The Power of Persuasion

We have dealt mostly with individual changes, the way people can grow and become empowered. But one of the unmistakable aspects of the modern world is the amount of change that happens on a mass level. The idea of a global village has long since become a cliché, but it’s still true. Never before in the history of the world have there been so many powerful mechanisms for massive, lasting group persuasion That can mean more people buying Cokes, wearing Levi’s jeans, and listening to rock and roll bands. It can also mean massive, positive shifts in attitudes around the world. It all depends on who’s doing the persuading and why. We’re going to look at the changes that happen on a mass scale, see how they happen, and examine what they mean. Then we are going to look at how you can become a persuader and what you can do with your abilities.

We think of our world today as being a wash in stimuli, but that is not what really differentiates it from earlier times. An Indian walking through the woods was constantly confronted with sights and sounds and smells that could mean the difference between life and death between eating and starving. There was no shortage of stimuli in his world.

The biggest difference today is in the intent and reach of the stimuli. The Indian in the forest had to interpret the meaning of the random stimuli. In contrast, our world is full of stimuli that are consciously directed to get us to do something. It might be a plea to buy a car or a mandate to vote for a candidate. It might be an appeal to save starving children or a pitch to get us to buy more cake and cookies. It might be an attempt to make us feel good about having something or a message to make us feel bad that we don’t have something else. But the main thing that characterizes the modern world is the persistence of persuasion. We are constantly surrounded by people with the means and the technology and the know how to persuade us to do something. And that persuasion has global reach. The same image that’s being pounded into us be pounded into most of the world at the exact same instant.

Let’s consider the habit of smoking cigarettes. People in earlier times could have pleaded ignorance. But today we know that cigarettes are harmful to our health. They contribute to everything from cancer to heart diseases. There’s even large amount of powerful public sentiment expressed through local antismoking drives or referenda that makes smokers feel they are doing something bad. People have every reason in the world not to smoke. Yet the tobacco industry continues to profit, and millions of people continue to smoke cigarettes, with more starting all the time. Why is that?

People may learn to enjoy the experience of smoking, but is that what got them started? They had to be taught how to use a cigarette as a trigger to create pleasure; it was not a natural response. What happened when they first smoked”? They hated it. The coughed and gagged and felt nauseated. Their body said, this stuff is terrible, get it away from me. In most cases, if your own physical evidence tells you something is bad, you would expect to listen. So why don’t people do that with smoking? Why do they continue to smoke until the body gives in and finally becomes addicted?

They do it because they have been reframed as to what smoking means, and then that new representation and state have been anchored into place. Someone with a great deal of knowledge about persuasion has spent millions and millions of dollars to convince the public that smoking is something desirable. Through skillful advertising, clever images and sounds were used to put us in positive feeling states; then those desired states were associated with or linked to a product called cigarettes. Through massive repetition, the idea of smoking has been linked with various desirable states. There is no inherent value or social content to a piece of paper wrapped around tiny tobacco leaves. But we’ve been persuaded that smoking is sexy, or suave, or adult, or macho. Want to be like the Marlboro man? Smoke a cigarette. Want to show that you’ve come a long way. Baby? Smoke a cigarette You’ve come a long way all right – if you’ve been smoking, you’ve probably come a long way closer to the possibility of lung cancer.