What We Don’t Know About Shopping, Reading, Watching TV and Judging People

When shopping, reading, watching TV and judging other people we have little access to what’s going on in our own minds.

TV Sketch

[Photo by zebtron]

Psychology studies that rely on deceiving participants have shown we often have little clue what’s going on in our own minds. But what about in everyday situations where trickery isn’t involved?

Here are four everyday situations – shopping, reading, watching TV and judging other people – and four experiments that show how little we know in each situation about what’s really going on in our minds (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977).

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9 Propaganda Techniques in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11

The psychological techniques of persuasion used by Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11.

Michael Moore

The psychological techniques of persuasion used by Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11.

Back in the Summer of 2004 outspoken documentary-maker Michael Moore brought out ‘Fahrenheit 9/11‘, his personal view of how the terrorist attacks in the US were used by George Bush to pursue illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The response to the film was huge, but rarely ambiguous – audiences either loved it or loathed it.

Some saw it as a brilliant indictment of the lead-up to an unjust war. Others saw it as unfounded liberal/left-wing propaganda designed to give the Democrats a boost in the lead-up to the 2004 US presidential elections.

At the time Dr Kelton Rhoads, an expert in the psychology of persuasion, wrote a piece detailing the psychological techniques of persuasion used by Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11, and it provides a good introduction to propaganda techniques.

Each psychological technique is explained with one example from the film. For a full explanation of the techniques and a fuller list of examples go directly to the document on his website.


Psychology: One of the most obvious techniques of any propaganda is not presenting the whole truth. As Dr Rhoads points out, “What gives omissions their power is that often not recognised as missing by their audience.” By leaving out important information people are allowed to jump to conclusions about the evidence that is presented. The propagandist has, at no point, failed to tell the truth, they’ve just failed to tell the whole truth.

Example: One of the largest omission is the failure to show footage of the terrorist hijacked planes hitting the twin towers.

Explanation: Showing this would have provoked the viewer’s anger and turned their thoughts to retribution. Instead Moore shows the aftermath, which provokes the emotion of sorrow.


Psychology: Moore is keen on juxtaposition. This uses an effect psychologists call ‘structure activation’. Simply put if you feel sad at any particular moment, that tends to colour how you interpret whatever happens to you next. In propaganda this can be used by creating a bleed-through effect from one scene to another. The emotion from one scene is used to colour how you interpret the content of the next scene.

Example: Contextualisation often makes Bush look foolish

Explanation: First scene: we see the unbelievable grief and suffering of witnesses to 9/11. Second scene cut into this: we see Bush ‘happy, smiling and confident’. How could he be smiling at a time like this? The answer is, of course, that he’s not, it’s just the way the film has been cut together to make him look foolish.

Ingroup/outgroup manipulations

Psychology: This comes down to preferring ‘people like us’ over ‘people who aren’t like us’.

Example: The Saudis are represented throughout the film as being part of the ‘outgroup’ along with Bush.

Explanation: Moore shows Bush to be close to the Bin Laden family by repeated association. Then he shows the Bin Laden family to be close to Osama Bin Laden again by association. Whether these associations are really this close is a point for discussion but the thing to notice is that the only connection is association. Because a policeman tends to be near criminals, does that make him a criminal?


Psychology: People tend to attribute selfish motivations to other people, and altruistic motivations to their own behaviour. On average we have a tendency to be cynical about the reason other people do what they do. It is easy to make people suspicious about someone’s motivations by simply questioning them. Intelligence operatives have an acronym: ‘F.U.D.’ which stands for fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Example: Bush is acting in his own self-interest rather than in the interests of the US.

Explanation: Bush is shown sitting reading “My Pet Goat” to school children for seven minutes after the Secret Service operative has whispered the news of the terrorist attack into his ear. The cynical assumption is that he is possibly: confused, doesn’t care, didn’t know what to do, etc.. In reality any President movements are completely controlled by the Secret Service for security reasons. Presidents are trained to wait to be told where to go by them. In this situation Bush would probably have been told to stay put while they got information on the best place to go.


Psychology: Dr Rhoads refers to this as the E.W.Y.G.Y.S. effect or: Either Way You Go Your Screwed.

Example: Bush is presented both as a bumbling fool and as a master manipulator.

Explanation: Bush is shown primping his hair at the start of the film in the moments before broadcasting to the nation. Here he, and indeed the rest of the administration, are seen as master manipulators. The points in the film were he is made to look foolish are almost endless so take your pick.

Modelling the convert communicator

Psychology: People copy each other all the time, it’s human nature. If you stand in the middle of the street and stare up at nothing, before long you will have gathered a small crowd of people all straining their neck backwards to see the object of your fascination. If you imagine this situation in terms of people’s political point of view, then a similar transformation can be observed. If people are to watch someone else changing their point of view about something it influences them in the same fashion.

Example: One convert communicator in this film is Lila Lipscomb, a mother grieving for the loss of her son in Iraq. She appears to complete a full 180° turn in the course of the film, from supporting Bush to opposing him. From supporting the war in Iraq, to opposing it.

Explanation: Dr Rhoads uncovers evidence that there was no U-turn and it has been manufactured to aid our persuasion. She in fact voted for Al Gore in the last election and has been quoted as saying that: “Bush stole the presidency.”

Pacing and distraction

Psychology: Dr Rhoads: “Distraction keeps us from thinking.”

Example: It is difficult to process some parts of the film whereas others such as the parts with Lila Liscomb seem only too clear.

Explanation: Those parts of Moore’s arguments that may be perceived as ‘weaker’ fly by with blaring music playing over the top. The strong parts of his argument (Lila Lipscomb) have no blaring music or fast cuts to cause distraction.


Psychology: This is an effect that psychologists often talk about in relation to Pavlov’s dog. When Pavlov fed his dog, the dog salivated and he rang a bell. After a while the dog began salivating when he rang the bell, despite the fact there was no food in sight. So the dog associated the bell with being fed.

Example: Moore shows members of the Taliban visiting Texas. The automatic assumption is that he was invited by Bush.

Explanation: Bush is shown in association with the Taliban despite the fact that Bush hadn’t in fact invited them to Texas. They were there to discuss an oil pipeline with the previous permission of the Clinton administration.

Numeric deceptions

Psychology: People like statistics, they sound good. It’s been found by psychologists that people are happy to believe them and don’t bother checking them. Sounds perfect for the propagandist doesn’t it?

Example: Bush was on vacation for 42% of the time during his first 229 days in office.

Explanation: What the original statistics are referring to is the time that Bush spent not in Washington. And the implications is that, if he’s not in Washington he’s not doing any work and is therefore on vacation. Obviously not true. I’m sat at home in the UK, sitting back on the sofa as I write this so how can I be working? Perhaps I need to move to Washington for this to count as real work? This discussion is facile, but parts of Moore’s arguments revolve on this pivotal point.

Dr Rhoads finishes his article by saying:

“…is Fahrenheit documentary, or is it propaganda? Call it as you will. For my part, I see a consistent, effective, and clever use of a range of established propaganda tactics. If only a few of these tactics were used, or if the attempt to deceive weren’t as apparent, I might equivocate…I feel safe in applying the rule: if it flies, walks, swims, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.”

[Disclaimer: personally I make no political judgement on Moore’s film. It is covered here purely as an interesting study of persuasion techniques. All these techniques could just as easily be used to support precisely the opposite case.]

Compliments Could Earn Hairstylists Thousands More in Tips

A new experiment finds that hairstylists who compliment their customers earn one third more in tips.


[Photo by suzun]

A new experiment finds that hairstylists who compliment their customers earn one third more in tips – which could mean thousands more over a year.

John Seiter and Eric Dutson of Utah State University, recruited two hairstylists who, after cutting their customer’s hair, randomly pulled one of three pennies from their pocket. This was to ensure that customers were not treated differently during the haircut itself.

If the penny was marked with a 1, they gave the customer no compliment. If it was marked with a 2 they told the customer: “Your hair looks terrific”. If it was marked with a 3 they said: “Any hairstyle would look good on you.” The amount tipped by each customer was then recorded by the hairstylist.

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Have You Ever Been Scammed?

Understanding how the magician, or huckster, plays on our human nature to get us to behave in a certain way.

Queen of Spades

[Photo by mcsixth]

Perhaps you’ve lost some loose change on the street hunting the lady while trying to beat the ‘three-card trick’? This is the one where three cards are moved one over the other and you have to find a particular card. It appears easy when you watch someone else winning but, when you step up to have a go at the makeshift table, you keep losing. The card should be where you think it is, but it’s not. So you lose a bit of cash.

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Loudest Voice = Majority Opinion

New research reveals even if only one member of a group repeats their opinion, it is more likely to be seen by others as representative of the whole group.

New research reveals even if only one member of a group repeats their opinion, it is more likely to be seen by others as representative of the whole group.

A group of us are sat around shooting the breeze, talking about this that and everything else besides. Like all British people we always end up with a bit of weather-related chat when the conversation flags. And sure enough, before long, James is complaining about the unseasonably cool and wet weather that we’re having at the moment.

“It just flies in the face of all that ‘global warming’ crapola, right?” says James.

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Achieving Rapport: Expressivity, Coordination and Flow

We need rapport to influence others, to teach and learn, to achieve difficult tasks in groups and even to mate.


Rapport is important. We need rapport to influence others, to teach and learn, to achieve difficult tasks in groups and even to mate. The latest research reveals gaining rapport is not just about matching body language and being positive, the picture is actually much more complicated. Studies have shown that expressivity is actually one of the most important factors in rapport. An expressive person displays their emotions nonverbally to those around them. Those who are more expressive have been found to elicit greater levels of liking and rapport from others.

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Communicating Persuasively: Email or Face-to-Face?

Our intuitive understanding is that face-to-face communication is the most persuasive, but it isn’t always true.

Face to Face

Our intuitive understanding is that face-to-face communication is the most persuasive, but it isn’t always true.

In reality, of course, it’s not always possible to meet in person, so email wins out. How, then, do people react to persuasion attempts over email?

Persuasion research has uncovered fascinating effects: that men seem more responsive to email because it bypasses their competitive tendencies (Guadagno & Cialdini, 2002). Women, however, may respond better in face-to-face encounters because they are more ‘relationship-minded’. But is this finding just a gender stereotype?

Gender stereotypes

Guadagno and Cialdini explain their results in terms of expectations about social roles. Cultural stereotypes have it that men are task-oriented whereas women are relationship-oriented. So, when put in a situation where relationships were important i.e. face-to-face, women tend to follow the cultural stereotype. Similarly, as men are often viewed as more competitive, when they face each other they tend to be more competitive and so less open to persuasion.

Practically, what this research is suggesting is that email could provide a way of side-stepping men’s competitive tendencies. But, this research doesn’t consider the effects of pre-existing relationships. After all, we react differently to friends than strangers.

However, in an article published in the journal ‘Computers and Human Behaviour’, Guadagno and Cialdini (2007) examine the effect of relationships. The problem for researchers is how to manipulate people’s relationships experimentally to effectively test the differences. Guadagno and Cialdini use the concept of ‘oneness’.


Oneness refers to the idea of an interconnected identity. The closer two people feel, the more helping the other person is like helping themselves. So oneness can promote altruistic behaviour. Oneness can also be seen in terms of the classic in-group out-group dichotomy in social psychology. People show a positive bias towards other people who are in the same notional group as themselves: e.g. work colleagues.

Oneness was very simply manipulated in Guadagno and Cialdini’s study by encouraging strangers to view each other in one of two ways. In the first manipulation two strangers were shown fictional results of a questionnaire they had completed which showed they had identical personalities. In the second, the fictional results showed they had completely different personalities. In this way, the first groups ‘oneness’ was encouraged, while in the second it was discouraged.

Then, as had been done in the previous study, participants attempted to persuade each other.


The researchers found that when there were low levels of oneness between men, email was a more effective way to communicate. Conversely, for women, higher levels of oneness made face-to-face encounters significantly more persuasive.

How can these results be explained? Women may not generally be easily persuaded over email because there is less opportunity to form relationships from which attitude changes can be built. Men, however, tend to be less competitive over email and are better able to concentrate on arguments presented, rather than being distracted by seeing the other man as a threat.

Male-female interaction

Bear in mind that this study is ironing out the spectrum of differences amongst both men and women. In other words, clearly not all women are always relationship-focussed and not all men are always task-focussed. It seems an obvious point but it’s a mistake often made in mainstream media presentation of psychology research.

Additionally, one of the drawbacks of the study was that it only concentrated on same-sex communication. Although, I would suggest it’s better not to think of this study in terms of men and women but in terms of individual relationships.

So, if you want to persuade someone with whom you have a competitive relationship – whatever your and their gender – email might be a better choice. On the other hand, if your persuasion attempt is aimed at someone with whom you have a more cooperative relationship, face-to-face could be a better choice. Unfortunately, it isn’t always possible to see someone face-to-face, so it’s very useful to be aware of the processes operating in both face-to-face and online interactions.

[Photo by Eden-lys]
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