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Questioning Questionable Sources

We can’t navigate through the informational tsunami that flows over us everyday if we don’t make critical assessments about the reliability of sources. 

Since the ancient Greek philosophers, the study of communication has concerned itself with the credibility of sources.  Aristotle especially insisted on the importance of  only putting faith in people with “good character,” high “ethos,” and personal “virtue.”  All were considered critical measures in determining the worth of an individual’s contributions to public discourse. The later Roman rhetorician Quintilian famously described the perfect advocate as a “good person speaking well.”

The idea of rigorous assessment of the potential veracity of a source is critical, not just in legal proceedings, where the stakes are obviously high, but in all walks of life.  Making decisions or forming attitudes based on someone else’s word is a survival skill. But in our over-communicated society, qualifying a source of information as “probably” reliable now boils down to little more than liking the source.

Americans seem to lack even the basic skills to make basic estimations of motives that might reveal glaringly obvious biases.  I’ve recently heard from individuals who were much too generous in accepting conclusions from questionable advocates, for example:  accepting British Petroleum as a decent source for learning about the explosion and oil spill of the Deepwater Horizon in 2010, accepting the word of a National Hockey League doctor on “overblown” stories of head trauma among players, accepting Wal-Mart as a source of reliable “information” on the treatment of their employees. All are examples of misplaced faith in an organization’s ability to tell the truth, even when their own financial interests should make us cautious about accepting their claims.

Consider another example with a different twist.  The National Football League has estimated that one in three of their players will have significant cognitive problems due to the bone crushing nature of their work.  On first glance, one may assume that the NFL would have an interest in minimizing player head injuries.  And if they did, their credibility ought to be called into question.  But an astounding projection of one in three players for limitations of “mental function” actually makes their estimate quite credible. That’s a lot of players. They would not have confirmed that rate unless it was probably true. This admission should raise some red flags with anyone connected with the sport.

This general laxity about applying reasonable standards of credibility to the assessment of sources comes at a time when more advertisers seek to embed their marketing campaigns as “sponsored content” on websites. For the advertiser, the idea is to take a soft focus view of a brand within a form that looks like straight journalistic content.  So the Washington Post website runs an article entitled “Five Chefs Talk Cheese” sponsored by the “Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.”  To the Post’s credit, they label the content as “sponsored.”  But that tag is easy to miss.  Desperation to keep news businesses profitable can easily erode the firewall that protects honest journalism from paid flacking.  And so we can drift from hard editorial content to “click bait” that looks like news, hardly conscious of whose interests are being served. This risky ignorance of sources is borne out in recent research.  Online distractions can short-circuit critical thinking.

The critical point here that is that we cannot navigate through the informational tsunami that flows over us everyday if we don’t make critical assessments about the reliability of sources.  Doing anything less is the equivalent of mistaking a desert mirage for a true oasis.


Persuasion: The Myth of Easy Influence

Persuasion 7th edition cover - CopyPersuasion is hard.  It isn’t just Uncle Fred who refuses to acknowledge what everybody else around the family table knows.  In most contexts it’s all of us most of the time. 


A recent study on addiction created a stir in the psychiatric community with its claim that 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous had success rates only in the single digits. Lance and Zachary Dode’s The Sober Truth (2014) has its critics, but it is quite plausible that rates of voluntary behavioral change in even the best addiction treatment programs are low. In a word, persuading another person to change is distressingly difficult.  Add in the addiction factor and it is even more difficult.

The task of trying to alter the attitude or behaviors of someone fairly comfortable with them is one the most difficult challenges a communicator can face. And yet Americans have traditionally believed that spellbinders, “brainwashers” and marketing experts have some sort of access to the secret pathways of persuasion. The ability of others to somehow do end-runs around our natural defenses is reflected in our fascination with advertising and religious conversion, our interest in books about selling products as well as ourselves to others, and our love of films as diverse as The Matrix (1999) or the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978).  American narratives love to build on the idea that there’s a secret back door for finding another person’s vulnerabilities.

We also think businesses advertise to gain market share, when it is equally likely their efforts are intended to retain existing consumers by reminding them that the brand is still around. This point is important because maintaining recognition for a brand is an obvious and much easier marketing goal.  Look at the last frame of a television ad it will almost always be a brand’s packaging or logo.  The simpler objective of reassuring the consumer is usually the point of the message.

We would also like to believe that personal transformation happens—Hollywood style—when the strong hand of unexpected experience turns someone toward a sudden change of heart.  At the beginning of Casablanca (1942) Rick may be the world’s greatest cynic. But in the short span of two acts he’s a very different man.  But after four decades assessing persuasion messages and effects, I can only count a handful of instances where I’ve actually seen a member of a target audience change their mind.

To be sure, persuasion is real. We need only track changes in American attitudes about gay marriage. Gallup, Pew and other pollsters have seen dramatic turnarounds in the number of citizens–now a majority–who accept marriages for same sex couples. But those attitudes evolved over a number of years, incrementally and often in private.

There is something more interesting about the possibility of even faster conversion. We often share a common narrative of the man or woman “on the make:” the person who will charm us into becoming active participants in our own persuasion.  Any number of shills for medical cures, shaky or legitimate investment schemes, and fake university courses has made many more wary. But believing in the American dream also means placing faith in the ability of an individual to find lucrative ways to induce consumers into parting with their money. After all, our economic system is built on consumer spending. When we are collectively reluctant to buy, state and federal budget directors become nervous.

Determining what motivates change is always a challenge. It isn’t just Uncle Fred who refuses to acknowledge what everybody else around the family Thanksgiving table knows. It’s all of us most of the time, especially if we take away the use of a hierarchical advantage as a bludgeon. The command of a superior isn’t really a form of persuasion. Power plays are just inducements toward reluctant compliance—something less democratic than true persuasion and not very interesting.

It turns out that we have perfect mental mechanisms for resistance to an unwanted idea. In persuasion research this fact of life is usually called the “theory of minimal effects.” Countless studies that compare “pre” and “post” persuasion attitudes in tested audiences–“post” coming after the researcher’s best shot at a persuasive pitch–note that very little changes. Most of the time we are immune to even strong and logical arguments, the testimony of credible sources, and the raw evidence of undeniable facts.

For example, if you don’t accept a human role in global warming, there is no shortage of mental equipment available to you to cling steadfastly to your beliefs. One common defense is to only notice evidence that confirms your view. This approach to choosing what you believe—sometimes called “confirmation bias”—is one reason our news media now tend to come in certain predictable ideological shades. In the case of doubts about climate change, Fox News is more likely your media home than MSNBC or The Weather Channel.

There are also risks to the ego in giving up a cherished belief.  Our beliefs are a big part of what makes up who we are. To shed even a part of a personal web of attitudes is to be a slightly different person. The new attitude is also likely to bump into other behaviors and attitudes that no longer make as much sense. So, if given the choice, we like our beliefs to be as comfortable as our Saturday morning clothes. Indeed, even though I teach and write frequently about “persuasion,” it would be more accurate to say that much of my time is really spent focusing on the ways we resist change.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

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