Wednesday, 15 July 2015

How to Win Governments and Influence Aardvarks

Mara Sedlins:

Before putting on my “Dr. Mara” hat and diving into some psychological musings, I’ll first say that it’s not too late to send us original art scans for Church and State I! The layout specifications and back matter are still being finalized, and just a few days ago we were encouraged to hear from someone offering original art for a couple pages that we’re currently using negative scans for. If you have original art for issues 52-80, now is the time!

As cleanup work for Church and State I draws to a close, I’ve been spending more time reading this volume for story content and psychological themes. In Dave’s 1987 introduction he indicates the subject matter to be “the effect of power on belief and vice versa.” From the viewpoint of social psychology, this is a nontrivial topic to say the least.

In the context of government, the words power and authority are often used interchangeably (Wikipedia) - although the events of Church and State (as well as High Society) underscore the fact that “legitimate” authority isn’t necessarily aligned with true power. Nevertheless, perceived authority has a powerful effect on most people’s actions and beliefs.

Many of you are probably familiar with the obedience to authority experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s. He was interested in discovering what kind of person would inflict physical pain on others (via increasingly strong electric shocks) simply because an authority figure (the experimenter) instructed them to. The electric shocks were a sham, but most participants were convinced - and most people (65%) were willing to administer the highest levels of electricity to someone who they thought was another volunteer, despite hearing complaints of a heart condition and staged signs of distress.


Although criticized on ethical grounds, these studies produced valuable knowledge about the factors that affect people’s willingness to inflict pain on others simply because an authority figure told them to.

Even though subjects may not have believed that what they were doing was okay, a person’s behavior tends to influence their beliefs over time due to cognitive dissonance. It’s psychologically uncomfortable to see a discrepancy between your attitudes and your behavior - and most of the time it’s much easier to adjust your thoughts to match your actions, rather than vice versa. So if an authority can persuade people to behave in a certain way, it’s likely that their beliefs will follow.

Another classic experiment that illustrates the effects of social influence is Solomon Asch’s conformity paradigm from the 1950s. The study was described to participants as a perceptual task in which they would judge which of the three lines was the same length as a reference line.Asch_experiment.svg.png
The catch was that the other supposed “subjects” in the room would answer first - and they were actually confederates of the experimenter who had agreed ahead of time to choose one of the incorrect lines. After hearing everyone else give the wrong answer, only 25% of participants would consistently contradict the group and answer correctly. The remaining 75% conformed, giving the same incorrect response as everyone else.

The lesson for Church and State’s main contenders for power is that if you can get enough of the general populace to support you, then the rest will probably follow suit.

When the goal is to persuade people that you’re right in the first place (I’m thinking of Bishop Powers’ desire to win over the people through “spiritual will” (p. 200) or Weisshaupt’s propaganda campaign (pp. 121-124)), there are several other psychological techniques, or “principles of influence,” that research shows to be effective:

  • Reciprocity: if you give people something, they tend to return the favor (Weisshaupt’s plan to engineer an improvement in the economy could be construed as an example)
  • Likeability: people are more likely to believe someone who they find appealing (e.g., Theresa’s offer to help Weisshaupt improve his image, pp. 189-190)
  • Scarcity: demand increases with perceived unavailability (Cerebus fails at this technique when he issues an ultimatum to Michelle, pp. 101-103)

However, in C & S I so far (right now I’m on page 323), the tactics that drive the plot(s) forward have been based in blatant coercion, rather than psychological manipulation. Weisshaupt plans to “eliminate” overly ambitious state governors; Weisshaupt drugs Cerebus and threatens him with hanging; undesirable popes are assassinated; Cerebus drives away unwanted visitors with armed guards.


As I progress through the rest of the volume I’ll watch for evidence of more psychological dynamics at play (feel free to point out examples!). The main prize that the characters are (almost literally) grappling over - that interrelated nexus of authority and public belief - seems guaranteed to generate intrigue.


Jeff Seiler said...

More-a Mara! Yay! "Good psychology lesson, Mara," says me, the former psychology professor.

Absalom said...

And then it turned out Milgram faked his results. In reality 60% disobeyed authority and refused to continue. But that's not the answer SCIENCE! demands so...

Absalom said...

"the tactics that drive the plot(s) forward have been based in blatant coercion," - Hey! Just like the bullying used by Dr. Milgram! Small world.