"It would be good if we could learn to listen to reason again"
A Q&A with James Garvey, author of a new book on the persuasion industry.
James Garvey is an officer of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, and editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. In his latest book, The Persuaders he explores how we ended up in a world where beliefs are mass-produced by lobbyists and PR firms. Are new kinds of persuasion making us less likely to live happy, decent lives in an open, peaceful world? Is it too late, or can we learn to listen to reason again? Here, he discusses his views on the myriad ways in which we are nudged, anchored, and incentivised.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I totally dropkicked a philosopher in a public debate, completely won the argument, and it made no difference to what anyone believed. It happens a lot, particularly in political debates – reasonable people unconvinced by good arguments. If arguments aren’t very persuasive, I wondered what was. When people with money and power and know-how try to change minds, what do they do? What are the dark arts of persuasion? And how did we end up in a world where arguments are so easily ignored? Those questions got me going.
What kept me going was a whole range of discoveries about what makes us tick. Some of it’s weird. We’re inclined to believe people who share our initials or date of birth. We buy more expensive wine if a shop plays classical music. We’ll express more conservative views if asked about politics near a hand sanitizer. But some of it is worrying. The persuasive pressure on us is changing our politics, our thinking, our values, our ability to listen to reason – it’s making it harder to live a happy, free life in an interconnected, open world.
You say the average adult can encounter up to several thousand persuasive messages a day. What kinds of messages are these?
Attempts to persuade us are nearly everywhere: brand messaging, marketing, advertising, political and corporate communications, public relations, and lobbying are probably the loudest mechanisms of influence. And it’s taking new forms. We are influenced not just by straightforward advertising, but product placement, infoganda, sock-puppeteering, decoy pricing, viral marketing, astroturfing, crowd manipulation, newsjacking, framing, spinning, propagandising, message discipline, anchoring, framing, incentivizing, nudging and all the rest of it.
How does PR and lobbying impact on western democracy?
The worst of it makes the world a less democratic place, concentrating power in the hands of people with money. This kind of persuasion might have killed real democracy in the West just as it was getting underway.
PR pioneers learned their craft by producing propaganda in the First World War. As Edward Bernays, the father of public relations put it, the aim was to apply the techniques they learned in war ‘to the problems of peace’.
In the US, those problems included a voting public aiming to reign in corporate power. Where once only wealthy land owners could vote, African American men and then women were enfranchised. In the early twentieth century, muckraking articles decrying wealthy robber barons were all the rage in newspapers, people were calling for anti-trust laws and the end of monopolies. The Bolshevik Revolution was loud in the background. It didn’t look good for the wealthy few. PR was the solution to the problem of democracy. It promised to ‘regiment the public mind’, control the herd, and manufacture the consent of the governed. It turned corporations into friendly giants, and somehow managed to get free enterprise equal billing with free speech, free assembly and the freedom of religion. PR made it un-American to criticise big business. Maybe it’s a straight line from that to the inequalities we’re lumped with now, and all the trouble that brings with it.
You write compellingly about the role of PR in getting support for wars, etc. What kind of an impact does this kind of action have on domestic politics?
There are well-known examples of public relations campaigns , or anyway something close to them, tilting public opinion in favour of wars– whether that’s by stirring up hatred or sexing up dossiers.
Governments do hire PR firms, but they are themselves in the public relations business – mostly it’s what we call spinning. While we roll our eyes at the particularly weasely words of politicians, the truth is that framing works. Studies have shown that you can increase or decrease public support for various projects simply by describing them in different ways. You can hear this kind of thing at work now. People who object to a politician’s refusal to help more refugees might go along with the same policies framed in terms of “border security”.
How does the UK compare to the US in terms of “persuasion”?
What’s extraordinary to me in terms of persuasion in the states is the rise of Donald Trump, but before you say it could never happen in the UK, take a look at Gustav LeBon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, which appeared in 1895. The crowd, he says, is impulsive, irritable, incapable of reason or judgement, but what it does is feel emotion and respond to simple messages repeated over and over again by a strong leader. It’s just human nature. Crowds can’t reason, can’t think critically, either over there or over here. Trump in front of a crowd, stoking emotions, invoking ‘us’ vs ‘them’ thinking – it’s the largest thing on the persuasive landscape anywhere at the moment. I know Clinton is ahead of Trump in almost all polls, but I think there’s a real chance of Trump being elected, just by looking at the influence he has over crowds.
What’s your view of the government’s nudge unit?
For those who don’t know, David Cameron set up the nudge unit, formally the Behavioural Insights Team, in the Cabinet Office, charging it with using behavioural economics, a combination of novel thinking about decision making and economic theory, to push individuals towards better choices in their everyday lives. Part of the idea is that we’re all subject to a raft of cognitive biases and make use of mental shortcuts – if you understand all that, you can set up the ‘choice architecture’ so we are more likely to make socially agreeable decisions.
It seems to have done some good – for example in changing the messaging around calls to join the organ donor register. But it also seems to have done some sketchy things too, in one instance making job seekers take a bogus personality test or lose their benefits.
Nudging is everywhere – more than 40 countries have centrally orchestrated state policy initiatives informed by nudge theory. It raises a lot of moral question, not least, do we really want our governments to get good at this kind of covert persuasion?
You talk about marketing and advertising. Why does it matter that companies are trying to sell us certain products/food stuffs?
It matters if what they’re doing is unethical, and I think part of the problem here is that there are new wrongs in the world that we have some trouble spotting and thinking about. Is it morally acceptable to use an understanding of how brains work to stimulate impulsive purchasing behaviour in a person who’s buying food for their children? Is it OK for companies to foster endless buying cycles and fashions on a finite world where some people don’t have enough? At least some research shows that marketing and advertising messages can make us unhappy, materialistic and uncooperative, even narcissistic. I think there’s a lot wrong with what we put up with in the marketplace.
How does this kind of corporate persuasion compare with political lobbying? Should they be seen as part of the same problem?
The persuasive pressure on us is not a single problem, coming from a single direction. It has a lot of different causes and effects. But you’re right to worry about interconnections between corporate and political persuasion. The trouble is that corporate power and political power are completely entangled in our culture. Somehow we think it’s acceptable for corporations to make huge donations to campaigns and political parties. The people best placed to protect us from the excesses of corporate power owe their jobs to money donated by corporations and other moneyed interests. And when the concerns of both politicians and corporate leaders line up, as they often do, the persuasive pressure on us, coming from both directions, is almost certainly overwhelming.
What’s the overall effect on society of the dominance of “the persuaders”?
I hate it when an author tells you the world is falling apart because of a single thing that happens to be the subject of their book, but I really do think we’re in the middle of a revolution in persuasion, a shift away from giving reasons to something that operates outside reason. As a result, we’re starting to lose the ability to argue, as a culture. Listen to Prime Minister’s Questions or the literal dick measuring going on in debates between Republican presidential candidates. The ability to argue, to think critically, spot fallacies and work together towards the truth is a kind of intellectual self-defence at the heart of democracy. If we lose that, we lose what it protects. We’re also less able to get along with one another if all we can do is shout back and forth. Modern persuasion undermines not just democracy, but our chances of living happy lives in a peaceful, interconnected world. It would be good if we could learn to listen to reason again. A lot hangs on it.