Tell it to someone who doesn't care

byPhilGoetz10y14th Apr 200934 comments


Followup to Marketing rationalism

Target fence-sitters

American culture frames issues as debates between two sides.  The inefficacy of debates is amazing.  You can attend debates on a subject for years without ever seeing anyone change their mind.  I think this is because of who attends debates.  People listen to debates because they care about the issue.  And they only care about the issue because they've already taken a side.  Caring then innoculates them to reason.

If the debate really can be approximated by a binary decision, then the people you want to talk to are the fence-sitters.  And they aren't there.

This reminded me of my "wound-healing" theory of international aid.  I'll float a similar idea for social debate:  In order to win society over to a view in the long run, you should target the people who don't care much one way or the other.  Politicians already do this.

So how do you get them to listen?  They won't come to your debate, or your conference, or your website.  Here are some ways:

  • Fiction.  Think Atlas Shrugged.  People will read a novel or watch a movie even if they're not interested in the issues that it's about.
  • The Christian church teaches that evangelism happens through friends.  Big church-tent revival meetings have been effective now and then; but most conversions happen one person at a time.
  • Marketing.  There's a much-larger-than-multibillion-dollar industry that does nothing except try to solve the problem of selling things to people who aren't interested in them.  Too bad I don't know anything about it.
  • Teaching kids.  (We like to say that a child should grow up to the age where they can make their own decisions.  But the unbiased child is a myth.)  The public consensus is already to teach science rather than religion in school.  I'm happy with that consensus and don't think it needs to be pushed further by teaching rationalist ideology.

(When I combine this theory with the observation that most people don't change their worldview or their preferences much after the age of maybe 15, I come up with the idea that most cultural change is driven by the random drift of the opinions of children.)

Gravitational debate

But there are many instances of inspirational books targeted at people already well on one side of an issue, that inspired people to action, or had a strong influence on people without flipping them from a 0 to a 1.  The God Delusion, for example; or Schrödinger's What is Life?.

So here's theory number 2: The gravitational model of debate.  People adjust their opinions in response to the opinions of the people around them.  If a lot of the people around Jack shift their opinions to the right, Jack is likely to shift his opinion to the right.  I suspect that Jack is more sensitive to opinions similar to his, than to opinions far away.  So, like gravity, the strength of the attraction falls off with distance.  An opinion sufficiently different from your own is repelling; it invokes an outgroup response rather than an attractive ingroup response.  Rush Limbaugh causes some people to shift further left.  We could posit a gravitational attraction between opinions that varies from positive at close range, to negative at long range.

The consequences of this model are that, by shifting anyone's opinion in one direction, you may trigger a cascade of opinion-shifts that will move the median1 opinion.  This says you can write a book targeted anywhere on a spectrum of opinion, and have it effect the entire spectrum indirectly, moving some people from one side of the fence to the other even though they never heard of your book.

One consequence is that, as in tug-of-war voting, it's rational to try to persuade extremists to be even more extreme than you think is rational, in order to shift the median opinion in your chosen direction.  (It might not be the most effective use of your time).

Another consequence is that your book might not influence the masses if the distribution of opinions in opinion-space has large gaps.  If, for instance, you write a rah-rah transhumanist book, this might have no effect on the population at large if few people have a partly-positive view of transhumanism - even if the gap in opinion-space isn't where your targeted audience would be.  If the gap is large, your book might move median opinion farther away from your position.  The Nazis had a tremendous effect on later 20th century philosophy, and perhaps art - but not in the way they would have liked.

This model works best for emotional issues, or regulatory issues, in which one's position can be expressed by a real number or vector.  In an academic debate, if you have n competing hypothesis, the range of possible positions is discrete; and opinion space probably isn't a metric space.

Compare and contrast?

These two models make nearly opposite recommendations on how to influence public opinion.  The first says to use marketing to target people who don't care.  The second says (approximately) to examine the distribution of opinions, and express an opinion near a large mass of opinions, in the same direction as the vector from the median opinion to your desired opinion.

I think both models have some truth to them.  But which accounts for more of our behavior; and when should you use which model?


1 (The median opinion is more relevant than the mean with one-person one-vote.  The mean is more relevant with voting systems that let people express the strength of their opinions.)