Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Always look on the bright side – and the dark side

January 31st, 2011

So, you’ve developed this amazing program. It reduces carbon emissions, speeds up your computer’s operating system, and puts a sheen on the fur of household pets. It increases empathy, fights crabgrass and prevents pots from boiling over. It’s brilliant.

It also, um, causes an unsightly rash. But let’s not go there, shall we?

No, let’s go there. Here’s why you should talk about whatever your program or cause or product has that’s equivalent to an unsightly rash.

Balanced debateIn general, when we present our side of an issue or our reasons for supporting something, our instinct is to avoid including any information that might weaken our point of view. The question many psychologists have asked is whether this one-sided approach makes our message more or less persuasive than a two-sided approach that also covers the opposite point of view.

Daniel J. O’Keefe did a meta-analysis of over a hundred psychology studies that had compared one-sided and two-sided presentations of information. The results showed that two-sided presentations were much more convincing – as long as they refuted the opposing arguments in some way. Presenting the opposite point of view without addressing its weaknesses made it less persuasive than if you hadn’t mentioned it at all.

This means that bringing up the unsightly rash will actually make your program more appealing, but only if you also mention that the rash only lasts a few days, doesn’t itch much at all, and can be passed off as a sort of fast-acting measles.

Doing such a large analysis let O’Keefe answer a lot of questions about the specifics of how this effect works. For example:

  • Does educational level make a difference? No. Psychologists once believed that people with less education were persuaded more by a one-sided approach but it doesn’t appear to be true.
  • Does the order of presentation matter? Yes. The persuasiveness of a two-sided presentation appeared to be highest when the ‘pro’ and ‘con’ arguments were interwoven, rather than each side being addressed as a whole.
  • What if your audience already has a strong opinion? Oddly enough, one-sided presentations appear to work better than two-sided ones if the audience is already firmly on one side or the other. If their attitude is mixed or neutral, two-sided presentations do better.

Advertising messages appear to be an exception to these rules. If your information is in the form of an advertisement, you might as well stick to the positive features of your program; mentioning the disadvantages won’t make it more convincing even if you refute them.

So, I’m sure you see the benefits of having read this post. Not only do you now know some useful facts about presenting information in a persuasive way, you’ve stretched your brain a little and thought about your cause and its message. Of course, you’ve been sitting still and your back might be sore – but hey! At least it’s not an unsightly rash!

2 comments on 'Always look on the bright side – and the dark side'

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  1. Rob

    31 Jan 11 at 11:24 am

    My sister asked if I’d be willing to condescend to a tall person for a good cause. I said I didn’t especially like the tall person and would do it for free.

    What were we talking about again?


    Carol Reply:

    If I knew once, I don’t know now.

    But I probably didn’t know once.


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