Chapter 13: Immune to Science
When I tell people about my work on propaganda and persuasion many find it interesting, some think it’s important, but none believe it is relevant to them. Every person I’ve spoken to assumes they are immune to the techniques and tools of modern propaganda. They worry for the masses they have never met, but never for themselves.
I find this approach most interesting. The techniques used by modern persuaders have been carefully studied in labs and derived from massive collections of data. It is science. I’ve never encountered anyone who thinks they are immune to the science of medicine or the science of physics. They don’t think that if they take a painkiller it will do nothing because they are immune, but such is the approach people bring to the science of persuasion. “They have tested it, proven it, but it won’t work on me.”
I point out that much of persuasion research is dependent on this kind of hubris. The person who believes they are immune to the techniques of persuasion takes no precaution to protect themselves from it. I always assume that if I can’t tell you exactly how someone is trying to manipulate me, if I can’t break it down into its scientific pieces, that is because it’s working.
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Notes on the heading:
In When the Sky Falls (see chapter 48) I discuss how certain magic tricks are constructed. Magicians actually base their tricks on the assumption that the viewer is skeptical, that they are trying to see where the trick or slight of hand takes place. As such arts are made the final product is then more likely to work on the skeptic rather than less likely. A similar approach is taken towards propaganda and persuasion techniques. Many are tested in focus groups to be more effective on people who are wary of persuasion.
This heading has a slightly different feel to it and came about after I had a conversation with a stranger. I was at a social gathering talking to a friend about my recent books sales. The man approached us and interrupted our conversation to tell me he would not buy or read my books. (As strange as that sounds it’s fairly common, or at least that’s my experience.) As I talked about my work and studies on mass media persuasion and propaganda his immediate reaction was “That doesn’t work on me.” In the moment I had a flashback of multiple conversations I had with people who all said similar things.
I had just spent the last few months studying Facebook advertising and how to target an audience then look at their other interest to drive better engagements, a tactic that was used by the BREXIT campaign to great success. My thought was, ‘If you only knew how this worked you wouldn’t say that.’ It then became something I thought a lot about, why do so many people assume they are immune to persuasion? Perhaps it is because they easily see all the persuasion techniques that are not targeted at them. I point out now, that even the most effective advertising or propaganda never impacts more than 30% of people. Truly widespread impact requires a multitude of tactics. So, the average person sees 70% of all persuasion as ineffective and therefore assumes that 100% is ineffective on them.