By: David Wong September 23, 2008
Brainwashing doesn’t take any sci-fi gadgetry or Manchurian Candidate hypnotism bullshit. There are all sorts of tried-and-true techniques that anyone can use to bypass the thinking part of your brain and flip a switch deep inside that says “OBEY.”
Now I know what you’re thinking. “Sure, just make an ad with some big ol’ titties on there! That’ll convince people!”
While that’s certainly true …
… they’ve got a whole arsenal of manipulation techniques that go way beyond even the most effective of titties. Techniques like …
Every cult leader, drill sergeant, self-help guru and politician knows that if you want to quiet all of those pesky doubting thoughts in a crowd, get them to chant a repetitive phrase or slogan. Those are referred to as thought-stopping techniques, because for better or worse, they do exactly that.
“Say it with me now, folks!”
“FOUR MORE YEARS! FOUR MORE YEARS! FOUR MORE YEARS!”
“One, two, three, four, I, Love, The Marine, Corps. One, two…”
The “Analytical” part of your brain and the “Repetitive Task” part tend to operate in separate rooms. But you didn’t need an expert to tell you that. You know you can’t solve a complex logic puzzle if I force you to scream the chorus to that Chumbawamba song over and over again while you’re doing it. Try it.
Meditation works the same way, with chants or mantras meant to “calm the mind.” Shutting down those nagging voices in the head is helpful for stressed-out individuals, but even more helpful to a guy who wants to shut down an audience full of nagging internal voices suggesting that what he’s saying might be retarded.
At the political conventions, notice how they trained the audiences to fill the gaps between applause lines with chants (“U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”) rather than, say, pensive silence to carefully consider what the speaker has just said.
Also, those of you who’ve worked at Wal-Mart are familiar with the “Wal-Mart Cheer” that begins every shift:
They used to sacrifice a goat at the end, but PETA put a stop to it.
The rise of the internet news portal has given birth to a whole new, sly technique of bullshit insertion. What They (and from here on, “They” with a capital T means anyone who draws a paycheck by manipulating your opinion) have figured out is that most of you don’t read the stories, you just browse the headlines. And there’s a way to exploit that, based on how the brain stores memories.
The Drudge Report lives off this. A single anonymous source will report to some news blog that, say, Senator Smith runs a secret gay bordello in New Orleans. Drudge will run the headline:
NEW QUESTIONS ABOUT SMITH’S SECRET GAY BORDELLO
Or perhaps there’ll just be a question mark on the end:
SMITH: SECRET GAY BORDELLO ASS MASTER?
It doesn’t matter that the headline merely involves “questions” about the bordello. The idea has been planted, and two months later when somebody mentions Senator Smith around the water cooler you’ll say, “The gay bordello guy, right?”
“WHAT IS OBAMA’S CONNECTION TO LEFT-WING EXTREMISTS?”
“TOYOTA PRIUS – MORE WASTEFUL THAN A HUMMER?”
“OFFICIAL SAYS WTC COLLAPSE ‘UNEXPLAINED'”
They call it “Source Amnesia.” For instance, you know what a wolverine is, but probably don’t remember exactly how you learned that piece of information. The brain has limited storage, so it stores just the important nugget (that a wolverine is a small, ferocious animal) but usually discards the trivial context, such as when and where you learned about it (the movie Red Dawn, probably).
In the era of the web and information overload, that’s a mechanism They can exploit very easily. What They have found is that a piece of information–say, an ugly rumor about a politician–can be presented with all sorts of qualifiers (a question mark, attribution to a shitty source, the word “unconfirmed”) but often the brain will only remember the ugly rumor and completely forget the qualifier.
And get this: it happens even if the headline we read was specifically about the rumor being untrue.
You’ll see this daily, in every election cycle. The entire point of putting a shaky rumor into the press is to force your opponent to deny it. Why? Because They know that the denial works just as well as the accusation. Thanks to Source Amnesia, for millions of people all three of these …
SMITH DENIES GAY BORDELLO RUMORS
SMITH REFUSES COMMENT ON GAY BORDELLO RUMORS
SMITH ADMITS GAY COCK BORDELLO
… register as the exact same headline.
During the presidential primaries, Drudge ran a huge photo of Barack Obama wearing a turban. Under it was an inflammatory headline about how disgusting it was that Clinton staffers were circulating such a picture.
But a huge number of people who saw it only remembered the picture (months later, 13% of voters still thought he was a muslim). That’s the idea.
Restriction of reading and/or viewing material is common to pretty much every cult. Here on the internet, we’ve all heard horror stories about Scientology, which goes as far as filtering members’ internet access. Obviously the idea is to insulate the members from any opposing points of view, to keep them marching in line.
That technique works just as well outside of the cult world, but They have to be more subtle about it. It just takes a little poison in the well, that’s all.
“Of course the public is misinformed! They’re reading that trash in the liberal mainstream media!”
“Of course the public is misinformed! They’re watching Faux News and the other trash in the corporate mainstream media!”
Studies show the brain is wired to get a quick high from reading things that agree with our point of view. The same studies proved that, strangely, we also get a rush from intentionally dismissing information that disagrees, no matter how well supported it is. Yes, our brain rewards us for being closed-minded dicks.
So with a little prodding, the followers will happily close themselves in the same echo chamber of talk radio, blogs and cable news outlets that give them that little “They agree with ME!” high.
This wouldn’t have been possible even 20 years ago. I grew up in the 80s, in a house with three TV stations. Three. We got one newspaper, the local one. You didn’t get to pick from the conservative news or liberal news, back in my day you took what you got and you were thankful for what you had, dammit.
Today, I go through that many outlets a day just to get my freaking video game news.
And now, that explosion of the 24-hour cable news stations and, later, the web and blogosphere, has created these parallel universes of Right vs. Left media outlets, complete with their own publishing arms.
And for each, their favorite topic of discussion is how corrupt and ridiculous the other side’s media is. They each even have “watchdog” groups that exist purely for the reason of hammering away at each other (the left has FAIR and MediaMatters, the right has the Media Research Center).
When an MSNBC interview with candidate John McCain got tense, he responded to the question by openly accusing the reporter of being an operative for the other side:
Just days later the campaign called The New York Times “a pro-Obama advocacy organization.”
This technique is relatively new, but you’ll see a lot more of it in future elections. The candidate will talk right past the reporter asking the questions and says to his supporters, “These guys work for the enemy, don’t believe a word they say. Their lies will only poison your mind.”
I won several formal debates in college using my patented technique of simply repeating my opponent’s argument in a high-pitched, mocking tone while wiggling my fingers in the air. There really is no defense.
They call this the appeal to rididcule fallacy. To which I would simply rebut, “Oooooh, appeal to ridicule fallacy! Well I’ve got a ‘phallus’ you can ‘see’ right here, college boy.”
Professionals have more sophisticated methods, but it boils down to the same technique. “They” know that if they can paint an idea as ridiculous, the listener usually won’t bother examining it any closer to find out if the ridicule is justified.
After all, why even consider something that’s ridiculous? That’s only something a ridiculous person would do! And you’re not ridiculous … are you?
“So now they’re telling us that–get this, folks–global warming is caused by cows farting! Priceless!”
“And then he said we could save gas by inflating our tires! I couldn’t make this stuff up, folks!”
It’s no secret you can short-circuit somebody’s brain with shame. How many of us were shamed into doing something stupid in high school? Hell, I still have that huge Dokken tattoo on my back.
But why does it work? Well, there are these primitive, lower parts of your brain called amygdalae that controls those base, emotional reactions. That’s where things like contempt and shame come from, and stimulating it can completely shut down the analytical part of your brain. The gang calls you a coward and the next thing you know, you’re wedging a roman candle between your buttcheeks. You’ll show them!
You can thank evolution for that. Way back when humans started forming groups and tribes, social status was everything. It’s what guaranteed you food, protection and ladies (that is, a chance to pass on your genes). Mockery developed as a “conformity enforcer” to keep people in line.
Making a person, idea or behavior the target of mockery gave it a lower social position, and made it clear that anybody who associated with it would share that lower position, leaving them out of the hunting/eating/fucking that made life in the tribe worthwhile. Thousands of years later, a good dose of mockery can shut down critical thinking and make us fall right in line, no questions asked.
We again come back to our 2008 presidential campaign, and again we find both sides guilty.
The speakers at the Republican National Convention had a great time mocking Barack Obama as a “community organizer,” drawing laughter from the crowd and skipping smoothly over the part where they explained what a community organizer is and why it’s ridiculous.
And of course the other side does it with McCain’s age…
…as if there is something inherently silly about having lived a really long time.
Listen to an argument between your friends. Any argument. Listen to one guy say John McCain is a Fascist, while his opponent says Barack Obama is a Communist. Watch as even fans of the same football team bitterly divide themselves over whether the new quarterback is going to be “awesome” or “garbage.”
Never anything in between. Everyone is a friend or enemy, every band either rules or sucks, black and white, nothing in the middle. They (capital T) love this, because They can convince you that you must choose either their way, or the most utterly retarded option on the opposite extreme.
“Will we fight? Or run away as cowards?!?”
“You’re not in favor of the death penalty? So you want murderers to just roam free then!”
“Are you going to the strip club with us, or are you a fag?”
Because we evolved from creatures who were always in danger of being eaten, our brains were built on a very simple foundation: the “fight or flight” mechanism. This let us make lightning-fast decisions by boiling every situation into two options. Anyone who preferred to stop and mull over the subtleties of the scenario wound up in the digestive system of a saber-tooth tiger.
Fast forward thousands of years and you find a humanity with much fancier brains but that still prefers all-or-nothing choices when we’re put under stress.
So if somebody wants to bypass your critical thinking circuitry, all they need to do is make you scared or anxious, often with a time limit or urgent threat (“We need to act now, or lose our way of life!”).
Instead of pondering the situation with the analytical neocortex, you’re using the primitive limbic system, scanning the landscape for the “Right” and “Wrong” move. You’ll have no patience for wishy-washy talk about “a spectrum of options.”
After the trauma of 9/11, the whole country dragged subtlety into the alley and shot it in the head.
But you can’t blame us. After all, our entire fucking mythology and popular culture are based on the idea. There’s a dark side of the force and a light side. Choose your path! Now! Ain’t a fucking gray side, Luke!
Now, as bad as this one is, and you could make the case that 80% of the stupid choices humans make is because of this, there’s one even more powerful. It’s a spin-off of this one, and it’s by far the best way to get thinking humans to respond like trained dogs.
No, other than that.
I’m talking about…
Holy shit. Here we go.
Sure, we know about the obvious examples, they’re written across the history books in blood and bullet holes. Racism, genocide, horrifying caricatures on propaganda posters.
But They have figured out that the same technique that works so well for getting people whipped into a murderous apocalyptic frenzy, can be used sell you cars, or hamburgers, or computers.
“The heart of America ain’t in Hollywood! It’s right here in [insert name of small town]!”
“You can listen to what I have to say, or bury you head in the sand with the rest of the sheeple!”
“You have a Nintendo Wii? Are you a toddler or just a retard?”
Basically, we’re hard-wired by evolution to form tribes. The more stress we feel, the more we feel love and attachment to those who look and sound the same as us, and the more we feel hatred to those who don’t. It’s just an old survival mechanism, since the ancient guys who didn’t show that kind of blind loyalty were killed off by the fierce tribes formed by the ones who did.
So today we get that petty dehumanization of everybody outside of our group (“hippies,” “rednecks,” “fundies,” “geeks,” “douchebags,” “libs”, “cons,” “fags,” “breeders,” “infidels,” “towel-heads,” “honkies,” “darkies,” “players”, “haters”).
They can play on those old, primal urges for even the most retarded of results, such as fierce brand loyalty (the PS3 vs. 360 vs. Wii flame wars will make you claw your eyes out).
But to really make this one work, They can’t just define your group, but have to define your group as the elite group, a shining beacon in a world full of weak-minded walking turds. The items on this list work best in combination, and you’ll see in that the element of mockery and insulation from opposing viewpoints we talked about earlier (why listen to the viewpoints of those lesser sheeple?). Often this is combined with siege terminology (“The whole country has gone to hell, but we’ve got to stand up for common sense, folks! It’s us against the world!”)
Watch five seconds of an election stump speech. Every side does it.
In Sarah Palin’s convention speech she talked about how people from small towns are totally the best (“We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity”). Earlier in the primaries the Clinton campaign did the same thing, talking about small towns as being the backbone of America where real, honest people are found. Always there is the unspoken reminder that these honest rural folk are under siege from those scary, phony freaks in the city.
When speaking to those city folk, on the other hand, Barack Obama made the infamous reference to those same small town types clinging to guns and religion, talking about them like they were savages to be studied through binoculars from a tower, with some peasant disease that needs cured by the enlightened.
Not only is “Us vs Them” the first and most important one on the list, it’s the culmination and end goal of all the others. Drawing you into the right tribe is what They want most, because they can accomplish nothing without tribesmen.
If we don’t find a way to resist it, this is what could leave the entire planet a charred radioactive ruin. And you know what else we lose if that happens?
If you liked this, the author of this article has written a horror novel called John Dies at the End, available now in softcover. For more fascinating ways that your brain doesn’t quite work, read Dave’s answer to the question What is the Monkeysphere? or his look at the 7 Reasons The 21st Century Is Making You Miserable. Or just go to his profile and read everything he’s written.