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.