Propaganda and the Human Mind

24 April 2005

Today's  show is about the topic of propaganda.  Our guest will be Orville Schell,   Dean of the Berkeley School of Journalism.   The episode will focus on the nature of propaganda,  on what precisely is wrong with it, on the difference between the production and dissemination of propaganda in democratic and totalitarian societies and on what we can do to combat it. 

Some people  naively associate propaganda with totalitarian regimes.  Certainly, the Nazis, the Soviet and Chinese communists, and brutal dictators like Saddam Hussein  have made heavy and sometimes brilliantly effective use of propaganda.   But totalitarians may not need to be true masters of propaganda,  since they often merely bludgeon people into at least apparent belief and acquiescence.   It's in supposedly democratic societies with  capitalist economies,  where  political consent   and economic demand are  manufactured, to use Lippmann's apt phrase, that propaganda has been elevated to truly  high and insidious art form.   Indeed, it seems to me that largely through propagandistic manipulation of the means of public  communication and representation, the  concentrated,  self-serving powers that own so much of our politics and so much of our economy have succeeded  in thoroughly debasing our public discourse.

I do not know if we  will ever break the hold of a  narrow, self-serving elite on the means of public communication and representation.  One thing that gives me a modicum of  hope is  the rise of Internet, with its wild and untamed blog sphere.   To be sure,  the Internet remains so wild and untamed that  it may end up being a source of more heat than light.  But because it is open to so many comers, it is at least a place where contestable representations are contested, sometimes quite rigorously and thoroughly. 

But my main thought about propaganda this morning has to do less with institutional reforms   than the prospects for  reform of individual human minds, one-by-one. It's clear that our own habits of mind, habits of mind  deeply ingrained in many, if not all of us,  often make us susceptible to propaganda.  We all have some tendency to prefer the comforting falsehood, to the hard truth, for example.  And that makes us easy prey for those who deploy comforting falsehoods in order to get us to sign on to  agenda that we might otherwise not embrace.   In the run-up to the war, authoritative voices told  us repeatedly that we would be welcomed as liberators, that stockpiles of WMD were present in Iraq, that  Iraq  bore some  vague  connection to 9/11, that the war would be quick, cheap, largely financed by Iraqi oil. And on and on.  A few dissenting voices could be heard, whispering  far off center stage that none of it was so.   But the public by and large ignored those voices and bought the tale they were told.

The wonder is less that we bought the initial tale, but that for many many the belief in the tale persisted even as the evidence spoke decisively against it.  Once  the comforting falsehoods had taken  hold,  they had  vice-grip on our beliefs.    This vice grip is the result of what social psychologists call confirmation bias -- the tendency to notice and seek out what  confirms one's beliefs, and to ignore,  avoid,  or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one's beliefs.    Confirmation bias often leads us to subject putatively disconfirming evidence to very severe criticism or outright dismissal.

I suspect that our tendency toward confirmation bias is deeply ingrained in the evolutionary pre-history of our mind-brains.  But that is a subject for another day.  But I also  suspect that a disposition to confirmation bias is  connected to a tendency to overestimate our  own epistemic reliability.    If I find myself believing  some proposition, then I  also find  myself believing that I have a good reason to believe that proposition.  After all,  one tends not to think of oneself as believing what one believes for no good reason.   But that  may appear to suggest that  someone  who challenges what I believe,  doesn't just challenge my belief,  but also challenges me.  So, for example, if I have  committed  to believing Bush's rationale for the war,  what am I to think about myself if I allow that that rationale is entirely fictitious.  That I'm not such a good believer after all?   That I was a mere dupe?   That's a hard truth, few are naturally disposed to accept.  Rather than take myself to be a dupe, why not take someone who purports to present evidence for a contrary proposition to be mistaken.  Which is more comforting?

There are lots and lots of other foibles of human reason, widely discussed by social psychologists, and exploited by the masters of propaganda, that I won't elaborate on  right now.   We talked about this  a fair bit on an earlier  episode of Philosophy Talk called "Humans: The Irrational Animal?"   Check it out.

Sometimes the truth does simply force itself on us.   Asleep in the woods, you  are awakened by what appears to be a very hungry bear.  You could believe the initially  comforting, but ultimately self-defeating falsehood that you are just dreaming and in no danger.  Or you could believe the hard, disquieting truth that you are about to be attacked.  Very likely, you believe the disquieting truth over the comforting falsehood.   But truth seldom forces itself on us in quite that way.   Truth is hard and elusive.  We often have to force it out via an unrelenting search for evidence pro and con and unyielding arguments that are never satisfied with mere comfort and convenience.

Can  human minds  be educated so that we always prefer the relentless pursuit of evidence and unyielding arguments to comforting and easy falsehoods?  That is surely an empirical question.  Unfortunately,   many of the foibles of human reasoning exploited by the masters of propaganda and marketing turn out to be rather robust. On the other hand,  there is  a growing body of  evidence that at least some of  our foibles do disappear when matters are rightly framed.  This  is a complex subject to which I won't even try to do justice here.  The temporary bottom line is that we just don't know decisively how much education can achieve in correcting the cognitive foibles that make us all so vulnerable to the masters of manipulation.  Moreover,  our educational institutions being what they are are controlled by who they are controlled by,   I doubt that education alone will ever supplant the need for wide-scale social reforms that redistribute and reconfigure the means of public communication and representation.  I do hope, though, that I  am not being utterly naive or self-deceptive in believing there is a place for fighting the power of propaganda one mind at a time.

Comments (6)


Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, April 25, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

"But I also suspect that a disposition to confirm

"But I also suspect that a disposition to confirmation bias is connected to a tendency to overestimate our own epistemic reliability."
I think that the disposition to confirmation bias stems more from a normative desire to transform the world toward our ideals. The desire for theoretical knowledge seems to be subsumed by the desire for normative knowledge and its application in good living. I come to know what is good to do after I discover what is good to have. People are interested in knowledge that helps them do the good or that will further the pursuit of pleasure. If they can't see how the knowledge will further their well being, they will ignore it.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, April 25, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Most humans don?t like to think. They don?t l

Most humans don?t like to think. They don?t like dealing with Concepts that are strange or new to them, ?where the floor is fragile.? They like to deal with common ideas that they are comfortable with. Meanwhile they don?t realize that these ideas are chains on their minds. What did Hegel say about knowledge, it is a dialectical process? One idea must come in conflict with it?s opposite to produce another idea. Consciousness is supposed to evolve, not stay static.
No one has answered my question about if they agree with Kant?s idea that education cannot teach Judgment. That education is only a collection of principles. Somehow education and experience need to go hand in hand.
Humans are creatures of habit. You cannot imagine how many thoughts and actions are constantly repeated day after day without question. Repetition is considered intelligence! Marketing Marketing Marketing. Memetics Memetics Memetics. Does anyone know of the interaction between the Internet and Memetics? Marketers are going to mold into your minds their idea with the one that you are most comfortable with and hold dearly too. You should have a guest on Memetics and talk about the power of Memes.
We indeed are undergoing an Extraordinary Revolution in Humanity with the Internet. ?If What is Rational is Actual, and What is Actual is Rational? as Hegel states, we should see extraordinary progress in human production in the next century. That is until we have mind control microchips in our heads
****THE PROGRAM ON GENETIC DETERMINISM IS NOT WORKING*****

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, April 25, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Homer: We're working on the Genetic Determinism

Homer:
We're working on the Genetic Determinism show. It should be up and working tomorrow. Sorry about that.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, April 25, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

In a magazine once I read about this experiment wh

In a magazine once I read about this experiment which is relevant to what you say (if anyone knows who did the experiment I would love to know). Basicallly, someone stood on a street corner and asked X amount of people for a small amount of money for a phonecall - something like 30% gave him the money; the next day, same place same time same clothes, etc. - one difference though, before asking for the money, he asked for the time. This time a significantly larger amount of people gave him the money.
The basic conclusion was that once you have said 'Yes' to giving the time, it's more difficult to say 'No' to the money. For me this explains why people seek to avoid a beggar's eyes: once they acknowledge the presence of another human, it's difficult to ignore them.
In relation to your post above; it can be extrapolated that once one's 'cognitive pathways' (for want of a better phrase; 'cognitive' could be replaced by 'ethical', 'conscious', or whatever) are opened along certain pathways, we find it very difficult to turn around or get off the 'path'.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, October 20, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

"The episode will focus on the nature of propagand

"The episode will focus on the nature of propaganda..."
I don't see the nature of propaganda discussed above. I hold that the nature of propaganda is magic.
"Propaganda that looks like propaganda is second-rate propaganda."
-Larry Beinhart
Wag The Dog
Based on Beinhart's assertion, the only propaganda that we can discuss is propaganda that we see, which is second-rate propaganda because it appears to us propaganda.
Just like magic, when you can see how the trick is working, it is no longer state-of-the-art magic. The revealers of magic are always two-steps behind the creators.
The nature of propaganda is disguised influence. Simply knowing a trick is being performed is second-rate magic.
"The episode will focus on...on what precisely is wrong with [propaganda]..."
Looking at propaganda from the perspective that propaganda is inherently wrong is a damned perspective, a perspective that things are inherently good or wrong. This perspective actually reinforces the nature of propaganda. Propaganda was created as a cost-effective tool to spread the empirical rightness of The Church:
"The Catholic Church coined the word 'propaganda' in 1622 within the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, which was commissioned by Pope Gregory XV. One of Pope Gregory?s accountants came to the conclusion that it was more cost effective to teach Catholicism than to invade and force conversion. The accountant had the insight to recognize that a territory could be acquired by converting people?s minds. If you convert the minds, the bodies will follow. And, converting minds is less expensive than physically enforcing new sovereignty."
http://www.gnn.tv/B08094
I suggest that holding propaganda as inherently wrong is like saying that TNT is evil. I'm convinced that the good/bad perspective is what makes propaganda most effective.
As a student I was fascinated by suceptibility to hypnosis. I was amazed that subjects with the highest susceptibility to hypnosis were regularly those that said they were highly susceptible to hypnosis and those who ardantly help they were not at all susceptible to hypnosis.
"The episode will focus on ...on the difference between the production and dissemination of propaganda in democratic and totalitarian societies..."
The discussion that followed doesn't create a mutually exclusive distinction between democratic and totalitarian societies. I'm not sure in which grouping the speaker would place The United States. I'm not being coy. I don't know. How many countries pride themselves on being totalitarian? Nazi Germany press clippings don't look that dissimilar to American "free" press, what what I've read.
"The episode will focus on... and on what we can do to combat it."
Perhaps a combative mindset is actually the best fuel for the sustainability of propaganda's effectiveness. I beginning to think righteousness is the shadow of propaganda. That when I hear righteousness, I may begin to see propaganda I hadn't noticed before.
There is a possibility that the conversation above does more to empower propaganda, whatever that might be, than to "combat" the influence of propaganda.
Prof. Douglas Rushkoff suggests that transparency is the route away from covert influence in the September issue of Arthur Magazine. I think there is great merit to his discussion and suggestion:
?Is it okay for those of us with the best of intentions to use the same thought weapons as our foes?? Pg 9
Rushkoff concludes his essay with: ?The shortest way out of this mess is not to learn to manipulate through our new technologies-or even to teach others how to do it. We must instead figure out how to use all these tools to tell and disseminate the truth as best we can discern it, as honestly and transparently as we can.? Pg 69
I don't see the black and white of propaganda as good or bad. I think appropriateness is more a matter of intent.
I'm glad propaganda was employed to defeat Hitler.
I'm also not sure that dangerous things are always bad.
b.e. hydomako points out:
"A small dose of a disease acts as vaccine so our body?s immune system can learn to defend itself. Mass media saturates our senses, compelling us to consume more and more because we MUST know what happens next. We aren?t safe if we don?t know what happened about?
Modern media has become increasingly manipulative and assaulting on each and every person who finds him or her Self awash in the endless sea of endorsements, messages, suggestions, enticements, and so on, that it produces repetitively, day in & day out. Seemingly more than ever before, media agencies have discovered methods based on sound principles which tap into the deeper realms of our mind, and are designed to distract the conscious mind while carrying out their intention. This intention appears to carry with it a disease or sickness the effects of which we see indirectly manifest in some of the occurrences & events in our cultures & in our world(s). It is, then, imperative that we begin to understand the effects that modern media have upon us, and an excellent presentation of this in found in Ben Mack?s Poker Without Cards, the book advertised on the back cover of the September Arthur."
Thank you for your considerations. I apologize for exploiting this opportunity with my blatant propaganda. I hope I have helped to further your query.
I think that an exploration of direct response marketing is a more fruitful endeavor.
Perhaps covert influence is an apt definition of propaganda. Which, brings me back to magic.
Crowley said he was studying and discussing effectiveness. Various religious groups label Crowley evil. When I read Crowley, I see a discussion of marketing.
Marketing has emerged as a legitimate face of perception study and the study of effectiveness, a socially acceptable way to understand magic theory. These techniques and discussions would have had us all murdered 200 years ago. The Puritans who founded America didn?t suffer well the presence of alternative perceptions and realities.
Thank you for your considerations. In an attention economy, you just paid me with your time. What I read above appears to me as dialogue that could be woven into a modernization of George Orwell's Animal Farm. I hope you, dear reader, won't reject my ideas simply because I'm brash or I challenge a perspective you find comfortable. I see a lot of finger pointing above and I get apprehensive when I read political righteousness. Raised political angst has created some of the worst acts of man. But, I'm trapped, because extending that line of thought gets me back to good and bad.
Can you help me with this? I appreciate your cooperation.
Warmly,
Ben Mack
aka Howard Campbell

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, July 23, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

Guided by emotional stimuli, we are led to commit

Guided by emotional stimuli, we are led to commit acts that we normally would never dream of perpetrating. The protagonists of propaganda know this well, and, thus, exercise their powers to create conditions that will make their assault on the public mind more successful.

 
 
 

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