discussion to persuade the other party to modify their opinion is more or less a mythical act. I give it the same belief as I do hypnosis. It never happens in real life but everyone knows someone who swears by it. Sitting down and telling someone why they are wrong doesn't make them agree with me, it makes them think (realize) that I'm a jerk.

So, given that I don't believe in changing the mind of the other party in a discussion, can we change the bystander's minds? Sure. That's why debates exist, for the most part. So, to return to the initial question, I'd say the first concrete recommendation that I've got is to make certain that your online discussions have spectators. (or rather, make certain no one is under the impression that the discussion is private, given that anything online can be reposted.)

After you decide 'where' to have your discussion, considering both the form of the medium and the number of bystanders, the next most important thing is to pick your partner. In order of importance you probably want a poster who is an advocate of whatever you want the mob to dislike, willing to argue with you, of sufficiently high status to attract bystanders, and a poor advocate for their position.

If you don't mind sock puppetry this is obviously a good use for your drones.

Next up, tone is all important. In a face to face discussion the popular kid wins, you can tell he's winning (and therefore, by backwards logic, still popular) because he's signalling that he's doing so. Bugs Bunny beats Daffy Duck, to use a recent article's example. In person this means using the appropriate body language/tone of voice. Online this means choosing your phrasing. Basically you want to match the tone of the site's most popular users/threads.

So if you are on a Blue/Green blog then use the appropriate mannerisms. (A good way to get a hang on a site's mannerisms is to spend a little while making a program that spits out strings that sound like they come from that site). If you are on an expertise related site then make certain to signal your relevant triumphs. Some sites love the point by point refutation (reply with quote their post, then cut in your answers). On others that's not how its done. Basically you need to have the correct accent-equivalent.

Lastly, there's duration. This is probably the trickiest part of the whole offline-online translation. In person you (the popular/winner debater) can end a discussion in a number of ways, ideally at the moment of maximal impact. Online they can just keep posting. You need a way to gracefully exit after you've maximally impressed the audience. I can't really suggest a generalized way.

Anyway, that's my 2 cents, thanks for reading this long post.

Are you talking about learning or persuasion? Are you looking for ways to change your own beliefs more easily (to be more correct, presumably), or for ways to change others' beliefs?

In-person communication is often more persuasive, as it is able to use a lot of bandwidth to transmit personal status and group membership cues. Your goals for the communication (learning vs influence) will determine whether you want to circumvent or make use of this.