Propanda can influence us more than we believe

Last week, the U. S. Supreme Court issues a decision related to political campaign spending by corporations and labor unions. Dan Vergano reports in this USA Today article that political advertising is hardly the only kind of propaganda that can shape our perceptions of the world.

  • Just giving medical students pens with a drug’s name on them made the students significantly more favorably disposed toward the medication than otherwise, despite their immersion in classes aimed at letting them rationally evaluate drug benefits, found a 2009 Archives of Internal Medicinereport.
  • Remember shaking hands with Bugs Bunny at Disneyland? Roughly a third of people presented with a fake ad depicting a visit to Disneyland that featured a handshake with Bugs later remembered or knew the meet up with the ‘wascally wabbit’ had happened to them, according to a 2001 University of Washington study. Even though Bugs is owned by Warner Brothers and verboten at a Disney facility, so it couldn’t have happened.
  • In a famous 1951 experiment led by Swarthmore’s Solomon Asch, 76% of people conformed at least once to what they heard other people arguing was the correct length of a line on a scale right in front of their face, even though it was plainly wrong. The people arguing for the incorrect measurement were all plants, but overall, 33% of participants went along with the group, even though they were spouting nonsense. A follow-up study in a 1955 Journal of Abnormal Psychology report found even under anonymous conditions, about 23% of people preferred to believe what people were saying about the line rather than the evidence in front of their own eyes.

“If you are inclined to believe that people do all their thinking rationally, then you might accept that more information is better, and that eventually the good information will drive out the bad,” says journalist Shankar Vedantam, author of the just-released The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives. “Unfortunately, there is a small warehouse full of research showing it is an error to believe we live according to reason. Rather we make decisions with our unconscious.”


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