The Hidden Persuaders: Persuasion Techniques and Propaganda in the Midst of our Society
By StephanieÂ A.Â HendelmanÂ Â©
Beginning with the Catholic Church and the dissemination of Catholicism throughout the world, propaganda has established itself as a strong weapon in the area of psychological influence. From Nazi Germany to modern marketing and warfare, the principles of persuasion remain unchanged. With the use of specific methods such as repetition, emotional arousal, humor, worry, and subliminal messaging, individuals fall prey to various types of unconscious control. In a modern era of technology where individuals are bombarded by the media on a constant basis and are thus subject to influence of various types, it is crucial to remain informed. This research paper offers an overview of the diverse effective techniques in the domain of persuasion and behavior change.
Â The Hidden Persuaders: Persuasion Techniques and Propaganda in the Midst of our Society
If you examine propagandaâ€™s most secret causes, you will come to different conclusions: then there will be no more doubting that the propagandist must be the man with the greatest knowledge of souls. I cannot convince a single person of the necessity of something unless I get to know the soul of that person, unless I understand how to pluck the string in the harp of his soul that must be made to sound. (p. 24)
In March 1933, immediately after his appointment as Minister for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda in Hitlerâ€™s first government, Josef Goebbels expressed the above view concerning propaganda (Welch, 1999). In his short statement, Goebbels described the mechanisms needed to ensure the efficiency of the propaganda methods. Hence, as he put it â€œthe propagandist must be the man with the greatest knowledge of soulsâ€.
The purpose of this research paper is to demonstrate how the knowledge of persuasion methods has been applied throughout history to manipulate the masses and control behaviors. Social psychologists have devised numerous experiments in order to understand the hidden mechanisms of behavior and the ways to affect change. The search for persuasion methods has become a hallmark in the annals of social influence. Not only has psychological knowledge of collective behavior been useful in understanding the motivations behind human actions, this knowledge has been exploited in the domains of politics and marketing as well. Governments have consulted with social psychologists to help them plan warfare techniques, thus applying principles of persuasion and propaganda to influence the enemy, politicians have resorted to such techniques to influence popular beliefs and gain support, sales people have relied on persuasion and deception techniques to sale their goods, and marketers have influenced the masses through the media in order to improve profits made by big corporations.
Beginning with the dissemination of religious dogmas by the Catholic Church, cardinals under the orders of Pope Gregory XIII (r.1572-85) were charged with spreading Catholicism in non-Catholic lands. A generation later, in 1622, Gregory XV coined the term â€œpropagandaâ€ in order to manage foreign missions. The term later evolved to encompass all techniques employed in the dissemination of ideas. In modern times, propaganda has become synonymous with lies, deceit, and brainwashing (Welch, 1999).
Throughout history, those in power have always attempted to influence the way commoners see the world. The Nazis had their Ministry of Propaganda, the Soviets had their Propaganda Committee of the Communist Party, while the British had a Ministry of Information, and the USA an Office of War Information (Welch, 1999). As a result, the employment of propaganda techniques has increased steadily, building on previous findings and adjusting to new trends.
According to Hitler, propaganda had to be simple, concise, and repeated frequently, with emphasis on such emotional elements as love and hatred. Through the continuity and sustained uniformity of its applications, propaganda would lead to results that are â€œalmost beyond our understandingâ€ (Welch, 1999, p.25).
With the acquired knowledge on propaganda accumulated during WWII, political scientists and sociologists theorized on the nature of man and modern society. In post-war consumer society, individuals were viewed as malleable and prone to manipulation. Thus, culture had been reduced to the lowest common denominator for the purposes of mass consumption. As a result, the use of propaganda could now be extended to â€œenter the thoughts of the masses and control their opinions and behaviorsâ€ (Welch, 1999, p.25).
As part of a societal framework, social behavior is predictable. Thus, propaganda and persuasion can be used through various media to shape collective behavior. In modern society, individuals are bombarded with shows and advertisements through radio, television, and the internet. Furthermore, newspapers, magazines, books, movies, and pamphlets also depict â€œsocietal normsâ€. As part of a mass communication network, individuals are collectively exposed to the same information, ideas, and emotional messages (TesarÂ & Doppen, 2006).
In their article, TesarÂ and DoppenÂ (2006) provide a relevant example of the insidious power of advertising on the young generations. Considering that by the end of high school, the average American child will have spent 15,000 hours in front of the television (GollnickÂ & Chinn, 2002), and that most advertisement aimed at children is sponsored by the food industry, it follows that American society accounts for the largest number of overweight children worldwide. Because the media influences collective behavior and helps shape culture and how people define themselves, the constant stream emanating from the television sets into peopleâ€™s minds tells them how to act, dress, eat, talk, and think in ways that reflect collective behavior ( TesarÂ & Doppen, 2006).
With the use of the media, another way of manipulating behavior and influencing thoughts is subliminal messaging. Subliminal messaging goes undetected by the conscious mind and therefore, cannot be purposely avoided. Without laws preventing such advertising, individuals playing video games, or watching hours of television every day, become perfect targets.
Bergmeitiger, Goelz, Hohr, Neumann, Ecker, and DoerrÂ (2008) discuss the effects of subliminal priming while playing a video game. With the assumption that tired persons need to put more effort into a task, the authors hypothesized that they would be more motivated to enhance their concentration and thus, be influenced by the subliminal messages. Two subliminal logos were embedded into a computer game and tested on 64 participants. The results revealed a significant positive relationship between tiredness and the consumption of the target product.
In light of such results, it should be mentioned that subliminal advertising is illegal in some countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia, but not others. Thus, subliminal advertising is legal in the U.S. Furthermore, according to studies showing that an individualâ€™s level of passiveness favors effects of subliminal stimuli, it follows that tired individuals become perfect targets for marketers.
Manipulation through insidious means can take many forms. With the assumption that the average American, apart from spending a large segment of time in front of the television and being overworked, also consumes high amounts of caffeine in various forms, researchers decided to investigate the effects of this drug on persuasion.
In their study, Hamilton, McKimmie, Terry, and Martin. (2007) examined the effects of caffeine on persuasion and attitude change. After considering the effects of caffeine on information processing such as attention, semantic memory and logical reasoning, which are processes involved in persuasion, the researchers expected the effect of caffeine consumption to increase the extent of communication processing, thus facilitating attitude change.
After testing a total of 148 participants under various conditions, results supported the hypothesis that a moderate dose of caffeine could affect attitude in favor of a persuasive message. The implications of this study are extremely important in our modern society. High caffeine consumption coupled with constant exposure to television, public media, politics, and widespread marketing advertisements, would therefore imply that the common caffeine consuming individual is highly susceptible to being persuaded and manipulated on a constant basis.
Under Nazi Germany, Hitler stated that propaganda had to be simple, concise, and be repeated frequently (Welch, 1999). Indeed, according to researchers, repeated statements are perceived as more valid than novel ones, and this is known as â€œthe illusion of truth effectâ€ (Moons & Mackie, 2009). To demonstrate this effect, Moons and Mackie (2009) decided to investigate the conditions under which repetition induced a nonconscious sense of familiarity. Their hypothesis was that â€œargument familiarity (induced by repetition) would automatically increase agreement, regardless of the argument content and regardless of information-processing conditionsâ€ (p.33). After testing a total of 174 participants and conducting three consecutive experiments, results demonstrated that when people have little motivation to process novel information, they can easily be influenced. Because of their diminished sensitivity to argument quality and their lack of motivation to counter-argue what is being presented, such individuals are willing to easily accept repeated arguments as being true. Thus, the extent to which people are willing to process repeated information will determine how this repetition-induced familiarity and the quality of persuasive arguments are influential on agreement.
As stated by the above researchers â€œpersuasion is a pervasive and crucial component of social life. Knowing how and when repeating persuasive appeals induces desired attitude change has practical implicationsâ€ (Moons & Mackie, 2009, p.44). Thus, as previous studies have already demonstrated, persuading individuals under certain circumstances becomes crucial in order to affect a change in attitude or behavior.
According to Cialdini (2001), because of the accelerating pace of modern life, careful analysis of issues is often prevented by lack of time. As a result, individuals resort to short-cut approaches in which decision to comply is made on the basis of a single piece of information or trigger. The most popular triggers include feelings of liking, authority directives, commitment, and scarcity. Thus, compliance professionals who resort to such triggers in their persuasive attempts are more likely to be successful (p.240).
According to Strick, Van Baaren, Holland, and KnippenbergÂ (2009), the use of humor in advertisement evokes positive emotional responses, thus increasing the likelihood of attitude change and persuasion. According to the principle of â€œlikingâ€, it follows that the use of humor in conjunction with advertisement increases product liking. Not only does humor enhance the attention paid to an ad, it can also affect persuasion by increasing the motivation of perceivers to process the information.
After testing a total of 181 participants and pairing a product with humorous cartoons, Strick et al., (2009) demonstrated that product evaluations and choice could be positively influenced by mere association with humor. Furthermore, the researchers noted the possible influence of affective media contexts and product placements in movies and television series on advertising effectiveness.
The art of â€œInfluenceâ€ resorts to various manipulative techniques in order to affect attitude or behavioral change in people. As it has been well known since the WWII era, eliciting emotional feelings of love, fear, or hatred has a strong influence on human behavior. As Goebbels remarked: â€œPropaganda becomes ineffective the moment we are aware of it. If propaganda is too rational, it runs the risk of becoming boring; if too emotional or strident it can look absurd. As in other forms of human interaction, to work properly propaganda must strike a balance between reason and emotionâ€ (Welch, 1999, p.26). In line with Goebbelâ€™s comments, behavior change is also subject to emotional arousal and risk perceptions, but in order to be effective, it should strike a perfect balance between challenging messages and threatening messages.
In their research on the biobehavioral model of persuasion, Schneider and Rivers (2009) proposed that challenging health appeals may be more effective than threatening messages. In their study, their goal was to alter personal concern and efficacy beliefs, by using worry as the proxy for personal concern. After presenting various health messages eliciting worry and fear to 60 participants, the researchers concluded that challenging messages could foster behavioral change, whereas threatening messages would foster behavioral avoidance. Thus, challenging messages elicit â€œopenness to the message, greater message elaboration, stronger intentions to act, physiological mobilization, as well as behavior changeâ€ (p.1947).
Another major application of persuasion or influence principles is within the government. The militaryâ€™s modern Psychological Operations division (PSYOP) involves the use of psychological knowledge in warfare. PSYOPs are defined as â€œplanned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and, ultimately, the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individualsâ€ (King, 2004, p.27). Such tactics are extensively used by various governments in times of conflict. In recent years, such operations have been used by the United States in Haiti, Somalia, the Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Propaganda tactics have included dropping leaflets, broadcasting news and music, distributing newsletters, and providing information via truck-mounted loudspeakers (King, 2004). Considering the wide use of such covert techniques and, due to the classified nature of such research, it would be nonetheless naÃ¯ve to believe that citizens in the U.S. are immune to this kind of manipulation. As King (2004) stated: â€œbeing forewarned is a major component of being forearmed. Being able to identify influence tactics is an important citizenship skillâ€ (p.29).
The implications of the research on propaganda and persuasion are far reaching. From warfare to marketing, experts in human behavior and psychology are being employed behind the scenes to help those in power secure better control of the masses. From Hitlerâ€™s Nazi Germany to modern marketing, persuasive methods are being used in politics, sales, health campaigns, and warfare. Such tactics usually serve big corporations, pharmaceutical companies, politicians, and marketers. At times, this knowledge is also used to help people in choosing healthier lifestyles, protecting the environment, and following medical and psychological advice. Thus, as informed citizens, it is important to always â€œquestion what lies behind the media productions â€“the motives, the money, the values, and the ownership â€“and to be aware of how these factors influence peopleâ€™s livesâ€ (TesarÂ & Doppen, 2007, p.261).
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