The Willing Suspension of Disbelief: Prosocial Persuasion

A key problem the poet must solve is winning the minds of the audience. All fiction lies, but it must lie truthfully at least within the perception of the audience. When the poet can tell lies that seem true, then the audience has willingly suspended disbelief to appreciate the story. In a metaphoric way, persuasion mavens can aim at the same goal as the poet. They can improve their chances of success if the audience is willing to accept the reality the maven offers.

Consider now the application of this idea to teaching persuasion. When I began teaching this topic I immediately encountered resistance from students. Many people have a natural suspiciousness and it manifested itself in an activity I often ran in the first session. I just played a word association game and asked the class to say the first thing that popped in their mind when they heard the word, Persuasion.

Insert here, the Usual Gang of Suspect Synonyms: Manipulation, Conning, Deception, Deceit, Trickery, and on and on. Now, when you are teaching anything and it generates that kind of negative buzz in students, you’ve got an immediate and pressing problem. Any good teacher knows you have to overcome these kind of resistances in students to attain learning, so I hit upon the following strategy.

The common thread in all the negative synonyms of persuasion is this: The persuasion source succeeds at the expense of the persuasion receiver. Now, what if we align the success of both agents, source and receiver, so that both benefit from the exchange? Thus, when a source moves to persuade a receiver for the benefit of that receiver – for example in helping a friend to quit smoking – both parties benefit. The receiver quits an unhealthy habit and the source feels good about helping another person.

Prosocial Persuasion.

This line of thinking strongly overcame the initial resistance in my students, whether young undergraduates or older off-campus returning adults in grad courses. Hey, Prosocial Persuasion is a good thing and we now want to learn more about it! Then everyone is falling off the Instructional Log in the throes of Ed Psych gravity and I could actually do my job as a teacher as illustrated by this student art that captured my teaching style!