In a 2004 Reader’s Digest William S. Smith tells us of his father, a lawyer, famous and successful defender of the accused. His performance in court must have been amazing. Once, Smith says, his dad defended a man charged with stealing a horse. When the jury had finished its deliberations the foreman rose and said, “We find the man who stole the horse not guilty.”
Well it’s hard--and a little scary--to believe anyone could have that much power of persuasion. But some people are amazingly good at it. And some of them work at advertising.
They know the kind of things that people, often secretly, desire or fear: reputation, luxury, status, sex appeal, love, health problems, humiliation or more. And they present each product to make you think that it could help you get what you desire or avoid what you fear. An expensive new car, for example, may make you feel your neighbours envy you, thereby raising your status.
And can you believe that in the 1940s and ‘50s ads showed doctors smoking cigarettes and testifying to the benefits of certain brands? The aim was for smokers to feel they weren’t damaging their health, even after there were clear signs that smoking was connected with lung cancer and other conditions. Multimillions died of that habit, including my father, one of my brothers and an aunt.
We all know people who--at the places we work, play, socialize or otherwise gather--that some people are more able than others to persuade members of the group to accept their views. And sometimes to act on them. This can be a good or a bad thing depending on the wisdom or foolishness of the persuader’s views.
Adolph Hitler was one of the most notable and evil persuaders in history. Men who had been good husbands, fathers and valued citizens of their communities ended up sharing in the torture and death of men, women and children by the millions. Hitler knew some of their prejudices, fears and desires and how to present himself as the one who would lead them to the satisfaction of those needs and wants--get in front of their parade. There came a point at which, even if the perpetrators had doubts about what they were doing, they dare not express them for fear of personal harm and death.
There is a very powerful need in human beings to belong. To be in a group where he or she can feel comfortable by agreeing to the views of his fellow members. If any doubts cross his mind about the rightness of the other members’ views he quickly rejects those doubts in order to keep speaking, acting and thinking as they do. He believes he must not think for himself, but with the group.
This great need be a valued member of a group--workplace, family, friends and acquaintances--is what motivates clusters of schoolyard bullies. And violent youth groups. And mob violence. And all forms of bigotry, including racism.
Now even in positive groups--charity organizations, environmental conservation movements, church services for the poor, team sports--this spirit of belonging, this “good feeling” exists. It is natural and necessary for getting results. But it works best when each member is encouraged to have her own opinions, to make suggestions, and not to allow the leaders to do all the thinking.
The most important way for anyone to resist the temptation to blindly follow the persuaders--the antivaxers, anti-maskers, white supremacists, political extremists and such--is to be informed. To avoid the many irrational conspiracy theories now found everywhere. To read and view widely. It is the ignorant who become the suckers of propaganda. Check out both (or three or more) sides of issues from professionals in science, medicine, health, law and other fields as presented in media with reliable, long-held reputations. Try to be sceptical without being overly cynical or negative.
And don’t be too impressed by the local (or national) loud-mouthed know-it-all.