The Bobblehead Strategy

Little Yeses

“Dad, can I have a new car?” is a good way to get a quick No.

“Dad, you want me to come home safe, right?” might not be the most obvious strategy for getting rid of that rusted heap with the cracked windshield and bad brakes you’re embarrassed to be seen driving.

But, if deployed by a talented arguer, that opening gambit might actually result in—if not a brand-new convertible—the acquisition of a safer, late-model used car you’ll feel sexier driving.

The trick to the Bobblehead Strategy is to get your audience (in this case, Dad), to unwittingly start nodding in agreement to a series of small and innocuous-sounding premises (call them proposal claims) until the habit of agreeing to your every premise leads to the big Yes.

Your audience might not appreciate being persuaded (you could say, trapped) into agreement by your strategy, but he will find it difficult to take back all the small consensus points you earned on the way to the ultimate approval of your proposal.

The Mandatory Therapy Example

Let’s examine the illustrative case of a student who wishes to defend a bold and innovative thesis that young people whose mental illness makes them a danger to others and themselves should be forced to undergo therapy whether they want it or not.


Therapy should be mandated for every youth who requires it.

That’s a big ask for a 3,000-word college essay. Just imagine the big objections it risks. What kind of therapy are you talking about? Doesn’t that violate the civil liberties of people who resist therapy? Don’t you have to prove that therapy is effective before you mandate it? Who are you putting in charge of deciding who “requires” it?

How do we avoid the “mob mentality” reaction of those opposed to your Big Proposal? First, we get our audience to agree to smaller propositions that don’t raise those big objections. Some suggestions:

  1. Society functions best when everybody is healthy enough to contribute.
  2. Physical and mental health both contribute to the overall well-being of our communities.
  3. The mentally ill are constrained from being their most productive selves.
  4. People suffering from depression are not as functional as their healthy peers.
  5. Depressed youth are statistically more prone to substance abuse, violence, and self-harm, even suicide.

If our presentation is persuasive, we should be seeing some head-bobbing. We haven’t said anything to raise serious objections, and we certainly haven’t said out loud that we want to force anybody into therapy.

So, we’ve prepped our audience for bigger propositions based on getting agreement on sound principles. Toulmin might say we’ve gotten assent for the warrants for our argument. Rogers might say we’ve identified common goals.

Now, to further reduce the danger of opposition, we narrow the scope of our proposal by getting a “buy-in” on the safe and more general position.


Therapy should be AVAILABLE for every youth who DESIRES it.

If we can gain approval of this premise, our more narrow and less obvious proposal stands a much better chance of being approved.

Several categories of youth can be considered, and we can help our audience recognize how easily they agree to the general proposal for all but a VERY FEW individuals.

  1. Many depressed youth ALREADY RECEIVE AND BENEFIT FROM the therapy they know they need and desire.
  2. Many depressed youth ARE UNABLE TO GET the therapy they know they need and desire.
  3. Many depressed youth DO NOT KNOW they could benefit from therapy.
  4. A few depressed youth KNOW THEY NEED THERAPY but resist it.

1. We should have no trouble getting our audience to agree that Number 1 is the ideal situation. If they agree to that, they should also agree that therapy for all who need it would be the best outcome for all.

2. They should also agree that 2 is sad for the youth who can’t get treatment and will probably agree that a program to help them receive therapy would benefit both the youth and society in general.

3. Saddest of all, maybe, would be youth who are suffering from mental illness and don’t recognize their need for treatment. Here we can lightly suggest that early caregivers (pediatricians, preschool teachers, counselors, foster care workers, etc.) are in a good position to recognize early symptoms of trouble.

4. If we have gained incremental approval for the benefit of therapy, maybe even our responsibility to provide it where needed, suggesting that EVEN THOSE YOUTH WHO DO NOT ELECT THERAPY should be compelled to receive it . . . is no longer SUCH A BIG ASK.

As a benefit to the patient and his/her community, an exploratory course of therapy, at no cost to the patient, should be mandated for every youth who is diagnosed to require it.

Once they realize what they’ve agreed to, our audience might have “buyer’s remorse” and want to retreat on the agreement.

Crowd Cheering

NOW, and not before they’ve agreed, we can bring out the logical analogies they might have recognized as setups if we had introduced them too early. For example:

  1. When we know someone has a life-threatening illness that can only be treated in a hospital, we refuse to let them check out even if they don’t want to stay.
  2. If a person is a clear threat to others, for example, because she has a deadly contagious disease, we feel justified quarantining her until she’s cured or no longer a threat.
  3. The same goes for people who deliberately or uncontrollably represent a threat to the safety and well-being of the general community.

Those arguments, saved for last, can nail down a strong Conclusion with fresh material designed to keep our new converts from rescinding their approval for our fresh proposal.