What you can learn about persuasion from an 81-year-old encyclopedia (named Ray)

For years, I’ve been listening to this goofy little show on a local community-owned radio station here in Northern California. It talks about using diet, lifestyle changes, and herbs to solve common health problems (I was born in Berkeley, give me a break).

I don’t listen to it because I have some gnarly sickness, but because I’m enamored with one of the people that’s on the show. His name is Ray. He’s 81 years old but has the mental agility of a fresh-faced 19 year old and the memory of an encyclopedia.

It’s mesmerizing to listen to him speak.

The host of the show, a medical herbalist named Andrew, seems to do two things. He either makes dubious statements and asks Ray to comment, or he asks Ray very open-ended questions.

In both cases, Ray will go off on whatever topic is brought up, weaving 10 minute explanations filled with history, science, and practical wisdom. It’s not uncommon to hear words like “pyruvate” and Plato in the same sentence.

However, I’m not here today to tell you about my love for hippy-dippy community radio. I’m here to teach you a little bit about behavioral science… and this radio show has a lesson for all of us in the art of persuasion.

You see, after I started listening to the show, I started to notice something peculiar.

Andrew would almost always make some incorrect statement on a medical topic and then ask Ray what he thought.

“So we know that aspirin causes limbs to regrow, right? What do you think, Ray?”

Instead of shooting Andrew down, Ray would always answer with:

“Yeah, AND…” at which point he would go on a 5 minute riff on the topic Andrew had just brought up, correcting Andrew’s inaccuracies in the process.

“Weird…” I always thought. If I was in Ray’s shoes, I would probably say something like “No, actually…”, at which point I would correct the false info just offered up.

But Ray never ever did that.

In future shows, I would notice that Andrew’s earlier misunderstanding would be corrected. He learned from Ray’s answers.

Interesting… so the information was getting through…

Maybe this was a better strategy?

I started to recall the thousands of disagreements I had been in over the years, from the scientific debates I had in college to the petty discussions about “which band is better” that filled my high school years.

I’m not sure I ever won one of those so-called debates.

In most cases I made better points (of course! 😜), but I don’t know if I ever convincingly changed the minds of my opponents. My arguments may have had air-tight logic, but they didn’t necessarily lead to lasting change in the beliefs of the other side.

Why? A couple of reasons.

First of all, I was usually putting them in a situation in which it was impossible for them to admit they were wrong.

If there was even one other human in the room, my opponent would lose face if they admitted they were incorrect.

Second, cognitive dissonance. It’s a depressing, yet iron-clad, rule of the mind. We will do everything we can to protect and maintain the beliefs we’ve invested in. When offered the choice of revising our beliefs, or keeping our mental model of the world intact… we’ll choose the latter pretty much every. single. time.

Which brings us back to Ray. By saying “Yes, AND…” instead of “No, actually…”, Ray was protecting Andrew from social humiliation (reason 1) and surpassing his cognitive dissonance barrier (reason 2).

Andrew had no need to double-down on his belief for pride’s sake, and his belief was never directly challenged. After all, Ray was saying that he was right, and then adding on some extra, clarifying information. Andrew would modify his belief based on the new information (which he thought was in-line with what he had already said).

A nifty trick. An important lesson.

I still haven’t fully internalized this learning. I have the spirit of a pit bull. Few things give me more pleasure than a spirited discussion… especially one in which my opponent is annihilated. That medieval fightin’ spirit my ancestors forged still lives on inside me (though in nerd form 🤓).

But, in the name of persuasion, I should change my approach. It’ll win me more friends (and more arguments). Though, it will cut down on the red-faced back-and-forth (which can be oh-so-fun).

Try it out and let me know what you think.

Until tomorrow,

Jason

Jason Hreha