It Is Difficult to Get a Man to Understand Something When His Salary Depends Upon His Not Understanding It

Upton Sinclair? H. L. Mencken? William Jennings Bryan? C. E. M. Joad? Christopher Matthews? Paul Krugman? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Financial incentives can compromise the critical faculties of an individual. Here are four versions of this insight:

  1. Never argue with a man whose job depends on not being convinced.
  2. It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
  3. It can be very hard to understand something, when misunderstanding it is essential to your paycheck.
  4. It is rather pointless to argue with a man whose paycheck depends upon not knowing the right answer.

I think either muckraker Upton Sinclair or curmudgeon H. L. Mencken employed this expression. Would you please trace it?

Quote Investigator: Upton Sinclair ran for Governor of California in the 1930s, and the coverage he received from newspapers was unsympathetic. Yet, in 1934 some California papers published installments from his forthcoming book about the ill-fated campaign titled “I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

I used to say to our audiences: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1893 a newspaper in Lincoln, Nebraska printed a thematically related statement written by populist politician William Jennings Bryan: 2

It is useless to argue with a man whose opinion is based upon a personal or pecuniary interest; the only way to deal with him is to outvote him.

In 1922 English author and later BBC personality C. E. M. Joad published a germane passage about two professions: 3

Hear, hear! It’s all a question of trusts and monopolies. Doctors have a monopoly of medicine just as parsons have of God. You can’t get a parson to admit the arguments of an agnostic, because his salary depends on his not letting the agnostic refute him; and you can’t get an ordinary doctor to look kindly on psychoanalysis or autosuggestion because their success would make him superfluous. All this is not a question of the Life Force at all; it is a question of bread and butter.

In 1934 the “Oakland Tribune” of Oakland, California printed an excerpt from a forthcoming book by Upton Sinclair that included the saying as mentioned previously in this article.

In 1949 the industrious quotation collector Evan Esar included the statement with an ascription to Sinclair in “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”: 4

SINCLAIR, Upton, born 1878, American novelist and social reformer.

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

In 1969 “A Treasury of Humorous Quotations for Speakers, Writers, and Home Reference” by Herbert V. Prochnow and son also attributed the remark to Sinclair. 5

In 1989 journalist and television commentator Christopher Matthews published an instance in “Hardball: How Politics Is Played, Told by One Who Knows the Game”. Matthews credited H. L. Mencken; however, QI has been unable to find support for that ascription: 6

As H. L. Mencken once warned, “Never argue with a man whose job depends on not being convinced.” Don’t ask a plastic surgeon to compliment you on your youthful appearance.

A good lobbyist learns that his job depends upon his keeping himself necessary. He’s not being retained for old times’ sake!

In 1995 prominent economist Paul Krugman writing in “The Washington Monthly” included an instance that was very similar to Sinclair’s; however, Mencken received credit. Also, the word “income” replaced “salary”: 7

As H.L. Mencken once pointed out, it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his income depends on his not understanding it.

In 2001 Krugman employed a version of the saying again, and this time he credited Sinclair: 8

Of course, I don’t expect politicians and lobbyists to understand such arguments; as Upton Sinclair said, it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

In conclusion, Upton Sinclair should receive credit for the statement he spoke and wrote in 1934. Currently, the assertion that H. L. Mencken made a similar remark is unsupported. William Jennings Bryan wrote a thematically related comment in 1893.

Image Notes: Illustration of a two-pan balance from qimono at Pixabay. Picture of Upton Sinclair from the Library of Congress Bain Collection accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Wilson Gray, Felix Kramer, and K whose inquiries and comments led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also thanks to the pioneering research of Ralph Keyes, Barry Popik, Fred Shapiro, and the volunteer editors of Wikiquote.)

Notes:

  1. 1934 December 11, Oakland Tribune, I, Candidate for Governor and How I Got Licked by Upton Sinclair, Quote Page 19, Column 3, Oakland, California. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1893 June 16, The Lincoln Weekly Call (Lincoln Evening Call), A Great Issue: Bimetallism Defined by an Able Democrat: Congressman Bryan of Nebraska on Finance, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1922, Common-Sense Theology by C. E. M. Joad, Chapter 3: The Life Force in Education, Quote Page 131 and 132, T. Fisher Unwin, London. (HahtiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Upton Sinclair, Quote Page 185, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York)
  5. 1969, A Treasury of Humorous Quotations for Speakers, Writers, and Home Reference by Herbert V. Prochnow and Herbert V. Prochnow Jr., Section: Salary, Quote Page 295, Published by Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1989 (Copyright 1988), Hardball: How Politics Is Played, Told by One Who Knows the Game by Christopher Matthews, Chapter 4: “Dance with the one that brung ya”, Quote Page 86, Perennial Library, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1995 October, The Washington Monthly, Volume 27, Issue 10, “What the public doesn’t know can’t hurt us” by Paul Krugman, Start Page 8, Quote Page 12, Washington D.C. (ProQuest)
  8. 2001 October 14, New York Times, Reckonings: Harvest Of Lemons by Paul Krugman, Quote Page WK13, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)