The Art of Concealing the Intention to Persuade

Intention to Persuade and Resistance to Persuasion
People are more resistant to persuasion when they think that a speaker has an intention to persuade them. This is not a new realization. For example, Aristotle said that a speaker is more trustworthy if the audience thinks that he or she has no ulterior or personal motives. If the audience thinks that a speaker is not trying to persuade them, they will naturally be less likely to assign ulterior or personal motives.

Study on Overheard Persuasive Communications

A classic study by Elaine Walster and Leon Festinger (1962) gave some support to this basic idea with their experiment on overheard communications. In the experiment, psychology students listened to a conversation by two graduate students. The graduate students discussed the common “misconception” that smoking causes lung cancer. They talked about fictitious studies showing no relationship between smoking and cancer. Also, they said that smoking might be even beneficial since it released tension.

Researchers divided the subjects into two groups: overheard and regular.

  • In the overheard condition, the subjects were told that they would listen to the conversation by two graduate students and the graduate students would not know that they were being listened to.
  • In the regular condition, two graduate students supposedly would know that they were being listened to.

In fact, all subjects heard the same recorded conversation. All subjects rated speakers in the overheard condition as more honest and sincere. The results showed that compared to the regular condition, “overheard” conversation swayed smokers notably more; non-smokers were swayed less notably so.

Opinion score: Regular vs Overheard:

  • Smokers: 13.6 vs 15.3
  • Non-smokers: 13.6 vs 14.2


What matters is that to avoid showing in any unnecessary way that you have an intent to persuade people. You can achieve this by subtly pointing in any way that you’ve got no ulterior or personal motives.

There are many practical applications of this principle, some of them probably unethical. For example, in negotiations one party may intentionally “leak out” some information so that the other party might be then more inclined to believe it because no one was trying to persuade them – it was a leak. Of course, such stratagems will boomerang if someone leaks out that the leak was not a leak in the first place.

Rhetorical Figures of Concealment

To a degree, this effect can be achieved through various rhetorical figures. One way is to simply note that you are bringing up this point reluctantly (e.g. “I did not want to discuss it but …”).

Classical rhetoric befriended many figures of concealment. These figures come by many different names (praeteritio, occultatio, paralepsis) but their function is the same: introduce a point by saying that you had no intention to bring it up, that you still don’t want to deal with this but you have to, and so on.

Here are two examples from classical English rhetoric:

Lincoln, debate with Stephen Douglas at Quincy (1858):
I wished to show, but I will pass it upon this occasion, that in the sentiment I have occasionally advanced upon the Declaration of Independence I am entirely borne out by the sentiments advanced by our old Whig leader, Henry Clay, and I have the book here to show it from but because I have already occupied more time than I intended to do on that topic, I pass over it.

Erskine, argument in the trial of Lord George Gordon (1778):
I shall make no address to your passions – I will not remind you of the long and rigorous imprisonment he has suffered; – I will not speak to you of his great youth, of his illustrious birth, and of his uniformly animated and generous zeal in Parliament for the constitution of his country. Such topics might be useful in the balance of a doubtful case, yet even then I should have trusted to the honest hearts of Englishmen to have felt them without excitation.