Why persuasion and negotiation techniques are (probably) useless

Over the past few years or so, there has been a ton of interest in persuasion and negotiation techniques. A Google search reveals dozens of articles about so-called “FBI negotiation tactics” and guides and how-to lists on how to be more persuasive. People have published books, sold seminars, and made careers out of teaching such techniques. One may be inclined to believe that by knowing these tricks and rules, that much like programming a computer to do what you want it to, that humans can also be programmed, but rather than with code but with special negotiation and persuasion techniques. But just based on my own experience trying such techniques and based on rudimentary knowledge about human behavior, these techniques either don’t work and or are vastly overstated in terms of effectiveness.

Persuasion and negotiation are predicated on reason. You are appealing to the subject’s sense of rationality by presenting an offer or compromise that prima facie is so compelling how can any rational person refuse. But people don’t reason their way to decisions, choices, or beliefs; rather, they stubbornly attach themselves to them for reasons that may not at all be rational (in a ‘homo economus’ perspective). As the saying goes, you cannot reason someone out of something he or she was not reasoned into.

A common persuasion technique is to make an initial offer that is absurdly low or high in the hope of pursuing someone to take a much smaller offer, which persuader originally had in mind. In theory, the smaller offer is seen a relief or a ‘good deal’ to the persuadee. But beliefs, values, and choices, for most people and most situations, are not a gradient; rather, they are on principle and all or nothing. Someone who is morally opposed to snitching is not going to comply with the officer even if offered a lighter sentence and full witness protection upon release. A no-drug policy does not discriminate based on quantity. Although possessing more drugs may confer with a harsher punishment, having even a tiny amount is still grounds for severe punishment.

What about politicians and the media persuading voters. I think the purported persuasiveness of politicians and the media is overstated. Politicians and the media are not so much persuading as they are affirming ingrained, preexisting views. Someone whose moral compass is programmed to support ‘rule of law’ and ‘order’ and ‘self-sufficiency’ may be be more incline to vote republican than democratic, not because of persuasion, but because the values of the republican party are more aligned with said voter’s programmed value system. The message espoused by the politician affirms those values. The fact that Trump’s approval rating is in the tightest range of any president since polling began, as far back as Truman, is evidence of the ineffectiveness of politicians and the media at making people change their minds. Both sides are using the best persuasion techniques known (such as by hiring ‘persuasion experts and consultants’) and spending billions of dollars on ads, and posting millions of messages on social media, all in the hope of pursuing people that their side is ‘good’ the other side is ‘bad’, but neither side is having much luck.

What about ‘fake news’ on Facebook manipulating the 2016 election? A possibility that is ignored or overlooked is that the fake news stories, which generally portrayed Hillary in an unflattering light, were shared by people who were already disinclined to ever vote for her, and went viral by affirming preexisting anti-Hillary biases rather than turning liberals or undecided voters against her. This is much in the same way that stories published in the satirical news site The Onion, which generally has an anti-conservative bias, are almost always exclusively shared on Facebook and other social media by liberals.

Any reasonably smart/competent person will know when they are being manipulated or having persuasion techniques used on them and will clam-up or shut-down, which means game over for the persuader. At that point, any hope is lost because the trust is gone, and the subject knows that the conversation or rapport is not genuine but to serve some sort of ulterior motive. Other times, it is perceived as a high pressure sales technique, and that also turns off a lot of people.