New class “Persuasion or Manipulation?” explores the ethics and psychology of influence

Submitted by Kate Goldyn on

Persuasion can save the world. Whether it's about COVID-19, climate change, vaccination, or immigration, it's clear that a lot of people really, really need to be persuaded. Everyone will agree that millions of people hold false views about these topics, even as we disagree about which views are false. And everyone will agree that getting these topics right is a matter of life and death. 

If the stakes are high enough, then maybe anything goes, and people on the right side of these issues should try to manipulate and brainwash people on other side. But most of us aren't very good at manipulation and brainwashing, and don't want to be. We want to persuade people in a rational, respectful way, using the truth instead of tricks. But how do we do that? Clearly, it's not as easy, or we'd be doing it already.

PHIL 118: Persuasion or Manipulation? is a brand-new class that aims to uncover the nature of ethically-appropriate persuasion and help students get better at it. While other classes at UW address related issues in psychology and communication, PHIL 118 will be the first class (at UW, or perhaps anywhere!) to look at persuasion primarily through ethical lenses. The ethical lenses will be bifocals, using the values of moral respect and valuable consequences. Moral respect turns out to be more complicated than we often think. For example, we often assume that a sincere presentation of evidence is always respectful, but George Tsai explains that this can sometimes be extremely disrespectful (think of a random eavesdropping psychologist sincerely giving you evidence that you should break up with your partner). And sometimes respect doesn't always generate desirable consequences. As Iris Marion Young points out, respectful engagement in an unfair conversation can just end up legitimizing problematic institutions or viewpoints. 

Equipped with that two-part ethical framework, students will dive into two psychological theories that directly bear on persuasion: (1) the Elaboration Likelihood Model, a two-part model for understanding why things like attractiveness sometimes, but only sometimes, enhance persuasiveness and (2) Terror Management Theory, a philosophy-inspired theory according to which many of our arguments come more from making ourselves feel more secure in our identities than about persuading the other side. These theories then provide guidance as students look at relevant research on the role of emotions and biases in persuasion. The class concludes by considering the future of persuasion, such as what to hope for and guard against as artificial intelligence becomes capable of persuasion (as in the movie Ex Machina).

Throughout the class, students will get to try out persuasion techniques on each other, with scorecards for effectiveness and respectfulness. Based on those exercises, their final project will then be an individualized "Guide to Persuasion" for their future selves. The ultimate hope behind the class is therefore to make students better persuaders, in both moral and psychological senses of 'better.'