Priming for Control: How Mass Psychology is Used to Transform Lifeworlds

As readers of my blog know, I bring a lot of psychological concepts into my analysis of contemporary situations. My masters and doctorate are in social psychology and sociology respectively, and I have a bachelors degree in psychology. Psychology fascinates me, especially in the development of the methods of those who move the levers of political and social power to make their moves ever easier and more efficacious. I am thinking here of the powerful technology developed by propagandists like Edward Bernays, who developed his techniques using the ideas of Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalysts. These ideas form the ideology of modern advertising, put in practice by an army of persuaders who have weaponized psychology.

UAE residents warned after baby diagnosed with Covid-19 after ...
Faceless mask-wearing diversity

In my blogs on the COVID-19 panic I have so far focused on the tactics of fear production and the war metaphor. I have also discussed the accusation, from those who want us to stay shut down forever, that those pining for a return to normal life are selfish. “We can never go back to a normal life,” they say. For them, COVID-19 changes everything. It is a virus in a class of its own. It is, the insist, extraordinarily contagious and lethal. Only the altruistic and compliant can have any legitimacy in the face of such an existential threat. Those who disagree with the dominant narrative are not merely wrong—they are bad and dangerous people. Those who don’t wear masks threaten health and safety, while those who do are the good and righteous people. They post their masked selfies on social media, shame those who refuse masks, and get lots of strokes. They would do well in a social credit system. They are wrong scientifically, but their politics are ideological, so the science doesn’t matter.

In this essay, I want to make explicit a technique that causes me great consternation, what psychologists call “priming.” I teach this concept in my course Freedom and Social Control in covering the unit “Ideology and Propaganda.” The dictionary definition of the term pretty much captures the meaning: a primer is “a substance that prepares something for use or action.” We only need to add “someone” to the definition so that it reads “priming prepares something or someone for use or action.” Wikipedia has a concise definition (since mine tend to get longwinded): “Priming is a phenomenon whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention.” I am moved to blog about priming after reading a blog entry by Tom Nikkola “What if we’ve all been primed?” If my Aunt Betty had not shared it on her Facebook page I would never have seen it. Nikkola identifies several priming slogans: “We’re all in this together.” “Stay home. Stay safe.” “We’ll get through this.” “It’s our new normal.” I will discuss some of these slogans in this blog entry, but I encourage you to read Nikkola’s blog (his is a more popular treatment) and I appreciate him raising the issue.

Priming, associated with automaticity (automatic response pattern or habit), is a phenomenon and a technique in which a person’s actions with respect to a constellation of stimuli can be directed and shaped by conditioning their responses to a stimulus underpinned and reinforced by normative and moral frameworks. I have worked into my explanation here the ideas of Norbert Elias presented in his 1939 The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, especially the ideas from those chapters were he explores how elites pushed the values of foresight and self-constraint (similar to the Freudian superego) down into the common people and spread among them habits of shame and repugnance. Overall, Elias provides a historical account of the development and entrenchment of the European habitus, a constellations of habituated behaviors that become “second nature,” psychic structures shaped and directed by sociocultural values and attitudes. The habitus is a system of social regulation.

These frameworks are highly partisan in the United States and knowing this allows persuaders to manipulate the levers of norm following and status seeking. In other words, implicit social norms are repurposed by associating them with known desire. If priming works, people make decisions automatically and take actions habitually in a direction beneficial to the persuaders even when detrimental to the actors themselves. If, for example, I am told that I have to do something for the good of others, when it comes at great sacrifice to me, I need to find a deeper sentiment or, more accurately, that sentiment is a target for manipulation, to find the motivation to do what I otherwise wouldn’t. I discussed this in a recent entry The New Equity Principle: Healthy People Must Forfeit Their Dreams and Freedoms for the Sake of the Infirm. Shaming is part of social regulation, where the desire for social status is redirected by peer pressure. By appealing to the desire people have for doing good and their impulses to manage others impressions of them, persuaders can move the public to embrace that which they would otherwise have resisted.

Think about the slogans we’re being subjected to during the COVID-19 pandemic. The obvious one is the “new normal.” It seems everybody in a leadership role is saying this. Dr. Anthony Fauci says this when he envisions a new world in which we can no longer shake hands and parents can no longer feel safe sending their kids to school unless there is a vaccine. When a person accepts that they live in a “new normal,” they are easily persuaded to think about and act towards things that were heretofore objectionable, such as failing to help a person in distress because they may be infected. Since people have accepted that they live in a “new normal,” they accept those things that come with the new normal. They will rely on those—the “experts”— who told them about the new normal to do the things that come with it. Of course, who said we have to live in a new normal? The goal is to prevent that question from occurring to people. “Trust the experts.” Which experts? The ones the authorities tell the people to listen to. Repetition of slogans works assumptions into the populace. Soon everybody is saying it. How do they know it? Because they hear it all the time. They assume everybody else believes it, too, so when somebody doesn’t they recoil in horror. The tactic suppresses opposition to things, for example mask wearing, while enlisting people in the project to make these things automatic and habitual.

Another example of priming is “Stay home. Stay safe” and its variant “Stay home. Save lives.” Remember hearing as a kid “Better safe than sorry”? I bet many of you have said this. The proverb is designed to constrain action by playing on fear and regret. “Stay home. Stay safe” is an updating of “Better safe than sorry.” The variant “Stay home. Save lives” operates on the different level. This slogan functions to prepare people to accept confinement for the sake of others who will die if the person doesn’t stay home. At the beginning of April, Google, master of priming, put out the doodle: “Stay home. Save lives.” In any other circumstance people are likely to understand confinement to be something that only applies to those who are sick or those who are wrongdoers. “Why are we quarantining health people? We’ve never done that before.” because, in the “new normal,” you will kill people if you don’t “stay home.” Moreover, you will endanger your own life, so “stay home and stay safe.”

Saving the lives of others by limiting personal freedom is reinforced by the slogan “We’re in this together.” This is classic in-group/out-group formation and manipulation. This priming technique makes people think they’re in solidarity with those who seek to place them under house arrest. Exploiting the human tendency to want to be a part of something, it generates false belonging. It adds members to an imagined community. Again, to be effective these slogans have to be repeated ad nauseam. And, as I am sure my readers are aware, they are. Think of these slogans as talking points for the masses to help them stay on message.

Progressives, while making little effort to actually create the conditions for social justice, are especially vulnerable to the virtue of manufacturing symbolic virtue. It saves them the time and effort of actually doing something. Mask wearing is exemplary of do-nothing busybodyism. Wearing masks is no burden to those who don’t mind being told what to do by those they follow since it asks nothing else of them but to put on a mask, take a selfie, and scold others, which is something that love doing. Narcism makes trend mongering easy with this crowd. They’re always on the hunt for the next slogan that makes them appear “woke.” Those who have a problem with being compelled to engage in an irrational action that interferes with their freedom become the targets of progressive wrath, the raw materials for virtue production.

Fear is not always irrational. But it always works on an emotional level. Operating on the basis typifications or cognitive stereotypes, ideologies, unconscious motivations and feelings, priming works on sentiments. The insider effect of “we’re in this together” means that there are those on the outside who are the “enemy.” Consider the protests in Lansing, Michigan. Progressives were prepared to throw the Bill of Rights out the window to punish those they perceived as conservatives for protesting their Constitutional rights and liberties. Progressives have demanded that those who refuse to wear masks should be forced to wear masks even when the facts suggest that wearing masks to protect oneself or others is not well-supported by the facts and, moreover, is not benign. Reflexive belief not only denies facts but resists considering them.

The argument that we should all wear masks has been a particularly effective example of priming. Some of those in my circle of friends who should know better find themselves asking “What’s the big deal?” More on that in tomorrow’s blog.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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