This is part seven of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part six, visit Cognitive Bias.
The best politicians and salespeople take advantage of a universal truth: tell ’em what they want to hear, and they’re yours.
“The art of propaganda is not telling lies, but rather selecting the truth you require and giving it mixed up with some truths the audience wants to hear.”
It’s insidious enough in a sales pitch, but when a politician does it, it’s infinitely more dangerous. History’s rife with examples.
The obligatory Donald Trump anecdote
A key plank in Donald Trump’s platform was reducing immigration, and he claimed “They’re taking our jobs. They’re taking our manufacturing jobs. They’re taking our money. They’re killing us.” That message got traction, especially in Rust Belt towns hard hit by the death of manufacturing: people are never more vulnerable than when their way of life is endangered. Trump knew that and told them what they wanted to hear: unemployment wasn’t their fault; it was the fault of the immigrants taking their work.
Unfortunately, immigrants don’t steal jobs. They’re actually a net gain for the economy. But simple narratives often win out over subtler ones, especially when we’re vulnerable and they tell us something that makes us feel good.
Hitler knew this and used it to convince large parts of the German populace that they didn’t lose WW I, but were stabbed in the back by Marxists, Jews, Bolsheviks and even their own government. To a nation living with defeat, crippled by a decade of reparation payments, the idea that they didn’t actually lose the war was a siren song millions readily accepted, even if it was demonstrably false.
Of course, telling people what they want to hear doesn’t have to be as grandiose or earth-shattering as all that. Every day we’re subjected to sales pitches, and every marketer and salesperson worth their weight knows to compliment the person they’re selling to. The trick is to take a moment to recognize when you’re being targeted.
It’s about ego
We love hearing what we want to hear, because of our ego. Whether it’s a compliment or a balm to soothe an emotional hurt, it just feels good. That feeling is your warning call.
When someone inside your trusted circle tells you something that makes you feel good, that’s one thing. But when someone outside that circle tells you something that tickles a part of you deep inside, stop and ask yourself, “Why do I like that so much? I don’t even know them.”
Taking that moment to stop and think can make the difference between being complimented and being taken advantage of.