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The Persuasion Filter and Immigration - Dilbert Blog

The Persuasion Filter and Immigration

President Trump has issued temporary immigration orders that ban citizens from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. This is a good opportunity to test the Persuasion Filter against what you might call the Hitler Filter.

For new readers of this blog, my starting point is the understanding that human brains did not evolve to show us reality. We aren’t that smart. Instead, our brains create little movies in our heads, and yours can be completely different from mine. We see that situation now. Half the country thinks President Trump is well on his way to becoming a Hitler-like dictator. But many other Americans think Trump is an effective business person with good intentions. They can’t both be right.

I use the word “filter” to describe an optional way of looking at the world. A good filter is one that makes you happy and does a good job of predicting what happens next. Let’s use that standard to compare the Hitler Filter to what I call the Persuasion Filter.

The Hitler filter clearly isn’t making people happy. The people watching that movie are protesting in the streets. Meanwhile, the people who see Trump as a good negotiator looking out for the country are quite happy with the job he has done so far. The Persuasion Filter says Trump opens with a big first offer and negotiates back to something reasonable. If you don’t recognize the method, it looks crazy, random, and racist. 

But what about predictions?

The Persuasion Filter predicting Trump would become president when the Hitler Filter thought he had no chance. Now we have another chance to test the predictive power of the Persuasion Filter.

If Trump is a Master Persuader, as I have been telling you for over a year, he just solved his biggest problem with immigration and you didn’t notice. The biggest problem is that his supporters on the right want more immigration control than he can (or should) deliver while his many critics on the left want far less. Normally when you negotiate there is only one party on the other side. But in this case, Trump is negotiating two extremes in two different directions. It’s the toughest possible situation. Best case scenario is that 40% of the country want you dead when it’s all over. Not good.

So what does a President Trump do when he is in an impossible situation?

According to the Hitler Filter, he does more Hitler stuff, such as being more extreme than anyone expected with his recent immigration declarations. That filter accurately predicted that he would be “worse” once elected. Sure enough, his temporary immigration ban is more extreme than most people expected. If things never get worse from this point on, we would have to question the Hitler Filter. But if things get worse still, the Hitler Filter is looking good.

Compare to the Persuasion Filter. This filter says Trump always opens with an extreme first offer so he has room to negotiate to the middle. The temporary ban fits that model perfectly. On the immigration topic alone, both the Hitler Filter and the Persuasion Filter predict that we get to exactly the point we are at today. Let’s call that a tie in terms of predictive power. The hard part is predicting what happens next.

The Persuasion Filter says Trump is negotiating with his critics on the extreme right at the same time as he is negotiating with his critics on the left. He needed one “opening offer” that would set up both sides for the next level of persuasion. And he found it. You just saw it.

The left sees Trump’s executive orders on immigration as pure Hitler behavior. That gives him plenty of room to negotiate to the middle. The initial orders are too broad, and clearly target too many of the wrong people. As he fixes those special cases he will be moving away from the Hitler model toward the middle. And people are more influenced by the DIRECTION of things than the absolute position of things. As long as he is moving away from the Hitler analogy, people will chill out, even if they think he was too close to that position before. Direction matters.

Trump’s temporary immigration ban set a mental anchor in your brain that is frankly shocking. It will make his eventual permanent immigration plan (”extreme vetting”) look tame by comparison. The Persuasion Filter says that’s his strategy. Because that’s ALWAYS his strategy. He acts the same way every time. He wrote a book about it. He talks about it publicly. Then he does it right in front of us, over and over. And no matter how many times he does it, half the country still thinks the opening offer is the real one. 

I’ve mentioned in this blog a few times that persuasion works even when the subject of the persuasion recognizes all the techniques as they happen. This is a perfect case. The left has been watching Trump make big offers and dial them back for the past year. And yet they still think this time it will be different. The Persuasion Filter says that 70-year old Trump will act the same way today as he has for the past several decades: Big first offer, then negotiate.

But what about Trump’s critics on the far right who want more extreme immigration? Trump needs to negotiate with them too. And he is. He did that by showing them that his temporary offer was so extreme that people took to the streets. The system (America) is actively trying to eject Trump like some sort of cancer cell. And the worse it gets, with protests and whatnot, the more leverage Trump has to tell his far right supporters that he has gone as far as the country will let him go. He needed that. The protests are working in his favor. He couldn’t negotiate with the extreme right without them.

Are Trump’s temporary immigration plans chaotic? Yes. Do they hurt innocent people who were minding their own business? Yes, temporarily at least. Did he scare the pants off of half the country? Yes. Will there be lots of unintended damage from Trump’s immigration orders? Yes. No honest person should deny the cost component of the equation. It’s ugly. But don’t stop with a half-pinion. If you want a full opinion on immigration you have to compare those costs to the potential benefits that include fewer terrorist acts and avoiding Europe’s refugee problems. Are people making that comparison?

No.

On Twitter I am seeing lots of well-meaning liberals tweet charts showing that no one from the banned countries has ever been a terrorist in the United States. But Trump isn’t trying to solve the PAST. He’s trying to reduce risks in the future. And the future has risks that are unlike the past.

If you want your president to solve only problems that have already happened in the past, we can ignore any potential climate change issues too. Human activity has never warmed the planet too much in the past, so why worry about it in the future? The point is that we try to stop problems before they happen, not after. Terrorism and climate change are similar in that one narrow way. They are both problems of the future, not the past. You can’t look to history to figure out how to solve either one of them. Dinosaurs didn’t drive cars and ISIS didn’t always have hobby-sized drones that can drop bombs.

On a related topic, President Obama and past leaders have gone out of their way to avoid labelling Islam as the problem behind terrorism. That makes sense on a rational level because only a tiny percentage of Muslims are terrorists. Obama wanted to avoid causing a religious war that pitted Christians against Muslims. So he avoided saying “radical Islamic terror,” for example. One could make a good case that Obama’s approach was the wisest path. It allowed us to stay on good relations with our Muslim allies and it probably depressed recruitment for the terrorists, at least a little bit. Smart, right?

Now we see Trump doing exactly the opposite. His words and actions seem to be intentionally mixing the Muslim “brand” with the terrorist “brand.” How does that make sense with the Persuasion Filter? I’ll tell you how.

President Obama’s approach was to give a free pass to Islam in general and to any Muslims that were just minding their own business. But the unintended consequence is that Muslims have less incentive to police their own ranks. Trump changed that. Now if you want to stay out of the fight against terrorism it will cost you. 

So Trump has created a situation – or will soon – in which the peaceful Muslims will either have to do a lot more to help law enforcement find the terrorists in their midst or else live with an increasingly tainted brand. Trump is issuing no free passes for minding your own business. His model makes you part of the solution or part of the problem. No one gets to sit this one out.

I’m not smart enough to know whether President Obama or President Trump have the best strategy in this regard. But both strategies are rational.

Scott Adams

Co-founder of WhenHub

Author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big