BYU School of Communications director teaches power of persuasion

Mark Callister gives a Faith + Works lecture on March 7. Callister is the director of the BYU School of Communications. (Emma Olson)

BYU School of Communications director Mark Callister addressed students on March 7, using scripture stories to teach that persuasive tactics can be used for both good and evil.

Amy Petersen Jensen, associate dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communications, directs the Faith and Works lecture series. She explained why Callister was chosen to give one of the lectures this year.

“We’re looking for faculty who are really invested in thinking about the intersection between their faith and their work — their scholarly work and their creative work,” Jensen said.

Callister specializes in theories of persuasion. During his lecture, he presented some of his research on persuasion and its intersection with gospel teachings.

“Persuasion has bad publicity,” Callister said. “It usually conjures up thoughts of deception, brainwashing, conniving people.”

However, Callister said persuasion can be used for good, such as through creating peace agreements and motivating others.

“Persuasion is neither good nor evil,” Callister said. “It’s a tool. And, like any tool, it can be used for bad purposes or good purposes, but we would never lay fault to the tool because the user used it inappropriately.”

Callister discussed how students have found themselves in situations where they have felt manipulated and unable to think clearly.

“Something in the strategy that was being employed against them made it hard for them to observe things in an unclouded way,” Callister said, referring to this as the “myopic effect.”

Callister also introduced what he called the “zombie zone,” which occurs when someone manipulatively leads another into a clouded environment without their knowing.

“All of you have probably had moments where you felt, ‘Why did I — what was I thinking? What came over me at this moment?’” Callister said. “‘Why did I let them persuade me to do something so crazy?’”

One persuasive tactic often used in sales is scarcity, Callister said.

“If you can be convinced that some product, opportunity, information or person is somehow in scarce or rare supply, you’re going to value that even more,” Callister said. “You’re going to want to be able to acquire it, not so much for the gain but the fear of the loss.”

Callister then introduced reactance, which is a psychological reaction that occurs when someone threatens to take away another’s freedoms or limit their choices. This idea, Callister said, is what drives scarcity as a persuasive tactic.

“There are three things that happen when we’re feeling reactance,” Callister said. “One is that we want to resist the attempt to restrict our freedom. Number two, we may rebel against the authority person who we think is threatening our freedom. Or, number three, we actively seek out the restricted choices.”

Callister explained both Satan and the Lord have used persuasive strategies throughout the scriptures.

For example, Korihor employed reactance in his teachings to the people, Callister said. He explained how Korihor taught the people they were in bondage and weighed down.

“The adversary knows that everyone in Korihor’s audience was a veteran of the war in heaven where we fought for freedoms,” Callister said. “This is what Korihor wanted, to resist the perceived restrictions to freedom. In other words, to resist the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Callister then provided an example of using persuasion for good in the scriptures through the story of Captain Moroni in Alma 55.

Callister also explained the “overview effect.” Some who have seen Earth from the moon or outer space, Callister said, have expressed their value systems, relationships and self-conceptions have changed as a result. They may be more motivated to work in humanitarian efforts.

“They’re engaged in something that’s referred to as self-persuasion … we are somehow motivated to persuade ourselves to change because somehow we’ve been placed in a situation that changes us,” Callister said.

Callister connected self-persuasion to the story of Asaph in Psalm 77, claiming that Asaph experienced the overview effect.

“He had to step back and think, ‘Wait a second, am I really angry at this God? With all that he’s done for me, all that he’s done for other people,’” Callister said.

He explained how Asaph began to see a benevolent God who loves him “to the core,” and once that became clear, the Spirit poured into his life.

Alexandra Mackenzie Johns, theatre and media arts professor, said she attended the lecture because she values the lecture series.

“I find that getting to hear in-depth from my fellow colleagues here at BYU strengthens my own resolve to be a disciple, scholar and creator and heartens my soul,” Mackenzie Johns said. “I think it’s sacred ground to gather together and to listen to someone share their own life’s journey and how faith has impacted their work.”

Callister concluded his lecture by referring to a past teaching of Elder Bednar in which he stated tender mercies are not coincidences.

“The Spirit will bring to you a remembrance of the hand of God in your life. And if you feel like it isn’t there right now, look at people around you, look at your ancestors, look at stories in the scriptures,” Callister said.

Callister said by stepping back and taking the time to record tender mercies, one can see the overview effect and their own self-persuasion by pondering on what the Lord has done for them.

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