Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The (Not So) Gentle Art of Persuasion.

We've all heard, to the point of infuriation, about post-truth, fake news, alternative facts and so on. We've all seen a new breed of politicians utilising these 'techniques' to further their, often quite mendacious and self-serving, agendas. There's always been bullshitters, and in the last few decades we've all grown familiar with 'spin', but why is so much shit being flung at us now - and why is so much of it sticking?

James Garvey (the editor of The Philosophers' Magazine who also works for The Royal Institute of Philosophy) was speaking at London Skeptics in the Pub on Monday evening about just that subject. His talk, titled The Persuaders, looked at his theories on why persuasion was winning a war against reason at the moment, how it's changing both us and the world we live in, and what we can do, if anything, about it.

We're all guilty of confirmation bias. Garvey cited studies that showed tall men tend to get paid more, attractive women are more likely to succeed in job interviews, how we're more likely to believe something if it's whispered into our right ear as opposed to the left (that's not the most bizarre), how we're more inclined to give to charity when we're drinking from a dirty coffee cup, and how we're more likely to expound right wing views when stood next to a hand sanitiser!

Some of those sound clearly bonkers but that's what studies have found - and decisions are often made on the results of studies. Perhaps more credible are surveys that say we tend to trust people with the same names as us or even the same initials. James even said we were more likely to feel affinity with, and fondness for, someone we share a birthday with. I've only met one person with the same birthday as me, so it's not a conclusive survey, but it was true in my case.

Clutching my ginger beer (I've got a 10k run on Saturday) I listened ever more intently as Mr Garvey, an amiable and humorous North American versed in the politics of both the UK and the US, warmed to his theme. He suggested what had changed, first gradually, then exponentially, in recent decades is that we've began to understand the science of persuasion. How a nudge, either gentle or forceful, in a certain direction can affect people, change how they think even. Put simply, we're perfecting the dark art of persuasion.

When we walk around a city we walk quite fast, constantly aware, monitoring where we are and where we're going. When we turn into a supermarket we slow down, move into browsing mode. As we pass through the door we're, briefly, in some kind of liminal state. Neither purposeful nor restful. Supermarkets don't put a lot of goods right by the door. Maybe colourful stuff like flowers that may catch our attention but more often than not they have the bins, the baskets, the trolleys and that kind of gubbins there. Some supermarkets put goods just outside the door as if they're reaching out to us, trying to get us to adapt to browsing mode sooner and therefore make purchases.

There are businesses that exist, real genuine businesses, where you can hire a crowd of people. A real life rent-a-mob. If you're running a nightclub they'll queue up outside to make it look more popular. If you've got an opening night at your new restaurant they'll sit in the window making the place look inviting to others. Donald Trump used one of these companies when positioning for the Republican nomination. He actually hired stooges to applaud him as he walked around. That's the sort of presidency only serious money can buy.

Trump, you won't be surprised, loomed large over the talk. His name wasn't mentioned often but, as in the future of the safety of the entire planet, his grotesque form cast a long dark shadow. It's often said that all politicians are the same, all politicians lie. That, to my mind, is dangerous thinking. Studies showed that Trump, when speaking in public, lied (proven falsehoods, there were many other dubious statements) once every three minutes. Hillary Clinton (placed under the same criteria) was shown to lie once every 12 minutes.

Both of those are terrible (and any politician who lies should be held to account in the same, if not stricter, way anyone seeking to advertise, and sell, a product should) but it should be noted that Trump lied FOUR times as often as Clinton. Not all politicians are the same. Some are worse than others. Some are a lot worse than others.

Most observers knew Trump was lying. Most people know Theresa May, on the rare occasion she makes a statement rather than an utterly meaningless soundbite, is lying. Yet Trump won and May has a huge lead in the polls. Why is this? It's because political strategists like Lynton Crosby have realised that people listen to slogans, not policies. In an age of information saturation it's difficult to take it all in, too time consuming to fact check everything, so repetition of phrases like 'strong and stable', 'coalition of chaos', 'Make American Great Again', and 'take back control' to an almost mantra like level cause them to stick. We might not like them. We may become sick of them. But we remember them and that, it seems, is enough.

That helped Brexit win. That helped Trump win. That might well help May win. Even people I'm glad have won have used these techniques. Obama's 'Yes We Can' and Macron's 'France is Back' spoke to voters (although Ed Miliband's mega on-message attempt to answer four slightly different questions with exactly the same answer, played back to the audience to much tittering, didn't seem to work for him). There was policy behind some of these claims, others much less so, but they all stuck.

A huge amount of people don't spend a lot of time thinking about politics so they may not even pick up their news from the television or the newspapers but, instead, second hand from others who've read those papers, seen those news shows. That's how the myth that May (who turns in the wind like a weathervane dripping arsenic) is strong and Corbyn (who has stuck to his beliefs and needs to shout louder about doing so) is weak has been able to prosper.

62% of Americans are said to take their news from Facebook. Whilst that organisation seems to, finally, be putting moves in place to counter fake news (Garvey clearly spelt out that fake news isn't opinions that differ to yours, nor is to do with what order stories are covered, but outright, and provably outright, bullshit like Hillary Clinton selling weapons directly to ISIS or running a nationwide child sex ring in the basement of pizzerias) but we need to do our bit too. Don't share, or spread, a story without checking its source, and veracity, first. You probably wouldn't do so if it was the sort of noxious crap that Katie Hopkins or Camilla Long propagate but maybe you need to check your own confirmation bias before forwarding on equally dubious claims from left wing clickbait sites like The Canary. I see many of my friends share stuff from this website all the time and each time I despair. Not because I hate Labour but because I want them to win and I don't want them to lie and cheat their way to victory. It might go down well with Tory voters but Labour people should be, and, on the whole are, better than that.

This not so gentle form of persuasion often takes us drifting into the choppy seas of fake news and post-truth but sometimes persuasion can be more subtle, nuanced even. James showed us two news reports. They were identical except for one word. They both concerned a crimewave that had befallen a city in recent years. One described it as a 'virus' infecting the city, the other a 'beast'. People shown these reports were asked what should be done. 75% of those who saw the 'beast' report said the answer was more police. That dropped to 54% for those who were shown the 'virus' report and, of course, those who felt the answer may be in education and social provision moved in the opposite direction depending on which report they were subjected to.

Words are important in shaping what people think. Or getting them to agree to things they might not otherwise agree to. Not many of us want somebody tortured during a war. More of us, it sadly turns out, are relaxed about 'enhanced interrogation techniques' being used during 'military operations'. Strategists realised that populists got further when slagging off Washington than they did when badmouthing government. Incentives sound so much nicer than bribes - and so on and so on.

In a nice touch James Garvey asked the crowd what they thought could be done about it. Calling out bullshit when you see it was one obvious, though important, answer. Another suggestion was teaching children critical thinking at a young age. Someone suggested that religious education should be banned for under-18s. I'd personally be happy with this as positing statements as truths when there are no facts to back them up is something that religions have done for years and it seems that only now that politicians are putting to use these techniques is there a serious (though not serious enough) outcry. One audience member countered this argument by saying he'd been to a religious school and after a few years of being indoctrinated with that kind of bollocks he was probably more questioning and cynical than anyone who'd not been to one of those schools.

It was a nice way to end the evening. It'd been a debate. Somebody had changed my mind on something. People spoke. But they also listened. There were differences of opinion but nobody called anyone else brainwashed, or stupid, or a liar. I walked off back to the tube station with, as so often after one of these evenings, my head buzzing with ideas. I wish more people would attend these kind of events and, maybe some times, listen to people with differing opinions instead of just dismissing them. Because that's not been getting us very far, has it?

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