Why Is It…?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university educator over the last 17 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: Why is it that mass media uses propaganda to persuade social attitudes and behaviors?

A: One of the cornerstones of social psychological research and application has to do with a primary means of social influence – persuasion. Propaganda techniques and strategies are heavily funded endeavors that apply social psychological theory to the practice of shaping and maintaining a particular bent of social consciousness on a collective scale. One is hard pressed to find any text on social psychology without a chapter or more devoted to the methods and consequences of media propaganda, persuasion tactics and the marketing of consumer attitudes, opinions and behavior.

While we may all like to believe in our individual freedom for independent thought, decision-making and behavior, there is evidence to support the notion that our personal and collective attitudes and motivations have resulted from the carefully crafted strategies disseminated through mass media content. What if our desires, lifestyles and goals are being strategically designed and influenced by elite powers wishing to further their own interests and agendas?

Considered by many as the father of public relations, Edward Bernays wrote:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes are formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never seen.” (Propaganda, 1928)

Similarly, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Lippmann described society as a “bewildered herd” in his discussion of mass media in American society, stating that “the opportunities for manipulation are open to anyone who understands the process…as a result of psychological research, coupled with modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner” (Public Opinion, 1922).

The art and science of manipulating public opinion through media propaganda has a rich and documented history. In 1939-1940 a series of think tanks (funded by the Rockefeller Foundation) were held at the University of Chicago, bringing together top specialists in the fields of sociology and communication. One participant, Professor Harold Lasswell, an expert in propaganda and communication, referred to the “ignorance and stupidity of the masses.” He advised “not to succumb to democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests.” He went on to suggest that social manipulation could be achieved by “a whole new technique of control, largely through propaganda”(Politics: Who Gets What, When and How, 1936).

While the field of social psychology provides many valuable insights that may aid in our ability to foster positive and meaningful inter-personal and group relationships – when utilized for purposes of profit and social control – the applications of its principles and dynamics can also serve as powerful tools of mass, societal manipulation. French author, law professor and sociologist Jacques Ellul stated, “It is with knowledge of the human being, his tendencies, his desires, his needs, his psychic mechanisms, his automatisms, as well as the knowledge of social psychology and analytic psychology that propaganda refines its techniques” (Propagandes, 1962).

While the principles of democracy are worthy, there came a time in our nation’s history where capitalism, materialism and consumerism began to overshadow the lofty principles embodied by Abraham Lincoln’s vision of “…a government of the people, by the people, for the people…” With the science of social psychological persuasion techniques sharpened and refined, advancements in mass-scale media technology (television, motion pictures, etc.) provided elite interests with a “magic wand” – granting the ability to manipulate public perception on an unprecedented scale. Framed in images of patriotism and American ideals of materialistic “success,” the public has been psychologically ingesting a steady diet of commercial advertisements and programming designed to keep society in a state of collective conformity and obedience.

By way of seductive, subliminal and fear-arousing messaging, our collective state of consciousness has been conditioned into becoming consumers of, not only unnecessary “things,” but consumers of the very ideals we’ve adopted as a society. More importantly – beyond our utilization as “human resources” to service this elite agenda – we’ve been falsely lulled into the acceptance that our beliefs, choices and aspirations have been derived out of our own free will.

Once people finally realize the full measure of how mass media propaganda intentionally regulates our thoughts, feelings and behaviors, the strategy will ultimately fail. But until that time, “None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free.” (Goethe).