Monday, February 3, 2014

Propaganda Works - We Are Vulnerable and Here's Why

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

How do you feel about yellow?  

What do you think of when you see the letter C,

Or the number 69? 

Ask these questions of most people and they will think you are crazy for asking, of course, but in that split second before they say so they will have experienced a feeling or association evoked by the question. That's because nearly all sensory stimuli are evocative of experencial associations and emotional content. This's how our brains work. No matter how silly or out of context the question it still alters our mental state in some subtle ways that can be verbally described. 

 While the description of our changed mental state requires consciously rational thought, the actual mental state being described does not. It was evoked by the question or sensory stimuli. This points out a significant truth... our verbal communication process may be rational but the impressions we report on are evoked reactions that preceded conscious thought. We tend to confuse matters by assuming our impressions are rational thoughts even though "rational thinking" was not what evoked the experience.

Our associated impressions include what we have seen or heard and all the feelings, impulses, physical states and cognitions related to that experience. Impressions are formed by an automatic brain process that doesn't require conscious thought. Because of this, impressions often bypass our cognitive, conscious brain filters.

Once formed, our impressions become powerfully influences over our behavior, with or without our awareness. Most social chatter revolves around sharing impressions of people and events. We seldom consider how these impressions formed. Most daily behavior is driven by subconscious impressions and the associated feeling.  When asked about a choices we made, we can describe our chain of "thoughts" (cascading impressions) that lead to the decision,  but this level of conscious scrutiny seldom precedes our behavioral choice. Impressions are not subject to the same rational filtering when we are problem solving or critically evaluating something someone has said or wrote (as you are doing now).

So here is the point, we must all become more aware of the extent to which our impressions are subject to manipulation.  Advertizing, marketing, branding, messaging, talking points, optics, framing, imaging, push polling, astro-turfing, these all refer to techniques that bypass our rational brain to manipulate our  ever forming impressions.
The science of propaganda has advanced farther and faster than most of us know. The word "propaganda" itself was once synonymous with persuasion but these two words parted ways. Each now defines entirely different processes. Persuasion is associated with the art of presenting rational and fact based arguments to sway opinion. Propaganda refers to the art of altering opinions by manipulating the formation of an individual's impressions.  We all like to think that we are too intelligent and rational to be manipulated by marketing or advertizing, but if that were true there would be no reason why companies and political organizations spend billions of dollars a year on marketing. The truth is it works so well we don't even know we are affected.

How do we inoculate ourselves against being manipulated by others through propaganda?  To begin with, we need to recognize marketing efforts when exposed to them. We need to be aware of the word choices, the catchy phrases used, the coupling of provocative images to create intentional emotional associations. We need to be aware of whether what is being said is based on assumption or verifiable assertions. If we hear a message that alters our mood, we need to pay attention to it to see how it is constructed. In short, we need to train ourselves to turn on our rational filters and engage in critical thinking when an experience or a forming impression is be under the planned influence of others. 

We engage in this sort of critical thinking in educational settings because we are encouraged to do so. We don't do it when we are relaxing by listening to music on the radio or watching TV. When our rational filters are down we are more vulnerable to propaganda and advertizing.  Not paying attention to ads doesn't help. We are still forming impressions designed by others for their own ends. What we need to do is either limit our exposure to marketing messages (not helpful when you need to be informed about current events) or engage in critical thinking whenever anyone is advertizing or marketing to you. 

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