Almost Thou Persuadest Me

“King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” Agrippa said to Paul, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” Paul replied, “Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains.”— Acts 26:27-29

Paul, canny fellow that he was, rarely missed an opportunity to speak freely and to testify about his conversion from domestic terrorist to revolutionary preacher. In this episode, appearing in chains before Festus the governor and King Agrippa II and his wife, Queen Bereniece—who also happened to be his sister—Paul charges in where angels fear to tread. Evangelist that he is, he asks a question and quickly answers it: “I know that you believe.” And Agrippa? You can almost hear the incredulity in his voice: “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” But Paul will not be diverted. In a rhetorical jujitsu move, he deflects the criticism and extends the offer to everyone within earshot—the whole court. Agrippa doesn’t bite, but as the party moves offstage they are heard giving Paul a pass. “He doesn’t sound all that bad.”

Paul is now inside Agrippa’s head and who knows what the result will be down the road?

We can speculate why Agrippa reacted the way he did with the aid of a communication theory that analyzes attitudinal changes for persuasion.

Social Judgment Theory says that when we hear or read a message we immediately assign it a location on the attitude scale in our minds. This is a subconscious sorting of ideas that occurs at the instant of perception. In other words, it’s a reaction rather than a considered response. We judge every idea by comparing how far away or close to our present point of view it is. That present point of view is called our anchor point.

Carolyn and Muzafer Sherif, the authors of the theory, believed that our attitudes can be understood as an amalgam of three latitudes of acceptance, rejection, and noncommitment. The latitude of acceptance is the range of ideas that a person sees as reasonable or worthy of consideration. The latitude of rejection is the range of ideas that someone sees as unreasonable or unworthy of consideration. And the latitude of noncommitment is the range of ideas that a person sees neither as acceptable nor objectionable. Carolyn Sherif said that as persuaders we need to know the location and the width of each of these latitudes in order to know what it will take to persuade that person.

Another important concept in Social Judgment Theory is what the Sherifs called ego-involvement: the importance of the issue to us. High ego-involvement means you have a lot invested in the position, that you feel strongly about it, and that you’re likely to reject most challenges to it. The greater the degree of ego-involvement the harder it will be for attitudes to change and to persuade those persons to shift their position.

There are three characteristics of people with high ego-involvement in an issue. First, their latitude of noncommitment is almost zero. If we really care about an issue we’ll tend toward the extremes of either zone of acceptance or rejection.

The second feature of high ego-involvement is that the latitude of rejection will be large. We’ll see things in black and white. If we thought about it more we might see something we agree with—but our quick inferences judge even mild statements as something to be rejected.

The third characteristic is that people who hold extreme opinions often take criticism personally. Extreme positions and high ego-involvement go together. It’s a matter of identity: if you attack my position then you’re attacking me.

All of this describes how the Sherifs pictured the cognitive structure of a person’s attitude. But what is the process that is triggered when we read or hear a message?

Muzafer Sherif said we compare our anchor point to all incoming messages and judge accordingly. Messages that we reject we push even farther away from our anchor point so we don’t have to deal with them. Messages that we agree with we snuggle up to—even if they may not have all that much in common with our anchor point.

These two effects are called contrast and assimilation. Messages that we reject we sharply contrast with our anchor point. Our reasons for drawing the contrast may be that we don’t like the speaker or the issue is too complex for us, or we are impatient, bored, or tired. And sometimes messages that are intended to persuade us through fear or force we will reject even more decisively in a boomerang effect. We are more often driven to attitudinal positions than we are drawn to them.

But messages that we like we may judge closer to our anchor point than they really are because we find the speaker attractive or the message reinforces what we’ve always thought. We won’t embrace it fully, but our position will shift incrementally. We will assimilate it into our thinking.

The authors thus believe that the greater the discrepancy, the more the hearers will adjust their attitudes. Nevertheless, we don’t leap from one extreme to the other. Change, if it comes, takes place in small steps, incrementally.

Most of these changes occur below our awareness, yet they powerfully shape attitudes and actions. From the outside, we may see no change in a person until suddenly the tectonic plates slip, and a major quake takes place. What looks impulsive and momentary may have been building for a long time. Persuasion is a gradual process. It’s also a social process that has the most lasting effect on us as a result of the influence of those we care about.

What advice do the Sharifs have for us if we want to persuade people? We need to find a message that is right on the edge of their latitude of acceptance. If there’s a small step from rejection to wary acceptance, that is much better than the boomerang effect. Don’t ask for too much at first; accept them and reward them for small steps.

Some things have become clear in the testing of Social Judgment Theory. One is that the greater the perceived expertise of the speaker the wider the latitude of acceptance. Credibility makes a difference, and credibility is a combination of honesty and expertise.

A second thing is that ambiguity often persuades better than clarity. We might think of it as emphasizing the general over the particular in order to appeal to a wider audience.

Finally, some people are simply hardwired for dogmatism on every issue. Their minds are made up. There isn’t much point in trying to shift them because they are probably rooted in place.

This theory has some interesting implications for our communication with others, especially as we apply it to our attempts at evangelism and as we examine our own position within a faith community.

Through the years, as I was teaching courses in communication theory and persuasion and propaganda, this theory stood out because of something I had read years before by Ellen White about conversion. She was talking of Saul’s “Damascus Road” experience, a biblical story that has become synonymous with a traumatic and instantaneous change of heart and life. She said something to the effect that Saul would not have become Paul had not the Holy Spirit been working on him for a long while. Being flung from his horse and hearing a voice from heaven was the culmination of a long phase toward conversion. It was not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. Unconscious prejudice gave way to conscious allegiance and to the eruption of a new fire in his heart.

SJT illuminates the forming up of our attitudes and how those attitudes trigger our decisions and actions. It could also rattle our thinking about the effectiveness of mass evangelism techniques. I believe it calls us, instead, to speak one-to-one, to be thoughtful, and to be sensitive to the time it takes a person to reflect on profound ideas. Most of all, it recognizes the freedom God gives us to respond to the persuasion of the Holy Spirit, all in good time. Kairos, Paul would call it—the right time.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. This essay was originally presented at the Faith and Reason Sabbath School at Sligo SDA Church on May 19, 2018. It is reprinted here with permission. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods.

Photo by Justin Veenema / Unsplash.com

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8783
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Interesting analysis of how our psyche works. If one can be completely honest, we should be able to see our own reactions here (how ever that can happen). There is just one factor that isn’t considered. It all sounds clinical and predictable, and even manipulative, but as a Christian, should we also be open to the influence of the HS. Factoring in the influence of God, we can excuse anything. While we should be using our frontal lobes as God intended, sometimes God can be “unreasonable”. Of course, this whole description bypasses reason as well. (Just some thoughts.)

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
Jeremiah 17:9

Could you please explain how you relate that statement to what has been said.

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It’s a good article on types of thinking or world views of perceptions, but the real issue is that the heart must be broken of it’s pride and self deception and that we are just what Jeremiah wrote. Until Paul realized that he could not be used by God and that is true for all of us.

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Then you are in agreement with what the author wrote:

"Paul had not the Holy Spirit been working on him for a long while. Being flung from his horse and hearing a voice from heaven was the culmination of a long phase toward conversion. It was not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. Unconscious prejudice gave way to conscious allegiance and to the eruption of a new fire in his heart."

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yes I agree but there is more to it of the how and why Paul’s spirit was broken. He finally saw that he was persecuting the real God Jesus by murdering His children. Broke his heart and he never forgave himself for it–true repentance. Just like what happened when the 3000 were baptized after Pentacaost circa 31 AD. They had murdered a innocent man, God in the flesh and they were broken completely. Conversion of 3000 souls.

Paul was NOT just “anybody”.
Paul was the Torah IN HUMAN FLESH. His memorization of and ability to comment on the Torah.
He was the PERFECT Jewish worshiper of God.
But He understood how Jesus had CHANGED a lot of the ways of interpreting the
5 Books of Moses, the Psalms, the Prophets.
For Saul-Paul this was Blasphemy. Worthy of Death. And anyone following this new
teaching was also worthy of death.
He was KILLING FOR GOD. Like Phinehas, Aaron’s, grandson, did in Numbers 25. And
was praised for purifying Israel.

God knew if Saul “saw the light” he would be just as courageous for Him. And Paul was.
Later he went to Arabia for 3 years to review the Torah, Psalms, Prophets before beginning
his ministry in his home country.

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Now this is an article that addresses the governing part of the human…the mind.
It is not often that Spectrum writers get into cognitive themes.

One can find cognitive verses in IS 55:7-9, Rom 12:2, 2 Cor 10:5, Phil 2:5 & 4:8.

I will challenge a section of the article, which is where many pastors & bible teachers fail.

Neh 8:8 and 1 Cor 14:3 & 9

“It’s the same for you. If you speak to people in words they don’t understand, how will they know what you are saying? You might as well be talking into empty space.” 1 Cor 14:9

This phrase is ambiguous. In what specific way was the Holy Spirit working on Saul? Was the Holy Spirit doing some Yoga hum for Saul?

The Holy Spirit convicts using what it inspired…scripture.
SEE Col 3:16 -Eph 5:18

Churches=religious restaurants
Pastors & bible teachers=chefs
Sermons & lessons=food

Religious clichés & ambiguous lingo = junk food which causes indigestion/constipation.

Much teaching at most churches = pathetic superficial obscure nonsense.

Here is a cliché link for pastors & bible teachers to get a clue.

Gideonjm, you are right to be wary of the idea of ambiguity over clarity. This theory points out patterns of thinking and acting that I believe are helpful to understand. But I don’t recommend taking it in without careful consideration of the relationship between persuader and persuadee. Persuasion and propaganda, it has been said, use the same tools, but with different motivations and intentions. Propaganda seeks only the advantage of the communicator, while persuasion (on it’s best days) seeks the good of the persuadee also. Ambiguity does appeal to a wider audience, but that should be balanced by our ethical understanding of honesty and clarity. If we are ambiguous in order to hide something we think might result in our audience disagreeing, then we need to look more closely at our goals. On the other hand, there are ways to say things clearly without unnecessarily triggering a predictable response of anger and resentment. We need to weigh our words! Throughout the essay I am also making the implicit point that mass evangelism often becomes propaganda, if only because it cuts corners, withholds information, doesn’t provide for dialogue, and is most often for the benefit primarily of the organization.

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In

Maybe in child rearing when a child seems to be veering off into dangerous territory. My wife says psychological persuasion is part of being human but the trick is to recognize the need to persuade in an ethical manner.

Amen to all that you just posted.

Children can sense authenticity as opposed to manipulation, even though they may not be old enough yet, or mature enough yet, to understand how to express what it is they are experiencing. So, do they then learn that same way of interacting? Of course they do. Seems terribly dysfunctional, unhealthy, toxic.

I just can’t stand when people try to manipulate someone else (or me), and yes, most especially in the realm of “religion”.

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Thanks to everyone who wrote here. Part of why I wrote this was to illuminate persuasive techniques from a theoretical perspective. For me the value in knowing about SJT is understanding how quickly we make judgements and what it takes for us to change our minds. We need to be aware of people who manipulate others for a living, and with respect, that includes some evangelists and preachers I’ve encountered. Although I taught persuasion and propaganda for many years, it was always from the perspective of 1) unmasking them, and 2) asking how we can persuade people ethically. When I have talked to people about Christ I have not reviewed these techniques or strategies. I have a standing deal with the Holy SPirit that my words be effective and that they be the words that person needs to hear. I have no expertise in witnessing or persuasion, but I do think it’s important to know how these techniques work. As far as I’m concerned, manipulation is unethical. On the scale of theories from objective and empirical to interpretive and subjective, SJT is way over in the subjective area. It is indicative of how people respond, but it is not deductively certain and syllogistic in that way. As general indications of how we act, borne out by experience, I think it’s fascinating and helpful. I check myself with it all the time as I listen, read, hear, and speak.

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