Tomorrow, the day after Labor Day, marks the beginning of two months of political-campaign assault in the form of simple messages– often half-truths, exaggerations, or just plain lies — repeated over and over until, in desperation, we turn off our TV’s and stop answering the telephone. While we shut our eyes and mute the audio function on our computers and televisions, we ask ourselves whom or what can we blame for this invasion. The sad news is that no matter how annoying they are, these messages are effective and for that we must blame our brains and the people who have studied them.
Our brains work to conserve resources and this tendency “can also predispose us to propaganda and cons of every stripe,” says David DiSalvo, in his book, What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite. Since World War II, psychologists have known that “the more a message is repeated, the more likely we are to believe it — particularly if we are paying little attention.” Once we’ve heard a message from three to five times, we feel more confident in its veracity. Our brains respond well to brief, easily understandable messages. They rebel against complex explanations that require them to pay attention, when there are other simpler ones vying for their consideration at the same time.
Brains are also susceptible to “psychosocial contagions,” which DiSalvo defines as the propensity to ‘catch’ others thoughts and behavior. We contract and pass on “blame, fear, and moral outrage” like they were a cold or the flu. Based on a study done by researchers at the University of California and Stanford University, “blaming someone in public is the psychological equivalent of coughing swine flu into a crowd.” The author adds that empathy is also contagious, though biased as well.
We”ll have plenty of time in the next two months to analyze our own behaviors in the face of the bombardment of “Vote for me, because my opponent is a liar, or unprepared for the job, or can’t be trusted” messages. It’s also likely that we’ll have trouble making an objective assessment, because, as DiSalvo reports, “neuroscience research has been providing evidence that ‘independent thought’ is certainly not absolute and possibly a figment of our ego’s making…our brains are not wired for complete independence.”