Slippery slope arguments imply opposition to change

Matthew Haigh, Jeffrey Wood, Andrew Stewart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)
7 Downloads (Pure)

Abstract

Slippery slope arguments (SSAs) of the form if A, then C describe an initial proposal (A) and a predicted, undesirable consequence of this proposal (C) (e.g., “If cannabis is ever legalized, then eventually cocaine will be legalized, too”). Despite SSAs being a common rhetorical device, there has been surprisingly little empirical research into their subjective evaluation and perception. Here, we present evidence that SSAs are interpreted as a form of consequentialist argument, inviting inferences about the speaker’s (or writer’s) attitudes. Study 1 confirmed the common intuition that a SSA is perceived to be an argument against the initial proposal (A), whereas Study 2 showed that the subjective strength of this inference relates to the subjective undesirability of the predicted consequences (C). Because arguments are rarely made out of context, in Studies 3 and 4 we examined how one important contextual factor, the speaker’s known beliefs, influences the perceived coherence, strength, and persuasiveness of a SSA. Using an unobtrusive dependent variable (eye movements during reading), in Study 3 we showed that readers are sensitive to the internal coherence between a speaker’s beliefs and the implied meaning of the argument. Finally, Study 4 revealed that this degree of internal coherence influences the perceived strength and persuasiveness of the argument. Together, these data indicate that SSAs are treated as a form of negative consequentialist argument. People infer that the speaker of a SSA opposes the initial proposal; therefore, SSAs are only perceived to be persuasive and conversationally relevant when the speaker’s attitudes match this inference.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)819-836
JournalMemory & Cognition
Volume44
Issue number5
Early online date17 Feb 2016
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2016

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