The power of (mis) information

Our Economics Professor at CRC, Dr. Bernardo Villegas introduced us to the power of “Hidden Persuaders” by Vance Packard.  By playing on our hidden fears and dreams, advertisers are able to influence our preferences.   They manipulate   and rely on subliminal suggestions to drive us to patronize a product or a service.   Beauty products are presented as key to eye bag prevention and delay of the ageing process.   They are heavily patronized by women who would like to stay youthful forever.  Lotions and crèmes are presented as magic potions that can turn Filipinas into light skinned “mestizas.”   Hidden Persuaders affirm consumers’ worth by presenting their products as the right choice for the discriminating ones.

Packard’s book was published in 1957, but the hidden persuaders are still within our midst.  Aside from advertisers, they now include politicians who play on our subconscious.  I cannot but think of the 70 million supporters of President Trump and the 91% approval rating of President Duterte.  People ardently listen to them and faithfully believe what they say.

What lies behind such power to influence people?

Studies show that because of our addiction with entertainment and reality TV, we tend to be attracted to personalities who are entertaining and amusing.  Speeches that border on intellectual discussions are perceived as dull and uninteresting.  The preference of the public is for light speeches especially those that make them laugh. We may find footages of a dancing President Trump as ridiculous, but his showmanship packed in huge crowd in his rallies.  A study that monitored brain activity showed the unique ability of President Trump in keeping the brain engaged.  He keeps both attention and emotion high because his showmanship and simple messages resonate at a visceral level.

Simplification of issues can be attractive to people too.  Instead of going through a complicated root cause analysis of what issues ail our society, Filipinos were attracted to a simple message—that by  solving the drug problem, we would not only have peace and security but  will experience development.  The President reduced a complicated matrix of problems into a simple message and people bought it.

The power of over simplification and misinformation is multiplied thrice over by social media.  People are attracted to issues that are told in the form of stories and anecdotes and they are shared and forwarded in facebook, messenger and viber groups.

If people are misinformed and issues are oversimplified, waging an information campaign on what is true and factual appears to be a simple solution. But this not simple as it seems.  Psychologists note the Dunning-Kruger effect which suggests that people tend to overestimate their ability and are not aware of their own lack of knowledge.     So, the problem is more than misinformation, but people do not believe and accept that they are misinformed.  This is why we often we get into an argument with people who defend fake and false news as if they are gospel truth.

So what are lessons to be learned?  Is there no alternative to stooping down and entertaining people instead of bringing them up to a higher level of discourse?  Should campaigns and rallies be turned into dancing, singing and entertainment shows? Should we give up on our advocacy of educating the public?

There is no room for giving up.  We only need to discover how to communicate what is true in simple messages in a language that the public understands and can relate with.  For example,   Mayor Rex Gatchalian dropped “nonchalance” and used “walang paki” to describe how NLEX operators handled problems that an inefficient system creates. 

The Keep it short stupid (KISS) rule is always useful.  Use short sentences instead of long complicated ones that use several clauses separated by semi-colons and commas.  Stick with a small vocabulary. Converse with the audience instead of talking down, preaching, or issuing a press release.  And if I may share a secret of a teacher, talk to an audience as if they were children.  If one succeeds in holding the attention span of a child and enabling him to understand what you mean, you will be a successful speaker.