COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | STAN SEWITCH

One every minute

It’s been some time since the birthrate of suckers was originally estimated. I have not been able to find peer-reviewed, published research either supporting or refuting the rate attributed (inconclusively) to P.T. Barnum. With or without confirming evidence, we can be assured that the species is indeed procreating, and at a rate that is altogether too high.

Suckers are people who fall for a con. This description certainly fits the segments of the American public who are drawn into the psychological assault on reason, which is employed in the ongoing battle for public opinion. The presidential election was probably the most intense and costly such campaign of the political type, but it was certainly not an anomaly. Mass media have been engaged in the effort to sway the public’s behavior since Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press forever changed communication.

Today, media have moved far away from what Marshall McLuhan described as “hot” formats, i.e., those channels of communication that require the receiver to add a lot of information that is not contained in the message itself. The written word is one of the “hottest,” because most of the message is assembled in the mind of the reader, who adds tone, temperature, movement, characterization, timing, smell, touch, taste and subtleties of mood to every word.

“Cold” media are those that require little or no additive information by the receivers, who can be comfortably passive in the role of perfect antenna. The receiver of “cold” messages need not put effort into the act of receiving. The “coldest” medium we employ is the movie theater, which incorporates surround sound, vibrating and tilting chairs, even aromas. Television and videos are highly passive and “cold” as well.

Passivity during communication sets up a psychological dynamic not unlike hypnotism. Someone can be hypnotized more easily if they are willing to be told what to do, to let the communication they are receiving affect their thoughts and behaviors. Entertainers who perform hypnotist acts will tell you that they cannot get people to do things against their will. When a person obeys the performing hypnotist’s commands, it is because they enjoy giving up their will to someone else, and to experience things that they would not like to take personal responsibility for. Having one’s own thoughts, and acting on those thoughts, can be a frightening experience. Owning one’s will makes one accountable for one’s thoughts and deeds. It’s a lot more comfortable to let somebody else do the thinking for us, and to let them tell us to do the things we would be afraid to do on our own, but secretly want to.

Passive reception and hypnotic seduction can be coupled with xenophobia, to achieve the desired result of influencing public thinking. Much of the recent political advertising essentially exploited the natural fear we have of the threatening outsider, the “other.” If you look at the political advertising messages, with their ominous tone and warning of impending doom, they are basically saying, “He’s not one of us. He wants to hurt us.” It doesn’t matter which party’s advertising you examine, the content boils down to the same incantation.

We all have a portion of this fear inside of us. It’s been built into the genome over a quarter million years. Even when thousands of years of religious teachings admonish us to forgive transgressions and love one another, our fear of the other, the outsider who might want to hurt us, is just below the surface. Advertisers of all sorts know this, of course, and guide our thinking toward that fear so we will buy into their solution. We give up our will to those messages because we want to feel safe and they are providing us an easy answer, one that we don’t have to take accountability for.

Humans also want to be included, not excluded. And we want our children to have a good life, to be safe and healthy. We want to keep what we’ve earned; we don’t want things to be taken from us. These inborn, basic human needs and drives are exploited by promoters, who want us to do something, or not do something, which will benefit them or their clients.

In the old days, when a “stump speech” actually meant standing on a stump to speak, it was harder to attempt mental manipulation of constituents. You had to be there personally, interacting with the crowd. People could better detect deceitfulness in person. These days, through the “cold” media and incessant repetition, it’s much easier to mold public opinion. I think this is why our country has become so polarized, on so many topics, with no apparent inclination by one side to even consider the points of the other.

What we’re left with is not a higher proportion of suckers in our population; we end up with nothing but suckers. We’re all rubes if we think that there’s no place in between the extremes. And, as rubes, we deserve the inevitable switch that comes after the bait.


Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company. Sewitch can be reached at sewitch1@cox.net.

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