Modern propaganda works better because it nudges you rather than assuming you are a rational actor

Modern propaganda works better because it nudges you rather than assuming you are a rational actor. By Matthew Crawford.

The Nineties saw the rise of new currents in the social sciences that emphasised the cognitive incompetence of human beings.

The “rational actor” model of human behaviour (a simplistic premise that had underwritten the party of the market for the previous half century) was deposed by the more psychologically informed school of behavioural economics, which teaches that our actions are largely guided by pre-reflective cognitive biases and heuristics. These biases tend to be functional, both in the sense that they reflect general patterns of reality, and because they offer “fast and frugal” substitutes for deliberation, which is a slow and costly activity.

An adjacent thought can be found in phenomenological writers such as Merleau-Ponty and Hubert Dreyfus: the kind of thinking that consists of chains of propositional statements and logical inferences is a special case, not typical of animals with bodies. We are one such animal, and our everyday coping with the world must have a certain fluency to it, if we are not to be paralysed. …

Rational actors are out, nudging the heuristics in is:

In their [2008] book Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein point out that individual choices don’t usually happen in a vacuum. They are often sculpted by a “choice architecture” that may be more or less deliberate in its design, but generally operates beneath the threshold of awareness, as a kind of background cognitive scaffolding.

A classic example is the placement of items on grocery store shelves. High margin items tend to be placed at eye level, while impulse purchases are placed in the slow-moving checkout line. Sugary cereals are placed at a child’s eye level, so the kid will nag his mother for some Lucky Charms.

Why not exploit the power of choice architecture for the public good, and replace the Lucky charms with Brussels sprouts? Doing so has an obvious appeal. It is a non-coercive way to improve people’s behaviour without having to persuade them of anything.

This offered obvious encouragement to the paternalistic tendencies of the administrative state. … Both the Obama White House and the government of David Cameron in the UK established “nudge” units to operationalise the insights of behavioral economics. The examples that the nudgers like to offer by way of illustrating their techniques are uncontroversial — things like increasing the savings rate, or getting people to stop smoking.

As Thaler and Sunstein like to point out when they are on the defensive, they didn’t invent nudging, they merely gave it a name and articulated its principles in the language of social science. But this articulation has been highly consequential. When something banal is presented as a scientific finding, it becomes available to institutions, part of their toolkit for “evidence based interventions.”

“Behavioral insight” teams inspired by Nudge are currently operating in the European Commission, the United Nations, the WHO and, by Thaler’s reckoning, about 400 other entities in government and the NGO world, as well as in countless private corporations. It would be hard to overstate the degree to which this approach has been institutionalised. …

The innovation achieved here, at scale, is in the way government conceives its subjects: not as citizens whose considered consent must be secured, but as particles to be steered through a science of behavior management that relies on our pre-reflective biases.

One example that Thaler and Sunstein call attention to, in their advice to administrators, is the “emerging norm” bias. Norms of various descriptions have more or less purchase on us, for reasons one can speculate on endlessly. But if you tell people that some new norm is emerging, they are more likely to identify with it. It seems most people don’t want to be on the Wrong Side of History. So announcing the emergence of some new norm can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, a means of steering the herd.

This holds obvious attraction for the vanguardist. … Such vanguardists may be ideologues, or they may simply be institutional players who have internalised the expansionary logic of the bureaucracies who employ them.

Liberalism and democracy are uneasy partners, which motivated the recent “anti-majoritarian revolution” (aka elitism):

When monarchy was finally eliminated as a rival to democracy in the revolutions of 1848, the alliance of convenience between liberalism and democracy threatened to break down. …

Liberalism fears that its dependence on and fundamental difference from democracy will be exposed if a sustained course of non-liberal popular opinion comes to light. The solution is to offer an idealised concept of democracy, sharply distinguished from “mere majoritarianism.” …

When Pew did opinion polling in Afghanistan a decade ago and found that something like 95% of respondents expressed a preference that sharia law should be the law of the land, this was not allowed to interrupt the conviction that making Afghanistan “democratic” would require a feminist social transformation. That is, an explicitly anti-majoritarian revolution.

Back to the Nineties. The hot career track for my cohort of Ph.D students in the political science department was to build up a theoretical edifice to strengthen the hyphen in “liberal-democracy” … There was a quarrel at the time between Habermas and Rawls, and it was Rawls who insisted on this crucial point: if you could just establish the right framing conditions for deliberation, the demos would arrive at acceptably liberal positions.

Wherever the opinions of the demos depart from an axis running roughly from the editorial page of the New York Times to that of the Wall Street Journal, it was taken to be prima facie evidence that there was some distorting influ­ence in the discursive conditions under which people were conducting their thought processes, or their conversations among themselves. The result was opinion that was not authentically democratic (i.e., not liberal).

Obviously, the prospect of populism was already causing some anxiety. … I remember there was one grad student in my department who was running experiments on focus groups, seeing if he could get them to think the right thoughts. To my unsympathetic eye, this looked like an exercise in self-delusion by aspiring apparatchiks for whom a frankly elitist posture would have been psychologically untenable. I don’t know if that grad student got his subjects to think the right thoughts. But I have little doubt he got them to say the right thoughts, and thereby lend those thoughts the demotic imprimatur he was looking for. Maybe that was good enough.

Political correctness might be understood as a device that became necessary for liberalism to continue to claim the mantle of democracy, even as prosecution of its program would require increasingly antidemocratic measures. …

Turns out that censorship and mass media lying is the way to do it:

The best way to secure the discursive conditions for “deliberative democracy”, and install a proper choice architecture that will nudge the demos in the right direction, is to curate information. Soon, the Internet would both enable and undermine these aspirations.

Of all the platform firms, Google is singular. Its near-monopoly on search (around 90%) puts it in a position to steer thought. And increasingly, it avows the steering of thought as its unique responsibility. In an important article titled “”, law professor Adam J. White details both the personnel flows and deep intellectual affini­ties between Google and the Obama White House. Hundreds of people switched jobs back and forth, some of them multiple times, between this one firm and the administration over eight years – an unprecedented alignment of corporate power and the executive branch.

One of the central tenets of progressives’ self-understanding is that they are pro-fact and pro-science, while their opponents (often the majority) are said to have an unaccountable aversion to these good things: they cling to fond illusions and irrational anxieties. It follows that good governance means giving people informed choices. This is not the same as giving people what they think they want, according to their untutored preferences. Informed choices are the ones that make sense within a well-curated informational context. …

But this effort has more or less failed, due to the proliferation of unauthorised voices on the Internet. [You’re reading one now.]

The pandemic prompted clumsy efforts to regain control, and these have often backfired. …

For example, early in the pandemic we were told masks don’t work, because the priority was to preserve a scarce supply of masks for health workers. More recently, the relative risks of the virus versus the vaccine for different demographics has been dismissed as irrelevant, for the sake of combatting vaccine hesitancy. But such deceptions, however well-intended, can succeed only if you have control over the flow of information. So once you go down this road of departing from the truth, you’re committed to censorship and rigorous narrative enforcement, which is very difficult to do in the Internet era.

The absurdities of COVID theatre could be taken as a tacit recognition of this state of affairs, much as security theater pointed to a new political accommodation after 9/11. In this accommodation, we have accepted the impossibility of grounding our practices in reality. We submit to ossified bureaucracies such as the TSA that have become self-protective interest groups. They can expand but never contract, and we must pretend reality is such as to justify their existence. Covid is likely to do for public health what 9/11 did for the security state. Going through an airport, we still take off our shoes — because twenty years ago, some clown tried to light his shoe on fire. We submit to being irradiated and groped, often as not. One tries to put out of mind facts such as this: in independent audits of airport security, about 80-90% of weapons pass through undetected. The microwave machine presents an imposing image of science that helps us bury such knowledge. We have a duty to carry out an ascetic introspection, searching out any remaining tendencies toward rational pride and regard for the truth, submitting them to analysis. Similarly, the irrationality of the Covid rules we comply with has perhaps become their main point. In complying, we enact the new terms of citizenship.

Hence the widening gulf between the narrative of those nudging us towards their choices, and reality.

The media tell us one thing, but our eyes and our reasoning tell us another. Except, of course, if we choose to submit to the dominant political ideology — in which case we internally censor those un-PC thoughts and avoid un-PC people and their deplorable truths.

hat-tip Stephen Neil