J. Krueger

Self-reflection as a rhetorical device.

Source: J. Krueger

"Recht kriegen ist besser als Recht haben."—Alte Bauernweisheit

This old German adage can be rendered as "It is better to win an argument than to be right." The tension between finding argumentative success and moving closer to the truth runs deep in Western thought and probably elsewhere. Robert Pirsig (1974), in his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, dramatized this tension, tracing it to the intellectual contest between Socrates and the sophists. Socrates was concerned with knowledge and truth, even if that meant admitting to his own ignorance; the sophists were concerned with the art of persuasion in the context of Athenian democracy where being victorious in debate was critical for political success and survival. Pirsig, if memory serves, ultimately sided with the sophists, arguing that they got a bad rap in Western academies, which, as the name suggests, are beholden to Plato, Aristotle, and other descendants of Socrates. Sophists came to stand for sophistry, which, like fish, smells from the head. Nonetheless, the sophists may just have an edge if Socrates’s claims to knowledge are so modest. Sophism is to be taken seriously particularly in the realm of value judgments, which lack an external truth criterion, or when the truth is so out there that no contestant can master the most pertinent facts. Even Aristotle, himself anything but a sophist, recognized the significance and potential elegance of good rhetoric. In antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages, rhetoric was respected as a fine art that the ablest and privileged members of society were expected to cultivate.

By the 20the century, rhetoric was in serious disrepute. The mission of social psychology was to unmask propaganda, question malevolent authority, and stem the corroding forces of group life. During the heyday of postwar persuasion research, the pioneers at Yale University championed an ultra-rational model of attitude change (Hovland, Janis, & Kelley, 1953). They argued, essentially, that reasonable people will learn, accept, and act on persuasive messages that are based on good evidence and presented in coherent fashion. These reasonable people will pay attention to the arguments, remember them, and use them to update or change their previous beliefs. The party was short-lived, however, because many people are not reasonable. Festinger’s (1957) theory of cognitive dissonance was an early shot over rational man’s bow. People, Festinger showed, often change their minds after acting differently, e.g., when being seduced by the situation to do so.

Beginning in the 1970s, theories of persuasion, like many other psychological theories, took the form of dual-process models. There is a rational process and there is an intuitive process. The greatest example of this sort of theory is Petty and Cacioppo’s (1986) Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM). Behind the awkward name, there is a simple and powerful idea. People will attend to good arguments and ultimately yield to them if they are capable (e.g., not distracted or stupid) and willing (e.g., if they stand to gain from having a news and correct attitude) to think about them. If these conditions are met, they not only passively listen and comprehend what they are told, but they generate their own supportive arguments; in other words, they are likely to elaborate the message. It is this covert and self-generative process of argument elaboration that is the best predictor of lasting attitude change. If, however, the conditions of ability and motivation are not met, the audience rides on intuition. It is here that various nonrational processes take effect, for better or for worse, because persuasion now depends on the rhetorical gloss and not on the strength of the arguments. In a state of intuition, the audience responds to argument repetition, conditioning, authority claims, and majority opinion. Clever rhetoricians without strong arguments seek to keep the audience in this intuitive state, mustering as many of the shallow but appealing trappings of communication as they can. In a nice demonstration of the ELM, Petty et al. (1981) showed that asking rhetorical questions backfired when the audience cared about the issue, but worked as intended when they did not.

Even today great emphasis and hope are placed on strong arguments. We hear Socrates and his friends yelling from the grave: “The truth will win! Good arguments will overcome weak and false ones!” Yet, we see deception, propaganda, as well as fake and impossible claims all around us. Some professors have taken note. A respected philosopher explores the nature of bullshit (Frankfurt, 2005) and behavioral economists study paltering (Rogers et al., 2017). If bullshit is unconcerned with truth (bullshit claims are occasionally correct), the art of paltering is to mislead the questioner by answering a different question with a true statement. Bullshit is artless. Everyone can do it. A certain sophisticated president was a palterer, who asserted that there "is" no sexual relationship with that woman when the question was whether there "was" one. Both strategies, bullshitting and paltering, are forms of insincere communication, that is, communication that is devious because it does not limit itself to the nonrational or intuitive tactics championed by the ancient sophists and contemporary students of consumer behavior. Insincere communication flouts conventions of argumentation and rhetorical practice as well as ordinary norms of conversation (Grice, 1975). It plays dirty. 

How can we recognize and combat insincere communication? In an earlier essay (Krueger, 2016), I described some of the techniques Arthur Schopenhauer recommended for parrying dirty debaters (see also Krueger, 2017, for a collection of essays on communication, negotiation, and strategic behavior). I will now briefly broach an area that even Schopenhauer considered beyond hope. He cautioned that “In every disputation or argument on any subject we must agree about something; and by this, as a principle, we must be willing to judge the matter in question. We cannot argue with those who deny principles: Contra negantem principia non est disputandum.” Yet, we sometimes find ourselves in just this type of situation. Before walking away—as we should–we first need to recognize these communications for what they are: insincere. 

The tactics I have in mind are themselves mostly defensive in nature, that is, the claimant is at some level aware of being in an unpopular and probably untenable position. To protect the fragile belief in question, the claimant must deflect attack even before it occurs. Here are some examples. 

[1] “If you had been there and heard those presentations, you would have changed your mind too, as I did.”

[2] “You lack my experience. When you reach my age, you might understand.”

[3] “I have researched the matter, but my sources are being threatened and their work is not easy to come by.”

[4] “Why should my claim be so abstruse? If you can’t refute it decisively, I can go on and believe it without positive evidence.”

[5] “If your claim does not have a bulletproof proof, my claim—however absurd it may seem to reasonable people—may just be true.”

[6] “I assure you that the facts are these [fill in] and they are caused by them [fill in]. I have heard myself assert this so many times, it must be true.” 

The first three gambits are versions of the same thing: a referral to special access to information, which, alas, cannot be shared, and hence the question is begged. No persuasion should take place. I have witnessed many intelligent people using this tactic in all seriousness, believing that the denial of evidence to the other is a legitimate protection of their own belief. 

The fourth and fifth gambits are transparently illogical because an as-yet unsuccessful refutation of the claimant’s belief or the lack of proof of yours do not amount to a verification of the claim. Noted alien searcher Erich von Däniken [4] was, and still is, fond of claiming that if standard science cannot explain certain strange phenomena, such as the Nazca lines, then he may consider his own alternative alien hypothesis strengthened. Creationists [5] assert that if evolution is ‘only’ a theory, their own ‘theory’ has some credibility. Such hydraulic inferences are valid only if there is a set of mutually exclusive and exhaustive hypotheses. Then, a loss of credibility of one means a gain in credibility in another.

The last gambit [6] is perhaps the most nefarious because it denies the need for argument or debate. This tactic is a confidence trick in the sense that if the claimant asserts his or her belief with perfect confidence, any need for critical evaluation is rendered unnecessary.

These tactics are but a sample. There are others, such as insinuation. The current president of the United States frequently presents false claims as what "many people say" or what he "was told" (Bow, 2017). This tactic knowingly and insincerely exploits the majority heuristic. Bow argues that it is often paired with the if-you-lie-lie-big tactic, which Hitler described to Hess. The evil genius of the big lie is that it is so unexpected and outrageous that people are unprepared to counter-argue, which ironically helps the lie to invade the mind. 

Targets of insincere communication have few options other than walking away. They may attempt to expose the hollowness of the claims using Socratic questioning or sophisticated rhetoric. Schopenhauer was skeptical that this would work because the insincere claimant does not accept the same principles of debate. What is left is to respond with equally insincere communication (Schopenhauer allowed this under the rubric of rudeness). This, in the long run, will erode the fabric of society. The only hope I see lies in an educational system that instills respect for norms of conversation and debate. When these principles are shared, lively debate can be one of the pleasures of living in a civilized society.


Bow, C. M. (2017, October 19). Trump isn’t Hitler. But the lying . . . New York Times Online.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston, IL: Row Peterson.

Frankfurt, H. (2005). On bullshit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and Conversation. In P. Cole & J. Morgan (eds.), Syntax and Semantics (Vol. 3, pp. 41-58). New York: Academic Press.

Hovland, C. I., Janis, I. L., & Kelley, H. H. (1953). Communication and persuasion; psychological studies of opinion change. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Krueger, J. I. (2016, January 8). Schopenhauer talks back. Psychology Today Online.

Krueger, J. I. (2017). The hedgehog’s tales: 37 essays on elements of social interaction. Amazon.com, kindle.

Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 123-205.

Petty, R. E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Heesacker, M. (1981). Effects of rhetorical questions on persuasion: A cognitive response analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40, 432-440.

Pirsig, R. M. (1974). Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. New York: Morrow.

Rogers, T., Zeckhauser, R., Gino, F., Schweitzer, M. E., & Norton, M. I. (2017). Artful paltering: The risks and rewards of using truthful statements to mislead others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112, 456-4573

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