I was surprised to read about neuroscience and the brain considered from a particularly intelligent general perspective in the politician Al Gore’s recently published The Assault on Reason (now a Penguin soft-cover). I recommend this book for its perspective about the relationship between “reason” and “marketing” — as “truth” hangs in the balance — in contemporary American culture. Be forewarned that the book takes a political stance, and if you’re a Rightie, might lead to apoplexy.
At the same time, there are many aspects of the neurology of persuasion — and the obvious ways that it is being used to manipulate human individuals and societies — that Mr. Gore compellingly discusses. “Gee whiz”, you may be saying. “There’s nothing new about manipulating individuals or your tribe by propagandizing or scaring or haranguing them. That’s called ‘leadership’. That’s as old as human civilization!”
In fact, there are at least five things about this contemporary form of the age-old exploitation of these very human neurological weaknesses that are new, and that, collectively, slowly feed my own concern about application of recent advances in the neuroscience of persuasion.
First, we now UNDERSTAND the processes by which the brain arrives at a conclusion, or identifies that conclusion as “truth”, in increasingly complete neurological terms.
Second, contemporary science HAS INFORMED US about how emotion trumps reason almost every time, and explains with increasing clarity how we can deliver the emotional messages in the appropriately powerful and repetitive forms in ways that virtually ASSURE their dominance over reason.
Third, we have an increasingly clear understanding of how to OPTIMIZE these neurological process of persuasion, to get people to believe (or do) pretty much what we want them to believe (or do), even when all sense and reason should be loudly telling them NOT to believe (or do).
Fourth, we now have vastly MORE EFFICIENT ways to dump biasing (belief-training) information into human brains. Our main strategy is called “television”. Television is not new, but the WAYS that it is being used is evolving, because the main goal of its purveyors are to tie you TO it like a slave, and they are getting better and better at it. Because their ability to glue you to their programs on your set is improving, viewer times continue to rise, and are at alarming levels. For Americans, more than 75% of all free time is now spent feeding at the TV trough. Astounding.
What “sells” on television? What keeps you glued to it for hours every day? What IS worthy of thousands of all of those thousands and thousands of hours of air time? “Very little that really matters for the average viewer, from the perspective of having a reasoned understanding or perspective about the great issues that impact your life, or our societies”, is the sad, real answer.
Fifth, changes IN THE WAYS THAT INFORMATION IS ACQUIRED by humans are resulting in less reliable and less consistent content acquisition relevant to operating as an informed member of society for the average American citizen. It is rather paradoxical that we’re in the “Information Age”, but by all indices, are less informed about things that matter re our governance than ever.
How can you explain the fact that the majority of American citizens question the validity or authority of science (by definition, our primary objective basis of reasoned conclusion), and willingly allow unsupported opinion or myth to trump it?
How else can you explain our passivity about governance that just flatly denies the fact of scientific conclusions – e.g., on global warming – supported by the best scientific authorities, of the highest integrity, in every advanced nation on earth including our own?
How else can you explain (to illustrate another painful example raised by Mr. Gore) the fact that at the time of invasion of Iraq, 70% of Americans believed that the Iraqis aided and abetted Al Quaeda (nearly half of Americans STILL do), even while you hardly had to be a reader at all to know that the secular Baathist Iraqis in Hussein’s camp, and the religious fundamentalist Osama bin Laden and his ilk in his camp were bitter enemies?
And (to cite one example among many) how can you explain why almost every American IS educated about the details of the husband, parents, diagnosis, treatment, brain images, court actions, threats to the American judiciary, and ultimate death of a brain-dead woman in the state of Florida?
The average citizen knows a great deal about a lot of things that have little import for American society, and knows very little about a great many things that are absolutely crucial for their individual and our societal health, advance, and survival.
It is not nice – and it is certainly not healthy for us — for the forces of commerce and politics to use contemporary neuroscience so crassly and effectively, to achieve these kinds of practical objectives. I noted in an earlier blog that our branch of neuroscience holds a key for strengthening and enriching us — but that it also has a dark side. History, and this science are informing us about our individual and societal vulnerabilities. As the scientific understanding of the manipulation of human thought and response grows, we have to define ways to CONTROL this powerful genie – who is already, alas, almost completely out of the bottle.