Press "Enter" to skip to content

How to discredit an idea

In general, we tend to be aware of the power of language to discredit certain ideas. Although these phenomena occur in all areas of our life, and are particularly evident in the policy.

But, how is carried out the debunking of an idea? Do you need a large dose of rhetoric, and a high power of persuasion? A study carried out by Thomas Nelson, Joseph Lyons and Gregory Gwiasda, Ohio State University, shows us a route directly to discredit an idea: to associate the idea to a group perceived as “radical” or “extremist”.The study consists of two experiments. In the first experiment, we asked 233 students to read and comment on an essay that discussed the policy of not admitting women to the Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the Masters Tournament of golf. The test in question was proposed that in case of not changing its admission policy, the PGA Tour should hold the Masters Tournament at another golf club.

The researchers had prepared three versions of the essay, attributed to three different groups, identified as “citizens”, “feminists” or “radical feminist”. These three versions were distributed among different groups of subjects.

Once you read the essay, were asked what subject their degree of support for the proposal and, if they were members of the club, if they would be in favor of allowing the admission of women.

The imvestigadores found that lI subjects who had read the version of the article atribuïda to “radical feminist” were less in agreement with the admission of women into the club, supporting a greater degree the policy of the club “men only”.

In the second experiment, 116 subjects read the same assay used in the first experiment, again in one of its three versions. Then, the subjects were required to sort by importance the four values related to the content of the essay:

  • To maintain the honor and prestige of the Masters tournament of golf
  • The freedom of private groups to establish their own rules
  • The equality of opportunities for men and women
  • Maintain a high standard of service for members of private clubs

A 42% of the subjects who read the version atribuïda to “citizens” felt that the equality between men and women was above the other three values. In contrast, only 32% of the subjects that they read the proposal attributed to “radical feminist” thought that equality was the most important value.

Similarly, the 41% of the subjects who read the version atribuïda to “citizens” felt that the freedom of groups to set their standards was the most important value. This percentage rose to 52% among individuals who read the version atribuïda to “radical feminist”.

The results of the two experiments are complementary, and have important implications. According to Nelson, the “tactics ” extremist” allows you to discredit an idea without attacking directly the values it represents: the change in the perception of the values it produces in the mind of those who listen to the evaluation of a proposal as “radical”, almost sterilization.

Nelson says that this tactic may work when the people we are faced with competing values, and when we are not sure what should be the priorities. For example: the environmental values may conflict with economic values if the measures of protection of the environment hinder the opportunity of businesses to obtain benefits. In these cases, Nelson says that for the groups that intended to fight against a measure environmental, could be enough to qualify publicly that measure as “extreme”. That way, lobbyists can avoid admitting that their economic interests above environmental interests, something that the public may perceive as unethical.

The danger of this tactic is that, as we have seen, society can lose sight of what the values are that are really in conflict, and what would be the course of action most fair in each case. It is better that you are aware.