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Mass persuasion

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Belief surrounds us everywhere – we are forced to buy certain products, vote for certain projects and people, and even think in the way someone needs. Modern man is an object of influence, but can he resist him?

Elliot Aronson and Anthony Pratkanis’ book The Age of Propaganda provides a comprehensive analysis of the patterns, motives and outcomes of mass persuasion. The book contains 16 key ideas that we cover in detail in our sprint. In our review, we will look at the three main ideas of the book, from which you will learn the danger of propaganda.

Idea 1. Now the belief does not require a long time, it becomes instant

Archaeologists have found that even the Maya Indians were engaged in manipulation, changing dates, for example, choosing the correct date of birth of a ruler to prove his rebirth or reincarnation.

Not all persuasion is propaganda. The rhetoric of the ancient Greeks and Romans took the form of controversy, debate, discussion. The end result was truth.

Even ancient people hired lawyers to represent them. For disputes and persuasion, special sophists were hired – itinerant teachers who wrote the first books on persuasion. For the sophists, there was no absolute truth; they believed that persuasion was necessary in order to find the “best” course of action. That is why the sophists were considered deceivers and manipulators.

Ancient propaganda in the form of discussions, sermons could last for hours. At present, political television advertisements last no more than 30 seconds, and advertisements in magazines and newspapers consist of just a picture and a phrase, news are broadcast in minute clips. Contemporary persuasion consists of short, catchy messages, often visually oriented.

At all times, people have wondered: how do others manage to influence them? Some people believe that they are not influenced at all, others believe in the 25th frame, magnetism and so on. Where is the truth? The truth, according to the authors, is in the middle.

Idea 2. People are influenced when one side is illuminated without alternatives, or a request is made

Many people believe that they know all the tricks of advertisers, politicians and therefore they do not work on them. But it’s not that simple. The mass media, of course, may not directly say what to think, but implicitly direct, suggest what to think about. For example, a TV ad that praises a particular car brand may not lead you toward that particular brand, but it will generally make you want a new car. Such advertising will show the benefits of freedom of movement, status, and so on.

At the same time, if advertisements for one car brand appear much more often, then indeed, the share of purchases of this brand will increase.

When the mass media convey only one side of the problem, the number of people who agree with this point of view increases. Why is this happening? Because people do not think about exploring other versions – too fast pace of life makes it difficult to dive deeply and analyze information.

But, of course, not all people believe the same opinion stated. The impact depends on how the message is interpreted by the recipient and how he reacts to it. In some cases, we think carefully about what we have said, and in others we do not, because it is similar to our prejudice. Sometimes the message can be compelling, even if the key reasons are not remembered. For example, children are influenced by advertising for toys, although they may not remember the content.

Persuasion is successful when it directs thoughts in such a way that the person being persuaded thinks in accordance with the point of view of the person being persuaded.

Words can help persuade: new, fast, simple, easy, effective, amazing, improved.

The best selling products are those that are on the shelves at eye level, at the end of the aisle, and in which images of animals, babies, and sexual symbols are used. Even a simple question to the customer “How do you feel?” increases compliance with the proposed proposal.

In the course of experiments, it was found that people are more willing to agree to fulfill a request if they are told the reason for this request, even if it is not particularly respectful. For example, experimenters would walk up to a copier where there was a queue asking them to skip them because they needed to make copies. But the copier is designed for that! If there is an explanation for the request, people do not listen to the reason.

People are ready to make concessions and when they are forced to think. If the beggar simply asks for a little money, most will refuse him. But if he asks for a specific amount, for example, 55 kopecks, then the person will think, maybe this amount is not enough for something. The beggar becomes a person with a real problem, not an abstract one. At such a request, many people will give the required amount.

People can be influenced when they think and when not. When a person is in a meaningless state, a roundabout way of persuasion acts on him: for example, when a person combines watching TV with other activities. This way of persuasion uses signals: the attractiveness of the communicator, whether people around him agree with his position, whether at least some reason is given.

In the direct path, the recipient of the message carefully examines the information presented, may ask questions and seek additional information. The credibility of a message is determined by how well it can withstand this test.

How to choose a persuasion method? The main factor is the persuaded motivation to think about the message. If a person scrutinizes the information, then the strong message will convince him, not the source of the information. If a person has not previously thought about the problem and does not really care about it, then a competent source will convince him, and not the message itself.

Modern propaganda loves to use a roundabout way: fast 30-second messages, saturated environment, lack of time, when people have no time to think about the truth.

Idea 3. People convince others to justify their self-deception

In the United States in the 1950s, Marian Keach convinced many people that one day in December, civilization would be destroyed, but its adherents would be saved by flying saucers. The followers of this woman quit their jobs, gave away money, houses and property, and left their families. A group of fanatics behaved calmly, did not seek to convert anyone to their faith. Naturally, on the appointed day, the disaster did not happen, and no one flew for them. Marian Keach then convinced the followers that humanity was spared from disaster only through their true faith and the emission of light.

And it was at this moment that psychologists were surprised: the followers began to call on radio and television, talk about the prophecy, and actively sought to convert other people to their faith.

Why did these followers become so active precisely when nothing was confirmed?

Because of their faith, these people gave up a lot: they left their families, jobs, sold and gave away property. They needed proof that they had done the right thing. How could they convince themselves that their behavior was not absurd Only by convincing other people that the sacrifices were not in vain.

When people have a cognitive dissonance between expectations and reality, they need to reduce internal conflict and increase their self-esteem. Therefore, such people go to distortion, denial of self-belief in order to justify their behavior.

Rational self-belief can manifest itself in small things. For example, you are being asked to contribute to charity. If you don’t want to give, you can think of a hundred excuses. But when they tell you “even a ruble can help,” your self-esteem can be shaken. Refusing to donate a ruble will make you stingy or poor in the eyes of others. Excuses won’t work here. To ease the dissonance and regain your self-esteem, you will most likely give money.


In their book, Elliot Aronson and Anthony Pratkanis comprehensively examine the models of propaganda and persuasion, showing how and under what conditions suggestion works and does not work. Propaganda surrounds us everywhere. And we can protect ourselves from it only by understanding how it works.

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