Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The crank psychology of right-wing hashtag games

If you've read much popular literature on hypnosis, neurolinguistic programming, business communications, seduction methods, or any other pseudoscientific speculation on communications, you've almost certainly at some point come across a passage like this:
[I]f you ask a stranger to do something—especially to buy something—they tend to balk. Their natural reaction is to question the instruction. To find a reason to disagree with it. The critical mind throws up objections. 
What’s interesting, though, is this doesn’t happen if you just ask someone to imagine something. Especially if you ask them to imagine the outcome of the sale, rather than making the purchase itself. There’s no resistance to that. 
This is because we don’t see imagining as a “real” task. It’s just a mind-game. Indeed, an enjoyable game; a distraction from life—as with fantasies. 
So by asking your prospect to imagine something, you bypass that critical part that throws up objections, and “sneak in” to their mind through the back door of their imagination. And bypassing the critical mind is the second of three crucial steps to achieving hypnosis. (The first is attracting the person’s attention, which I’ll assume you’ve already done.) 
The third step is to stimulate the unconscious mind. That is exactly what imagining something does. As strange as it may sound, the brain literally cannot tell the difference between imagining reality, and actually experiencing reality. As far as your brain is concerned, there’s no difference between visualizing a tree, and seeing a tree.
Scientifically, just about every empirical claim in this passage is absolute gibberish. The brain does not reflexively object to requests, it does not imagine uncritically, and it is not somehow unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Nevertheless, the exercise can work like any other attempt at persuasion -- "imagine X" is just a roundabout way of claiming "X could happen". So its basic efficacy, combined with the way it's constantly sold as some kind of gimmicky brain-hack, has made the technique exceedingly popular among professional PR and marketing types. Once you're familiar with how the technique is supposed to work, you'll see it everywhere.

This is why I'm always interested when something like this starts trending on Twitter:


There's a recurring formula for most right-wing hashtag games: everyone is encouraged to imagine something terrible liberals could say or do, or something mean and insulting about them. There is no expectation that any of this should actually correspond to reality, or that it ever will; the point is simply to vent animus in a kind of Two Minutes Hate session.

The formula is so consistent, and corresponds so closely with just the sort of gimmicky persuasion technique that people who see Twitter as a PR channel would buy into, that I can't help but suspect that there's some astroturfing at work here. It would be interesting to analyze what accounts these trends originate from, and to investigate just how organic they really are.