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To Make a Good Case to People Who Care, Don’t Belittle the Alternatives

A common and misguided way people use make a point or win an argument is to take their favoured option and contrast it with a shoddy alternative, or “straw man.”  For politicians, this straw man is typically their opponent’s position described in such an oversimplified and biased way that the opponent looks a bit ridiculous.  Business people use this technique too.  Here’s a picture of straw man example, doing the rounds on LinkedIn, that draws on the current meme “you should love everything about leadership unless you’re a mild psychopath.”

Boss vs Leader

This straw man technique is effective in persuading a two main groups: (1) people who already agree with us, and (2) people who don’t really care that much and want to make a quick decision so they can stop thinking about it. If we want to engage someone who actually cares about the subject we’re raising, the evidence shows that we’ll put them off if we use a straw man. People who care about a subject naturally find holes in such naive comparisons, to the protagonist’s discredit. Here’s the effect of 1 candidate using a straw man, in a couple of experiments where people were asked 1 to choose between 2 candidates.

Straw Man Chart

So if your objective is to get approval from people who already agree with you, or who don’t care that much, then use that straw man. If you want to challenge people’s thinking properly, engage, and even persuade them in a subject they care about, then present the alternatives fairly, and explain in a balanced way why you and they should prefer the case you’re making. And please put that straw man on the top of the bonfire where he belongs.

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