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.

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.”

 

 

 

Mental pollution, Part 1

This post is one of my occasional departures from my usual subject matter. Instead of writing about human growth and psychotherapy, I’ll be sharing some thoughts and information about the polluting of our mental environment. My second published book (my  first was a Peace Corps memoir) is Ad Nauseam: How Advertising and Public Relations Changed Everything (iUniverse, 2015). I received the iUniverse “Editor’s Choice” designation, and Kirkus Reviews wrote: “An illumination and critique of a commercial culture that distorts reality for gain…. In this brief but smoldering tract, a psychologist deconstructs contemporary advertising…. (a) competently written, highly readable primer on how the culture came to this awful point.”

I think that most Americans, asked if their behavior was influenced by propaganda, would deny it. If you think you aren’t influenced by it, you are either adept at recognizing propaganda techniques and other psychotechnologies of influence when you see them, or chances are you are influenced to some degree without knowing it. The most effective propaganda is invisible to most people; that’s how it works. Whether or not something is propaganda isn’t a matter of opinion. Propaganda seeks to influence and persuade people in the guise of informing them. The intention to persuade doesn’t make something propaganda, if the means of persuasion are logic and facts. It’s the use of identifiable deceptive techniques that distinguishes propaganda from information. The propagandist’s art is to make you think you know something to be true or accurate, even if it’s not. Propaganda techniques are important tools – along with rhetorical devices, heuristics and behavior modification techniques – of the propaganda industries: advertising, public relations, and political consultancy. I’m not saying that all advertising and public relations campaigns use these tools, but they’re so pervasive in the popular media that they’re invisible to most of us.

A few years ago, I set out to discover the relationship between public relations and propaganda, only to find that they’re practically identical. The “father of public relations” was a man named Edward Bernays. Although he was one of LIFE magazine’s “100 Most Influential People of the Twentieth Century,” his name isn’t well known outside of the propaganda industries. A government propagandist who worked to persuade the public that the U.S should fight in World War I, after the war he reasoned that propaganda would also successfully influence mass behavior in peacetime. But because propaganda  had gotten a negative reputation, for his purposes he re-named it public relations, and founded a new profession: the public relations counsel (as in legal counsel). In his 1928 book Propaganda he wrote about an “invisible government” of social engineers, which he called “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.” When I discovered Edward Bernays, I knew I had a book.

It’s been estimated that the average American will be exposed to over seven million commercial messages over the course of her lifetime. Who is immune to this daily barrage of persuasive messages, crafted by experts in the molding of mass behavior? Mass persuasion has become an applied social science, with its research, polling and focus group activities. Advertising, public relations and political consultancy wouldn’t be multi-billion-dollar industries if they couldn’t deliver results. Perceptions are often more important than facts in media campaigns designed to persuade consumers and voters.

Effective advertising works, whether you’re selling vitamins or cigarettes. A major reason obesity has become a major public health problem in America is that we’re constantly bombarded with ads for unhealthy food. Children are especially susceptible to this form of persuasion. Public relations firms refer to massive stinking pits of excrement on hog farms as “lagoons” and there’s such a thing, we’re told, as “clean coal.” Attack ads and slogans have largely replaced issue ads in political campaigns, because they’re effective in influencing  voters. I believe that we’ve become a Propaganda Society, and that our democracy can’t survive on a steady diet of propaganda. The result of a successful propaganda campaign is orchestrated ignorance on a mass scale. As I suggest in my book’s subtitle, advertising and public relations have changed everything: diet, medicine, law, education, sports, popular culture – you name it!

The antidote to the infotoxins in our mental environment is education. I’ll present some of the propaganda techniques and other psychotechnologies of influence in a future post. They need to be taught in public school, to immunize young people from the social engineering of the corporate state. If you want to learn more about our Propaganda Society and what we can do about it, check out Ad Nauseam, available online in print and e-book editions. You can read my basic thesis in the sample on my Amazon book page.

I’ll close with words from one of my favorite Bob Marley songs, “Redemption Song”: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds.”