Age of propaganda

Notes from and comments on AGE OF PROPAGANDA by Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson Note: In the introduction, one author describes his parents as having had such "a wonderfully innocent, childlike trust that...almost everything they read was absolutely true." The other author then goes on to say that "chances are my son will grow up with... a regrettable cynicism about the truth of everything he reads, hears and sees." What a stark contrast. Why and how has this happened? Not so long ago, people never dreamed of questioning the nobility of the motives behind national policy. And they thought that the purpose of advertising was merely to inform the consumer. Now children grow up doubting authority figures and viewing ads as manipulative messages designed to make the advertiser rich. While it is good to ask questions, there is a price to be paid for cynicism. A cynical populace all too often becomes disengaged, caustic, and irresponsible. I believe there are more than two choices: naïve acceptance of propaganda on one hand and total cynicism (often combined with a lust for entertainment) on the other. During an age characterized by ever more sophisticated uses of propagandistic techniques, it is important that citizens become informed about these devices, the psychological dynamics of what makes them effective and how to counteract their effectiveness without withdrawing into abject cynicism. Jesus stated in Matthew 10:16, "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." There is a difference between persuasion and propaganda. Not all communicators are con artists—many are honest and present their messages clearly and fairly. We can neither accept nor reject all that we encounter. It is crucial for us to be discerning consumers of both information and products. Every time we turn on the TV or stereo, or pick up a book, magazine or newspaper, someone is trying to "educate" (convince) us of something. And every time we go shopping, countless manufacturers (often of nearly identical products) are vying for our attention to get us to buy the products in their package. The primary vehicle (after family and friends) for persuasive appeals in our society is the mass media. Next come church, school and workplace. Persuasion shows up in every walk of life and starts at a very young age. (My five-year- old daugher is already adroit at persuasion.)
Every day we are bombarded with one persuasive message after another. These appeals involve both give-and-take discussion and manipulation. Persuasion is not inherently bad. You succeed in life to the extent that you are persuaded by correct appeals and reject incorrect appeals and, in turn, are able to persuade others. Persuasion is often good, but it can have a dark side. Don't let the "morality" of a persuasive tactic be determined by its success in accomplishing a goal. Persuasion is bad when it is manipulative—that is when it becomes propaganda. Propaganda (tool of demagogues) is the use of images, words and symbols that play on prejudices, weaknesses and/or emotions to elicit a desired behavior. As marketing seeps into every aspect of life, the potential for manipulation via propagandistic appeals increases. Our society, assaulted by widespread marketing and information overload, lives in an age of propaganda. In our age of propaganda, few consumers have the time, energy, or ability to process the vast amount of information that assaults us. This provides an incentive for propagandists to manipulate us via emotional and simplistic tactics. Consumers who don't want to think and who rely on "soundbites" are ripe for manipulation. If you believe the source , you don't question the message (boiled down to a soundbite). (E.g., CNN vs. FOX News) While citizens in a quieter age spent time mulling over the implications of a sermon, speech, book or argument, today's citizen has little time or energy left to think. As a result, lone trees are replacing the intellectual forest. Some people believe the mass media are all-powerful; others believe the media have little influence. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. In the absence of "counter" communication (e.g., parents who talk to their children about the media's messages), the power of the media increases. As "share of voice" increases, the message becomes more accepted. The information-processing model (learning model) assumes that message recipients are largely rational and autonomous. Behaviorism and psychoanalytic theory say that we are hopelessly emotional and predictable. Again, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Persuasion is all about replacing ignorance of or negative thoughts about something with positive thoughts. Thus, to avoid being "conned," one must not let negative thoughts be unduly dismissed. One must also consider what "new" negatives arise if the positive thoughts are accepted.
Soundbites, products placed at eye level or at the end of store aisles, bundled pricing, college rankings, celebrity endorsements...why do things like this persuade us? Because we're lazy. We love to conserve cognitive energy. We're miserly with our minds. We outsource thinking. And propagandists exploit our laziness. People are most often persuaded when they are in a mindless state, but can also be duped even when they are thoughtful. This is because there are two routes to persuasion— peripheral and central. In the peripheral route, persuasion is determined by simple cues, such as attractiveness (celebrity endorser or well-designed product packaging). In the central route, a message recipient engages (at least briefly) in a thoughtful consideration of the information presented. In a research study, when asked for a specific amount (37 cents rather than "a quarter" or "spare change"), 60% more people contributed to an actor posing as a panhandler. Why? When asked for "spare change," most people look at the appearance of the panhandler and skirt him (peripheral processing). When asked for "37 cents," however, most people are caught off guard and think (central processing) about the request. "Thirty-seven cents? Hmm, maybe he needs a stamp. Or maybe he's thirsty and is only a bit short of the cost of a cup of coffee..." Here, thinking leads to greater compliance. Analyze messages (e.g., ads) to see if they are relying on peripheral or central routes to persuading you. Be most wary of those who use peripheral as it may mean that they don't think their message can stand up to logical analysis. Which route is used most frequently in TV ads? Are there any "balanced" approaches? Relevance determines the route to persuasion. If not highly relevant, the source matters more (peripheral persuasion). Propaganda generally uses of the peripheral route (sometimes adding simple soundbites as a supplementary central route). The hope is that we will mindlessly accept a proposition not for any good reason, but because it is accompanied by a simplistic persuasion device. The study of Consumer Behavior is intended to help increase your ability to think about issues/decisions. Cognitive dissonance describes (and predicts) how humans rationalize behavior. Dissonance occurs whenever a person holds two inconsistent cognitions (e.g., I am smart, but I just made a dumb decision). Inconsistency is so uncomfortable that we attempt to reduce the conflict. For example, we all know that smoking is bad for us. Non-fatalistic smokers, then, must either change their attitudes or behavior in regard to smoking, and the former is easier. It is interesting to note that the people who are least likely to believe in the dangers of
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