American Culture

Lincoln was right – Goebbels was, too, unfortunately…

lincoln.gif Pay attention. There will be a quiz later.

You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. – Abe Lincoln did say this.

I cannot tell a lie – George Washington did not say this.

washington.gifA series of recent studies suggests that we are apt to believe myths if we’re told them before we’re told the truth. Worse yet, we’re apt to apply denials of those myths as proofs that the myths the denials are trying to bust are true. To paraphrase a brilliant professor of French I know, there’s something wrong with our brains….

In essence we’re all subject, social psychologists have proven in a series of peer reviewed studies, to the way our brains work:

The research is painting a broad new understanding of how the mind works. Contrary to the conventional notion that people absorb information in a deliberate manner, the studies show that the brain uses subconscious ‘rules of thumb’ that can bias it into thinking that false information is true. Clever manipulators can take advantage of this tendency.

Research shows, too, the tendency of the mind’s long term memory to believe things that aren’t true when they’re repeated time and time again:

Long-term memories matter most in public health campaigns or political ones, and they are the most susceptible to the bias of thinking that well-recalled false information is true.

No one understood this better than Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda public information:

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it

When Dick Cheney continually connects Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks, many people are apt to believe that. And worse, denials will, more likely than not, re-enforce peoples’ belief that there is a connection between Hussein and the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and Flight 93.

Not everyone is fooled, though. The susceptibility of people to such manipulation has much to do with their mindsets:

The experiments do not show that denials are completely useless; if that were true, everyone would believe the myths. But the mind’s bias does affect many people, especially those who want to believe the myth for their own reasons, or those who are only peripherally interested and are less likely to invest the time and effort needed to firmly grasp the facts.

What this suggests is that if you play Fox News or MSNBC programs relentlessly, as many restaurants, bars, and other businesses do, no matter what the level of interest, people are apt to be affected. It might depend simply on which might be playing loudest while you’re having lunch or sitting at Happy Hour….

Even scarier is this information about how “the big lie,” as Goebbels’ psychological manipulation is commonly known, is being used in the Muslim world to deny that the 9/11 attacks were conducted by Arab terrorists:

A report last year by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, however, found that the number of Muslims worldwide who do not believe that Arabs carried out the Sept. 11 attacks is soaring — to 59 percent of Turks and Egyptians, 65 percent of Indonesians, 53 percent of Jordanians, 41 percent of Pakistanis and even 56 percent of British Muslims.

Clearly, Lincoln was right. At least some of the people can be fooled all the time.

But then, Goebbels is right, too. If you tell them a big enough lie repeatedly enough….

Now that quiz. Answer quickly, as instinctively as you can:

Who said, “I cannot tell a lie.”

See? Those psychologists are on to something big….

10 replies »

  1. The danger of conspiracy theories is a potent one.

    …how many Americans believe their Government attacked them on 9/11? I wonder…

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  3. Conspiracy theories…it made me wonder why that at my university students were actually believing the DaVinci code. I thought it had mostly to do with Catholic bashing, but this article puts a different light on it.

  4. Most people are scared to death to embrace anything that might threaten their “credibility.” It’s even more important to them than their credit rating!

    It harkens back to a primitive fear of being thrown out of the tribe and forced to fend for yourself in the wilds.

    Conspiracy theories are a good example. Perfectly intelligent people, once something has been labeled a “conspiracy theory,” won’t go near it, even though, if they stopped to look at the science and facts, it might be true.

    In other words, an independent thinker is not influenced by labels.

  5. Also, the quote from the Post article that follows is particularly distressing. (I know from personal experience that this is how my mind works, anyway.)

    “If someone says, ‘I did not harass her,’ I associate the idea of harassment with this person,” said Mayo, explaining why people who are accused of something but are later proved innocent find their reputations remain tarnished. “Even if he is innocent, this is what is activated when I hear this person’s name again.”

    Which is why charging someone with something is almost as effective, in the court of public opinion, as proving someone guilty. Most people operate under the assumption that where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

  6. we are thus hypnotized into our personality biases,… the daily ramification of circumstance applies it’s pressure effortlessly,..