Friday, September 21, 2007

Emotional Coercion

Years ago, I read a book called "Why We Buy" by Paco Underhill. He and members of his research team would go to various shops of clients and observe customers. They have sneaky methods of noticing you so that you don't notice them noticing you. These researchers record a plethora of facts about you: what you are wearing, the company you keep, how you move about the store, what you pick up, what you touch, etc. You could almost hear David Attenborough in the background, narrating your activities. The research company then sticks all this data together and comes up with clever ways to get you to do what the store managers want you to do: buy more stuff. As a marketing executive, Underhill knows the tricks because he invented/discovered a lot of them. The "tricks" are making use of the simple things that make us tick, gleaned from this extensive observation of consumer behavior.

Humans are, first and foremost, survival machines. We evolved in the wild to be and act in ways that were conducive to our reproductive success. We're such clever monkeys, though, that we quickly de-wilded the wilderness. Our genes did not get the message, and are still cranking us out to behave as if we were still in the jungle. Of course, we have instinct blindness, that is, we are not aware of what we do or why - we don't need to, we just do it. That was the case for several thousands of years, but now we have folks like Edward Bernays, Underhill, and others that have been able to pinpoint specific instincts and ingrained behavior that we have in response to specific environmental cues. I would like to remind the reader that we are not entirely driven by instincts or predetermined behavior; there is a great variability in our thoughts and actions and our reasons for them. We are not little robots that mindlessly go about our business (well, most of us aren't). I mention this now to make a point later. (that humans ought to be "rational, reasoning, and thoughtful", not mindless animals that react to environmental cues.)

Bringing up Edward Bernays suggests, quite rightly, that government propaganda can and obviously does make use of the same tactics used by advertisers, and vice versa. We should not have expected things to be otherwise.

Our Candidate

From the video, we can see that the way to subvert the good sense of humans, propaganda must appeal to emotions. Fear is, I believe, the most commonly used and effective emotion to elicit the desired response. The reason is fear played such a huge role in our lives in the jungle. Fear meant survival, even if it was irrational. Running from a tiger cub thinking it is a tiger because the fear magnified the threat may indeed seem silly to us, but our monkey ancestors would rather expend a few calories like this and be wrong than be gobbled up for good.

Other emotions and systems come into play as well. For example, humans like faces. We have a natural propensity to notice them. (As an aside, I'm pretty sure most animals with faces have some face recognition pattern). Humans also have built-in attractiveness measuring systems. Symmetry of the body, especially faces, is often a good indication of quality genes. Stick symmetrical, youthful human faces all over advertisements - even if faces have nothing to do with the product:

[at an auto exhibit where a blonde model poses together with a car for a raffle.]
Homer: [looks at model after signing his raffle ticket] Do you come with the car?
Model: Oh you! [laughs childishly]
[Homer leaves. Another man walks up to the car]
Male attendee: [looks at model after signing his raffle ticket] Do you come with the car?
Model: Oh you! [laughs childishly]
- and people will look at it and make associations between the people depicted and the product. Multi-national and -cultural studies have shown that women with a .7 waist to hip ratio are found, on average, to be more desirable than other ratios. This probably has a lot to do with fertility cues. Associating fertility cues with automobiles makes a lot of sense.

Let's not expect advertisers to be the sole users of these facts. The recent republican debates and polls have shown Mitt Romney is a popular candidate. I predicted it was because of his hair, and since we know that national politicians generally don't say anything meaningful, this is probably the case.

The point of all this is to demonstrate the similarity of tactics. Now we must break down the underlying reasons for using them. The simple reason is: they want us to do something. Whether it's handing over money for a good or service or as a donation for a campaign, to having a positive mental attitude towards the company, party, or politician makes no difference.

Wanting something is not inherently bad or undesirable, it's just a matter of how we go about getting it. If I can save some effort by asking someone to pass the pepper, I just politely ask them to do so. I don't have to resort to fear-mongering or excessive charm. The use of emotional and sexual manipulation is what makes the previous cases so detestable. Rather than be addressed as rational, thoughtful, intelligent, responsible people (you know, humans), advertisers and political propagandists appeal to base instincts and survival mechanisms. It is insulting because it suggests that A) we are too stupid to understand the real reasons why we should do something, and B) we are too stupid to even ask. The most insulting thing, though, is C) it works.

Not all the time, nor on everyone, but it does. We are such that we can't help but react a certain way in some cases. I consider it coercion. In an obvious case, a person holds a gun to my head and demands my obedience. Bypassing such crude methods, I am induced as a monkey (not as a human) to obey through cleverly designed media spots. One interesting property of media coercion as compared to violent coercion, is that whereas the latter is good at obtaining direct obedience with direct, individual contact and less so in large groups; the former is rather poor at bending the individual to its will, but quite effective at moving crowds. Everyone has these holes in the armor of their persona, but not everyone has a gun to their head. Most people can overcome emotional or sexual coercion, but not always so with violent coercion. The trouble is that we often don't even notice we are being emotionally manipulated. It is easy to spot the gun and the malevolence behind it. Appeals to emotion - especially those couched in the innocent activity of "merely informing others that such a product exists" - do not have an apparent ill-intent. It may seem just fine and logical to vote for this or that candidate because of this or that emotionally-charged "issue".

This is perhaps the scariest and most dangerous aspect of emotional manipulation: because it is your emotion and your reaction, you feel like you are in control. You are not. At least, not completely. The amount of autonomy you give up depends on how comfortable you feel being driven by your emotions to perform the bidding of another person. Over time I would imagine you would be happy to have others make your decisions. After all, your emotions tell you that what you are doing is desirable, so what you want is what they want, and you don't have to go through the trouble of trying to figure out what it is you want. They do that for you.

So when I rail against consumerism (or political ads not unlike the spoof above) and all it's evils, this is just one aspect of what I mean. If you've ever seen a person zombie-like in front the TV, flashes of light flickering off their glazed eyes, reduced through years of careful conditioning to be an emotionally-driven consumer robot, you will experience the horror...

Horrified yet? Good, now do my bidding...

Sunday, September 09, 2007


I just finished reading an online book by a psychologist in Canada about authoritarianism. I recommend that you immediately read the book at the link, it is that good.

The ebook is a collection of experiments, surveys, and observations a professor did to determine the roots of authoritarian behaviour. At first, he only used one scale, the Right-Wing Authoritarianism or RWA, to pick out what kind of people are mindless followers (sheeple) and which are a bit more independently-minded. This scale worked for a long time, but didn't quite capture all the understanding in regards to authoritarian leaders. Hence, he introduced the Social Dominance scale, SD, to see who wanted to be the one on top in any situation. Using the two together, four distinct types of personalities emerged, each having unique characteristics, often defined by life experiences, that affirms what we always suspected to be true.

In the chart below, which I spent all of three minutes making, we see 4 squares with a list of (some) attributes and an example of the type of person such attributes would create. This is not to be taken as entirely accurate in 100% of cases. Individual variation certainly allows for overlap and mixing of traits.
The examples by no means apply to all of those who bear the labels. Not all anarchists would score low on these two measures, and one can certainly be an asshole and yet not be authoritarian. But I was hoping the reader would notice that the traits seem to line up, because then it would make it far more convenient to refer to one category as "sheeple" instead of "those who have high RWA and low SD scores". I will try to describe each label so the reader gets a feel for the forces that help shape such behaviour.


These happy people score high on RWA and SD both! They have a strong tendency to be religious, and to respect authority they deem higher than them (like God or the Pope). But if they suspect they can gain the upper hand in a situation and overthrow the current archon, they will not hesitate to act. They relish power and thoroughly enjoy controlling other people. Opposing viewpoints are brushed aside and ignored, or, if these interlopers are hindering their plans, assholes will deal with the matter above and beyond the law, as you must be aware they always were.

So what kind of person becomes an asshole? What experiences might have led them to be this way? A highly religious family that stresses obedience to authority is probably a factor. But the difference between sheeple and assholes is that the latter have had experiences that taught them they can bend, distort, or out and out break the rules to get something they want. Imagine Ted Haggard as a boy. He learns that people revere god, and respect people who do, so when he steals cookies from the cookie jar, and someone later finds out, he spouts religious claptrap and manipulates his way out of the situation. He learns that being bad and pious at the same time allows him to win more in life, especially control over other people.


The good ol' boys out there that keep us safe from atheists and socialists. They know who's in charge (God and GWB), what the rules are (insert religious text here), and who's gonna go straight to hell (homosexuals, various opposing religions, etc.). They are small-minded and almost constantly scared. Fear is their primary emotion in reaction to new and strange circumstances. Anyone who is too different than they are deserves narrow-eyed suspicion, at the very least.

We can well imagine the bland and stale life they must have had to keep them in their little shells. The tribe is all they know; foreigners and their customs are not welcome. These are the kind of people who want you and everyone else to be "normal". Growing up as children, these folks experience lots of church-going, lots of happy, patriarchal families, severe punishment for those who get out of line (fire and brimstone, anyone?), and receive lots of fear-mongering on Faux News and Rant Radio.


Some could be atheist, but more because they view god as a threat to their own authority, and religion as a crutch for the weak and stupid, than because they reject the absurdity of it. The world is theirs for the taking, sharing is for losers, and people are poor because they are lazy. In a room of two people, someone has to be on top, and it's gonna be the libertarian. They are obviously highly-competitive, and certainly not above cheating. They're the kind who curse welfare and food stamp recipients for being moochers, and chuckle in approval at corporations who yank money many times more than all the welfare moochers combined out of public coffers. The state that helps the poor is evil and horrible, but the hired goons that protect their property are perfectly acceptable.

This is from an old conversation I had online with a Randroid:

1. Morality is an individual issue, not a social issue.

2. Helping others in need is wrong.

3. Each against all is a moral and practical system.

These statements suggest a "me versus the world" mentality. This person railed against cooperation and equality, charging "the left" with bringing about universal poverty. Of course, this is only because these things challenge his authority and possible success over others. Some other things libertarians have said to me:

"Women shouldn't vote because they always vote for the wrong reasons."

"Slavery is efficient."

"The only legitimate authority is the boss [the one with the money]."

"If I was caught by the police, I would rat out all of my friends to get out."

After I described the effects of pollution on the environmental and human health, a libertarian told me:

"I don't care about these things. They don't affect me."

The prominent indifference to suffering and a desire for money and power overwhelms any agreeable rhetoric libertarians may spout. I've surmised before how and why they end up the way they do. I bring this up to show that when libertarians use words like "freedom" and "opportunity", they almost always mean it for themselves, exclusively. If they oppose power, it is only because they don't have it. Liberty is only useful if it grants them power.

This is not to be a long polemic against libertarians (ok, maybe a little). Their oft-chosen atheist position is commendable, as is their somewhat more open stance on homosexuals and other minority groups. Even their goals seem admirable, which is the reason why libertarians are dangerous: because this makes them so difficult to spot. A power-hungry asshole is obviously out to control and dominate you. A libertarian, on the other hand, will camouflage themselves in "no gummint" rhetoric, but vote for schmucks like Reagan; they say "freedom and liberty", but are not above corporations limiting these rights in others.


Of course, not all people who score low on both the RWA and SD measures call themselves or would be considered anarchists, but we can connect the attributes with the philosophy. These people believe each person has to find their own way in life. They see nothing wrong with someone being a transvestite, homosexual, or the author of a pretentious blog. Rather than fearful, they are curious when encountering something new. They challenge ill-gotten and ill-used authority, even at peril to themselves. Cooperation is preferred over competition, equality over wealth disparity, and diversity over cultural homogeneity.

They probably grew up in cities or places with a wide range of people, differing cultural attitudes and perspectives. The family household may have been eccentric to some extent, maybe a single mother or starving artists for parents. Having seen authority figures abuse power or otherwise be stupid, they have the important understanding that authority is fallible, and that it is often wise to question it.

Authoritarianism and Politics

And, in all things political, it is more about domineering or authoritarian behavior that determines when abuse of power occurs, not necessarily the specific views of the individual. For example, a domineering Randroid is just as likely to become a dictator like Stalin as is an asshole. But we may notice that certain beliefs tend to link with particular stances on authoritarianism. Sheeple prefer simple, emotionally-satisfying, easily repeated drivel that makes sure they are stupid and obedient. Assholes bathe themselves in this drivel, but spice it up with a bit of god-like control. Libertarians, of course, enjoy and identify with Objectivism and other such ideas that excuse exploitation and belittle the fools who share and care - lefties and religious nuts alike.

What do anarchists believe? Strangely, some of the lines libertarians spout. For example

"That government which governs least, governs best."

I agree with this, and indeed many libertarians do - on the surface. Implied in the quote is the understanding that for government to govern less, those who are governed must prevent the need for such governing by solving the problems (even those caused by the gummint) the government was created to solve. That is, to even begin to bring about such a situation, we would require people to be independent, open-minded, curious, cooperative, and empathetic, amongst similar qualities. For the libertarian, it is enough to get rich and break free from the chains of the system - you know, hitting that higher tax bracket and getting all those nice tax breaks - but will leave the other prisoners there to rot. Or, if they do it right, it will be their turn to be the jailer.

"...the proletariat class [will] never band together or overthrow the government ... because [they are] too stupid to understand what was going on"

The anarchist, on the other hand, realizes that his freedom is intrinsically tied to the freedom of others, that opportunity for her means opportunity for others, that if we're all going to the same place, there's no need to scramble over one another. They know that caring for themselves means caring for others. They understand that to be true to form, it is not just a matter of freeing oneself from the chains, but of destroying them altogether. Writers and philosophers that genuinely espouse such things are often agreeable to anarchists. My best illustration, far superior to words is: