The most important book of the past 20 years

Or, perhaps, the most important book of the past 20 years that you’ve never heard of.

“Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion” was written by two University of California-Santa Cruz social psychology professors, and was first published in 1992. I picked it up in a Northern California bookstore about that time, and found it quite revealing. However, upon re-reading it several years later, and again this year, I find myself wanting to post gigantic quotes from almost every page. I’ll start with the back cover material:

Americans consume 57% of the world’s advertising while representing only 6% of the population, and half of our waking hours are spent immersed in the mass media. Persuasion has always been integral to the democratic process, but increasingly, thoughtful discussion is being replaced with simplistic soundbites and manipulative messages.

Drawing on the history of propaganda as well as on contemporary research in social psychology, Age of Propaganda shows how the tactics used by political campaigners, sales agents, advertisers, televangelists, demagogues, and others often tak advantage of our emotions by appealing to our deepest fears and most irrational hopes, creating a distorted vision of the world we live in.

This revised and updated edition includes coverage of the Clinton/Lewinsky scanda., recent election campaigns, talk radio, teen suicide, U.F.O. abductions, the Columbine shootings, and novel propaganda techniques based on hypocrisy and false allegations.

That last paragraph points to the book’s biggest weakness: persuasion techniques morph so quickly that the book seems dated. I started re-reading the first edition recently, but since it didn’t even cover the Clinton impeachment, it just seemed out of touch. The second edition was published on 2001.03.14—six months before the September 11 attacks, and years before the Iraq war, “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” or anything past the 2000 presidential election.

Nonetheless, Age of Propaganda is worth reading, and re-reading. If you have not read this book, you should get it and read it now. Plenty of books tell communicators how to subtly change their messages to make them more effective, but Age of Propaganda describes how communicators do this, why it works, and what you can do to evaluate such messages rationally instead of emotionally, analyzing the message instead of heuristics such as the credibility of the messenger.

For starters, take this section about “pre-persuasion,” or as modern political consultants call it, “framing the argument.” Pratkanis and Aronson describe it like this: “Through the labels we use to describe an object or event, we can define it in such a way that the recipient of our message accepts our definition of the situation and is this pre-persuaded even before we seriously begin to argue.” A few pages later, they talk about this in context of the first Gulf War (footnotes omitted):

There is another way to evaluate the validity of a communicator’s definition of the situation—by the sincerity of the comnmunicator. In other words, does the advocate of a given view of the world really believe that is the way things are, or has he or she merely adopted this viewpoint for expedient, propaganda purposes? For example, shortly before the onset of the Persian Gulf war on October 15, 1990, President [George Herbert Walker] Bush stated:

Every day now, new word filters out [of Kuwait] about the ghastly atrocities perpetrated by Saddam’s forces … of a systematic assault on the soul of a nation, summary executions, routine torture … newborn babies thrown out of incubators … dialysis patients ripped from their machines … Hitler revisited. But remember, when Hitler’s war ended there were the Nuremberg trials.

Was he serious? Perhaps so. But given the fact that, just a short time earlier, our government was staunchly supporting Saddam in his war against Iran, it is at least conceivable that Bush was exaggerating. In addition, reports of babies being thrown from incubators and similar atrocity stories were later found to be rumors started by pro-Kuwaiti sources and reported uncritically by the news media.

If the president was engaging in hyperbole, some poeple believe that is forgiveable. After all, he was intent on mobilizing the nation for what might have been a long and costly war and on gaining the approval of his fellow citizens for putting hundreds of thousands of young American men and women in harm’s way in order to come to the aid of a nondemocratic nation. And it worked; support for the war soared and George Bush’s popularity soon reached an all-time high. During and immediately after the war, Bush’s approval rating hovered around 90%.

But the use of such propaganda devices carries a price—for the communicator as well as the audience. In this case, once the American people recovered from their euphoria after the war came to a quick and (in terms of U.S. casualties) relatively bloodless end, a great many Americans began to wonder why, after having achieved such total military dominance, we had allowed Saddam to remain in power with a large part of his military force intact—a force that he promptly began to use with impunity against his own civilian population. Indeed, even the commander of the United Nations forces in the Persian Gulf, General Norman Schwarzkopf, was bold enough to wonder about this out loud on network television. Can you imagine the president of the United States in 1945, having won a smashing victory over Adolf Hitler, allowing Hitler to continue to govern the German people? Can you imagine the Allied forces stopping just inside the border of Germany and then turning back? Utterly impossible. If Hitler had survived he would have certainly been tried, convicted, and executed as a war criminal.

Why, then, did George Bush [Sr.] allow Saddam Hussein free rein in Iraq? It was confusing. In a Newsweek poll taken on May 1, 1991, 55% of those questioned did not view the Persian Gulf war as a victory because Saddam was still in power. President Bush’s popularity began to fade. Ironically, Bush’s use of the “Saddam is Hitler” metaphor was so successful that it contributed to his own decline as a weak leader who could not finish the job he started—an image that encouraged others in his party to challenge his leadership in the presidential primaries and helped set the state for his eventual defeat in the 1992 election. This is a common occurrence with the use of metaphor and analogy to pre-persuade; they often take on a life of their own, trapping the creator in the web of the creation.

[…] It is not our intention to sincle out George Bush for special criticism. Unfortunately, pulling the wool over the eyes of the people has been a common practice in the White House; from Lyndon Johnson’s false statements of optimism during the Vietnam war (“There is light at the end of the tunnel”) to Richard Nixon’s stonewalling of the Watergate affair (“I am not a crook”) to Ronald Reagan’s statements about the Iran-Contra scandal (“I think I don’t remember”) to Bill Clinton’s outright lies regarding his sexual improprieties (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”), American presidents have been denying citizens the information necessary to properly analyze a situation and to act rationally. The truly unfortunate aspect of this is that most Americans have rather cynically come to take it for granted that they will be misled. Is it any wonder that in this country, the cradle of modern democracy, less than 50% of the people now bother to vote?

With active wars in progress, that jumped to 61% of eligible voters voting in both 2004 and 2008, but the point is still valid: two out of every five eligible voters didn’t bother going to the polls, even after the incredibly close finish in 2000.

That’s just a brief flip-through-the-book sample, but there are dozens, maybe hundreds more. Early on, Pratkanis and Aronson clearly describe cognitive dissonance, the phenomenon that when presented with fact that flatly contradict closely-held beliefs, people are motivated either to change their behaviors or beliefs to comport with the new facts, or to rationalize away the new facts as incorrect or irrelevant. If you click that Wikipedia link, you’ll notice that many of the footnotes on the subject are for articles by Eliot Aronson—one of the authors of Age of Propaganda.

Ten years ago, MWJ used Age of Propaganda‘s clear explanation of what makes a “cult” and what does not, when The Weekly Attitudinal pointed out that not only are Mac followers not cult-like (at a time when the mainstream press readily portrated all Mac followers as anti-Windows zombies), but also to point out that you could use the same tactics to portray Windows as a cult phenomenon. Except no one was doing that because it wasn’t useful—the majority of people using Macs didn’t need some way to rationalize away percieved factual benefits of using Windows. The reverse wasn’t always true.

One of my favorite parts of the first section of the book is the discussion of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, noting how Lincoln’s use of some (but not all) persuasion tactics changed an entire nation from a tiny speech (footnotes omitted):

Perhaps Lincoln’s most effective pre-persuasion technique, however, occurred in the first six words the address—the ones learned and often parodied by schoolchildren: “Four score and seven years ago.” How so? With these six words, Lincoln identified the birth of the United States with the signing of the Declaration of Indepdence in 1776, not the ratification of the U.S. Constiution in 1789. The fact that Americans now universally accept 1776 as the birth of the nation, not 1789 (witness the celebration of the bicentennial in 1976 compared to the near neglect of the Constitution’s bicentennial in 1989), is a testament to the power of Lincoln’s message. Such acceptance was not the case in 1863. The first government established by the colonists was based on the Articles of Confederation and, for the most part, it failed. The founders tried again with a new Constitution, adopted in 1789. Proponents of slavery argued for the primacy of the U.S. Constitution, which at the time did not outlaw slavery. On the other hand, those who opposed slavery took solace in the Declaration’s proposition “that all mean are created equal.” So without so much as mentioning the abolition of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, or the war, Lincoln justified them all with six little words that identified the birth of the nation with the Declaration of Independence and the guiding principle of equality. Interestingly, Lincoln’s sleight-of-hand was not accepted by everyone in the North at the time. An editorial in the Chicago Tribune expressed outrage that Lincoln would betray the Consitution (by giving priority to the Declaration) and defame those who wrote it and died for it at Gettysburg&mdash”men with too much self-respect to declare that Negroes were their equals.”

By establishing this principle, Lincoln could then use it to make people feel uncomfortable about not treating everyone as equal:

… He reminded his audience of their hypocrisy in his first line—a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” How could there be government of the people, by the people, and for the people if some Americans could be excluded against their will? He offered his audience no choice but to confront their prejudice and decide whether a nation “so conceived and dedicated, can long endure.” Within seven years of the Gettysburg Address, the United States had adopted the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution—amendments that forever secured the nation’s commitment to equality by outlawing slavery, ensuring equal protection under the law for all citizens, and guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of race or color.

The vast majority of communications we receive are from people who are trying to persuade us rather than inform us (and yes, that includes this article, because I’m clearly trying to persuade you to buy this book), but it remains of utmost importance that we find information and evaluate it rationally. This book is probably the best I’ve ever read on how to identify persuasion, see through tactics that might otherwise short-circuit your reasoning process, and counteract them to obtain a clearer view of underlying facts (if, in fact, any are present in the communication at all). As I said earlier, there’s not a chapter in this book that doesn’t contain a long passage I’d like to quote online because I read it and I think, “Everyone should read this! This is important in our world!”

Pratkanis and Aronson regularly cite fellow social psychologist Robert Cialdini in their book. Cialdini gets much more attention from the world because his books tell you how to use persuasion to your benefit. That’s unquestionably important, particularly when small changes to your message (that don’t make it any less true) can make more people receive and accept it. But I would argue that Age of Propaganda is even more important in helping us understand how both honest and dishonest persuasion works and what we, as recipients of the messages, can do to avoid being persuaded by dishonest and empty arguments.

If I could buy cases of this book to give away to all MDJ and MWJ subscribers, I would. But I can’t, so if you have never read Age of Propaganda, I strongly urge you to do so. (Click here to buy it from Amazon.) Why rely on other people to debunk each day’s propaganda when you can master the techniques to do it yourself? Even last updated in 2001, it’s an incredibly important book that everyone should read.