Persuading Terrorist Cowards

After the tragic terrorist attack yesterday in NYC (where I am now), leaders were quick to say it was an act of terror and the perpetrator was a coward. Both terms are persuasion mistakes. I’ll tell you why.

Terror is what the bad guys want. If we label the outcome as terror, we give them their win, and we remind the public to stay scared.

Calling a terrorist a coward might sound like a powerful insult, but it isn’t persuasive. No terrorist views sacrificing his life for his cause as cowardly. The word bounces right off. To make an impact, you have to use a word that has at least a grain of truth from your subject’s perspective. If your words can’t get a foothold, they are not persuasive.

President Trump — who is better at persuasion than almost anyone — labels these attackers “losers.” That’s a step in the right direction. And it also features Trump’s famous engineering for future confirmation bias. Every time ISIS loses territory they are reminded they are losers. That sinks in over time. People are more influenced by the direction of things than the current state. President Trump correctly persuades to the trend, so events support the label of loser. Neither “terrorist” nor “coward” persuades to the trend.

I think we can do better.

When a would-be terrorist considers his plans, he is probably 100% convinced that paradise awaits him, virgins and all. Our best counter-persuasion would involve injecting some doubt in that belief. Eternity is a long time to spend in Hell, so you might not want to take a five-percent chance of ending up there. A rational loser might risk a five-percent chance of prison, or even a five-percent chance of dying.  But a five-percent chance of burning in Hell for eternity is a scarier proposition.

It helps (a lot) to be visual in your persuasion because we are visual creatures. If the only visuals from an attack are the aftermath and the grieving, that is probably inspiring to terrorists. So consider this visual instead.

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Instead of featuring a Christian leader calling the perpetrator a terrorist (which sounds like a form of success) and a coward (which bounces right off them as untrue), why not have one of the first voices after an attack of this sort a moderate cleric or Islamic scholar who brands the loser as both gullible and doomed to Hell. Add some scary images, and now you’ve injected some doubt. Remember, you don’t need much doubt. Five percent doubt might be enough when you’re talking about eternity in Hell.

With any sort of persuasion you need to test multiple approaches. I won’t claim the approach I described is the best. I only claim it makes sense from a persuasion perspective whereas our current approach is shooting blanks.

I also note that the perpetrator in the NYC attack had a paint gun instead of a real gun, in a country where obtaining real guns is easy. We are not talking about a competent player here. It might help to describe him as incompetent as well as gullible. This framing also highlights the trend from spectacular attacks beginning with 9/11 to the smaller (yet tragic) attacks we are more likely to see now. That framing reinforces the trend of their losing ways. The persuasion mistake would be to harp on how this sort of attack just migrated from Europe to the United States, suggesting progress for the bad guys.

Speaking of persuasion, you might want to read my book, Win Bigly – Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter because it just came out. Winners are reading it and giving it spectacular reviews.

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