Conformity and Groupthink in the COVID Era
Psychological messaging tactics to shape public behavior
"Propaganda ends where simple dialogue begins.”
~~ Jacques Ellul, French political and social scientist
Dear WantToKnow.info readers,
Back in 2020, a Yale clinical trial did a revealing study that investigated which types of public health messages would be most effective in convincing people to get the COVID-19 vaccine once it became available. Interestingly enough, the study required an ethical exemption by the Yale Institutional Review Board in order to run these experiments on humans, given that the whole experiment was about convincing people to take a vaccine that didn't even yet exist.
Here were the public health message interventions used:
Other: Baseline message
3/15 of the sample will be assigned to a control group with a message about the effectiveness and safety of vaccines.
Other: Personal freedom message
1/15 of the sample will be assigned to this intervention, which is a message about how COVID-19 is limiting people's personal freedom and by working together to get enough people vaccinated society can preserve its personal freedom.
Other: Economic freedom message
1/15 of the sample will be assigned to this intervention, which is a message about how COVID-19 is limiting people's economic freedom and by working together to get enough people vaccinated society can preserve its economic freedom.
Other: Self-interest message
1/15 of the sample will be assigned to this intervention, which is a message that COVID-19 presents a real danger to one's health, even if one is young and healthy. Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is the best way to prevent oneself from getting sick.
Other: Community interest message
1/15 of the sample will be assigned to this intervention, which is a message about the dangers of COVID-19 to the health of loved ones. The more people who get vaccinated against COVID-19, the lower the risk that one's loved ones will get sick. Society must work together and all get vaccinated.
Other: Economic benefit message
1/15 of the sample will be assigned to this group, which is a message about how COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on the economy and the only way to strengthen the economy is to work together to get enough people vaccinated.
Other: Guilt message
1/15 of the sample will be assigned to this message. The message is about the danger that COVID-19 presents to the health of one's family and community. The best way to protect them is by getting vaccinated and society must work together to get enough people vaccinated. Then it asks the participant to imagine the guilt they will feel if they don't get vaccinated and spread the disease.
Other: Embarrassment message
1/15 of the sample will be assigned to this message. The message is about the danger that COVID-19 presents to the health of one's family and community. The best way to protect them is by getting vaccinated and by working together to make sure that enough people get vaccinated. Then it asks the participant to imagine the embarrassment they will feel if they don't get vaccinated and spread the disease.
Other: Anger message
1/15 of the sample will be assigned to this message. The message is about the danger that COVID-19 presents to the health of one's family and community. The best way to protect them is by getting vaccinated and by working together to make sure that enough people get vaccinated. Then it asks the participant to imagine the anger they will feel if they don't get vaccinated and spread the disease.
Other: Trust in science message
1/15 of the sample will be assigned to this message about how getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is the most effective way of protecting one's community. Vaccination is backed by science. If one doesn't get vaccinated that means that one doesn't understand how infections are spread or who ignores science.
Other: Not bravery message
1/15 of the sample will be assigned to this message which describes how firefighters, doctors, and frontline workers are brave. Those who choose not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 are not brave.
The primary outcome measure was to identify which interventions would lead to the the likelihood of getting a COVID vaccination. Secondary desired outcomes included measuring the increase of:
1. vaccine confidence
2. willingness to persuade others to take the vaccine
3. the fear people have towards those who have not been vaccinated
4. the social judgment of those who do not vaccinate
For people who believe that widespread vaccination is the most effective measure for mitigating the effects of COVID, this study is likely to be seen as part of a vital effort to deal with a deadly pandemic. If we're later told that this vaccine is safe and would save millions of lives a year, who wouldn't want to be vaccinated?
Yet now, with much of the population being vaccinated, many are calling for a more nuanced discussion on the safety and efficacy of these vaccines. Unfortunately, a great effort has been put in to censoring or discrediting any perspective that strays from the official narrative, even if some of these perspectives provide a deeper understanding of this complex public health issue.
If vaccination was indeed the most effective way to end the pandemic, a democratic society would still seek to understand the questions and concerns people have about the vaccine first, as opposed to manipulating behaviors and emotional responses through sophisticated, persuasive messaging tactics that achieve certain political policy aims.
For example, there are real concerns when it comes to the growing number of injuries and deaths associated with the vaccine, questions about COVID death counts and data integrity with the vaccine trials, the regulatory capture of our government agencies, and unprecedented levels of censorship that create the impression of a consensus that may not reflect the full reality.
Now that some time has passed, we know that vaccination does not prevent transmission despite public health officials falsely leading us to believe this. Authority figures also discredited natural immunity, which we now know is more effective than vaccine-induced immunity. There are also scientific perspectives worthy of considering, pointing to how the vaccines might be fueling new variants and reprogramming our body's immune responses.
The bedrock of democracy is the open flow of debate and information, which includes the process of exploring what's left out of any single narrative or given piece of information. Being truly informed arises from exploring multiple perspectives, and not buying into the either/or, black/white thinking that simplifies societal issues and reality itself.
While COVID dissent was labeled as an "attack on science," it can also be perceived as an appropriate use of the precautionary principle. Nancy Myers from the Science and Environmental Health Network defines the precautionary principle as one that is "based on the assumption that people have the right to know as much as possible about risks they are taking on, in exchange for what benefits, and to make choices accordingly."
The Precautionary Principle reflects the reality of working with and within complex systems. We live in a fast-moving world where regulation does not always keep up with innovation ... Science doesn’t necessarily move fast enough to protect us from potential risks, especially ones that shift harm elsewhere or take a long time to show up. The Precautionary Principle forces us to ask a lot of difficult questions about the nature of risk, uncertainty, probability, the role of government, and ethics.
— The Precautionary Principle: Better Safe than Sorry?
However, the results of the Yale study reveal how the most effective strategies to get people vaccinated wasn't a logical or scientific approach. It was a psychosocial, emotional one.
The main findings of the study are below:
Messages that frame vaccination as a cooperative action to protect others or emphasize how non-vaccination might negatively affect one's social image increased reported willingness to advise a friend, and increased judgment of non-vaccinators.
An article from Yale reviewing the study notes that appeals to community spirit and shame are most likely to shift vaccine attitudes. Gregory A. Huber, the Forst Family Professor of Political Science in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and a co-author of the study reported that "emotional appeals, such as evoking embarrassment, motivate people to reach out to others. That effect is likely very important to increasing the vaccination rate.”
Psychological tactics to change public behavior have concerning implications regardless of where you stand in this polarized vaccine information war fueled by the media. The unethical use of "nudge" tactics to inflate fear among the public prompted 40 psychologists in the UK to write a letter to the Parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, saying it was “highly questionable whether a civilised society should knowingly increase the emotional discomfort of its citizens as a means of gaining their compliance." The letter added:
Government scientists deploying fear, shame and scapegoating to change minds is an ethically dubious practice that in some respects resembles the tactics used by totalitarian regimes such as China, where the state inflicts pain on a subset of its population in an attempt to eliminate beliefs and behaviour they perceive to be deviant.
Stella Morabito, former CIA analyst who specialized in Soviet propaganda and disinformation methods, explains the power of gaining compliance through emotional manipulation tactics in her new book, The Weaponization of Loneliness: How Tyrants Stoke Our Fear of Isolation to Silence, Divide, and Conquer. Here's a striking passage from her book:
Even if the great majority of a population is not on board with an authoritarian agenda, a huge part of the agenda can be achieved through the power of mobs. Propagandized agendas can advance quickly when there's a good dose of agitation along with well-orchestrated media support for them. This all serves to ignite the social contagion of high emotion.
She explores the history of how powerful dictators, elite figures, and corporations exploit human nature, using the fear of loneliness and ostracization to gain and maintain authority, and marginalize dissent.
Revolutionary elites who push utopias are always a small minority. In order to get all of society on board, they must enlist mobs to promote the illusion of compliance with their visions. Mobs enforce the narrative, often through violence. They help censor any competing views through intimidation and various forms of book burning.
The common denominator of such revolutions past, present, and future is the weaponization of loneliness. All its features pit people against one another. All were at work in various ways in past revolutions of modern history. And all result in our further atomization, our further separation from one another.
The most critical features are the forces of identity politics, political correctness, and mobs. Identity politics is clearly meant to divide us into hostile groups, such as oppressor and victim, based on race or sex or any other demographic grouping. Political correctness induces us to self-censor, which means we drive ourselves into further isolation by limiting our exchanges with others to avoid the risk of social rejection. Mobs then serve as agitation forces that push propaganda into action. They intimidate others into silence and compliance and finally can cause any agenda—no matter how fringy—to become policy.
Another way to think about the machinery is as a combustion engine that can’t operate without ignited fuel. The fuel is our conformity impulse, and the spark is our fear. Without them, the machinery of loneliness simply can’t operate. So if we cannot shake off our conformity impulse and fear of isolation, we will remain self-silenced, isolated, and obedient to the mob. We will end up lonelier, more exhausted, and conditioned to repeat the cycle.
As French political and social scientist Jacques Ellul noted, "Propaganda ends where simple dialogue begins." CIA analyst Morabito asserted that we must rebuild civic society by developing parallel institutions that rewrite the stories of the underlying power structures corrupting our society. This starts with understanding the inner workings of identity politics, how political correctness shuts us up, and how mobs operate. Along with this, she suggests we reach insights into other related topics, such as "cult methods, gaslighting, censorship, mass movements, behavior modification or 'nudge' units in governments, coercive thought reform, and more."
The Asch conformity experiments reveal how strongly a person’s opinions are affected by people around them, even when it means denying their own intuition and sense of things. Yet interestingly enough, Morabito points out that "partnering with a subject enormously reduced conformity in giving a false answer. Partnering even by just one person punctures the illusion that everyone has the same opinion. And it has an effect on bystanders, even if they don't immediately chime in."
We've all experienced groupthink or some form of social rejection. Morabito ends her book emphasizing the power of foregrounding personal stories and human exchanges to strengthen our resistance to conformity and social pressures. We can't make sense of our times alone. Hardwired for connection, we might find that open inquiry together about crucial societal issues is a necessity for democracy and collective survival.
With faith in a transforming world,
Amber Yang for PEERS and WantToKnow.info
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