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.

Prisoners of metaphor

Humankind has been called “the magic animal” because of our linguistic ability. Robert Anton Wilson put it this way: “Language. . . allowed people to do what no other animal seems to do, namely to visualize and/or verbally ‘contemplate’ something that is not present before their senses. This fantasy or reflection or cognition allows us, then, to compare the imagined with the experienced.” The amazing discriminating mind that language has enabled is, however, a two-edged sword. Language has made it possible for us to progress as a species –  to create civilizations, art, literature – but it’s also responsible for a kind of suffering that’s unique to the human animal.

Any bad situation can be made much worse by the way we think about it. Our human imagination can make us depressed, fearful, or enraged without a realistic external cause.  If it’s responsible for the building of magnificent cities, it’s also responsible for the Holocaust and other man-made horrors. As a retired psychotherapist, I know well that people often suffer needless pain because of the way they think.

The purest truths, it seems to me, reside in our experience. Anything we say about things we experience is once-removed from reality. We  have to rely on metaphor to communicate our truths. Nothing we say or write about  love can match the purity of our experiences of love. Most words don’t have absolute meanings, and the possibilities of misunderstanding another person’s words are endless. We encode our thoughts into words, and every listener must decode them. Two people hearing the same sentence or speech might decode it in very different ways. Language is a leaky vessel for conveying Truth.

Not only do we have words for specific phenomenal things, like rain; we also have words for things that don’t exist in the same way that rain exists. Concepts like Justice and Salvation and Divine Right are noumenal, and might not have the same meanings to different people. And yet people often act as if certain noumena were as real as rain, and had some absolute meaning. Wars are fought over things (Honor, God’s Will) that are totally subjective, or can’t be proven to exist in the way rain exists. To most Muslims jihad means the inward spiritual battle against sinful impulses, but to some it means killing infidels  in the name of Allah.

The Wharfian hypothesis – a popular linguistic theory for much of the twentieth century – suggested that our experience is created by the language that we speak. While a person from our culture, at the beach, would see waves in the ocean, someone from another culture might see the water waving. According to the theory, the first person perceived the waves as things, while the second person perceived a process. While the theory has been largely discredited, I think there is some truth to it: language may not determine one’s experience, but it certainly shapes it to some degree.

Linguistic conventions can make us prisoners of metaphor. Words can almost instantly arouse emotions. A good orator or storyteller can put her audience in a trance. A speech can turn a crowd into an angry mob. In both his essay, “Politics and the English Language” and his novel 1984, George Orwell wrote about the manipulation of language for political purposes. Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” He also wrote, “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” In my last post I wrote about the linguistic trap of “is,” and E-Prime as a tool for becoming more aware of what “is” is in our language and our thought. To the degree that you’re unaware of the limits of language as a means of conveying truths, you are under its bewitchment.

Our belief systems are largely constructed from our native language, and the conventions we live by are largely determined by the culture we were raised in. Because we’re all acculturated, we tend to share certain assumptions about what is real, and what is right or wrong, with the people around us. It’s even been speculated that each of us live our lives in a culturally-induced trance state. It’s easy to find seeming irrationalities or blind spots in people whose belief system differs significantly from your own, not so easy to become aware of your own culturally-transmitted limitations or fixations.

Imagine living in a culture whose language didn’t have the word “week,” and which didn’t have the convention of a seven-day week. How would life be different? Years and months are phenomenal  measurements of time, based on solar and lunar cycles. The four seasons are likewise phenomenal. The seven-day week is an arbitrary, contrived convention which affects the lives of most people on the planet. It’s noumenal, but seems to be experienced by most people as real, in the way that rain is real. Many workers wake up with the blues when they remember that it “is” Monday, and tend to have a bright mood when it “is” Friday afternoon. If you  were a castaway on a desert island, would you have a reason to know what day of the week it “is”?

It’s only Monday if you think it is. Your experience or interpretation of almost anything you encounter in your life is mediated by your belief system, your mental map. It’s possible, as Alan Watts put it, to miss the meal and eat the menu. We all need mental maps to navigate our way through life, but the map isn’t identical to the territory it depicts. If you don’t like some of the places your mental map takes you, you can re-draw parts of it – whatever your age. If you pay attention to the tricks and traps of language, it need not ensnare you, or limit who or what you may make of yourself.