• John Shrawder

Introduction to Decision Making - Persuasion

In this posting, we will introduce decision making and problem solving. This is the third goal of high schools that I suggested in the first posting. The first two were to understand happiness and misery and to understand the human life cycle. In the time use surveys we identified a series of personal decisions people make between age 14 and 30. These include decisions regarding education, employment, health, family formation, purchasing, and residence.

Decisions are made through coercion or persuasion. Coercion is when someone makes a decision that affects us without considering our opinion and often even against our desires. Persuasion is when information is presented that causes us to make a decision voluntarily. We can be persuaded by written information, oral information, or visual information.

Persuasion is an objective of interpersonal communication. In earlier posts we showed that other objectives could be to communicate to inform or communicate to entertain. Persuaders can use the same forms to communicate.

In this posting we will look at persuasion, people who persuaded others, and instances where persuaders led other people to make decisions that caused harm. Examples of harm include

  • Misery caused by loss of income and wealth. Persuaders causing financial harm to victims

  • Misery caused by declining health or death. Persuaders leading others to inflict physical harm on others

  • Misery caused by institutions. Persuaders in institutions that led others to suffer physical harm

Earlier posting used large surveys to explain its findings. This unit will use a different approach. It will use stories of extreme examples to teach about the possibilities of persuaders. It will not suggest that all persuasion is bad or that all persons are susceptible to the powers of persuaders. These examples can be used to study the importance of understanding persuasion.


Persuade – An intention to prevail on another person to believe something or do something. We form our beliefs from being persuaded by one thing or other. We can be persuaded to have true beliefs or false beliefs.

Persuasion is different from coercion. To persuade is to control information but to allow the other person to make a decision.

Believe – To have confidence or trust in the truth or existence of something. A belief can be true or false. A belief is formed from people or sources we trust. At one point we were persuaded by someone or something.

Disbelieve or Doubt – To not believe information.

Suspend Judgement – Is to neither believe nor disbelieve.

Believing incorrect information may cause us to make decisions that lead to bad outcomes or fail to make good decisions that could allow us to take advantage of opportunities. The incorrect beliefs could be the result of acting on information that is false or ignoring information that is true. Failure to believe correct information could also cause us to make bad decisions.

Rhetoric and the language of Deception

Rhetoric is the study of writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion. Under what circumstances is the use of rhetoric unethical?

Concerns about the ethics of rhetoric was first discussed in Ancient Greece. Philosophers called Sophists traveled about using carefully crafted arguments to persuade people. Gorgias was one of the most effective.

In Plato’s dialog Gorgias, the great orator Gorgias describes the power of rhetoric:

“What is there greater than the word which persuades the judges in the courts, or the senators in the council, or the citizens in the assembly, or at any other political meeting?-if you have the power of uttering this word, you will have the physician your slave, and the trainer your slave, and the money-maker of whom you talk will be found to gather treasures, not for himself, but for you who are able to speak and to persuade the multitude.”

Plato argues that those who know rhetoric may be ill informed or even unethical. Those who know rhetoric have the power to create great harm.

Plato’s student Aristotle argued that Rhetoric is an art that can lead to good. He wrote

Rhetoric which describes methods of using language for persuasion. Rhetoric continued to be developed and valued by the Romans. Since the time of Plato, persuaders have developed many new powerful techniques to try to influence us and can be used for harm.

The following are some techniques that can be used by persuaders. Sometimes this can lead to harm.

Lie – Try to persuade someone to do or believe something that the persuader does not believe is true. Lying can be done for a variety of reasons. The liar may not want to hurt the other person or could lie to protect a third person.

Deception or Manipulation– For this class deception goes beyond a lie. It includes an intent to do harm to another person often for one’s own benefit. Deception may include a lie or exaggeration or it may involve withholding truth about something.

Scam or Swindle –Using deception to persuade someone to believe something that is in the interests of the person doing the persuasion. The intent of the persuader is typically to deceive the victim. Scams are usually impersonal using email, television, telephone calls, websites or advertisements.

Fraud – When the swindle has legal implications involving civil or criminal penalties. A victim can bring legal action against a persuader when fraud is involved. However, all scams and cons are not protected by law and are not fraud.

Hoax – When a deception not designed to swindle a specific person for personal benefit but to waste time or use critical public resources (police or fire). Examples include fake fire alarms or bomb threats.

The ethics of rhetoric and persuasion are still worth discussion. All efforts at persuasion are not deceptive. All deceptions are not fraud. Many people have jobs that involve persuasion of some form.

Nevertheless, people may make bad decisions because of lies, outright deception, or failure to use persuasive evidence properly.

Critical Thinking

Plato argued in favor of philosophical argumentation rather than relying on rhetoric to find the truth to resolve difficult problems.

In his 1910 book “How We Think”, educator John Dewey defined “reflective thinking” or what we call critical thinking today as the highest intellectual goal of education.

For this class, critical thinking will consist of two elements:

  • It is used to make a decision, solve a problem, or take advantage of an opportunity

  • It evaluates information and only used that which passes a standard of accuracy and adequacy to be trusted.

Critical thinking is intended to protect oneself from deception and misuse of information when making decisions or solving problems. Harmful decisions cannot be avoided completely but developing critical thinking should reduce the harm caused by deception or misuse of information.

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