It was interesting to read a recent news report about an Iranian man who pretended to be a member of the former “royal family” of Iran, and used his fake Pahlavi name to con several people out of a lot of money. Apparently, this smooth-talking con-artists was able convince a hotel owner to lend him a large amount of cash and provide him and his family with free hotel stays. The guy eventually convinced the hotel owner to give away the actual hotel too! Now THAT is prime con-artistry at work!
A con-artist, for those of you who are not familiar with the term, is a a charlatan and theif who takes advantage of people through trickery rather than force.
I have always been fascinated by con-artists since I was a child practicing magic tricks. To be more exact, I was fascinated by the “victims” of con-artists (though a good con-artist will tell you that their “victims” are actually active and willing participants in their own deception, and so not really victims at all.)
I was always curious to know: how can well-educated and reasonable people be so easily mislead? How can people actually believe Bush's lies? How could, for example, someone believe that a magician is actually capable turning a chicken into a tiger? How could anyone actually believe that a fortune teller is capable of foretelling the future? How could someone actually spend money at a casino, in the vain hopes of winning when the statistics are clearly in favor of the casino? How could someone actually give money to some guy in Nigeria in response to one of those well-known email scam letters that you too have probably received? How could someone actually respond to one of those “You May Have Already Won $1 Billion” junk mail letters?
And yet millions of people do believe such simple cons and hand over their money quite willingly–and not just the dumb people either. Why is that? Aren't these the same people that supposedly are in charge of running their own country in a democracy? If 85% of the US electorate falsely believed that weapons of mass destruction existed and have been discovered in Iraq, what makes them qualified to vote for the next President? Let's take an example of how easy it is to mislead people:
I am sure you've all heard of something known as The Big Lie. No, its not a movie from Hollywood about a cheating spouse. The Big Lie Theory is simply this: the more blatantly you lie to people, the more likely they are to believe you.
The idea of the Big Lie is attributed to Goebbles, Hitler's public relations specialist. Actually, it was Hitler himself who probably came up with the Big Lie Theory. Though he was no doubt an evil man, Hitler knew how to fool people well too. He took the time to perfect this abilities. If you ever watch his speeches and notice his dramatic poses, remember this: he spent hours practicing those poses in front of a mirror, getting them just right. He knew the value of body language in persuasion. Leaders (even a nasty Evil doer like Hitler) know the value of appearances in leadership. After all, how many other failed art students do you know who climbed up to rule over an advanced industrialized nation, and had everyone following in his goose-steps to war?
Anyway, basically Hitler explained the Big Lie Theory this way: people assume that you won't intentionally lie to them because there's a taboo against lying in society. Therefore they are likely to give you the benefit of the doubt, even when you do lie to them. The more unbelievable your lie is, the more likely the people will think, “Gosh, that sounds too obviously unbelievable to be a lie, so maybe its not really a lie at all!” And what's more, the more certain you sound in your belief of your own lies, the more believable it becomes to others. That's why pathological liars are so believable: they actually believe in their own lies.
Oh, by the way, before you condemn the Germans and think they were just silly for believing the Big Lies, remember that you're no better. You too can be so easily misled. Your conceit only makes you a better target.
Anyway, other than the Bigness of the Big Lie, psychologists and communications specialists have come to identify other important factors in the believability of the Big Lie: repetition, orchestration, and source credibility.
The Big Lie has to be repeated to be believed. The more something is repeated, the more likely the people are to believe it. This is especially true if the people aren't actually paying a lot of attention to what's being said (if they were paying attention, they may come to have doubts about the validity the Big Lie). Why else do you think the same TV commercials are shown over and over again? The advertisers know that no one is paying attention to the ads, and that's just fine as long as people see and hear the ads.
The second important factor is orchestration: the Big Lie has to be repeated from many different sources to be believable. If you hear the same message from ten different people, you're more likely to believe them than if just one guy repeats the same the Big Lie. The final element is source credibility. You're more likely to believe something that someone says if you believe the speaker is an apparent authority on the topic.
Note my words carefully: an “apparent” authority. They don't actually have to be a real authority as long you think they are one. The authority could be just that guy in your office who “knows about computers”, or a friend who “knows about dieting” or a relative who saw a movie you're considering to rent. The authority could also be a “terrorism expert” who appears on Fox News Channel, or a “journalist” who is actually biased.
The Big Lie is still with us today. However, a fourth factor has been added to make the Big Lie even more believable: subtlety of presentation. You don't need to yell the Big Lie from Nazi-style mass rallies to be believable. That's too dramatic, and it may cause the observers to start to pay attention to what's going on–and if they actually pay attention, then they may start to doubt the Big Lie.
So, all you need to do is slip the Big Lie into the people's conciousness, quitely and carefully and repeatedly, until they come to believe in the Big Lie without remembering how or why or when they ever actually considered the matter. They just think the Big Lie is true, and think it has always been known to be true.
In fact, you don't need to actually “lie” at all. In other words, you don't need to actively assert a falsehood. All you have to do is to suggest and imply the falsehood, and let the observers reach the (false) conclusions that you've pointed out to them. This is a much more effective way of lying since the people partipate in the process of lying to themselves. And its a lot safer too, because if the lie is ever exposed you can deny having ever said it.
So, today this advanced form of the Big Lie is better known as the “Unstated Conclusion” (also known as an “Ethymeme” to the Ancient Greeks.) Here's an example of how it works:
First, claim that Saddam is “linked” to terrorists (whatever “linked” actually means is not important.) Also claim that terrorists are responsible for the September 11 attacks. What's the implied-but-unstated conclusion drawn from these two claims? That Saddam Hussein is responsible for September 11, of course!
Then, repeat, repeat, repeat. Get “terrorism experts” to repeat it too. In fact, get 10 terrorism experts to repeat this on TV, in editorial columns, books, etc. Simple, really. Is it any wonder why some many Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for September 11 when they essentially convinced themselves of that false conclusion, and then had their views confirmed by so many “experts” from so many different sources?
And the beauty of this lie is this: if someone asks Bush or Cheney “Why did you say that Saddam was responsible for September 11?” Bush or Cheney can respond, “Hey, we never said that at all! You concluded that on your own!”
But there is an even more subtle form of the Big Lie, known as the Foregone Conclusion. In this version of the Big Lie technique, all you have to do is assert a lie as if it was true. Don't bother with any embellishments, and don't bother with any effort at justifying the Big Lie–just say it as if its already been proven to be true beyond any question.
Here's an example of the Foregone Conclusion which you have probably seen many times recently. It appeared in the first sentence of an article written by Barbara Slavin in USA Today newspaper, on August 16 2004: “Iran's increasing support for insurgent Shiites in Iraq is giving the fighting in Najaf the appearance of a proxy war between Iran and the United States, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.”
Did you catch the Foregone Conclusion in that sentence? Here it is: “Iran's increasing support for insurgents…” To this day, there is no evidence that Iran is providing any support to the insurgents in Iraq at all. The US State Department said it had no evidence of Iranian support for the insurgents on August 19, and the Iraqi Foriegn Minister also said the same thing a couple of days later. There was never any such evidence. However, Barbara Slavin instead has the gall to talk of “increasing” support.
That's the classic Big Lie at work — a baseless exaggeration. She doesn't say “alleged support.” She doesn't attribute the view to “administration officials” either. She just says “increasing support” as if it was a proven, undeniable and established fact –a Foregone Conclusion that need not be thought about, just believed.
Another example of the Foregone Conclusion variety of the Big Lie can be seen in the many news references to ” Iran's nuclear weapons program”. According to the International Atomic Energy Inspectors, there is no evidence of any such “weapons program” in Iran. But that doesn't matter. Instead, there are articles after articles published in US newspapers which casually toss in a line mentioning “Iran's nuclear weapons program” as if everyone just knows that such a program exists. And if they repeat it enough, you too will believe it.
A final consideration: there's something known as the Spiral of Silence Theory of communication: according to this theory, people who hold opinions that are contrary to the popular public view will remain silent on the issue. Gradually, as more and more people chose to remain silent rather than to voice unpopular positions, public opinion will be dominated by a few voices – the voices of those who dare speak out.