Why presentation style and delivery affects us independently of content.

The medium through which information is delivered is distinct from the content of the information itself.

For example, the marketing campaigns used to promote products are, in the vast majority of cases, not the products themselves, although they are supposed to be about the product. Much of the time, too, they are really more concerned with making and reinforcing associations between the product and a desirable lifestyle in the viewer’s mind, rather than promoting the intrinsic qualities of the product.

Take the process of executing a magic trick as another example. Good conjurers and illusionists are highly skilled at the art of diverting an audience’s attention. They draw one’s gaze away from the mechanism behind a trick, and direct it at something irrelevant.

Furthermore, they cultivate a manner that makes a viewer or listener so taken with the strength of their personality and the confidence with which statements are delivered, that the audience member temporarily forgets, or is unable, to dissect the logic of the arguments presented.

People are tricked primarily because our expectations, which are based on a lifetime of experiences and interactions with the environment, compel us to perceive the world in particular ways.

  1. First, we'll look at how language and presentation style influences our beliefs and judgments.

  2. Then, we'll examine these persuasive techniques in the context of religion.
Language and presentation style
Let’s think about how our everyday interactions with real people generate certain expectations of human behaviour in our minds, and equip us to evaluate the strength of verbal arguments. Leave aside the ‘interactions’ we have with people in advertisements and individuals with whom we are not closely, or personally, acquainted.

Here are three key reasons why the manner of presentation of information is able to sway our judgement, independently of the actual content of the claims being made:
  1. Usually, when people are confident, they're also right. But not always.

  2. Trains of thought usually have logical triggers, even if they are hard to discern from a given perspective.

  3. Assertions made at high speed leave us limited evaluation time.
Usually, when people are confident, they're also right. But not always.
When someone feels uncertain about a subject, that lack of confidence is usually expressed in some way, whether directly (through an explicit admission of uncertainty), or indirectly (through body language).

People naturally tend to convey their feelings of doubt. It is not easy to hide one’s feelings of uncertainty completely, and to do so usually requires practise and dedication.

Thus, when a given assertion is stated boldly in authoritative, confident tones, we feel much more inclined to agree with the statements made, than when the claims are stated less persuasively. This holds true, at least, for the duration of time in which the strength of the speaker’s conviction remains clearly impressed on our memory.

Think of how fraudsters trick their victims with logic and reasoning that sound convincing and essentially flawless at the time they were made, and how foolish the victims feel later on, when the strength of the fraudster’s personality has faded and they are able to focus, instead, on the statements themselves.

But why should this be so? Why should people be so easily persuaded by the style of presentation, rather than the content?

Simply, we tend to trust that other people have a similar mental makeup to our own. The overwhelming majority of the time, for most of us, we only make strong, confident assertions when we are sure that what we are saying is true beyond a doubt. We are averse to making bold statements if our levels of uncertainty are high.

Furthermore, we tend to believe that other people operate in like manner, and maintain similarly high thresholds regarding the degree of certainty they must possess before making assured statements.

This tendency to assume that others are behaviourally similar to ourselves is rooted in our biological makeup and it usually serves us well to assume that human beings share threshold levels closely- the vast majority of the time, we do indeed have similar standards, so time and energy that might otherwise be squandered on questioning this assumption are saved.

Forcefulness of delivery is usually dependent on and correlated with the confidence of the speaker in the logic and validity of the claim being made. The times when these expectations are incorrect (someone makes an extremely strong declaration and it turns out that they are lying with a straight face) are so rare that they are shocking.
Trains of thought usually have logical triggers, even if they are hard to discern from a given perspective.
When one’s thoughts jump from one subject to another, the reason for the shift is often obvious to oneself- maybe a thread from the previous topic tugged on a connection to the new one, or maybe an external event occurred which prompted the switch.

The reason for initiation of the new topic may not always be readily apparent to others. Sometimes, one may not be aware of how exactly the switch to the second topic was triggered within one’s mind, either.

All the same, even if we cannot pinpoint or remember the original stimulus, we typically have little reason to question the existence of a connection or an external trigger somewhere. Otherwise, our minds wouldn’t have drifted to the second topic- they’d have had no reason to.

As mentioned in the preceding point, what holds true for us usually holds true for others, in the sense that we know that our own thoughts go spinning off in particular directions for valid reasons, and we assume that the same process occurs when others go from one topic to another. We may not always bother to explain the motives behind a change in conversation, in the interests of time and energy.

Sometimes, other people do the same- they jump from one thread to another without describing the precipitating factor in detail. The listeners take it for granted that a link or a trigger was present.

Even when this factor is not obvious, we attribute our personal lack of understanding to the fact that the speaker has failed to provide a full explanation, rather than adopting the belief that no stimulus or connection exists.

This is partially why we may be willing to accept claims made by speakers who sound thoroughly convinced, even though logical connections between statements seem to be missing.

We assume that gaps in reasoning, as perceived by the listeners, are attributable to a defect in communication between the speaker and listener, rather than to a flaw in the mind of the person making the claim.

The sheer force of the speaker’s utterance assures us that this must be the case, and we feel inclined to question our own ability to understand, rather than contest the dynamic, persuasive power of the speaker.
Assertions made at high speed leave us limited evaluation time.
When speakers deliver assertions one after the other, and adopt a manner that conveys their expectation that their statements will and should be accepted, not contested, audiences feel compelled to accept the claims made at each stage, even if they have not been given enough time to examine them thoroughly.

This is done in an effort to save time when assimilating received wisdom, as well as to avoid giving the impression that one is not mentally agile enough to grasp and accept the speaker’s logic within the allotted time.

(For more on fast-talking tactics, refer to the section on Question Evasion.)
Combining all three factors together:

When confronted with sentences that occur within a short time of each other and are stated in a manner that attests to the speaker’s confidence and implies that a relation between the two topics exists, people are primed to agree with the speaker.

Let’s refer again to the example of a magic trick:

When a conjurer performs, the series of actions and dialogue delivered are carefully rehearsed. The flow of distracting activities appears to move smoothly from one to the next, and leaves no opportunity for the magician to execute the actions necessary for performing the trick, at least in the minds of the viewers.

The magician has a calculatedly confident delivery- typically, magicians talk in a glib, persuasive manner, and firmly misdirect their audience’s attention as they please. Even performers who adopt a loose, comically careless attitude do so with great deliberation and practise hard to make their actions seem imprecise and uncontrolled. This is all part of the act and serves to misdirect the viewer’s attention all the more.

Finally, magic acts tend to be quick. Performers’ hands make swift, abrupt movements, incorporate elaborate and seemingly unnecessary flourishes, and dazzle the audience with the speed at which the illusion is executed.

How does this shed light on the methods of argument used by religious proponents, and their high levels of persuasiveness?
Religious proponents rely on the features of rhetoric mentioned above. Certain arguments that are used to assert the claims made in religion are so frequently cited that they have been seared into the consciousness of many believers.

The mere fact that they have been evoked so often leads people to believe that a link in logic between the evidence provided and the claims made must exist. (A representative sample of the most popular claims are addressed and refuted in God's Existence).

Strong, frequent doses in the delivery of religious claims correspond to projections of high levels of confidence on the part of their exponents. The strong impressions left by the frequency with which these assertions are encountered allows the beliefs in these claims to exist, even after the claims have been solidly refuted.

Furthermore, religious dogma is often stated boldly and resolutely- statements tend to involve strong assumptions, often fail to define the scope of the argument clearly, and paint scenarios in absolute terms of black and white, and right and wrong. They often ignore the middle spectrum of possibilities, and neglect to examine the validity of the original assumptions made

Religious spiels often consist of a list of citations and quotations from religious and secular texts, and make a collection of assertions, some of which the reader can agree with, and the rest of which are opaque and of little discernable relevance.

However, the assertions are phrased in bold, confident tones- they make claims in absolute terms, without qualifying the reliability of the sources of information, providing accurate, trustable measures of levels of uncertainty, or describing the contexts in which these claims are or are not applicable.

They also tend to adopt a tone that threatens to label the reader as stupid or foolish if the claims are not accepted and the logic behind them is not immediately grasped. For those of us who are not used to being insulted in this way, the mere idea of being labelled a fool is often enough to persuade the listener to accept the claims.

This happens regardless of unfounded the claims may be, and how tenuous the personal relationship between the critic and oneself. This is a natural human reaction- after all, recall that being genuinely thought of as foolish is, for many of us, a relatively rare occurrence.

An accuser would have to be very sure of themselves and their statements, as well as of the flaws in ours, to dare use terminology that, in secular contexts, would certainly overstep the boundaries of politeness. (For more on how emotional manipulation is used to persuade others, view the section about personal criticism in Question Evasion.)
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