The Power of Arguing Against Your Self-Interest

Arguing Your Self-interest: Technique at a Glance

If you argue a position that is against your best interest, your audience will consider you more honest, more influential, and even a better expert. You can apply this technique in a range of situations, but it’s most applicable in social advocacy campaigns and political persuasion.

Research on Persuasiveness of Arguing Against Your Self-Interest

How Silvestre “Bad Man” Outshines Famous Prosecutor

One of the first studies to evaluate the effectiveness of this technique asked junior high school students’ opinions whether prosecutors in Portugal should have more power. Introductory sheet described Portuguese system as very similar to that of the US:

“The local prosecutor argues for the state (this means that he tries to get the jury to convict the defendant). A lawyer defends the accused (this means he tries to get the jury to free the defendant). This is the same procedure we follow in America.”

The subjects then read an article in which either a criminal or a prosecutor said that prosecutors should have more power. The message was the same; the only difference was the source.

The criminal, a low prestige source, was described thus:

“Silvestre ‘Bad Man’ Riberio is now serving the third year of a 20-year sentence for smuggling and peddling dope.”

When Silverstre “Bad Man” advocated more power for prosecutors, he was obviously acting against his own self-interest.

The prosecutor, a high prestige source, was described thus:

“Antonio Martins Caetano is the Portuguese prosecutor who has sent more men to prison than any other prosecutor. Compared to most prosecutors, he is a very rich man.”

Naturally, subjects realized that the prosecutor was acting in his self-interest when he advocated more power for prosecutors.

The results showed that the subjects were more likely to support prosecutor’s power expansion when it was argued by the criminal.

On a scale 1 to 4 (1 – definitely not, 4 – definitely yes), should we adopt the suggestion to increase prosecutors’ power:

  • Criminal – 2.24
  • Prosecutor – 1.45

Prestige of the source (on a scale of 1 to 15):

How expert was he?

  • Criminal – 11.32
  • Prosecutor – 11.32

How honest was he?

  • Criminal -11.17
  • Prosecutor – 10.24

How influential was he?

  • Criminal – 9.54
  • Prosecutor – 8.55

The technique had the same effect when the positions were reversed: the criminal was less persuasive (and the prosecutor was more persuasive) when he advocated less power for prosecutors.

Application of the Technique

  • In a social advocacy campaign, recruit an antithetical character. For example, in anti-smoking campaign, recruit a heavy-smoker favoring smoking restrictions or tobacco sales tax increase. In anti-war campaign, a military officer opposing a war is worth a hundred dozen hippies (and a defense contractor is priceless).
  • In a debate, show your own disinterest. Emotional detachment helps to create impression that your position is in fact against your own best interest.
  • If it is not evident that your opponent favors a position that is in his or her self-interest, you can point this out. In the above-mentioned study, stressing this fact when it was obvious had no substantial effect.