Subliminal Persuasiveness

In the light of the recent Arab revolutions, some news broadcasting agencies have been accused of being biased. Some say that such agencies have lost a great deal of their professional objectiveness in conveying the informational message and consequently shaped –in a way or another- the mood of the public opinion. The following is a short passage I read today fromthe Tipping Point for Malcolm Gladwell, “How little things can make a big difference”-
“…The question of what makes someone ” or something ” persuasive is a lot less straightforward than it seems. We know it when we see it. But just what “it” is not always obvious. Consider the following two examples, both drawn from the psychological literature. The first is an experiment that took place during the 1984 presidential campaign between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. For eight days before the election, a group of psychologists led by Brian Mullen of Syracuse University videotaped the three national nightly news programs, which then, as now, were anchored by Peter Jennings at ABC, Tom Brokaw at NBC, and Dan Rather at CBS. Mullen examined the tapes and excerpted all references to the candidates, until he had 37 separate segments, each roughly two and a half seconds long. Those segments were then shown, with the sound turned off, to a group of randomly chosen people, who were asked to rate the facial expressions of each newscaster in each segment. The subjects had no idea what kind of experiment they were involved with, or what the newscasters were talking about. They were simply asked to score the emotional content of the expressions of these three men on a 21-point scale, with the lowest being “extremely negative” and the highest point on the scale “extremely positive.”
The results were fascinating. Dan Rather scored 10.46 ” which translate to an almost perfectly neutral expression ” when he talked about Mondale, and 10.37 when he talked about Reagan. He looked the same when he talked about the Republican as he did when he talked about the Democrat. The same was true for Brokaw, who scored 11.21 for Mondale and 11.50 for Reagan. But Peter Jennings of ABC was much different. For Mondale, he scored 13.38. But when he talked about Reagan, his face lit up so much he scored 17.44. Mullen and his colleagues went out of their way to try to come up with an innocent explanation for this. Could it be, for example, that Jennings is just more expressive in general than his colleagues? The answer seemed to be no. The subjects were also shown control segments of the three newscasters, as they talked about unequivocally happy or sad subjects (the funeral of Indira Gandhi; a breakthrough in treating a congenital disease). But Jennings didn’t score any higher on the happy subjects or lower on the sad subjects than his counterparts. In fact, if anything, he seemed to be the least expressive of the three. It also isn’t the case that Jennings is simply someone who has a happy expression on his face all the time. Again, the opposite seemed to be true. On the “happy” segments inserted for comparison purposes, he scored 14.13, which was substantially lower than both Rather and Brokaw. The only possible conclusion, according to the study, is that Jennings exhibited a “significant and noticeable bias in facial expression” toward Reagan.
Now here is where the study gets interesting. Mullen and his colleagues then called up people in a number of cities around the country who regularly watch the evening network news and asked them who they voted for. In every case, those who watched ABC voted for Reagan in far greater numbers than those who watched CBS or NBC. In Cleveland, for example, 75 percent of ABC watchers voted Republican, versus 61.9 percent of CBS or NBC viewers. In Williamstown, Massachusetts, ABC viewers were 71.4 percent for Reagan versus 50 percent for the other two networks; in Erie, Pennsylvania, the difference was 73.7 percent to 50 percent. The subtle pro-Reagan bias in Jennings’s face seems to have influenced the voting behavior of ABC viewers.
As you can imagine, ABC News disputes this study vigorously. (“It’s my understanding that I’m the only social scientist to have the dubious distinction of being called a ‘jackass’ by Peter Jennings,” says Mullen.) It is hard to believe. Instinctively, I think, most of us would probably assume that the causation runs in the opposite direction, that Reagan supporters are drawn to ABC because of Jennings’s bias, not the other way around. But Mullen argues fairly convincingly that this isn’t plausible. For example, on other, more obvious levels ” like, for example, story selection ” ABC was shown to be the network most hostile to Reagan, so it’s just as easy to imagine hard-core Republicans deserting ABC news for the rival networks. And to answer the question of whether his results were simply a fluke, four years later, in the Michael Dukakis-George Bush campaign, Mullen repeated his experiment, with the exact same results. “Jennings showed more smiles when referring to the Republican candidate than the Democrat,”‘ Mullen said, “and again in a phone survey, viewers who watch ABC were more likely to have voted for Bush.”
(The Tipping Point, p 74 -77)

About Abdul Rahman Alieh

I use this space to share interesting videos and snippets from articles and books I come across. I hope you find this blog interesting. Can't wait to read your comments! Abdul Rahman

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