How Politicians and the Media Change Our Minds

Paul Murdock
Campaign For Liberty
Friday, July 10, 2009

Unbeknownst to us, our lives are filled with messages that have a profound effect on our emotions, beliefs, values, and behaviors. These messages can be as obvious as a tornado siren in Kansas or as secretive and stealthy as the viruses and bacteria that invade your biological organs. What is guaranteed is that, for good or evil, the message never ends, and its impact is powerful!

Psychologists and advertisers have long known the persuasiveness of words, images, and especially other people. Corporations big and small combine to spend billions in advertising to increase their market share and increase profits. Not only are corporations spending billions, but also nonprofit organizations have significantly increased their time and effort to grow their philosophies and promote social change. Some of these changes are admirable such as reducing overt and covert acts of aggression towards minorities. On the other hand, some political, economic, and philosophical agenda run counter to the Constitution of the United States and the moral and ethical principles that have propelled this country forward. No attempt will be made to highlight specific organizations; rather, the principles of social influence need be surfaced to highlight the hidden attack on the principles and values of political and economic freedom. Specifically, this article will address how individuals defer to authority and look to experts for guidance.

In 1971, basic principles of social psychology were brought to light following the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Phil Zimbarbo. This study randomly assigned participants to one of two conditions; prisoner or prison guard. Six days after the experiment started, it was stopped because prison guards became abusive and sadistic, and prisoners showed signs of mood lability and extreme distress. This study has important implications because it reveals how ordinary citizens quickly became domineering and hostile when placed in arbitrary positions of social power. More so, it is fascinating how participants assigned to the role of a prisoner quickly felt helpless and responded to perceived authority with unquestioning obedience. In support of this study, Stanley Milgram explored how individuals would act against their better judgment when pressured by an authoritative figure. Thus, it is vital to know how those in “power” today influence our minds and subsequent behaviors in order to maintain our values and make wise decisions.

Anthony Pratkanis, a renowned social psychologist, has analyzed and classified a variety of tactics humans use to manipulate and change the beliefs or attitudes of others. A few of these include using associations, controlling the flow of information, setting the agenda, and relying on social rules and taking advantage of our subjective feelings. One principle I would like to highlight is known as “social proof.” Studies have shown that individuals look for guidance by finding out what others think; especially those we perceive are experts or in authority. This principle becomes more influential when there is a perceived consensus and when the individual is faced with uncertainty and ambiguity. As a result, individuals are more likely to follow the “crowd” to maintain social acceptance and reduce our psychological vulnerabilities. Two quick examples that make us susceptible to social influence are global warming and the current economic crisis. First, the issues are complex and ambiguous, and society has largely relied on “experts” and political figures.

In the news, reporters have endlessly cited the United Nations climate panel, the Federal Reserve Chairman, Al Gore, and other world leaders to persuade individuals to support economic bailouts and drastic climate measures. Little information is provided as the basis for their actions and the science and “consensus” is never questioned. Thus, the average individual is left without the knowledge to make an informed decision. This uncertainty and lack of knowledge consistently leads individuals to defer to the group and authority figures such as politicians, professors, and the media. Moreover, in an effort to maintain ideal conditions for social persuasion, an opposing viewpoint is labeled “radical, far-right, and even conservative” to place the individual in the “out” group, thus destroying their potential influence on others.

Although most intelligent individuals recognize bias, the inundating messages unconsciously lead to helplessness, apathy, and eventually acquiescence. In other words, the totality of the messages eventually destroys most individual defenses! Even when we are aware! For example, if individuals are consistently faced with “supposed facts and experts” from the media, professors, politicians, and corporations, values, ideals, and behavior is subtly manipulated like a river that never ceases to erode its banks. It will eventually get deeper and wider.

What then can be done to minimize the persuasiveness of those in control? In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” Social control is dependent on providing one point of view and limiting knowledge and contrary viewpoints. The U.S. constitution became great because it was “the single greatest effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen” (John Adams). It is vital to openly debate topics, engage in fruitful discussion, and play devil’s advocate. Practice responding to propaganda, thinking rationally about the issues, attempt to understand the full range of options, avoid being dependent on a single news source, monitor your emotions, and be prepared to challenge the “group.”

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