Psychoacoustics

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What’s one thing that has an outsize effect on influence and emotion but doesn’t get the respect it deserves, especially in the security space?

Music.

Fascinating episode of the Cognitive Crucible:

During this episode, US Army Sergeant Major Denver Dill discusses how music and the arts can be used as tools of influence. Our wide ranging conversation covers the role of music in military operations to the theme park experience to movies to sports.

#91 DENVER DILL ON THE ARTS AND MUSIC, Cognitive Crucible Podcast

We know that effective propaganda goes after emotions, not logic. Now think of any movie you’ve watched and the way that you can be compelled to feel a certain way with the right sound or chord.

Combine music with moving images and now you have a powerful tool for influence.

Don’t believe me?

In the episode, they discuss the role music can play in influence, especially on the active battlefield. As an example, they mention the use of bagpipes as a tool of intimidation. The ominous and unsettling sound of bagpipes was used to confuse and strike fear in enemy troops.

More examples where you can see music at work – in this case, to increase anxiety – are the films of Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, Inception). Here is a good write-up about the “Shepard tone” which is deployed effectively in those films.

Shepard tone, huh?

Anxiety attack at the ~:22 mark.

This is an area that needs a lot more research.

What other ways can sound and music be applied to the modern battlefield?


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(More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – grandma’s wisdom

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Most social science takes the long road to tell you what your grandmother told you when you were a kid.

“…as when, after wading through mounds of tables and formulae, we come to the general finding (expressed, of course, in the most abstruse manner possible) that people enjoy being in the centre of attention, or that they are influenced by those with whom they associate… which I can well believe, as my grandmother told me that many times when I was a child.”

Stanislav Andreski, Social Sciences as Sorcery

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(More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – the pseduo-science of counting

nier replicant girl

How did the price of mangos in Kabul influence anti-Taliban operations in the eastern part of the country?

They didn’t.

“…we certainly need statistical investigations, comparative analyses, historical studies and abstract deductive reasoning as well.”

What a great pity, because…

“The reason for that scarcity is the wide acceptance dogma that nothing is worth knowing that cannot be counted, and that any information which is tabulated becomes thereby scientific – surely one of the grossest superstitions of our time, whose vogue can only stem from the fact that it enables a large number of people to make a living by indulging easy pseudo-science.”

Stanislav Andreski, Social Sciences as Sorcery

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(More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – jargon and frameworks

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Beware those with a hyper-focus on methodology.

“A sociologist or psychologist obsessed with frameworks, jargon and techniques resembles a carpenter who becomes so worried about keeping his tools clean that he has no time to cut the wood.”

And further…

“These tendencies are reinforced by the feeling of helplessness in the face of an unmanageable complexity of social phenomena, and the fear of dabbling with dangerous issues, which lurk throughout the field of social sciences. As a result it is forgotten that unfettered thought is the most essential research method.

Stanislav Andreski, Social Sciences as Sorcery

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(More) Social Sciences as Sorcery

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Sorcery loses to science, but elements remain…

“Sorcery lost, not because of any waning of its intrinsic appeal to the human mind, but because it failed to match the power created by science. But, though abandoned as a tool for controlling nature, incantations remain more effective for manipulating crowds than logical arguments, so that in the conduct of human affairs, sorcery continues to be stronger than science.”

Stansilav Andreski, Social Sciences as Sorcery

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Behaviors shape Attitudes

the atlantic saudi arabia women praying

A fascinating write-up in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood on Saudi Arabia. The focus is on MBS, but there is a detour that describes the Kingdom’s efforts at deradicalizing jihadists.

Instead of trying to “deprogram” or otherwise convince jihadists that their attitudes and beliefs are wrong, they have them do mundane office work.

Nothing is stranger than normalcy where one least expects it. These jihadists—people who recently would have sacrificed their life to take mine—had apparently been converted into office drones. Fifteen years ago, Saudi Arabia tried to deprogram them by sending them to debate clerics loyal to the government, who told the prisoners that they had misinterpreted Islam and needed to repent. But if this scene was to be believed, it turned out that terrorists didn’t need a learned debate about the will of God. They needed their spirits broken by corporate drudgery. They needed Dunder Mifflin.

Absolute Power, by Graeme Wood (The Atlantic)

Logical thinking tells us that in order for someone to change their behavior, they need to change their attitudes first. This is why see influence efforts focus on convincing someone of something first in an effort to ultimately change the behavior.

It makes logical sense, but when you start to dig into the psychological research, it doesn’t quite work that way.

It turns out that if we engage in a behavior, and particularly one that we had not expected that we would have, our thoughts and feelings toward that behavior are likely to change. This might not seem intuitive, but it represents another example of how the principles of social psychology—in this case, the principle of attitude consistency—lead us to make predictions that wouldn’t otherwise be that obvious.

Changing Attitudes by Changing Behavior

This partially explains why veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are more likely to support those wars than the general public.

  • 53 percent say the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting vs. 30 percent of Americans overall.
  • 44 percent think Iraq was worth fighting vs. 38 percent of the general public.

Source: Washington Post, April 2014

Why is this the case? Cognitive dissonance.

Once placed into a situation (like the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan), to admit that it wasn’t worth it might impact self-esteem or self-worth. Instead of adjusting your attitude, you shift in the other direction and rationalize the behavior to alleviate that dissonance.

For the jihadists, sitting them in a room and trying to convince them that their views are wrong was fruitless. But putting them into a situation where they have to spend time working and churning in an environment seems to have the desired effect.

Their behaviors, over time, influence their attitudes.

They have time to reflect on what they’re doing. It just kind of happens.

Powerful efforts to convince or bludgeon people with information rarely works in terms of changing behavior. Instead, the efforts should be on changing the behavior which can then change the attitude.

Admittedly, this is much harder.

It’s easy to build a flyer with some factual information or a campaign to convince jihadists to “turn away.”

It’s not new information they need. It’s a different behavior.

Think of anyone you’ve tried to convince of something who was resistant because they had a personal experience that informs their thought.

It’s a fool’s errand.

But if you can get the same person to actually try the thing?

The behavior changes the attitude.

Creating experiences and situations where people are forced to behave in certain scenarios is more likely to have the effect you’re looking for.

Anything else is shot-in-the-dark advertising.

Image Source: The Atlantic (Lynsey Addario)


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Tape Measure Hero

viral video tape measure pick up keys from across room

Recently finished another Phoenix Cast episode. Around the ~17:30 mark, the hosts discuss the problem with believing what we see on the internet.

Specifically, they’re talking about videos.

There was this series of very viral videos back in the day of construction workers using tape measures to pick stuff up from ten feet away, and it’s all fake, it was all a marketing campaign for a midwestern hardware chain.

…and there’s a guy who breaks down those videos into exactly how they do the cuts, how they do the pull outs, and it’s important to be able to look for things like that.

Conti and Current Events, Phoenix Cast

Did you ever see this?

Impressive, right?

As they mentioned in the episode, the whole thing was fake. It was part of a marketing campaign.

Unfortunately, they didn’t link to the videos in the show notes so I had to spend some time digging around to find them. But I’m glad I did.

Here’s the first breakdown:

And then the coup de grâce.

Do you know what’s important here? It’s not that these videos were fake or deceptive, or that they could be picked apart with some careful analysis.

It’s that most people who saw these videos believed that they were real. They probably saw it at some point, laughed, shared it with their friends, and never gave it a second thought.

That’s how propaganda works. You never go back to watch the debunk videos. The first one was good enough.

And you want to believe.


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Unblurring the truth

big boss looking into a mirror he just smashed

Nice series from the Pineland Underground on misinformation/disinformation – with an aim at building resiliency and preventing being duped.

These episodes are short, each hovering around 10 minutes.

They also link to a great repository of additional information if you want to go deeper.

A very good – and necessary – initiative.


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The Third Person Effect

men reading newspapers on a train

People tend to overestimate their confidence and ability in things and discount the same in others.

We see this most clearly in driving confidence and ability.

73% of Americans believe that they are a “better-than-average” driver.

Instantly, we know something must be wrong.

There is a similar phenomenon in psychology called the third-person effect.

“…people will tend to overestimate the influence that mass communications have on the attitudes and behavior of others. More specifically, individuals who are members of an audience that is exposed to a persuasive communication (whether or not this communication is intended to be persuasive) will expect the communication to have a greater effect on others than on themselves. And whether or not these individuals are among the ostensible audience for the message, the impact that they expect this communication to have on others may lead them to take some action. Any effect that the communication achieves may thus be due not to the reaction of the ostensible audience but rather to the behavior of those who anticipate, or think they perceive, some reaction on the part of others.”

The argument here isn’t that propaganda works. The argument is that there are many people who believe propaganda doesn’t work on them, but they have concerns that it works on others.

That concern may lead the same enlightened people to take action which ultimately makes the propaganda effective.

In Davidson’s paper, he cites a couple of examples from military history that takes advantage of this. One is very similar to the technique Saddam Hussein purportedly used during the Iran-Iraq War to ground the Iranian F-14 fleet.

The History of the Psychological Warfare Division, Supreme Headquarters, Alled Expeditionary Force (Bad Homburg, Germany, 1945) tells us about Operation Huguenot – a project for undermining the efficiency of the German Air Force by suggesting that German flying personnel were deserting in their machines to the Allied side.

The Psychological Warfare Division history tells:

“The dividends from this operation were expected not so much in the actual number of desertions as in the effect of the countermeasures which the German authorities would be induced to take against glying personnel… sharpening up of anti-desertion measures and instructions to field polict to keep a suspicious eye on everyone – a course which would have serious effects on morale. Also, the promotion of officers on account of reliability rather than efficiency (p. 53).”

The Third Person Effect in Communication

It wasn’t about actually getting Germans to defect. It was about getting the German military to take action – unnecessary, painful action – to prevent defections from taking place.

The lesson here, as is often the case when it comes to propaganda, is to exercise patience, discretion, humility, and trust.

Patience to not react just because something happens in the information environment.

Discretion to be selective about what levers we choose to pull if and when we do react.

Humility to acknowledge that we are all vulnerable.

Trust in each other that they can do the above as well.

No matter how smart we think we are, or how immune we may be to the effects of slick marketing, social media algorithms, or plain old-fashioned propaganda, we are all made up of the same stuff as the person next to us.

We’re all vulnerable. Understanding that is the beginning of beating it.


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Psychological Reactance

“Why is it that a child sometimes does the opposite of what he is told? Why would a person sometimes dislike receiving a favor? Why is propaganda frequently ineffective in persuading people? And why would the grass in the adjacent pasture ever appear greener?”

We all know a contrarian. The one who is against whatever everyone else is for.

This is psychological reactance.

Psychological reactance manifests itself when someone feels the urge to resist what they’re being asked, influenced, or persuaded to do (or believe). It manifests itself when people do the thing that they are being asked not to do.

And it manifests itself when they refuse to do the thing they are asked to do.

This phenomenon is especially potent when it comes to things where people feel they may be losing some measure of freedom.

Related is the “Streisand effect.” That is, attempts to conceal information tend to increase people’s desire to know more about it, which can ultimately bring about its revelation.

We always want what we can’t have.

This is what makes propaganda so ineffective.

And everyone has a different degree of built-in psychological reactance. What works for one, might not work for the other.


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