The Death of Persuasion

Nowadays, when people look at that timeless picture of an ambiguous (old woman? young woman?), they see only one woman and it’s impossible to persuade them that a second woman exists. This, I’m afraid, represents the death of persuasion and, unfortunately, the end of humankind.

There was a time, not long ago, when people would see both. Actually, at first glance, they’d typically see either a young woman, or an old woman. But, once they were told to look for the version they didn’t see, she would immediately become obvious. You’ll just have to trust me on this.

While persuasion through argument wasn’t usually required to influence what people saw in an optical illusion, the phenomenon was a glimpse into how our personal history of perspectives, beliefs, prejudices, genetics and experiences governed our version of the world. It used to be that other people and their versions of the world dynamically influenced ours. Moreover, we were able to co-exist whether their version was similar, or in contrast with our own. I saw a young woman, you saw and old woman, and now we both see that both women exist, despite our initial perspectives and lingering preferences.

Those days are gone. If you don’t believe me, read Twitter.

Human existence used to be defined by persuasion- our ability to persuade other people, and our capacity to be persuaded by them. No other creature on Earth relied on persuasion to exist like we did. Plus, we never had a history of embracing our similarities, celebrating our differences, and “agreeing to disagree” with any other creatures on the planet.

When a dog fetched the ball its human had thrown, it hadn’t been moved to “…by argument, entreaty, or expostulation to a belief, position, or course of action….”. You didn’t convince your dog to see the act of fetching the ball from your perspective. It didn’t matter to you what the dog’s perspective was on the matter. And now, as it is with the rest of the animal kingdom, persuasiveness is absent in our interactions with other humans.

Don’t get me wrong. Like dogs, there are many other highly intelligent creatures on this planet. But, while:

Chimpanzees do far better than humans on certain memory tests, they do no better than humans in agreeing on gun control.

Crows can solve problems that some humans are unable to, but can’t solve the problem of poverty.

Elephants can distinguish between various languages, but not between the human and natural causes of climate change.

Bees are highly intelligent learners, but it’s highly unlikely they learned anything about themselves from #MeToo.

Dolphins recognize their own images in a mirror, but not whether or not it’s patriotic to #TakeAKnee during a national anthem.

Octopuses can find their human friends in a crowd, but it matters not to them if their friends are in a crowd of New European Socialists, or Neo-Nazis.


Humans have the ability to imagine, self-reflect, and accessorize, but are no longer able to persuade other humans, or be persuaded by them.

We’ve lost our unique ability to change minds, and have our minds changed. Think about your position when it comes to gun control, climate change, racism, social justice, sexism, Trumpism, or if Hermione should have married Harry Potter.

Has anyone been successful in changing your mind? Not mine either. It’s futile. Again, if you don’t believe me, take a few minutes to scroll through social media.

“I looked at the picture and I saw a young woman. Now you’re trying to tell me it’s an old woman AND a young woman? You can’t have it both ways! You keep moving the goal posts. Ever hear of a little thing called ‘fact checking’. Just like you can’t hear the #wave that’s coming to crush you and your ignorant sheep family and friends either. #blocked”

BTW, sheep can perform highly complex executive cognitive tasks.

Without persuasion, we humans are done for. We’re no longer really human. We’re merely another species of Pavlovian droolers who need to be crated at night. Civilized society will continue to unravel. As Private Hudson famously said, it’s “…game over, man. Game over!

To be sure, it’s the changing of a mind that is the key to persuasion. I used to think that being persuasive could also include influencing people who already agree with you. That makes sense if you think about people who agree with you, but don’t even bother to do things like, say, vote.

I remember the first time I heard my former colleagues at The Humphrey Group sum it up: persuasion means either changing a belief, or strengthening an existing belief. It’s simple and eloquent.

At any other time in history, I would concur. But, (while THG is still a good bang for your buck when it comes to leadership communications), the ability to reinforce what someone already believes in is no longer going to cut it in the survival of the human race. In fact, doing so can be quite toxic; #TruthIsn’tTruth.

In order to bring ourselves back from the brink of extinction, we need to bring persuasion back. Instead of learning how to be more persuasive, however, I believe what we first need to do is practice how to be persuaded by other people.

So, look at the picture at the top of this article again. Do you see a young woman, or an old woman? Can you see that BOTH exist? Allow me to persuade you that it’s actually a picture of a ghost hugging a snail.

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