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Manipulating the Public Mind?

By Aaron Dusso on November 14, 2013 in Civic Blog
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The French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon published The Crowd in 1895. In it he argues that the public mind is easily manipulated because no matter how intelligent people may be as individuals, the collective mind is a different beast. The collective is weak, irrational, and easily manipulated.  This basic idea has been echoed time and time again in social psychological research such as the works of Muzafer Sherif and Soloman Asch.

I suspect that anyone politically attuned enough to be reading this blog is nodding their head in agreement. The masses are fools!  I’ve probably said this a thousand times in my classes. Of course, what is not said is that we think we are different.  “We”, the politically informed.  “We”, the people interested and following politics regularly.  “We”, the people who know enough about how the system works to score well on any social scientist’s political knowledge test. But are we better? Are we immune to the folly of the masses? My reading of social psychological research, and political science research built on that foundation, suggests that we are not.

Here is one example:

Ted Brader published Campaigning for Hearts and Minds: How Emotional Appeals in Political Ads Work, in 2006.  In it he seeks to do exactly what the title suggests, identify how the emotional content of political ads affects the average viewer. He builds his theoretical ideas on George Marcus and Michael MacKuen’s Affective Intelligence theory. In its most basic from, this boils down to two emotional cues, (1) enthusiasm and (2) fear.

I’m sure we can all remember political ads that attempted to elicit one or both of these particular emotions. Lyndon Johnson’s daisy ad in 1964 was surely designed to do one thing—scare the pants off of people. Brader does a content analysis of more than 1400 ads from 1999-2000 and finds that fully 73% of them contain enthusiasm cues and 41% contain fear cues (ads typically contain more than one cue, thus the percentages ad up to more than 100%).

Enthusiasm in ads is theorized to do several things.  As you might suspect, it energizes supporters for the candidate. But this effect isn’t uniform. It actually has a polarizing effect.  Those people who are already supporters of the candidate become bigger supporters, while those people who are against the candidate become more against the candidate. The basic idea is that enthusiasm causes people to rely more heavily on their standing decision rules or heuristics. Thus, people become more polarized along partisan lines.

Fear in ads is theorized to scare people into consciousness, so to speak.  We stop relying on our standing decision rules, which require very little conscious effort on our part, and start actively thinking.  In other words, we turn our brains on. Importantly, this changes our basis for judgment. We rely less on simple cues like partisanship and focus more on the particular issue and the traits of the candidate. This could be viewed as good, since we tend to like the idea that people are actually thinking about what is going on around them. But this could also be viewed as bad, since this may open individuals up to manipulation by fear ads.

Brader designs an experiment to test these ideas and, by and large, finds support for them. Enthusiasm cues in ads actually do have a polarizing effect on the public, while fear causes people to focus on the issue and character strengths of the candidate.  This is important because it shows that campaigns can change the weight voters give to various considerations like partisanship, ideology, issues, and candidate traits. In other words, people can be manipulated.

But wait! We, the politically knowledgeable and attuned, say.  That’s not us. That’s the average fool walking down the street. This manipulation can’t happen to us.

Oh, but Brader begs to differ. In his experiment he tests for the democracy saving effect of high political knowledge, i.e., the more political knowledge one has, the less susceptible to manipulation by political ads one will be. Unfortunately for us, the politically knowledgeable, not only is it this not correct, he finds the opposite effect.  The more politically knowledgeable one is, the stronger the effect of the enthusiasm and fear cues.  The people most affected by these ads are us! Why? Because we’re paying attention.  Brader says it best:

“Political experts are overwhelmingly more responsive to emotional appeals. The capacity of fear cues to change attitudes, persuade voting choices, and spark increased attention to new information is strongest among the knowledgeable. The capacity of enthusiasm cues to reinforce political habits, increase certainty in candidate choice, and discourage attention to new information is also strongest among those who know more” (140).

As a teacher of introductory American politics courses, I spend a lot of time trying to not only increase my students’ knowledge of how our governmental system works, but (perhaps more importantly) increase their interest and enthusiasm for the subject. Ideally, with increased interest and enthusiasm, they will become lifelong learners and active participants in our shared political system. However, political science and social psychological works that stretch from Le Bon to Brader remind me that participation based on increased attention and knowledge does not necessarily mean better participation. In the end, Le Bon was right. The masses can be manipulated and political expertise does not solve the problem.

Dusso headshotAaron Dusso is an Assistant Professor of Political Science in the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI. His research includes political psychology, parties and elections, interest groups, and mass political behavior. He specializes in applying psychological concepts to both mass and elite behavior. Dusso is a member of the Core Faculty for the Center for Civic Literacy and contributes regularly on Civic Blog.

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