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Manipulating public opinion. The...

Posted Sep 12 2008 2:43am

Manipulating public opinion.
The Washington Times runs a piece today on social psychology and the ways memory can be manipulated. The story has an interesting spin: How public opinion can be manipulated. Chief findings include that people tend to remember denials, myth busting, and statements identified as false at a high rate.

Rules of thumb trip up the brain, yet again.
The brain tends to treat often repeated statements as true, because, as the theory goes, the brain’s rule of thumb is that information frequently accessed is likely useful and true. Kudos to the Post for mentioning that the finding is not an isolated study, and has been peer reviewed, both critical elements in substantial research:

The psychological insights yielded by the research, which has been confirmed in a number of peer-reviewed laboratory experiments, have broad implications for public policy.

The brain hears the same assertion repeatedly, then treats it as if it comes from multiple sources. In this way, politicians are able to drum up popular opinion.

Another recent study found that when accusations or assertions are met with silence, they are more likely to feel true, said Peter Kim, an organizational psychologist at the University of Southern California. He published his study in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

This underscores the importance of being “devil’s advocate” or having a “minority opinion”. In social psychology, it is believed that minority opinions, tenaciously held, are robust in decision making outcome.

Be careful about what you deny.
Finally, the Post cites another finding about what social psychologists call the “negation-tag”. In many people this drops off — so a statement like “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” is ultimately remembered as the opposite. When making assertions it’s better to simply couch them in the positive. This last finding confirms what psychoanalysts have been saying for decades, perhaps even a century, that the unconscious does not recognize negatives. And of course, as Shakespeare said, “Thou dost protest too much.”

Current findings: Ho hum.
More bonus points to the Post for mentioning that a number of these “current” findings on memory have been around for decades. These are repeats of previous research, a key element in responsible science: replicating findings. Often science stories in the popular press are breathy in their coverage of the “latest findings” as if this represents cutting edge science. Actually, latest findings are findings that need to be confirmed repeatedly.

To couch it in the negative — it’s refreshing to see some not-too-bad science reporting.

Kalea Chapman, Psy.D.

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