Friday, May 02, 2008

Ever been brainwashed? Sure about that?

One of my favorite themes is how identification (a key tool in brainwashing) is used in marketing and politics. In brainwashing, we are made to label ourselves, and then brought to "see" how in labeling ourselves we have also accepted other things about ourselves.

Wind-up toy control of people, individuals and groupsIn one experiment, people are asked to put an ugly billboard or small sign on their lawn promoting community safety. They are shown a picture of what it would look like on their lawn; huge, ugly, totally inappropriate for the yard of a house. Not surprisingly, no one wants the billboard---it's ridiculous.

A second group is only offered the small sign, some accept, and are praised for being a particular type of person.

Puppet strings broken free held by puppeteer handLater, the researchers (still posing as community activists) return to those in the second group who accepted the small sign, and use the same words of praise before asking them to "upgrade" to a billboard size sign (still ridiculously large and ugly). They are encouraged to believe that they are the kind of person, as demonstrated by their previous action of accepting the small sign, that would do this.

Proof of how powerful this technique is

Amazingly, some accept the billboard for their lawn! If this was an actual attempt at brainwashing, a smaller step would have been first, which they could have justified to their neighbors. The act of justification to others is a key step in brainwashing, solidifying the self-identification, and increasing the separateness from others. Divide and conquer. You would also be introduced to a group of others like yourself, also brainwashed. (If this sound a lot like single-issue politics, it is! An excellent modern-day example of brainwashing people.)

A favorite trick of Marketers is to fake an "authenticity" that we can identify with, and in the process of identifying ourselves with it, inadvertently trust the message. (Another issue on the web is how can we protect our reputation from attacks on it.)

Can you be manipulated?

One of the core tricks marketers rely on is that we don't realize we can be manipulated. Read up on the Obedience to Authority experiment if you don't think so. People argue about what it means, but remember this: it means most of us can be manipulated, most of the time (apologies to Abe Lincoln). You might also want to read 5 Psychological Experiments That Expose Humanity's Dark Side.

Brainwashing plays on our desire to remain consistent, getting us to agree to one thing, and then another, and then another ... Or, as Harry Beckwith says, "Certainty is a trick your mind plays on you; keep yours open."

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