Psychotechnologies of Influence

I think that most people are unaware of the extent to which their beliefs and their daily choices are shaped by advertising and public relations, and the deceptive and manipulative  psychotechnologies they frequently employ. We’re so inundated every day by symbols and messages crafted by professional persuaders that their influence is largely invisible to most people. We’re all targets of corporate social engineers, and there wouldn’t be so many advertisements if they weren’t effective.

The “Father of Public Relations,” Edward Bernays, was a government propagandist during World War I. After the war, realizing that propaganda had peacetime applications, he re-named it public relations, and wrote the rulebooks for a new profession: the public relations counsel (in the sense of “legal counsel”). Bernays was a nephew and confidante of Sigmund Freud, whose teachings about subconscious influence were combined with the techniques of propaganda in such books as Crystalizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda (1928).

Bernays wrote about “the possibilities of regimenting the public mind” and “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.” The practitioners of this new science of influence and persuasion, he wrote, “constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.” Over the last century the propaganda industry (advertising, public relations and political consultancy) has become an indispensable part of both commerce and politics. You may never have heard of Edward Bernays, but he was one of LIFE magazine’s “100 Most Influential People of the Twentieth Century.”

Persuasive messages and campaigns that rely on logic and facts aren’t propaganda. Propaganda aims at the gut, not the brain, using deceptive and manipulative techniques to influence and persuade. The techniques of propaganda aren’t the only weapons in the arsenal of the propaganda industry. Rhetorical devices, symbol manipulation, heuristics, and psychological learning theory – specifically classical (Pavlovian) conditioning and operant conditioning – are among the psychotechnologies  of influence and persuasion utilized by propagandists. I’ll write about some of these tricks of the trade in Part 2, but I’ll first  name and describe the classic techniques of propaganda. Most of these techniques were identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, a public interest group in the thirties whos stated goal was to “teach people how to think (independently), not what to think.”

Probably the most common propaganda technique is assertion: stating an opinion as if it were a fact. Assertions range from outright lies to cleverly-worded messages with no objective factual basis. If you qualify a stated belief with “I think,” “it seems to me,” or “in my opinion,” it’s not propaganda. President Reagan’s famous  statement that “government is the problem” is a classic example of assertion. Another of the most frequently used propaganda techniques is ad nauseam – the endless repetition of assertions, slogans, or advertising jingles. A phrase attributed to Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, is that “a lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth.”

Transfer is a term for creating an association, positive or negative, between two unrelated things. (From a psychological point of view, transfer involves classical conditioning.) Using an American flag as a backdrop for a political message is an example of positive transfer. A background visual of burning stacks of money is an example of negative transfer. Bandwagon suggests that we should be on the winning side and avoid being left behind with the losers: “Everybody knows that’s the truth” or “for those who think young.”

Other propaganda deceptions include lies of omission, card-stacking, and distortion, where facts are cherry-picked to promote the message, and any contrary facts are omitted or misrepresented; or involving an insidious mixture of facts and outright lies; or half-truths, where facts are blended with assertions. Glittering generalities like “national honor” and “best country in the world” are subjective and have no objective basis for definition. Name-calling attempts to reduce a person to a label. With ad hominem, the messenger is attacked, to distract from the message, i.e. “You can’t trust anything he says.” Testimonial and appeal to authority attempt to link  the message with an admired person or authority, whether Abraham Lincoln  or “nine-out-of-ten dentists.” Celebrity endorsements  also fall into this category.

Simplification and pinpointing the enemy offer simple explanations for complex issues and propose a culprit for an identified problem, as in Hitler’s scapegoating of the Jews. Appeal to fear and stereotyping also belong to this cluster of techniques – favored by demagogues and xenophobes – and are self-explanatory. The black & white fallacy is also related: if you’re not with us, you’re against us. There’s no middle ground.

The result of a successful propaganda campaign  is ignorance or deception on a mass scale. If this post has stimulated your curiosity  about psychotechnologies and corporate social engineering, I’ve written a book about it: Ad Nauseam: How Advertising and Public Relations Changed Everything – available in paperback online, or as an e-book.

Changing habitual behaviors

Everyone has habits – some good, some bad, some inconsequential. One study suggests  that something like 43% of our behavior is habitual. This includes sequences of behavior that we’ve “chunked” together, and often perform automatically, so we don’t have to make myriad decisions every day. When you get in your car to drive to your friend’s house, you’re probably thinking about your destination or what you want to say to your friend. You don’t have to decide on each action as you automatically depress the clutch, turn on the ignition, fasten your seat belt, release the parking brake, shift into first gear or reverse, and  step on the gas pedal while easing off on the clutch. You don’t always have to be mindful about driving until you’re in traffic. We spend part of each day on “automatic pilot,” not having to make individual decisions about routine behavior sequences – which can include such things as drug abuse or “screen addiction.”

Throughout most of history, an individual’s habits arose from the culture and that individual’s circumstances and proclivities. These days, many of our habitual behaviors have been conditioned by corporate social engineers, applying principles of social science in the fields of advertising, marketing, public relations, and political consultancy. Using classical (Pavlovian) conditioning and other psychotechnologies of influence, they “invisibly” shape habitual behavior on a mass scale. I’m convinced that America’s obesity epidemic is largely due to the constant barrage of advertisements for tasty, if not necessarily healthy, foods. I’ve written about this corporate social engineering in my book, Ad Nauseam: How Advertising and Public Relations Changed Everything.

Everybody knows how hard it can be to change a bad habit. During my career, I had many clients who entered therapy because they needed professional help in order to change a bad habit. Willpower by itself is seldom sufficient to establish a desired change, because you have to maintain mindful awareness of your triggers and urges/cravings every waking hour, and to persistently resist temptation. The rewards of (for instance) dieting are long-term; the reward of giving in to a food craving is immediate. The good news is that once you’ve successfully changed a habit, it gets easier and easier to  maintain the change as time goes on. Quitting smoking, my nicotine cravings used to last all day. Eventually they only lasted for seconds, and now I haven’t had one for years.

Whether smart phone use can be addictive depends on your definition of addiction. I’m “old school” on the subject and believe that tolerance (needing more over time to meet your need) and physiological withdrawal are hallmarks of true addiction. Sex and gambling and screen time don’t qualify as addictions by the classic definition, but the physiological responses of gambling/sex/smartphone/gaming “addicts” are very similar to the responses of drug addicts. There may be withdrawal, in the form of cravings, but they’re psychological in origin.

Changing a habit often requires  a strategic approach to the problem. What mental, emotional, and social factors tend to keep the undesirable behavior in place? Once you’ve analyzed the factors that support your bad habit, make a plan. Visualize how your life will be better when you’ve succeeded.

Here are four things you can do to replace a bad habit with a good one. (1) Your plan should take into account the things related to the bad habit, such as time, place, emotional states, and social factors ( i.e. It’s not a good idea to hang around with your drinking buddies early in sobriety). (2) Declare your intention and your criteria for success to friends and family. This gives you an added social incentive to succeed. (3) Build-in  consequences, positive or negative. They can be natural consequences, or constructed. A natural, positive consequence if you’re quitting smoking is to add up the money you’re saving, and when you accumulate enough, treat yourself to a trip to Disneyland, or Vegas, or wherever. A negative, constructed consequence might be writing a $100 check to some organization that you despise, and giving it to a friend, to be mailed if you fail to change the targeted habit. (4) Don’t rely on good intentions and willpower, but structure your environment to make the bad habit more inconvenient. You can’t binge on cookies and ice cream while watching TV if you don’t buy them and bring them home in the first place. Other environmental factors are social – enlisting the support of those around you to help you meet your goal, and avoiding those who might undermine your resolve.

I’d never say “Good luck” to someone who announced his or her intent to kick a bad habit. Luck has nothing to do with it, and willpower is only one of the things you’ll need to succeed.

The invisible profession

Although there are a lot of people who make big bucks as professional propagandists, using the identifiable tools of the trade, I’ve never heard anyone identify him/herself  as a propagandist. I’ve never seen a job listing or classified ad saying “Wanted — skilled propagandist.” It’s a profession that hides in plain sight and relies on secrecy to be effective.

Propagandists have job titles such as ad designer, ad copy writer, public relations consultant/agent, media relations professional, political consultant, talk show host and political pundit. Unlike journalists, they have no obligation to be objective. Indeed, their function isn’t to accurately inform, but to influence or persuade. Propaganda can only be effective to the degree that it’s invisible to its target audience, because nobody likes to know  that they’re being manipulated. I think it’s highly probable that the average American couldn’t identify even one propaganda technique, and that’s the way the influence industries want it.

I’m not saying that everybody in advertising and public relations is a propagandist, but the propaganda industries have developed expertise in using  behavioral science to manipulate behavior on a mass scale, without their machinations being apparent to the public at large. As a psychologist, it disturbs me greatly to see that our society’s primary systematic application of the principles of psychology has been as a tool for commercial and political persuasion, and for the manipulation of mass behavior in the service of commerce.

Edward Bernays, who is generally recognized as the “father of public relations,” wrote a 1928 book titled Propaganda, in which he wrote about “regimenting the public mind.” He asked “Is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?” and answered in the affirmative. His teachings were a blueprint for the influence industries, which have gradually made the techniques of unconscious influence (as detailed in my last post) so commonplace that they’re invisible to the average citizen/consumer. Although Bernays name isn’t widely known outside of the advertising, public relations and political consultancy industries, he was one of LIFE magazine’s “100 Most Important People of the Twentieth Century.” Talk about invisibility. . . .

Many people in the influence industries are specialists in the social sciences and use polling, interviews, focus groups, statistical analysis, and other proven techniques to constantly refine their ability to influence behavior on a mass scale. In aggregate they are social engineers, working to enable corporate agendas. Not only do influence peddlers utilize the classic techniques of propaganda, but they also use rhetorical devices (i.e. metaphor, euphemism, hyperbole) strategically to hammer home their persuasive messages. They craft presentations that combine propaganda techniques such as transfer with combinations of verbal and visual metaphors that effectively influence mass behavior. Propaganda wouldn’t be a highly profitable enterprise if it didn’t work.

Heuristics are mental shortcuts we all use to make decisions. Professional persuaders exploit them to sell goods and services. Examples are stereotyping (if this is the case, then that should follow), social consensus (everybody’s doing it), scarcity (“this offer is limited”), and the price-value heuristic (if it costs more, it must be better).

Edward Bernays was the nephew and confidante of Sigmund Freud, and his uncle’s teachings about unconscious influence had a great influence on the profession he founded. After his academic career ended, Dr. J.B. Watson – known as the “father of Behaviorism” – worked for a Madison Avenue advertising firm. Influence peddlers use behavior modification techniques along with propaganda and other psychotechnologies of influence.

The propaganda technique of transfer relies on classical – or Pavlovian – conditioning, where a conditioning stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus (i.e. a bell is rung whenever food is presented), creating a conditioned response. In Pavlov’s experiments, dogs were conditioned to salivate when a bell was rung. Professional persuaders also use operant conditioning, where reinforcers (rewards) are systematically given or withheld in order  to shape behavior. An example is “call in the next ten minutes and shipping is free.” I’ve written about behavior modification in more detail in previous posts.

We’re bombarded daily with messages from propagandists and other professional persuaders. We’ve been systematically conditioned by experts to confuse manipulative messages with factual information. The key to removing infotoxins from your mental environment is education. As Bob Marley put it, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery/ None but ourselves can free our minds.”

 

 

 

Psychological learning theory

I briefly covered behavior modification in a prior post. In this post I’ll explain classical and operant conditioning in more detail, with examples to illustrate the concepts. The principles of behaviorism, or learning theory, are fundamental to the science of psychology. Two of the names most commonly associated with behavioral psychology are J. B. Watson and B.F. Skinner. Two key words in learning theory are stimulus and response.

Classical conditioning is also known as Pavlovian conditioning, based on Ivan Pavlov’s famous experiments with drooling dogs. Salivation is what behaviorists call an unconditioned response to an unconditioned stimulus – the presentation of food. In other words, neither dogs nor humans have to be taught to salivate when we see and smell food that appeals to us. A bell is initially a neutral stimulus, having nothing to do with food or salivation. But when a bell is rung every time food is presented, it becomes a conditioning stimulus, as the brain learns to associate it with mealtime. Eventually the ringing of the bell alone, without the presentation of food, will stimulate salivation – a conditioned response.

Classical conditioning is one of the most powerful tools used by marketers and advertisers to condition behavior on a mass scale, through the popular media. They systematically condition consumers to associate pleasant or desirable things with symbols such as McDonalds’ golden arches, logos, slogans, jingles, and attractive people giving sales pitches. They use it because it works. You see bikini-clad babes posing at car and boat shows because it increases the sales of the cars and boats  they’re posing in front of.

Where classical conditioning is a passive mode of learning, involving the creation of unconscious associations, operant conditioning involves systematic responses that shape a target behavior, making it occur either more frequently or less frequently. The process starts with recording the baseline frequency of the target behavior, i.e. how frequently it naturally occurs without systematic reinforcements being applied. Things that happen consistently as a consequence of the target behavior will tend to make it occur more frequently, if followed by a rewarding – or positively reinforcing – response (e.g. praise, money, candy, affection, etc.). If an expected reward is withheld – negative reinforcement – or the behavior is somehow punished – aversive reinforcement – the behavior tends to occur less frequently. Negative reinforcement is also used to increase the frequency of the behavior, when an aversive consequence (e.g. pain, shaming) is removed/avoided.

We might go to work even if we don’t really want to, because we know that our behavior will be reinforced by a paycheck. We know that if we stop going to work, the reinforcer will be withheld. Operant conditioning is the way we shape the behavior of our children, and train animals to obey our commands or to learn tricks. It explains the motivation athletes have to spend long hours exercising and practicing their skills.

The other principle to understand about operant conditioning is ratios of reinforcement, which can determine how lasting a conditioned behavior is. A hungry, caged rat can be taught to press a lever relatively quickly, if it’s rewarded with a food pellet every time the lever is pressed – a 1:1 ratio of reinforcement. But if you stop reinforcing the learned behavior with food, it won’t persist. In order to make the new behavior more persistent, you gradually “thin out” the frequency of reinforcement, perhaps starting with a 1:2 ratio. Now the rat only gets food every second time it presses the lever. Then you can go to other fixed ratios (1:3, 1:4); but if the ratio becomes too thin or if the food pellets stop coming, the learned behavior ceases, or in behavioral terms is extinguished.

If you really want a target behavior to persist without reinforcing it at a fixed interval, you move to a variable ratio: you vary the ratio, so the rat doesn’t know how many times it will have to press the lever (1:2, then 1:5, then 1:3, then 1:6, then 1:2, etc.) in order to get the food pellet. A hungry rat will keep pressing the bar, having learned that it will eventually get rewarded with a pellet. A well-fed rat will find better things to do with its time.

To take this to the level of human conditioning, think of the difference between a vending machine (with a 1:1 ratio of reinforcement) and a slot machine (with a variable rate of reinforcement). Every time you feed the required amount of money into a soda machine and press a button, you expect to get a soda. If you don’t and you’re very thirsty, you might try a second time. But if your behavior isn’t reinforced the second time, you certainly won’t keep feeding money to the machine.

But if you’re sitting at a slot machine, you don’t expect to be reinforced every time you put in a quarter and pull the lever. You might  get a sequence like this: nothing, $2, nothing, nothing, $5, nothing, nothing, nothing, $3, nothing, nothing, etc.. The behavior of feeding money to the machine and pulling the lever might persist until you’re out of money. Gambling machines have been called “addictive” because when we get money back from the machine, we get a jolt of the neurotransmitter serotonin ( a positive reinforcer) and persist, anticipating the next jolt – much like a hungry rat conditioned to persist in pressing a lever, knowing it will eventually get a food pellet.

Mental pollution, Part 2

In my book Ad Nauseam: How Advertising and Public Relations Changed Everything I wrote, “As a psychologist, it disturbs me greatly to see that our society’s primary systematic application of the principles of psychology has been as a tool for commercial and political persuasion, and for the manipulation of behavior in the service of commerce.” Propaganda, which I wrote about in my last post, is only one psychotechnology  of influence used by the propaganda industries – advertising, public relations and political consultancy. Behavior modification is another. According to psychological learning theory (behaviorism) there are two means of systematically conditioning behavior: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning is exemplified by Pavlov’s experiments with dogs and is a passive mode of conditioning. Knowing that dogs reflexively salivate when presented with food, Pavlov conditioned his dogs to have the same reaction to the ringing of a bell, ringing it whenever food was presented. Over time, the dogs came to associate the two previously unrelated stimuli, learning to salivate whenever the bell was rung. This kind of associative learning is routinely used by advertisers and marketers to get consumers to associate their product or brand with something they already like or want.

Operant conditioning is an active mode of conditioning, in which a targeted behavior is systematically reinforced. If you expect from experience to be rewarded for what you do, it increases the odds that you’ll do it. This is the method used to teach rats to press a lever in their cage to get food, and to train dolphins to jump through hoops. An example of this in TV advertising is, “Call in the next ten minutes and shipping is free.”

As promised in my last post, here are some of the techniques used by propagandists to influence and persuade. Probably the most frequently used techniques in the media is assertion – either an outright lie, or stating an opinion as if it were a fact, without first saying “I think” or “in my opinion.” Any ad that says “We’re the best/least expensive” without providing factual evidence falls in this category. I think that the second most frequently used propaganda technique is ad nauseam. A lie repeated and repeated and repeated can come to be perceived as the truth. Three other, related, techniques are lies of omission, card stacking and distortion, where facts are cherry-picked to promote the message and any contrary facts are left out or misrepresented. Sometimes the message mixes facts and lies or half-truths; sometimes facts are blended with unsubstantiated opinions (assertions) in a manner designed to obscure the objective truth.

With transfer, a classical conditioning technique, an attempt is made to create an association (positive or negative) between two unrelated things. Using an American flag as a backdrop for a political message is an example of positive transfer. Showing a picture of the opposition candidate with a Hitler mustache superimposed is an example of negative transfer. Bandwagon suggests that we should follow the in-crowd, join the winning side, avoid being left behind with the losers. (Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too?) Glittering generalities involves the use of emotionally loaded generalities that have no objective basis for definition, such as “freedom lover,” “perfect gift for all occasions,” or “best country in the world.”

Name calling can take the form of sarcasm and ridicule, or can employ the assertion technique, such as calling a political candidate a closet Communist, or a secret ISIS supporter, or “weak on crime.” With ad hominem, instead of dealing with the message, the messenger is attacked: “Don’t believe anything he says,” or “fake news.” Simplification offers simple solutions for complex problems, and is often seen in the form of slogans. Pinpointing the enemy and  stereotyping were used by the Nazi propaganda machine to stoke the fires of anti-Semitism and to justify Hitler’s genocidal “final solution.”

Appeal to authority attempts to create a positive association. Examples are celebrity endorsements, a politician invoking the name of an icon such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, or an actor in a commercial wearing a white lab coat to suggest that she’s a doctor or a scientific expert. “Nine-out-of-ten dentists recommend _______” is another example.

There are other propaganda techniques that you can read about in my book, but these are some of the most commonly used by professional persuaders. Some commercials and political messages use several, to disguise the fact that what they deliver is not information. These classic propaganda techniques were identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA), a non-partisan educational organization that, unfortunately, only existed from 1937-42. The IPA distributed information about propaganda analysis to schools and civic organizations. One reason we’ve become a Propaganda Society is that we don’t have anything like the IPA to educate the public at large, and propaganda analysis isn’t taught in our public schools.

In my next post I’ll return to my usual subject matter and look into the pathological condition commonly known as “multiple personalities.”