Monthly Archives: August 2009

Milgram as Icon Revisited – Joe Darby Speaks Out

You may recall an earlier post on the Iconic use of Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience research.  I noted that contemporary observers misunderstand and misuse the results from that research to grind all manner of gears, axes, and teeth.  While I used a column from the New York Times as the key illustration, literally hundreds of other examples exist, as these searches for websites and blogs demonstrates.  People really do not understand the persuasion science behind the Milgram research.

The Main Point with that work is direct, but not simple:  Under highly specified conditions, most people will show obedience to authority that clearly harms innocent people.  Most readers appear to catch the last part – harm to innocents – and miss the first part – highly specified conditions.  The highly specified conditions include:  1) a stranger who is highly credible and situationally powerful, 2) a physical environment that is unusual and contains new technologies, 3) a plausible, but ultimately untruthful cover story, 4) a skilled accomplice performing a script, and 5) physical or psychological distance from the innocent victim.  When these conditions are absent, compliance rates drop to much lower levels; however, a few people will almost always show compliance as long as they see a credible authority source.

People seem to largely ignore these conditions and have raised Milgram’s research to the level of a scientific icon – a powerful symbol that no one really understands, but greatly respects.  All you have to do is observe some situation where authority seems to be present and if something you don’t like occurs, you can wave the Icon over it and deplore it scientifically.

Take Abu Ghraib.  It is has become a commonplace, a stereotype to argue that those infamous prison photos taken of Iraqi prisoners by American jailers (and the abuse those photos document) is an outstanding illustration of obedience.  Except Abu Ghraib isn’t a good example.  In fact it is a lousy example.

You can reread my post for my artful, wise, and deeply nuanced analysis (see me tug my chin and stroke my beard as I pause and gaze up towards the only other source that seems to understand me) or you can read the story of the guy, Joe Darby, who broke the Abu Ghraib story.  He gives it all away in the first two paragraphs.

Everybody thinks there was a conspiracy at Abu Ghraib.

Everybody thinks there was an order from high up, or that somebody in command must have known. Everybody is wrong. Nobody in command knew about the abuse, because nobody in command cared enough to find out. That was the real problem. The entire command structure was oblivious, living in their own little worlds. So it wasn’t a conspiracy—it was negligence, plain and simple. They were all f***ing clueless.

SGT Joe DarbyJoe Darby was a soldier in that infamous unit of Military Police at Abu Ghraib.  He saw it and he reported it to the chain of command.  His actions revealled the abuses and it is possible that if he hadn’t done what he did, no one would know what happened.  He did the right thing.

His key observation that contradicts everyone who ever thought the Obedience Icon Explains It is found in his claims that there were no orders to abuse, that the abuse came from negligence.  This contradicts an Obedience Icon interpretation.  Since there were no orders, we don’t even have a compliance situation.  Forget all the Broadway play elements of the Milgram design (the lab, the technology, the script, the acting accomplice).  It’s all irrelevant.

To close, I reraise the Obedience Icon not simply to disagree, but to keep focus.  Persuasion science is a marvelously useful tool.  It helps us achieve goals, arms us in defense against attempts to change us, and it provides powerful insight into our human nature.  But, you have to know what you know and what you don’t know for it to be useful.  It makes you look smart, elite, intellectual, hip, groovy, and gear to wave the Obedience Icon; but you are an emperor with no clothes.  You are blinding yourself and others to what works and why it works.

Thus, the Obedience Icon hides the truth and reveals your foolishness.

Tribute for Joan’s Drive In, Marshall, Missouri

Joan’s Drive In, located in Marshall, Missouri has the greatest cheeseburgers in the history of the Western World.  Just off the town square – look for the courthouse – you will find a small diner with spinner seats, formica counter, and Connie at the grill.  Let me take you on the tour.

the Courthouse at Marshall

County Courthouse, Saline County, Missouri in Marshall where the people from my mother’s side originate. Hollywood shot my closeup in “The Children Nobody Wanted” (I played Delford opposite Michelle Pfeiffer before either of us were famous).  I stood on the stairs to the left. Now, imagine turning your head to the right 90 degrees . . .

Exterior of Joan's Drive In

. . . and you’ll see Joan’s Drive-In which has the greatest cheeseburgers in the world. My grandmother, Nell Ellingson (aka, “The Leader”) brought me here as a child in the early 1950s and I’ve been coming back ever since, often with . . .

Four Brothers at Joan's Drive In
. . . my little brother, Rick, and more recently, his sons, Brett and Evan. We’re seated at the counter waiting for Connie . . .
Connie at the grill

. . . Connie is the third owner of Joan’s Drive In. Ms. Joan Murphy started operation before World War II, then sold to Frances and his wife (whose name escapes me).  Frances and his wife inspired me to write a sweet short story based on the diner during the year I worked butchering hogs at a Wilson’s meat processing plant in the 1970s.  Frances and his wife hired Connie in the 1970s and she stayed on.

Best Burger Award

Here’s the certificate that documents the basis of my high opinion of Joan Murphy’s. It’s an award for “Best of Rural Missouri” in the hamburger category. They also got one for chili. If you’re ever on I-70, take the Rt 65 exit north 15 miles to Marshall, go to the Courthouse, then find Joan’s. Tell Connie hello. She won’t give you a discount, but she’ll take your picture holding her awards.

Steve and Evan

The only thing better than a Joan’s cheeseburger is a Joan’s cheeseburger paid for by my nephew, Evan, who fell for a bad bet.  Man, I wish he’d been born ten years earlier!

Cues in Combat!

This is an outstanding illustration of persuasion Cues.

Bob on the FOB Geardo

This cartoon sweetly mocks soldiers for their Peripheral Route gear choices in a combat zone.  It certainly is not a damning criticism of soldiers, the military, or war.  It is an inside joke, a takedown, a basket of raspberries.  Don’t get bent out of shape on the tangentials.  Focus on the Main Points:  Cues and WATTage.

Consider first the Cues.

“This thing was designed by a S.E.A.L. so it must be great!”

“All the Spec Ops guys have a dump pouch . . .”

Lots of examples of Comparison (If Others Are Doing It), Liking (When The Source Is Cool), and Authority (S.E.A.L., baby!) in this cartoon.  The artist, Sergeant Albert Merrifield, worked up a series of these cartoons called “Bob on the FOB” based on his own military service in Iraq during his tour from October 2005 through July 2006.  You can find a PDF here of an entire series.  Bob on the FOB is clearly meant as a joke, but even within the humor we see the persuasion angles.

What strikes me most is the obvious inference in this cartoon that people in a combat zone where they could possibly get killed or maimed are depicted as ambling along the Peripheral Route.  You’d think that if any situation would always make everyone extremely  high WATT, it would be a combat zone.  Yet, Merrifield offers this as an ironic example that must have some basis in truth.  We are always human wherever we are and to be human is to ride the ebb and flow of WATTage.

I appreciate these cartoons for their persuasion commentary, but more importantly, Sergeant Merrifield, thanks for your service to our country.

Footnotes on Military Lingo

Here’s Brad’s definition of an FOB: “a Forward Operating Base, which is a smallish, self-contained base in a forward area. It is what most of the people in Iraq and Afghanistan live on and work out of.”

ACU is Army Combat Uniform.

S.A.W. is Squad Automatic Weapon which is a machine gun that a single person can carry and employ.  If you’ve seen the movie, “Blackhawk Down,” you’ve seen S.A.W.s in action.

9mm is . . . come on, you know this.  Rap music, CSI, virtually every cop movie features it – a cool handgun that looks like the World War II Colt .45 my father-in-law, Clif, carried; it uses a 9mm round rather than the .45.

An M4 is the newest evolution of the AR-15 carbine while a .50 cal is shorthand for the Browning M2 .50 caliber machine gun which is a crewed weapon unless used by a Hollywood actor for effect.  Thus, if your rifle, the M4, weighs more than a weapon carried by two men, you’ve got a lot of options installed.

Spec Ops, Ranger, Delta, and S.E.A.L. are terms describing Special Forces personnel.  There are also crucial distinctions among and between these four terms and you’d better get them right in a bar, but hopefully in a blog post, I’ve got some slack. All serve with honor and distinction.

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WACky Tricks or One Is Really Three

You remember our Persuasion WAC:  WATTage, Arguments, and Cues.  If it moves the dimmer switch of your mind, it is WATTage.  If it is information of crucial importance, it is Argument.  If it influences with little thinking, it is Cue.  High WATT minds want Arguments on the Central Route while Low WATT minds want Cues ambling along the Peripheral Route.

WACy BlondeNow, smart people make a dumb mistake when they think that everything can be classified into one and just one of the three WACs.  Take a classic advertising example:  The pretty blonde with a hot body.  A Cue, right?  I mean all you do is take one look and your mind stops working and all the illumination you need is coming from that hot blonde and not your WATTage.

Let’s work on this.  You’ll need to fantasize, but it’s okay.  I won’t tell if you won’t tell.  All in the name of science!

So, imagine the hot blonde of your dreams (and it doesn’t have to be blonde hair, it could be any color, blonde just works for me and I’m writing this and you promised not to tell.)  Now, add unusually long hair.  Long, lustrous, blonde hair.  Let the wind blow and see that long blonde hair attached to that face, that face, that fabulous face, and that body, don’t even get started on that body, just see that long blonde hair flowing in the wind . . .

. . . while the blonde of your dreams holds the wheel of a surging red convertible.  Blue skies, red metal, hot blonde hair, flowing, going, blowing in the wind.

And now a caption:  For Beautiful Hair.

A classic auto ad.  Take your car, add one hot blonde, label with a clever slogan, and boom, we’ve just saved Detroit.  And we did it on the Peripheral Route with Low WATT thinkers and that lovely hot blonde Cue.  And it’s gotta be a Cue not an Argument because how can a car make hair beautiful and besides why would you buy a car to make beautiful hair?  You wouldn’t . . .

So, imagine now, that hot blonde of your dreams with the long hair, flowing, going, blowing in the wind . . .

. . . while holding a bottle of shampoo with the same caption:  For Beautiful Hair.

What’s your hot blonde now?  A Cue?  Really?  Wait a minute.  If the shampoo helps make that long hair look that good, that’s an Argument, not a Cue.  If my hair will look better because of the shampoo, then those hot blonde tresses are an Argument.

The WAC is not as simple as it seems.  The same persuasion element – in this case long, blonde hair – can function as either an Argument or a Cue.  It depends upon how it is used.  If the persuasion element is something that a High WATT thinker will consider, mull, weigh, elaborate upon, add to, embroider over, then it is an Argument.  By contrast, if a Low WATT thinker stares in slack jawed wonder at that shiny, bright thing wiggling and jiggling with promise and delight, then it is a Cue.  Same object, but different function.

And, “function” is the key to the WAC.  Observe function, not appearance.  Function marks the WAC category.  When you know what it does, you know WATTage, Argument, or Cue.

“But, Steve, how does blonde hair function as that dimmer switch for WATTage?  I get the Argument and Cue difference, but blonde hair turns the dimmer dial?”

MBB Bacchus It does for me.  I married a hot blonde who also happens to be smart, sophisticated, and experienced.  My married life taught me to turn up the dimmer switch when the (blonde) girl of my dreams starts talking.  I need to go High WATT with her because she often says interesting, useful, and enjoyable things . . . which is another way of saying she provides a lot of Arguments!

Of course, your WATTage with blondes may vary!

The Persuasion WAC

We need to share a vocabulary of persuasion so that we can communicate effectively in this blog.  Short of buying a book and reading it, here’s a quick primer of key persuasion concepts.  Let’s take a WAC at it.

Imagine a photograph of any persuasion moment:  Mom and Dad arguing about locking the liquor cabinet and How Long Brittney Gets Grounded, a sales associate encouraging you to add a groovy accessory to your latest purchase, you encouraging a friend to drink less and exercise more.  The scene is people using words to change the way freely choosing other people think, feel, or act.  Persuasion.

Now, every element in that picture fits into one of three persuasion categories:  WATTage, Arguments, or Cues.

WATTage is a clever acronym for Willingness and Ability to Think.  If you are high WATT you are motivated and enabled to think carefully and effortfully about the persuasion situation.  If you are low WATT, you are still thinking, but not with much motivation or effort.  With only this high-low distinction, its obvious that persuasion operates differently depending on our WATTage.  When the light of your mind burns brightly, you are actively engaged, concentrated, focused.  When the light is dim, but still lit, your mind is otherwise engaged.  Most folks most of the time cruise through life in a low WATT state because they can always dial up the dimmer switch to high WATT as needed.

Arguments contain anything of central importance to the persuasion situation.  Typically persuasion arguments are facts, evidence, reasoning, statistical analysis, etc., but sometimes a pretty face and a hot body are arguments – if you are a cosmetic surgeon running an ad to sell your services, for example.  The key is whether the information is of central importance to the persuasion situation.  Sometimes, it’s Just The Facts, Ma’mam and sometimes it’s that Pretty Face.  If it’s crucial info, it’s an argument.

Cues are persuasion variables that influence without requiring much thinking.  That pretty face on top of a hot body might be a strong argument for the cosmetic surgeon’s ad, but as a sponsor of the new Tax Legislation, probably not.  Cues are often bright and shiny things that jiggle and shake like the spinners you put on a fish reel to lure in the fish.  Gee, I really like her, sure I’ll sign that petition.  Gee, she’s really an expert on this, sure I’ll sign that petition.

The WAC combines into a simple diagram like this.


(Okay, quiz time, my pretties, what does WAC mean?)

The WAC always applies in every realtime persuasion event.  Freeze the frame and classify everything into one category:  WATTage, argument, or cue.  Now, realize that in a new persuasion event, everything can change.  Instead of the receiver rocking along the Central Route with high WATT processing of Arguments, she’s now ambling along the Peripheral Route, a low WATT processor of Cues.  Persuasion is like life, fluid, changing, dyanmic, the same river you can never step into twice.

But, the WAC always applies.

Persuasion Fruit that Poisons the Tree

Ghost Writer PremproThe New York Times prints today a great story on ghostwriting medical research reports.  And, more interestingly, the research topic is hormone replacement therapy (HRT), with an emphasis upon how the pharma, Wyeth, funded  publications of dozens of reports offering positive scientific evidence for its HRT product, Prempro.  This made the light of day because of litigation from the health disaster caused by women taking HRT and then getting breast cancer.  Given my prior posts on the persuasion implications of HRT, cancer, and the medical community, this article affords yet another take.

Plot, Character, and Moral Theme

Most readers are doubtless surprised that scientific reports are ghostwritten.  That surprise largely stems from most folks’ ignorance of how medical research and practice operates.  Folks like to believe that the physician sitting there opposite them is a composite of contradictory traits:  the icy brilliance of a lonely scientist in a lab with the warm concern of a caring clinician wanting to ease your pain.

Medical research is a complex, specialized, and coordinated web of different people playing different roles.  Rarely does one doc contain both a great researcher and a great clinician.  People tend to specialize not only in this big split between research and practice, but within these larger categories, take the research side for example, and people will specialize as grant writers, stats analysts, program managers, and so on.

Given this specialization, you should not be surprised to learn that there is a special job for writing research reports.  If you’ve never been involved in a large, complex project, this kind of specialization sounds both silly and suspicious, but, believe me, you don’t want a health care system where each person is a Renaissance Worker.  It won’t happen and it won’t work.

Writing a research report is a skill that many doctorally trained people never master.  Once, as a doc student, I did a study of publication patterns in communication journals, simply counting how many publications were completed over a five year period, then ordering the list by name.  What I found astonished me.  Publication is dominated by a relatively small number of researchers with most people in a field publishing only one paper in five years, most often something out of their dissertation.  This kind of research has been replicated in every scientific field I know about it.  Writing for publication is a gift most people lack.  But they need publication, so they partner with people holding different skills so that everyone benefits and actually does good work.

So, ghostwriting for scientific publication is a well known practice.  No one hides from it, many teams use it, and it occurs in all areas of research, not just medicine, and certainly not just HRT.

But, since you don’t know about it, smart folks can use your ignorance in a court of law and the court of public opinion to knock the hell out of a pharma like Wyeth.  If you read the NYT story (and you did, right?) you see the persuasion point clearly emerge.  Wyeth bought bogus research and got it published to support its marketing aims with Prempro.  Wyeth therefore used bad science to mislead the medical community into prescribing Prempro which caused thousands of excess cases of premature morbidity and mortality, particularly from breast cancer.

The Deconstruction of “Ghostwriting” or Clear Thinking

You can believe this if you wish, but you’re not thinking it through.

Before we begin let me admit my biases:  I’ve worked all sides of most fences.  I worked as a academic research professor on a wide variety of medical research projects, most with external funding.  I ran a Fed research operation and hired and supervised people who did this kind of research.  As a Fed I also designed research programs that provided external funding mechanisms, sat on funding review committees, and worked on inter Agency teams.  I also have worked as a consultant with pharmas and have received “Cue-balls,” those little trinkets and toys pharmas hand out at all kinds of meetings, just for being in the room.  I know women who used Prempro and had breast cancer.  And, of course, I’ve been a patient myself dealing with both physicians, researchers, and pharmas.  Like I said, I’ve got biases, but I’ll try to think like scientist.

Now, to the persuasion analysis!

1.  “Ghostwriting” is a perjorative term used by the Good Guys to describe the Bad Guys.  It is a persuasion act to get folks to describe a neutral activity, writing, with a weasel word, “ghostwriting,” and a sneering attitude.  In many respects, “ghostwriting” in this context is like calling it “propaganda,” rather than “persuasion.”  Bad Guys produce ghostwriting and propaganda.  Good Guys don’t.  This distinction is not important as long as we can keep everyone looking at the “bad” ghostwriting Wyeth sponsored on HRT, but as soon as we start looking at other research reports that were written by Somebody Who Didn’t Actually Do The Research, what shall we call that?  I’ll bet dollars to donuts that somebody will want to cite Good Guy research that attacked Wyeth that was, surprise, ghostwritten by somebody paid by a different pharma or other going concern (like a foundation that is a going concern).  You see the problem now with the “ghostwriting” metaphor or meme or frame or whatever some postmodern hipster calls it?

2.  While the ghostwriter actually structures and writes the report, it would never pass peer review at the journal for publication if the ghostwriter was the only name on the author line.  Other folks with respectable reputations in the research community have to put their names on the author line to get the ghostwritten piece in print.  This means that dues-paying, card-carrying members in goodstanding must have sold their scientific reputations.  Now, you have to burn down their reputations along with Evil Wyeth.  Or, of course, it was possible that Evil Wyeth deceived these smart and honorable scientists, so then you destroy their reputations not with charges of sellout, but with charges of willful naivete.

3.  How did this ghostwriting crap get past peer review and into print?  If Wyeth manufactured research reports the same way they manufactured pills, any smart reviewer and journal editor should have seen it.  That’s why they are reviewers and editors.  Remember the persuasion claim here is that ghostwriting hides bad science.  Wyeth hired a skilled writer, then paid respectable scientists to sell their reputations for the author line, and packaged it with bad science.  “Bad science” has to be the key point.  Ghostwriting good science cannot be a serious problem in this instance.  Why didn’t the journal catch this?  Let’s burn down the reputation of numerous reviewers and editors for their carelessness, cluelessness, and stupidity.

4.  The NYT article asserts that nearly 25 ghostwritten papers hit the research literature between 1998-2005.  That’s a lot of authors selling their names to hide bad science.  It’s also nearly a lifetime in a research cycle.  In other words, this practice had to be widespread and well known within the research community and NO ONE FIGURED IT OUT.  How stupid and gullible are the people in the research community?  Here’s Evil Wyeth buying and selling respectable scientists over a seven year period with widespread coverage promoting bad science and the community doesn’t raise an eyebrow.  No one catches this conspiracy.  None of the respectable scientists who sold out has a flash of guilt or a pang of conscience.  No driven doc student follows the ghost trail back to a gleaming corporate headquarters.  Let’s burn down the reputation of the research community.

5.  There’s the problem of all those Good Researchers who didn’t sell their reputations to Wyeth, didn’t use ghostwriters, but still thought HRT was the greatest thing since L’Oreal Ash Blonde Hair Coloring.  They said so in print while they were with Harvard and they’re still at Harvard.  Just look for all those bright epidemiologists who can invert matrices in their heads.  They thought HRT was All That.  So we’ve got Evil Wyeth and Wholly Harvard saying the same thing.  And “ghostwriting” is the difference?

6.  And, now, clinicians come off as complete idiots.  There they sat, year after year, reading bad science in journals and watching bad science at professional meetings, and every man and woman in the audience fell for it.  “Wow,” they thought, “this Prempro is some hot stuff, baby!” falling into a disco meme, perhaps.  And they fell for it because they were too stupid or careless to read the research and think for themselves, but rather in sheeplike fashion they followed the party line offered by their research peers.

There’s A Difference Between What You Want and What You Get

Law describes the “fruit of the poisoned tree,” which means helpful information obtained illegally must be tossed.  For example, an agent may unknowingly participate in an illegal search and during that illegal search, the unknowing agent finds culpable evidence.  But, because the evidence (the fruit) came from an illegal search (the poisoned tree), it must be discarded.

I’d like to turn around this beautiful metaphor:  Poisoned fruit will kill the tree.

Lawyers and academic researchers offer ghostwriting as a kind of persuasion play that kills Evil Wyeth, but this play is actually a poisoned fruit that kills the tree of medical research.  If Wyeth did what these ardent advocates claim, that fruit of dishonesty and deception poisons the tree of leaves, stems, branches, trunk, and roots that forms the organic system we call medical research.  The living organism itself will be poisoned from this fruit.

Remember the Rule:  All bad persuasion is sincere.

Do not doubt the sincerity of those who see ghostwriting as fruit that proves a guilty tree.  But that sincerity clearly blinds their vision.  They care more about looking good (I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!) than doing good (Make It Right).

Remember the Rule:  Persuasion is strategic or it is not.

The ghostwriting play achieves tactical goals – hey, the New York Times fell for it and we get all this cool press! – but misses the strategic mark – I just ate a poisoned pill that can destroy me, my colleagues, and my community.

A Tipping Point with the Obama Charisma?

obama-icon-tipping.jpgWhile I have great respect for President Obama’s many and various political skills, I’ve never thought that he is a Great Communicator.  He’s effective, competent, in the game, he plays his position, Pick Your Metaphor, but he’s not Great.  He does not run circles around his opponents with communication skill, but instead with political skill.  For my money, he’s much more like George W. Bush in that balance between communication and political skill.  He accomplishes most of his goals through politics, not communication.  He gets the votes, not with talk, but with deals.

Of course, I’m completely wrong in this evaluation.  Everyone knows that Mr. Obama is one of the most gifted communicators to ever occupy the White House.  Okay.  Then explain all this to me.

His main economic advisors, Mr. Geithner and Mr. Summers, are going on TV and declaring that higher taxes for more citizens is possible.  Mr. Obama put his own foot in his own mouth with ill-considered remarks on the Henry Gates case, thereby stepping all over his health care reform message (man, is that an interesting mixed metaphor – foot in mouth, stepping on itself).  The White House has gotten itself fully engaged on the extremist “Birther” claims and is giving longer legs to a short issue.  Mr. Obama talks tough about health care reform deadlines, then let’s them drop, and says the deadlines aren’t important.  His spokesman, Mr. Gibbs, claims that those who disagree in town hall meetings about health care reform don’t worry the White House because they are just manufactured anger.

Where’s the communication skill in all of this?  In all of these cases the deliberate action of the Administration has created counterarguing, distraction, and confusion.  The Administration cannot shut up and maintain message discipline, apparently from the President down to his advisors.  Geithner and Summers should have been smart enough to never talk publicly about tax increases.  Gibbs should be smart enough to not dismiss controversy as “manufactured.”  Obama should have known to not say a word about Henry Gates during that health care reform press conference.

The lack of discipline, focus, and strategy here is obvious, to me at any rate.  It’s one thing to be embroiled in the normal to and fro of politics as a President moves his agenda.  The mere presence of disagreement is not a bad thing or even an avoidable thing.  People disagree on ways and means and goals.  Action will produce conflict.

What I’m arguing here is that the Administration is doing a poor communication job in executing its political action.  It causes trouble where it did not have to cause trouble.  It confronts small trouble and makes it bigger trouble that lasts longer.

The single most important communication skill the Administration should enact is – Silence.  Just shut up.  Speak only the messages you want in the public information marketplace.  Maintain silence in the face of everything else unless you’ve got a fabulous strategic reason to speak.

Remember the Rule:  All bad persuasion is sincere.

Right now, the Obama Administration is loudly and easily sincere.

Remember the Rule:  More is the enemy of Less.

More communication and more persuasion merely provides your opponents more opportunities to resist, countermove, and fight.  More persuasion often leads to more fighting rather than to attaining your goal.

Finally, remember the Rule:  Power corrupts persuasion.

The people of the Administration now have power, a lot of power, compared to the days of running an election.  Whatever skill everyone had as Great Communicators is slipping through the easy access to power.  They are getting used to making a phone call or pressing a button or cutting a deal.  Power beguiles as it weakens.

Dissonance in Vichy France 1940

In my never ending quest to demonstrate the daily and practical operation of persuasion, consider this quotation.

“Suffering itself was supposed to burn away the dirty dross of interwar France, to purify and strengthen the national fiber.  Of course, Frenchmen knew they would have to suffer in June 1940, whether they liked it nor not, but seeing some merit in suffering helped reconcile them to the armistice position.  Spokesmen for the regime like to proclaim that ‘suffering purifies.’”

This from “Vichy France,” by Robert Paxton, a scholarly study of the history of Vichy, France, the collaborationist state that governed France from 1940-1944 during the Nazi Germany occupation.  You might need a little brush up on the basic historical facts to understand how this quote demonstrates dissonance.

Vichy France 1940France in 1940 was a Great Power and viewed as a likely easy winner in a war with Hitler’s Germany.  Hitler had already made a march in Europe, invading or ceding other countries.  He was now poised to turn west and attack the combined armies of France and Great Britain.  Despite a clear warning, Allied armies were simply unprepared for the speed and unexpectedness of the German attack through the Ardennes forest.  France fell in six weeks to the shock of the entire world, Germans, British, Americans, and especially, French.  A foreign army occupied France.

What followed was a period known historically as Vichy France when the Germans allowed the French to set up a government that actually led large elements of the civilian population, despite the fact that they were conquered.  And, worse still, through a willing policy of collaboration, most of France cooperated with Nazi Germany.  In other words, a nation that had sworn to fight to the death against the known barbarism of Nazi Germany, fought badly, surrendered quickly, then collaborated with the enemy until an Allied army energized almost entirely with American and British soldiers, freed France.

France is still questioning itself over its behavior during Vichy France (so named because the town of Vichy became the seat of government).  Certainly there were some who participated from the begining of the occupation in a loyal and dangerous resistance, but France largely cooperated.  The question to ask is why?

My quote at the opening of this post offers a partial explanation.  If you can take the suffering at the hands of your enemy to be a “good thing” then the suffering actually becomes something else:  Just the price you have to pay to move from an old condition to a new and better one.  A collective national dissonance explains this.  In the shock, humiliation, and fear that followed the defeat in war, an enormous number of people would have experienced the psychological state of dissonance.  Defeat was an impossible outcome, yet the French lost, fair and square if you will, on the battlefield.  Their loss was their loss.  As you read Paxton’s book or others on the fall of France and its aftermath, you read little externalizing of failure.  Some tried to blame non-French sources, but the evidence was so weak and silly that only the most ardent could maintain that fiction.  The French lost France and they knew it.

Under these conditions, the French clearly fell prey to the psychological effects of dissonance and more importantly, dissonance reduction.  Rather than continue to fight through all means necessary, the French largely collaborated and did so vigorously.  They embraced the occupation as a way of creating a new France even while under the occupation of a hated enemy.  It’s always good to remember Leon Festinger’s quote:

“People come to love things for which they have suffered.”

No clearer historical illustration of this observation can be found than Vichy France.