Art of persuasion is getting complex Americans are bombarded daily by people trying to influence decisions.

July 23, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

The woman in the supermarket in a white coat tenders a free sample of lite cheese. A car salesman suggests prices won't stay low for long. Even a penny will help, pleads the door-to-door solicitor.

Sale ends Sunday!

Will work for food.

The average American exists amid a perpetual torrent of propaganda. Everyone, it sometimes seems, is trying to make up someone else's mind. If it isn't an athletic shoe company, it's a politician, a panhandler, a pitchman, a boss, a billboard company, a spouse.

The weapons of influence they are wielding are more sophisticated than ever, researchers say. And they are aimed at a vulnerable target -- people with less and less time to consider increasingly complex issues.

As a result, some experts in the field have begun warning the public, tipping people off to precisely how "the art of compliance" works. Some critics have taken to arguing for new government controls on one pervasive form of persuasion -- political advertising.

The persuasion problem is "the essential dilemma of modern democracy," argue social psychologists Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson, the authors of "Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion," published last year.

As the two psychologists see it, American society values free speech and public discussion, but people no longer have the time or inclination to pay attention.

Mindless propaganda flourishes, they say; thoughtful persuasion fades away.

The problem stems from what Dr. Pratkanis and Dr. Aronson call our "message-dense environment." The average television viewer sees nearly 38,000 commercials a year, they say. The average home receives 216 pieces of junk mail annually and at least one call a week from telemarketing companies.

Bumper stickers, billboards and posters litter the public consciousness.

Athletic events and jazz festivals carry corporate labels.

As direct selling proliferates, workers patrol their offices during lunch breaks, peddling chocolate and Tupperware to friends.

Meanwhile, information of other sorts multiplies exponentially. Technology serves up ever-increasing quantities of data on every imaginable subject, from home security to health. With more and more information available, people have less and less time to digest it.

"It's becoming harder and harder to think in a considered way about anything," contends Robert Cialdini, a persuasion researcher at Arizona State University in Tempe. " . . . More and more, we are going to be deciding on the basis of less and less information."

Persuasion is a democratic society's chosen method for decision-making and dispute-resolution. But the flood of persuasive messages in recent years has changed the nature of persuasion. Lengthy arguments have been supplanted by slogans and logos. In a world teeming with propaganda, those in the business of influencing others now put a premium on effective short-cuts.

Most people, psychologists say, are easily seduced by such short-cuts. Humans are "cognitive misers," always looking to conserve attention and mental energy -- which leaves them at the mercy of anyone who has figured out which short-cuts work.

The task of figuring out short-cuts has been embraced by advertising agencies, market researchers and millions of salespeople. The general public, meanwhile, remains in the dark, ignorant of even the simplest principles of social influence.

As a result, lay people underestimate their susceptibility to persuasion, psychologists say. They imagine their actions are dictated simply by personal preferences. Unaware of the techniques being used against them, they are often unwittingly outgunned.

As Mr. Cialdini tells it, the most powerful tactics work like jujitsu: They draw their strength from deep-seated, unconscious psychological rules. The clever "compliance professional" deliberately triggers these "hidden stores of influence" to elicit a predictable response.

Mr. Cialdini and others say much of human behavior is mechanical. Automatic responses are efficient when time and attention are short. For that reason, many techniques of persuasion are designed and tested for their ability to trigger those automatic responses.

"These appeals persuade not through the give and take of argument and debate," Dr. Pratkanis and Dr. Aronson have written, " . . . They often appeal to our deepest fears and most irrational hopes, while they make use of our most simplistic beliefs."

Life insurance agents use fear to sell policies, Dr. Pratkanis and Dr. Aronson contend. Parents use fear to persuade their children to come home on time. Political leaders use fear to build support for going to war -- for example, comparing a foreign leader to Adolf Hitler.

On an individual level, some psychologists offer tips for self-protection.

* Pay attention to your emotions, suggests Dr. Pratkanis, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz: "If you start to feel guilty or patriotic, try to figure out why." In consumer transactions, beware of feelings of inferiority and the sense that you don't measure up unless you have a certain product.

* Be on the lookout for automatic responses, Mr. Cialdini says. Beware foolish consistency. Check other people's responses against objective facts.

Be skeptical of authority, and look out for unwarranted liking for any "compliance professionals."

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