Use of NLP and hypnosis in campaign speeches?

On a discussion forum, I ran into a post backed up by an article suggesting that Obama is using devious ‘secret’ Neuro-Linguistic Programming and hypnosis tricks in his speeches to induce listeners to vote for him and accept his hidden messages as absolute truth by interfering or disabling their critical reasoning faculties. This created a firestorm of furious responses from Obama supporters who dismissed the post and article as mere mean right-wing election mudslinging, as well as equally furious counterposts from McCain/Palin supporters. The whole thing raised some interesting questions — which by and large were not explored by the contributors to that discussion, but should be, and led me to begin to investigate this NLP business more carefully. Here are some first thoughts about this.

The election campaigns are for the most part conducted by verbal communication: speeches, attended by live audiences or transmitted through TV, radio, video on the internet.

The effectiveness of the messages communicated depends on:
– the relevance, significance of the content of a message to the intended recipients
– the plausibility of the claims as perceived by the audience;
– the rhetorical force / elegance / quality with which they are pronounced;
– the consistency of the body of claims made by the party or candidate;
– the consistency of the speakers’ body language with the spoken message;
– the consistency of the message with simultaneous visual imagery shown, etc.

The aim of the effort, and its measure of performance, is the willingness of the audience members to engage in the desired action: vote for x, donate time, actions, money for the campaign… etc. (Yell?)

Note that I have nor mentioned ‘truth’ in the above, and for good reason: the truth of claims in the communication seems to matter only to the extent and possibility that the resulting degree of conviction in the audience might be confirmed / strengthened or eroded by subsequent, more convincing claims or counterclaims. A second reason is that the concept of ‘truth’ properly applies only to claims about the reality of the world as it IS, and not to ideas about what it OUGHT to be, in the opinions of speaker and audience.

The concern of any campaigner therefore must focus on using all available means to produce that high degree of conviction in the audience: to have a plausible, consistent body of claims, — content (‘platform’) — with which persuade audiences, to convey that content with high plausibility that is not likely to be counteracted by more plausible counterclaims; to present it with eloquence, to use body language and accompanying imagery consistent with the content.

From what I have been able to find out, the findings of NLP and similar research amount to the following:
Certain presentation devices — such as speed of speech, the sequence in which claims are presented, the context in which a (potentially implausible or controversial) claim is presented, simultaneous gestures or body language — can significantly influence the degree of plausibility of a claim; to gain a degree of acceptance for a claim that is higher than the claim presented by itself would achieve. And, to the chagrin of those of us who are still enamored by the logic and plausibility of arguments and the truth of the claims used in them, they seem to achieve this to a higher degree than the logical, ‘rational’ quality of the content offered.

Strategies using these insights, I am told, and can actually see when I turn on the TV or listen to certain radio stations, are being used on a daily basis by almost any advertisement, be it commercial or political.

This means that any campaign advisor not considering the use of such tools in getting the message across is either incompetent or convinced that the message presented without such tools is strong enough to stand on its own, running the risk, however, of being done in by opponent’s use of them.

So we have to assume that both parties, all candidates, are using these devices, don’t we? And that the campaigns boil down to which side is able to use these tools most effectively?

This is a problem indeed: if the content platform cleverly promoted is not living up to the effectiveness criteria listed above (which may be a partial list; I can’t claim to have studied this long enough), if a flawed policy and platform and a less than competent candidate is portrayed as the more desirable and trustworthy. But we also have to assume that each party / candidate is convinced that their content is worthwhile and their candidate is competent. Under that assumption, each side would be entirely reckless to the point of incompetence if it did NOT use these tools, for they would be risking undeserved defeat by means that are irrelevant to the value of their platform.

Given this consideration and the apparently widespread knowledge and use of these tools (contrary to the claims in the post and article), I don’t think it is plausible to accuse one side or the other of ‘devious use of secret tricks only known to few experts’ etc. And it is then hard to avoid the impression or suspicion that such allegations are merely a part of the opposing side’s strategy of trying to cast wholesale doubt on the entire content of the accused side — even if such suspicions are not justified.

But a worse problem would arise if the tools were used to create a sense of confidence in a candidate or platform if that platform is misrepresented — i. e. deceptive: if the actual policies a candidate will pursue are entirely different from those portrayed as the platform. (Such as the elder Bush’s ‘read my lips’ promise that was later broken — if breaking the promise had actually been his intention from the start, which probably is not a fair claim.) And are we not hearing various clamors of this kind?

If such a claim is accurate, this would of course represent a quite devastating attack on a candidate or party: The candidate would be revealed as a liar, deceiver, a demagogue of the worst kind for trying to persuade the audience to vote for something they don’t ‘really’ support. Even worse, for doing such evil things with secret devious tricks and hypnosis. And though ol’ Bob Dylan sang “you think you know what you want, but I know what you need” and thereby should have planted a seed of suspicion about such claims: I can, without batting an eyelid, claim that all of you really want the TRUTH, and have this claim accepted by all, as claiming that you REALLY just want to be be confirmed in whatever deception you are stuck in: your furious denials just go to show… So it isn’t that easy, is it? Howdo we back up claims to the effect that what someone says is not what they ‘really’ believe?

The trouble is that such claims about policy deceptions, because they are about future developments, are almost impossible to back up with factual and logical evidence. They are therefore also extremely difficult to counteract, whether accurate or not. And if such claims themselves are promoted using those very tools and tricks, as effective producers of degrees of plausibility and belief in the respective claims, then the deviousness is much more easily spread around than the wealth Obama wants to ‘redistribute’.

My point is: this is a serious problem. And we can get a lot of perverse satisfaction from complaining about it, whichever ‘side’ we happen to be on. What I think would be more in line with the intellectual claims of this group would be to start looking for and working on remedies for it. For example: arrangements for displaying claims made in campaigns in such a way as to minimize the effect of persuasion tools unrelated to their content. Techniques for carrying out policy discussions / debates in ways that more systematically and transparently reveal how we evaluate arguments, identify the points of agreement, disagreement, or lack of adequate information, as well as procedural agreements to not just decide policies and plans by vote or decree but by modifying them until acceptable by even the people who now are screaming at each other and think they can influence destiny by stealing each others’ campaign signs.

The election may be over on Tuesday (though living in Florida, I don’t know if I want to bet on that…) But the real work on the above problems is just beginning.

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