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The Persuaders: The Hidden Industry That Wants to Change Your Mind

The Hidden Industry That Wants to Change Your Mind

James Garvey

(London Times)

Several months after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, American public opinion had tilted against intervention. Then a photogenic 15-year-old girl named only as 'Nayirah' appeared at the United Nations to detail the brutality of Saddam's troops. Delegates wept at her speech, from which one grisly detail stood out: that she had witnessed Iraqi soldiers plundering her country's hospitals. 'They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators and left the babies to die on the cold floor,' claimed the mysterious and well-spoken young visitor.

Her report, disseminated by the world's media, summoned up the blood of ordinary Americans, and the country soon entered the war. Subsequent revelations that her testimony had been crafted by a shady lobbying group linked to the Kuwaiti monarchy, that she herself (the royal daughter, it emerged, of Kuwait's ambassador to Washington) had never been to the hospital, and that the incubator story had no basis in fact, form one notorious example of public opinion being shaped by a rich, undemocratic organisation with motives of its own.

Emotion, not reason, drives the bulk of our decision-making. James Garvey, the American-born editor of Britain's The Philosophers' Magazine, argues that selfish and malign forces are working in concert to hijack this fact, hindering our capacity to think for ourselves. In a work of engaging pop philosophy and accessible social science he explains how PR firms, ad-men, politicians, tech giants, lobbyists and others deploy an ever-growing understanding of human psychology to dupe us into serving their interests, almost always without us realising we have been played.

He explains how the PR and advertising industries fund psychological studies to teach them how to plant emotions and ideas in the subconscious, to bubble to the surface near the ballot-box or the till. Politicians, often following techniques formulated by the Republican consultant Frank Luntz, use quirks of language that shift discussion onto their terms. 'Tax relief', a George W Bush coinage, eventually found itself adopted by the liberal media, too. Progressives, therefore, found themselves on the defensive, arguing against 'relief' before any debate had begun.

A 'nudge unit' in Downing Street has for years used subtle signals, below the level of our immediate understanding, to persuade more of us to save for our pensions, donate our organs and dozens of other things. Technology presents worrying opportunities for powerful bodies to hijack our capacity to think.

We live, Garvey writes, pummelled by 'product placement, infoganda, sock-puppeteering, decoy-pricing, viral marketing, astroturfing, crowd manipulation, newsjacking, framing, spinning, propagandising, agenda setting, message carpet-bombing, anchoring and the nudging of [our] choices'.

In language only just avoiding paranoia, he explains how walking to the shops can induce in him a state of semi-impotent rage as he notices the psychological ploys being used against him. Cancer-charity 'chuggers' wearing lab coats accost him: deep in our subconscious, the costume implies respect and authority. Perusing supermarket aisles, he notes how goods have been placed using the 'Gruen Transfer' (a method found over decades to make us buy more than we intended).

Most intelligent people probably feel already that corporate and other forces are pressuring them incessantly. And some parts of the book are overblown: why shouldn't Tesco place its goods carefully? But overall this is a boisterous dissection of the forces jellifying our minds.

More books on Behaviour

(New Scientist)

A FUNNY thing happens when you start noticing people who are unmoved by facts and reason: you also start noticing those bashing their heads against the wall trying to get The Facts out there. That could be you, climate scientists, atheists, angry people with Facts.

Oh, the chasm between the people brandishing facts and the people without them (or with “facts” that are demonstrably wrong). Is it getting worse? I don’t know – let’s ask those rekindling interest in a flat Earth.

Introducing The Persuaders, philosopher James Garvey describes the event that motivated him to write the book: a panic that seized him after he had bested a public speaker with a killer objection – and it had made no difference. The speaker had stuck to his views. What price argument and reason? Garvey writes that the idea life turns largely on stuff other than reason “menaces me more than a little”.

So what does run the show? After centuries of the ancient Greeks worshipping reason and evidence, after the debating clubs at the peak of the Enlightenment, we are now a world filled with conspiracy theories and optional realities. The rules have changed. Reason and argument are dead. And Garvey, who works at the Royal Institute of Philosophy, thinks he knows what killed them: public relations.

Over the past century, the PR industry has increasingly studied our psychology and identified the chinks in our mental armour. For example, Garvey cites the social psychology of pioneering neurosurgeon Wilfred Trotter, who found that our opinions are shaped not by reason and logic but by our in-group allegiances.

Seizing on such insights, and everything else that came their way, the PR industry designed tools to override critical reasoning: emotional appeals, status anxiety and so on.

It started with simple advertising but soon, realising the extraordinary potential, the PR industry colonised every arena of modern life, from politics to science communication, until there was no more room for reasoned debate. These days everyone has a PR company doing their wicked work, warping our realities to suit their agendas.

Garvey doesn’t pull any punches. Tracing the rise of PR, the book is a riotous collection of near-libellous assertions and scandalous anecdotes. It’s hard to stop reading, especially when Garvey finds the industry’s origin tangled up with the Nazi regime. And he doesn’t back down, plumbing the depths of the industry’s uncritical reliance on pop psychology, in which it is decreed, for example, that cake is the most feminine of foods, meat the most masculine, and “roast chicken and oranges are bisexual”.

To hear Garvey tell it, civilisation was bound to slide into unreason. Once the PR industry discovered our fundamental weaknesses, it wouldn’t be long before these were exploited. To make this case, the book depends on thinking that has been in the ascendant since psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky introduced us to the dim view behavioural economists take of the human mind.

From them, we learned about a host of cognitive biases that show our minds are infested with irrationality. These include confirmation bias, in which we favour evidence that backs up our existing beliefs, while more or less ignoring alternative possibilities; and availability bias that makes us back options we recall easily over a wider sample that we can’t.

But are we really at the mercy of such biases? If so, how did we make it this far? Is behavioural economics the best measure of our ability to reason, or just another attempt to understand human rationality that will in time be replaced?

Maybe it’s time to break out of our cognitive bias bubble.

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