Quote of the day: Latter-day Hidden Persuaders


From Lisa Wade, chair of sociology at Occidental College [Barry O's undergrad alma mater], writing in Sociological Images:

Earlier this year I reviewed a study that found that, simply by changing the weight of an object in hand, psychologists can manipulate how seriously a person takes an issue.  In other words, when holding something heavy, matters seem heavy.  Or, concerns seem weightier when one is weighed down.

Thanks to an email from USC professor Norbert Schwarz, I was introduced to a whole series of studies on what psychologists call metaphorical effects.  These are instances in which a metaphor commonly used to describe a psychological state or social reality can, in turn, induce that state or reality.  So, for example, holding a warm cup of coffee makes people feel warmly toward each other (here), getting the cold shoulder makes people feel cold (here), people placed in a high location seem to be high in a hierarchy (here), and cleaning one’s hands makes a person feel morally clean (here).

Schwarz was the co-author, with Spike W.S. Lee, on another example of a metaphorical effect.  They wanted to know if smelling something fishy made people suspicious.  It did!

Asked to participate in a fake study on whether they’d be willing to invest money in a scheme, subjects who were exposed to a fishy smell invested less than those exposed to no smell and less than those exposed to another icky smell that was “metaphorically irrelevant”: fart.

From sensory perception to psychological state.  Boom.

Our headline comes from the The Hidden Persuaders, an influential 1957 best seller by journalist and author Vance Packard, who we had the pleasure of conversing with during a faculty cocktail reception during our freshman year in college. While some of the research touted by Packard has been debunked, the general truth remains: Corporations, politicians, and other institutions with a vested interest in shaping your opinion for their benefit will resort to using any tools at hand to exploiting us for fun and profit.

Here’s an excerpt from a previous post:

In my second book, Deadly Blessings, Faith Healing on Trial , I suggested two books as good sources for anyone interested in learning some of the basic steps of critical thought. In quoting myself, bear in mind that I was writing about them in the context of exploring the reasons folks get drawn into adopting beliefs which ultimately prove not only false but self-harming.

The first is psychologist Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

A social psychologist, Cialdini approached his field from the inside out, learning the tricks of the trade from the very practitioners who exert their wiles on us in the marketplaces of goods and ideas. His inventory:

  • Consistency. Once people commit to a decision, they change their thought to conform with their commitment, Advertisers call it brand loyalty; religions call it fidelity.
  • Reciprocation. “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. As social beings, humans expect favors to be returned, and to return those others do them.
  • Social proof. People look to others to see what actions are appropriate in the context of the moment. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Uncertainty produces imitation.
  • Authority. “Follow the leader.” “Leave it to the experts.” “Listen to mother.” “I am the teacher here.” Social existence mandates authority.
  • Liking. Human beings are more inclined to listem to and be influenced by people they like. Hence the con game victim’s “How could he do that to me. He was so nice.”
  • Scarcity. The harder something is to get the more valuable it becomes. Humanity survived by learning to value and conserve scarce resources, and that habit has carried over into everything we do.”

A second set of tools for grasping the pitches hurled your way was advanced by the late and always controversial biologist Garrett Hardin in Filters Against Folly: How To Survive Despite Economists, Ecologists, and the Merely Eloquent.

While I don’t agree with all the ideas Hardin advanced, Filters is spot on. To evaluate the claims constantly bombarding us from every quarter, Hardin advanced three skills as indispensable. Again, the definitions are my own, adapted to the context of my book:

  • Literacy. For an idea to be accessible, it must be effectively communicated. Before you can load the language you must learn the language.
  • Numeracy. For one claim to be tested against another, each must be tested within defined limits. The numbers tell the story.
  • Ecolacy. The recognition that all literate and numerate definitions are limited; that planned real-world actions always carry unintended consequences. The “wow”/”oops” phenomenon.

These are good starting points for the development of a truly subversive skill, one that will lead the young mind to ask inconvenient questions—and there’s nothing we need more at this moment.

A reporter and a televangelist’s gold Rolex

We became acquainted with Cialdini’s book when it first came out, a consequence of doing book reviews for the Sacramento Bee.

Shortly after we finished our read, we were sent to cover a press conference by political televangelist Pat Robertson, who was flying to the state capitol during his Moral Majority convention in San Francisco, the location chosen as an act of “witnessing” in a latter-day Sodom-by-the-Bay.

When Falwell strode into the room, he made a point of greeting and glad-handing each reporter by name. Having just read Influence, we were instantly on guard, knowing that just such a personalization was demonstrated to reduce critical distancing of the sort needed by a reporter obligated to present an unobligated account of events to our readers. [The same presentation also cost a great many car buyers a great deal of money.]

We had noticed that a few devotees had managed to make their way into the room, and each was presented with a little pin as well as getting the dental glare and personalized grip-and-grin. We also noted that reporters didn’t get the pin.

So when we were subjected to the high-wattage display, we did two things. First, we made a point of truly looking at his person. Second, after the dazzling intro, we gave him a sincere smile of my own, then a quick frown. “Don’t I get a pin?”

He fumbled a hand into his coat pocket, extracting the little plastic pouch. Inside, a “Jesus First” pin, cheap and thinly clad in a golden wash. But it was the other wrist that caught our eye, mostly because of the solid gold diamond-bezeled Rolex Presidential that adorned it so spectacularly.

Our subsequent story, carried by the McClatchy News Service, received considerable play nationally and, we were told, lead to a Country/Western song about Rolex-wearing celebrity preachers.

But, of special satisfaction to esnl, in every photo op thereafter, Falwell’s wrist no longer sported a watch worth more than the yearly wages of many Americans. Replacing it, a leather-banded televangelical equivalent of Richard Nixon’s “good Republican cloth coat.”

UPDATE: Here’s the opener of our 14 July 1984 piece for the Bee:

The watch was a Rolex, conservative but made of gold. The suit was navy blue, well-tailored for the broad-shouldered physique, and the loafers fashionable but conservative. There was a wedding band on the left hand, encircled by small but brilliant diamonds.

The hair was impeccable, graying, blow-dried and sprayed, with not a strand out of place. Fastened to his left lapel was a small gold pin with a two-word message.

Jerry Falwell had come to town.

Such are the dangers of facing a reporter armed with a knowledge of the tools deployed against him.

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