Friday, May 14, 2010

Brand Obama: Inoculation & the Art of Persuasion

“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” -George Orwell

On November 4, 2008, America changed. On that day,  an inexperienced candidate with a scant resume and views that contrasted with the majority of the population was elected to the most powerful office in the world, the Presidency of the United States of America. Brand Obama is an ongoing series that chronicles the powerful psychological techniques used in this improbable campaign.

Other Brand Obama posts include:
The Spider and the Fly
The Drunkard's Search
Mesmerizing Voters with Hypnotic Speech Techniques
New Math and the Rise of the Unwed Mother

Selling Hope

David Axelrod has made a career of bundling optimistic bromides into winning campaigns. His test run was Duval Patrick and his product launch was Barak Obama:

Problem Candidate

Axelrod had one main problem: How to maintain support when his candidate was easily attackable on many fronts. He was selling a facade without much foundation. In the face of relentless attacks from a professional political adversary, how could Axlerod keep the faith. Surprisingly, modern psychology offered a simple yet effective technique that would not only increase support but strengthen that supports resistance to attack.

The Inoculation Strategy

Axelrod managed the neat trick of increasing both support for Obama and strengthening resistance to the attacks through a persuasive strategy known as Inoculation:

"Inoculation theory states that inoculation is used to describe the attribution of greater resistance to individuals. Or, the process of supplying information to receivers before the communication process takes place in hopes that the information would make the receiver more resistant."

The Technique

This link, Inoculation, the Secret Persuasion Strategy to Lock Down Your Sales and Reinforce Decisions, provides and excellent summary of the technique:

1. Warn The Target Of An Attack On Their Belief, Decision, Attitude, Etc. This important part of the process gets the target thinking about the attack and generating ideas to defend his or her position. The tendency to defend current decisions (law of consistency) will move the target into a defense mode. Because the target doesn't know what the attack will be, lots of creative ideas may be generated that begin to reinforce the belief, decision, attitude or behavior in question.

2. Provide A Weak Attack On The Target. The idea here is to present weak attacks that the target is likely to face later. If the attack is too strong, you might actually sway the target to change their position. An example of a weak attack would be to tell a teenager who has agreed that smoking cigarettes is bad that when they get to school kids will say it's really cool to smoke, it's fun, and it really doesn't do anything to you. An example of an attack that might be too strong is to say "when you get to school, you won't fit in at all if you don't smoke, you won't be cool, no one will want to hang out with you ..." You get the point.

3. Get The Target To Actively Defend The Belief, Decision, Attitude or Behavior You Are Trying To Reinforce. Again, tapping into the law of consistency, the more the target defends a decision, the more that target’s decision is reinforced. It is important to let the target come up with his or her own defense. Don't provide the defense, let the target do it. After providing a weak attack, you might simply ask "how are you going to deal with that when it comes up?"

The Campaign Script

Compare this to the Obama campaign scripts found in the  Washington Post, The Trail, 2008 Campaign Diary post,  "Obama: They're Trying to 'Make You Scared of Me'":
"Nobody thinks that Bush or McCain have a real answer for the challenges we face. So what they are going to try to do is make you scared of me," Obama warned a crowd in Springfield this morning. "You know, he's not patriotic enough. He's got a funny name. You know, he doesn't look like all of those other presidents on the dollar bills."

"Those folks know they don't have any good answers. They know they had their turn over the last eight years and made a mess of things," he said here. "They know they can only win by making you scared of me."

Obama did not mention race directly or that other hot button issue, his full name. But when John McCain's campaign responded, it said Obama had "baselessly forecasted that John McCain would make claims about Obama's physical appearance and middle name."

Below is a brief clip of the Obama reciting the inoculation script along with the McCain campaign's ineffectual race card response:

Below is the complete version (skip to the 4:45 mark) of the Inoculation script in action:

You can see from the crowd reaction that they have been thoroughly duped (or inoculated). With this crowd all the major negatives against Obama have been defanged. Their support has not only been strengthened but also their resistance to attacks, however true they may be. He has artfully played to their vanity with a knowing laugh.They think they are in the know and there is no way their vanity will let them admit to being deceived.

Korean War Defectors
The Origins of Inoculation Theory

Amazingly enough, the theory originated from research on the brainwashing of US Korean War POWs:

"During the Korean War (1950-1952), the American public was introduced to a new idea: Brainwashing. This word was invented to explain the unexpected acts of treason that were committed by a few American soldiers who were captured. For the first time in our history a significant number of our captured soldiers willingly cooperated with the enemy. It was a jarring shock to America and it caused people to try and figure out what had happened.

The first speculation was that the enemy had used a clever combination of torture and punishment to beat our soldiers into submission. The evidence suggests otherwise. The brainwashing sessions did not necessarily include torture, but rather featured a lengthy debate between the captured soldier and a skillful questioner. And the debate was about America and American beliefs about freedom, democracy, and equality.

Amazingly, many of our soldiers had great difficulty defending their political and social beliefs. They believed that democracy was the best form of government, but they could not explain why this was true. And their captors merely attacked these simply held beliefs until the soldiers began to doubt their validity. After that the road to “treason” was easy.

The lesson learned translated into important changes for the American military. New soldiers began to receive more extensive political training along with the typical military instruction. No soldier would ever hold naive beliefs or be unable to defend America verbally or militarily.

These ideas translated into one of the most interesting persuasion tools ever developed. The most important question was, “How do you get people to hold a belief more strongly?” It was obvious from the war experience that mere education was not sufficient training to strengthen important beliefs. You can lecture people about the joys of capitalism or socialism and they can learn the lecture well enough to pass a true-false test on it, but when the real world mounts a serious attack on the information, many learners will crumble.

How do you get people to hold a belief or attitude more strongly?

Inoculation theory, that’s how.

  • The main point of Inoculation Theory is: Attacks make beliefs (and attitudes) stronger."
William McGuire
Social Scientist
Inoculation Theorist

William McGuire not only came up with the inoculation theory, he also edited one of the major works on use of psychological techniques in political campaigns:

The NYT spends some time in his obituary on how his work influenced political techniques:

"In the late 1950s and early ’60s, he began to study how to make a persuasive case in various kinds of communication, particularly in instructional films. With another researcher, Demetrios Papageorgis, Dr. McGuire also explored a potential process for resisting persuasion, something he likened to giving a medical vaccine.

In laboratory experiments, the researchers presented an individual with a seemingly self-evident truth, like the hygienic benefits of brushing teeth daily. Dr. McGuire then offered criticisms designed to undermine the belief, and measured the reactions to determine if the belief had been shaken. Strong or unexpected assaults on a belief could carry the day. But he found that weakened attacks could lead to a kind of intellectual immunization — not unlike the way a vaccine works with a virus — in which the individual rallies to find counterarguments, and could ultimately reinforce the original belief.

The concept has applications for dealing with political propaganda and is known as inoculation theory. "

Elites Use of Mind Control In Post War America

In a broader sense, McGuire's work represents a continuation of the elites efforts at mind control in America.

The elite class in post war America believes that the masses are fundamentally irrational and that psychological techniques need to be used to control them. This elite feels that the individual citizens left to their own devices are not capable of being democratic. Elites desire to create conditions where individuals were capable of being good consumers and democratic citizens.

Manufacturing Consent - Belief that American people are not rational so you have to touch on peoples inner fears to manipulate them in the interest of a higher truth. It assumes that the interests of the people and business are indivisible. It believes that is is necessary to manipulate the American people.

As mentioned in an earlier JohnQuincy post, "Early Obama: The Occidental Years" Obama considers himself part of a revolutionary elite that will transform America:

"He met Obama via girlfriend Caroline "Gross-Grauman.”. Caroline and Barak were taking political theory classes from Roger Boesche at Occidental. Caroline introduced Barak as “One of us,” part of the revolutionary elite that was going to turn around country when socialist revolution hit.

Barak was not idle explorer of intellectual Marxism. He was a Marxist-Leninist. He believed that there was a revolutionary class that going to transform the nation by redistributing wealth and taking over private property. He did not simply hang around with Marxist professors as described in his book. He was in absolute agreement with his Marxist professors."

As part of that elite he not only learned how to manipulate people but conducted seminars on it at places like the University of Chicago. Below is a picture of him conducting a course on Saul Alinsky tactics to that involved community agitation to extort money from big business:

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