Social Psychology

Chapter 8: Propaganda

Knight Dunlap

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1. Social control

Social organization involves the adaptation of the activities of each individual to the activities of the others. This is necessary in all stages of organization to prevent conflict, as has been already pointed out in the chapter on civic and martial organization. The specialization and supplementation of function which is characteristic of the higher forms of organization is essentially a further adaptation of the activities of individuals to each other. The various means by which this necessary social adaptation is brought about are together designated as Social Control.

Social control occurs in part through direct communication, in which the activities of one man, as they occur, stimulate the other members of the group, and thus modify their activities. This direct social control is important in all grades of organization, and is almost the sole type of control in informally organized groups such as the impromptu bands we have described in Chapter V.

In the groups of higher type, control is further manifested in the standards, laws, and conventions which are essential to permanency of organization and to the possibility of adapting actions at one moment or period to actions at another moment or period. For a complex group, the maintenance of these controls is the most vital matter.

It is hardly necessary to point out at length that although action which is ultimately determined by standards may become, and for efficiency should become, purely perceptual, in those cases where the stimulus patterns are of constant occurrence; nevertheless, in the formation of these perceptual habits, thinking is essential; since the standards are objects of thought only, not of perception. The formation of a standard, convention, or law, is essentially the acceptance, by the individuals in the group, of certain ideas; and acceptance means nothing more than the thinking of the ideas without thinking con-

( 247) -licting ideas, that is, ideas which would express themselves in action, or lead to subsequent action, at variance with the actions which are expressed by, or which would lead to, the idea to be "accepted."

The problems of social control are therefore two. First, with regard to standards already established among the adult population, how best to impress these on the children. This is the pedagogical problem.[1] Second, with regard to standards already established, how to add to them, modify them, or abolish them. This is the problem of propaganda: the problem of influencing opinion. The pedagogical problem of social control occurs in all societies. The problem of propaganda affects only changing civilizations, the fixed social systems designated as "primitive" culture being freed from it by the relatively simple processes of summary and drastic treatment of any would-be propagandist.

The term propaganda is often used in two limited senses. First; as designating the activity of a definitely organized smaller group within the larger society, which attempts to change the opinion of the larger group. Second; as designating the attempt to spread a wrong or vicious view as contrasted with a noble or correct view. Neither of these limitations in meaning can be justified, and the acceptance of either has unfortunate practical consequences. Vicious propaganda, as viewed at a certain time, may succeed, and later be viewed as beneficient and progressive; and advocacy of apparently essential reforms may ultimately turn out to have been vicious propaganda. The distinction between the work of an organized group, (such as the Anti-Saloon League, or the Associations opposed to Prohibition), and the work of an individual is hardly useful, when both employ the same means; nor can the propaganda addressed to a small group in a Pullman smoking compartment be usefully contrasted with the efforts of a speaker in Madison Square Garden. The more useful sense of the term is in its designation of every deIliberate attempt to influence the opinion of another, or of others, in respect to accepted conventions, laws, or standards of conduct; or to influence any other opinion affecting the organization of society

( 248) or the interrelation and adaptation of the members generally.[2] The pedagogical work of inculcating in children the opinions which adults of their group hold, and which it is not proposed to modify, is not usefully classed as propaganda, although it is obvious that propaganda in the strict sense may be, and often is, extended into pedagogical work.

2. The principles of propaganda

There is no practical aspect of psychology in which the "laws" or principles involved are more clear than in propaganda. They are clear not only from the scientific point of view, but also in the practical work of agencies engaged in systematic propaganda. It is important, therefore, that the general public, which is subjected in steadily increasing volumes to propaganda of political, religious, commercial, and other less general types, conducted with high efficiency, should be informed as to the way in which this propaganda works.

1. Logical arguments and bases for logical inference. It is frequently possible to influence a person's opinion by argument, and by the presentation of facts from which the person approached may himself make logical inference leading to the acceptance of the idea which it is desired to make accepted. The decisions of justices of the Supreme Court and of lower legal tribunals are supposed to be influenced by the carefully presented arguments of the attorneys, and doubtless the logical and factual aspects of these arguments do have considerable effect. In these cases, the opinions are formed with respect to certain very definite standards—the laws and constitutional provisions; and the legal opinions of the judges may be quite different from their personal opinions. In other words, the opinions are formed in an abstracted or detached sphere of the person's mental life. But even here, there are other than logical causes at work, as is shown by the mere fact that judges of the Supreme Court divide on clear cut issues. In many cases, as in Congress, arguments seem to have no bearing on opinions, because the decision made by

( 249) the individual is not really his opinion at all, but is the registration of a vote decided by a complex of practical matters which in many cases do not affect his personal views.

In the practical affairs of life generally, there is no doubt that argument and evidence do affect opinion. We are constantly resorting to this sort of influence; with our children, our parents, our friends, our enemies, and our customers. But after all, the logical appeal is in the great majority of cases a minor factor in a large complex. The advertiser gives certain facts which are bases for arguments that his wares arc valuable. The life insurance agent emits a cloud of statistics bearing upon his "prospect's" particular situation. The lecturer or author leads his readers or auditors over a path smoothly paved with facts and carefully wrought influences. The child adduces confirmatory evidence for the justification of his lateness in coming home from school. But in most cases of these sorts, the actual evidence bears upon a single point, or a relatively restricted issue; and a relatively great amount must be accepted in advance, or without argument, in order that the logical inference may have importance. The advertising claim that a certain sauce contains "no benzoate of soda or other preservative" assumes the acceptance of the statement itself as true, and assumes the belief that benzoate of soda is harmful. The usual political and theological arguments assume an acceptance of authorities and statements that is by no means based on logical process of the reader or listener; and so on throughout the various types of arguments. On the whole, logical arguments are useful to harmonize details with general theories already accepted, or speaking figuratively, to convince the hearer that since he is already prepared to swallow the camel, he should also swallow the gnat resting on the camel's ear.

The class of people to whom logical reasons for the acceptance of ideas is paramount is a small one, comprising the class properly called scientists; and that even among scientists the logical procedure of "scientific method" is by no means the sole motive to the acceptance of ideas is well known. Scientists are more prone to be influenced by other than logical factors when dealing with fields outside their own special lines of work; in fact, the expert in the natural sciences, when dealing with problems in the fields of politics and religion, is no more free from extra-logical influences than is the unscientific man, and far less so than the professional politician or student of religion.

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Although argument is of minor importance in propaganda directly, it has its uses as a means of attracting attention. In order to implant an idea in a subject he must be caused to pay some attention to the stimulation it is desired to impress on him. In other words; the man you want to influence must listen, or must read. Now, there are few things which have as general an effect in attracting attention as does a fight, and an argument is a species of fight. Propaganda is sometimes wasted because no one listens or reads, except those who already accept it; and becomes effective when opposition to it catches the public attention. The theory that wild radicalism is least harmful when its utterances are not opposed has sound reason behind it, and a little martyrdom has helped many a languishing cause. The propaganda for woman suffrage was only slightly effectual for many years, because it was not attended to except by those who favored it. The organization of the Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage,[3] and the personal opposition of various energetic women, quickly changed the situation. Man, scenting a diverting fight, turned his ears to listen; and the really able propaganda immediately began to be effective.

2. Desires. The influence of desire in bringing about the acceptance of an idea is exhibited by all men, and in the case of society at large, is far greater than that of logical processes. We believe what we want to believe, to a far greater extent than we are usually willing to admit. In commercial advertising, politics, and religion, the influence of desire is most strikingly demonstrated; but it is not absent from any field of thought. The metaphysical arguments for the existence of God and for the immortality of the soul are widely accepted by those who are strongly desirous of accepting the conclusions of these arguments, in spite of the fact that the logical fallacies involved in them have been completely exposed, and the fact that to others, as well educated, these arguments may have no force. Acceptance of the results of "psychical research" is at the present time wholly conditioned by desires. Evidence which to the coldly logical scientific man is of no cogency is accepted by the man whose desire for immortality is strong, and who lacks religious

( 251) assurance. Even certain physicists will accept in the field of psychical research "proof" of a type which they would immediately reject if it were applied to problems in their own field of physics. The commonly observed fact that the tendency to accept inadequate "proofs" in this field become stronger as a man becomes older and faces death more closely has illuminative bearing on this efficacy of desire.

In politics, the effects of desire are equally obvious. A scandalous story about one's own candidate, for example, even supported by strong circumstantial evidence, is rejected; but a similar story about the rival candidate, however flimsy its probability, is eagerly accepted. The responsibility of the Republican administration for the graft scandals developed under it is accepted by Democrats, and rejected by Republicans, who, on the other hand, accept as eagerly the idea of personal responsibility of Wilson for every form of inefficiency exhibited during the war.

In commercial affairs the primary object of the advertiser is to establish a relation between his wares and the desires of the potential customers. Patent medicines and "faith cures" of all sorts are notoriously sold in this way. The sufferer from a certain disease violently desires to be cured thereof, and eagerly accepts statements concerning which non-sufferers are sceptical. The hypochondrial, depressed person, or the one who feels his inferiority in any way, as eagerly accepts the statement which convinces him that his troubles are due to the disease the nostrum pretends to cure. In the advertising of foodstuffs, automobiles, and non-medical wares of divers kinds, the appeal to the various desires of the public is just as efficacious and just as obvious.

In advertising and propaganda of all sorts, advantage is taken of the fact that desires "spread" from effect to cause; that is, where the desire of a certain thing or process exists, the same desire will attach to that which is known or believed to be its cause. The advertisements of correspondence schools and of books and courses on fraudulent systems of "psychology," (self development, power of personality, etc.), are the most striking examples of this sort of appeal, but its use in politics is no less important. Suggestion that a certain party, if in power, will bring about "business" depression, which, of course, "business" men do not want, arouses strong aversion to the

( 252) party in question, and desire for the success of the rival party. In some cases the acceptance of the causal relation is brought about by logical appeal, but more usually, it is effected by much simpler means.

3. Simple suggestion. In order to make a man accept an idea, he must first be made to think it. But since acceptance is the thinking it without conflict, the method by which he is made to think it is of supreme importance. In a relatively few instances the logical approach is adequate; but even in those cases, the premises for the logical inference must be accepted. Argument, moreover, has the inherent disadvantage of bringing up opposing ideas and reinforcing them, through the usual associative processes. Hence, argument must be of such nature that it is cogent immediately, or else it merely strengthens opposition. In an argument between two persons, each of whom at the beginning accepts an idea opposed to that of the other, the convincing of either party seldom occurs. In a relatively large number of cases, the presentation of an idea which fits in with strong desire brings about the thinking cf the idea with repression of conflicting ideas which otherwise might arise. Where causal relations are to be established as a basis for the "spreading" of desire, the acceptance of these causal relations must be brought about. Non-argumentative methods of implanting ideas are therefore of paramount importance in propaganda of all kinds.

Direct statements, devoid of argument, are, of course, efficacious in many cases. In commercial advertising, in politics, and in religious propaganda, such methods are efficacious because the associative processes of people generally are not highly efficient. The statement: "Flubdub tobacco is free from the pernicious effects of all other tobaccos" is followed by the reader; that is, he thinks the idea stimulated by this printed word pattern. A certain percentage think also: "this is a prejudiced statement;" "what reason is there for a difference in effect?" or one or more of many possible conflicting ideas brought up by association. A greater number, however, merely think the idea mechanically, with but slight associative process, and the idea is implanted: the process of its acceptance is begun. Similarly, the positive statement "accept this religious dogma or you will be damned eternally" is rethought and eventually accepted by many persons, without any support except the desire to be "saved," the causal relation between the desired salvation and the assumed

( 253) means of salvation being accepted because of the absence, from the start, of conflicting ideas.

Positive assertions, to be efficacious, must be couched in simple and familiar language, so that the persons addressed may think the idea without difficulty. They must be free from qualifications, reservations, statements of probabilities, or other details which would of themselves call up associating "doubts," i.e., ideas of alternatives, clear or vague. These statements must be repeated, since habit is as important in this field as in any other, and the idea once thought is "fixed" by repeated thinking, however mechanical the rethinking may be. But direct assertion is by no means the most efficacious means of implanting an idea.

Indirect statements, when sagaciously employed, have the double advantage of lessening the associative tendency towards the arousal of conflicting ideas, and at the same time making the idea apparently not new to the reader or hearer, but seemingly one which he has himself already thought. The rule of efficiency in this respect is to make the statement of an idea, which is to be implanted, as an aside or contributory remark, in connection with some other statement to which the attention of the reader or hearer is preponderantly directed. For example: in making a direct attack on the competency of an official, A, the casual statement that, "Of course A is not as incompetent as B," usually damages B more than would a direct attack. In a direct attack on B, impugning his honesty indirectly, while apparently concentrating on the question of his ability, is an efficacious and much employed method. Of course if the indirection is clumsy, the reader's attention is drawn so forcibly to the idea which it is intended to implant that the whole purpose is defeated.

The implication that an idea is already accepted by the auditor or reader is frequently made by the skillful indirection of the statement. More subtle and extended means of conveying this impression are also used, and the techniques employed by different writers differ widely. No prescriptions can be given for accomplishing this end, nor can labels be posted warning the reader when he is being made the target of such methods. The psychological object to be attained is plain, but the technique is an art of writing and speaking, not an explicit science. One who is intelligent, and on the watch for "blarney" acquires skill in detecting it, and one who wishes to use it be-

( 254) comes expert through practice. The more obvious methods of "now, you know already;" "you are intelligent enough to see that;" "as you already know," etc., ad infinitum, are crude devices which succeed only with the less intelligent and less educated.

Even in advertising, the method of indirection is extensively and usefully employed. Some persons have wondered why, in advertising a cigar or an insurance company, an attractive picture is often presented, with the name of the commodity, or the statement about it, reduced to a relatively inconspicuous adjunct. The direct method would be to make the statement the central and conspicuous thing, and the decorations contingent upon it. But the indirect method apparently works the better. The prospective customer perceives the name, or thinks the statement, under very favorable circumstances, when it is thus presented unobtrusively, in connection with a pleasing or interesting major content; so that no comparisons, or objections arise. By repetition, the idea implanted is "accepted" without the individual knowing at what time he accepted it.

On the other hand, offensive material in connection with an advertisement or other propagandist effort inhibits the acceptance of an idea. A dull, or morally offensive picture arouses resistance to the idea attached to it, because the judgment passed on the picture is actually thought in connection with the idea. A really competent advertiser takes pains to avoid all material which will offend the moral, esthetic, or religious susceptibilities of the audience he proIposes to solicit;, and the astute propagandist in any line exercises the same care.

Humorous treatment is one of the old reliable methods of indirection. Quaint and funny advertisements, (if they do not go to the length of offensiveness), are among the most effective commercial means of propaganda. Ridicule, and jokes implying inferiority on the part of the man it is intended to discredit are the most effective part of political attack. Evangelists have the common habit of slipping over an idea attached to a funny anecdote. Timeo Danaos, et dona ferentes, applies to all the pleasures and interests the propagandists arouse.

As a corollary to the principle of indirection, it is worthy of notice that dogmatic statement is one of the best methods of stirring up

( 255) discussion, and stimulating healthy thought, provided the real questions at issue are plainly indicated in the course of the statements. This use of the dogmatic method presumes a certain amount of mental alertness and education on the part of the audience adIdressed, but nevertheless it has a wide range of usefulness in cases where the purpose of the presentation is instruction, rather than propaganda.

4. Repetition. The ultimate secret of success in propaganda; making use to the full of indirect and direct suggestion, the force of desire, and the appeal of logic; is persistent repetition. Although clumsy repetition may produce weariness, or even disgust, with due skill, endless repetition will produce effects where brief campaigns may fail. Commercial propagandists understand very well the wastefulness of sporadic or occasional advertising, and the efficiency of the "follow up" process. For any other type of propaganda, the essential thing, after outlining the idea to be impressed, is to talk about it continuously: to talk in carefully chosen words, and with due respect to the principles above laid down; to talk amiably; to introduce constantly new forms and ways of talking—but never omitting the formulas which have been adopted for the idea; and above all, to keep talking. One of the effective features of the campaign against the saloon was the steady persistence in the broadIcasting of the slogans: "the saloon must go;" "the saloon is the plague-spot of civilization;" "the sources of political corruption are in the saloons," and so on. In the course of time these repetitions, rather than the moral and economic arguments, did their work, and the idea became generally accepted. The acceptance is indeed so firm that the agitation for the repeal of the Volstead Act is futile, because the agitators have no constructive plan to offer for the distribution of alcoholic beverages which would obviate the return of the saloon.

Such progress as has been made towards the abolition of war; towards the scientific use of birth control; towards the suppression of graft in government; is due to the constant talking and printing on these subjects, never letting the propaganda die down. Words are but sounds and marks, but they are the most powerful forces in the world because they stimulate ideas.

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3. The rules of propaganda

The principles of propaganda as it is employed today by agencies of all sorts are reducible to succinct rules. These rules read like a catalog of social shame, but that they are in use is "a condition and not a theory," and it is imperative that those to whom propaganda is directed should recognize them, since the propagandists recognize them well enough. There are six fundamental rules:

1.  If you have an idea to put over, keep presenting it incessantly. Keep talking (or printing) systematically and persistently. 

2.  Avoid argument, as a general thing. Do not admit there is any "other side;" and in all statements scrupulously avoid arousing reflection or associated ideas, except those which are favorable. Reserve argument for the small class of people who depend on logical processes, or as a means of attracting the attention of those with whom you are not arguing. 

3.  In every possible way, connect the idea you wish to put over with the known desires of your audience. Remember that wishes are the basis of the acceptance of ideas in more cases than logic is. 

4.  Make your statements clear, and in such language that your audience can repeat them, in thought, without the need of transIforming them. 

5.  Use direct statements only when you are sure that a basis for acceptance has already been laid. Otherwise, use indirect statement, innuendo, and implication. Use direct statement in such a way that the attention of the audience shall be drawn to it sufficiently to take it in, but not sufficiently to reflect upon it. 

6.  For the most permanent eventual results, aim your propaganda at the children; mix it in your pedagogy. Follow the example, in this respect, of Ivory Soap and Prohibition. 

It is clear that propaganda according to these rules may be used for the spread of good as well as of bad ideas. It is important to recognize that it is being used for both. Political nostrums and medical nostrums are being "sold" by this method; and so are modern sanitary and hygienic conceptions and ideas of justice and political progress. In commercial propaganda, the method sometimes exItends the use of new and important products; more often impels people to buy what they should not buy; and in general has its principal effect in adding enormously to the cost of living. If one

( 257) manufacturer of toilet soap ceases to advertise extensively, he will be ruined by the advertising of his rivals; but it is not probable that any more soap in total is sold than would be sold if the advertising of all manufacturers was cut down 90 per cent. Commercial advertising is much like the expensive armaments which the leading nations must maintain, because the other nations do. It is in the fields of political, religious, and general social life, however, that we need especially to be on our guard against propaganda.

A consideration of the facts concerning propaganda may lead to the pessimistic conclusion that social control rests entirely on insincerity, charlatanry, and the relative power of conflicting selfish interests; and that righteousness, justice, and social progress have little chance except that which the unarmed man has in a conflict with ruffians. Yet neither the psychological nor the historical survey shows the case to be really so bad. We must not overlook the fact that logic and scientific method do play their share, small though it may be, in social control; and if we use effectively against evil propaganda the same weapons which it uses, and which are justified if our repetitions and suggestions and appeals to desires are based on scientific and logical consideration, these latter forces must surely, if slowly, turn the battle in favor of the right.

The issue can be favorable only if propaganda is free. Control of propaganda, through muzzling of the press, censoring of books, theaters, and movies, and regulation of the expression of teachers, is the sure method of putting propaganda eventually in the hands of the strongly organized and socially destructive powers of selfishness. If we wish to conserve the possibility of fighting for the right, we must first of all conserve and guarantee the power to fight.


  1. It is gratifying to find that the once despised term "pedagog" and its correlates have been so rehabilitated by the transfer of their worst implications to the term "educator" and its correlates, that one can now use the term "pedagogical" in its properly effective way.
  2. In using propaganda in the broad sense, we slur over none of the distinctions which are made by the narrower usages. We have adequate terms to designate these various distinctions. "Systematic propaganda," "organized propaganda," "individual propaganda," "casual propaganda," "pernicious propaganda," etc., are terms which are quickly intelligible and widely used.
  3. While the woman suffrage leaders apparently did not plan and organize this opposition, they were quick to recognize its opportune advantages and undoubtedly promoted it in unostentatious ways.

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