7 Brain Traps That Allow the Media to Manipulate Our Opinions
Do you believe that television and other media regularly lie to us and manipulate our opinions? Maybe. But there is even worse news: our brain works together with them. It is so difficult for the brain to sort through the immense amount of information coming at it every day, that it is ready to just put up with the many misconceptions. And, as strange as it sounds, smart and well-educated people make even more cognitive mistakes that those who are less intelligent.
Bright Side found out which psychological effects the media uses in order to convince us of something or to influence our decisions. You will learn how to tell the truth from lies.
The effect: A persuasive message that is accompanied by a discounting cue seems more accurate over time.
Imagine that you hear a piece of information that seems true to you. For example, the production of a famous confectionery brand contains the chemicals that are dangerous to human health. But soon after this, you hear some information that makes you doubt that it was true. For example, someone tells you that the source of information was not reliable or that the news was fabricated by a competitor. As a reasonable person, you will most likely think that the original information was fake and you will try to forget it. But some time later, (the so-called sleeper time) you will go back to thinking that it was true. And you will never buy products from this brand again.
The sleeper effect appears only when these conditions are followed:
- The information seems persuasive.
- There is a following piece of information that makes you doubt the original.
- There is enough time between the moment you receive the information and the moment you have to make a decision.
The effect: By changing the phrase, you can change its perception.
The way an idea is worded affects the way we perceive it. By highlighting the necessary part, you can make a person a hero or a villain. Compare: “3 out of 10 people remained hostages because of how terribly slow the police crew was” and “thanks to how well-thought-out their plan was, the police crew freed 7 out of 10 hostages.”
The thing is, we judge certain events of things not on their own, but based on their context. Usually this context (frame) determines the decision we will end up making.
And people are more likely to avoid losses than to try to win something. Also, with age, this effect becomes more powerful: elderly people pay more attention to the negative aspects of everything and are more likely to avoid their losses than to try and see the real advantages of an offer.
Here are some more examples of this effect:
- People are more likely to react to the word “overpayment” than the word “discount.” 93% of people check in for a flight earlier when they know they have to pay more for checking in later. And only 67% check in earlier when there is a discount for early check-in. But the amount of money was the same.
- You are more likely to buy 80%-lean beef that the same piece of meat that says it contains 20% fat.
- In our everyday lives we also create our own reality, choosing words in order to describe a thing or an event. If you have an old wardrobe that you inherited from your grandmother, you can be a happy owner of a family relic or an owner of a piece of old junk. Mistakes at work can be a useful experience or trouble.
The effect: I see only what I want to see.
Of the many facts there are out there, our brain only chooses the ones that comply with our expectations and ideas. At the same time, it refuses to accept new knowledge and new facts that contradict our stereotypes (Semmelweis reflex).
This is why we prefer to watch the same TV and YouTube channels and go to the same websites. And this is also why we believe news programs so easily — because they comply with our opinion and they are easy to digest. If you are sure that GMO is dangerous, you will easily believe even the most unprofessional article on this topic and ignore the articles with the opposite opinion from serious journals.
The same happens to our attitude toward public people: haters usually only pay attention to their flaws and mistakes, and fans will ignore even the most obvious mistakes.
Identifiable victim effect
President Bush holds Jessica McClure.
The effect: “The death of one person is a tragedy and a million deaths is statistics.”
Across the world, thousands of people go missing and die of famine, but we rarely hear about this in the media. And the story of one person who was raped becomes the most-discussed topic for many months all over social media and the press.
This happens because a message about one specific person sounds more persuasive than statistical data, it creates a feeling like you know this person and it makes you feel an emotional response. This not only affects the audience, but also the government structures. Specific people receive help more often than groups of people.
The story of baby Jessica, who fell into a well in 1987, was shown live. After 58 hours of work on the part of the rescue team, the little girl was saved. As a result, the amount of donated money was about $800,000. At the same time, every year, 830,000 children die from accidental injuries and many of these deaths could have been prevented. But there is never enough money for prevention.
The effect: We take the picture of an event, cut out a piece of it, and show the fragment as the whole event.
This is a method where only one side of an object or an event if discussed and the other sides are either accidentally or intentionally ignored. This prevents you from understanding what actually happened and what decision you should make.
For example, the media is discussing the advantages of a new chemical fertilizer that allows us to get several times more harvest. But they never mention the ingredients of the fertilizer and how the fruit and vegetables grown with it will affect the human body.
The effect: Everyone falls victim to propaganda, but not me.
We are prone to underestimating the power and influence of social media on ourselves and overestimate it when it comes to other people. This way, we separate ourselves from people who can be influenced and increase our own self-esteem. This effect is very evident when a person receives a piece of negative information (violence on tv, porn, reading some racist or sexist articles).
The third-person effect is directly linked to the theory of attribution. We are more likely to justify our own actions by the situation and when others do something wrong, it’s because they are bad people. (About ourselves: “I yelled at my child not because I’m irritable and angry, but because he made me angry when he spilled juice on the table.” About others, “She’s a bad mother because she can’t put a hat on her child’s head the right way.”)
The effect: We feel very close to our favorite characters from talk shows.
When we watch TV programs, movies, or cartoons, we start to interact with the characters as if we are in a regular human relationship with them. Obviously, in such a close “relationship,” we can’t avoid inheriting some of their behavioral aspects and fall prey to their influence. This effect is very powerful when it comes to children and teenagers who are forming their own identity and trying to imitate their favorite video game, movie, and cartoon characters.
There’s something that’s known as the “Angelina Jolie” effect: just 15 days after the actress talked about having done a mastectomy, the number of women who had the test for the BRCA genes, which are responsible for the development of breast cancer, grew by 64%. And in 1987, when Princess Diana took her glove off and shook hands with an HIV-patient, thousands of people in Great Britain and the US stopped believing that this virus could be transmitted by touch. And before that, the scary articles in the media made 50% of Americans think that complete isolation of these patients was a good idea.
Princess Diana holding the child of an HIV patient at the London Lighthouse, 1996
It’s hard to tell reality from lies
Most news programs start with the anchor saying “Good evening” and then they explain why it’s not really a good evening. And if you watch TV programs often enough, the frame of everyday negativity doesn’t allow you to estimate the pros and cons of ordinary situations rationally. Spend more time on your hobbies and communicate with your friends — this will help you to avoid a negative mindset.
Try to be more critical of the news on social media: it’s there that fake news is spread 6 times faster than true information. This is mostly true for politics-related news. And fake news is much more “durable” because it continues to circulate long after it’s been proven false.
Here are some more ways to protect yourself from lies and make the right decision:
- Try to find more trustworthy information. When you look at a problem from different angles, it is easier to make the right decision.
- If you speak a foreign language well enough, try to think about the situation in it. This will allow you to keep a clear mind and not be influenced by emotions.
- Don’t come to any conclusions about how things are by just using one example.
- Take a break from information: when your brain is overloaded, it can’t think clearly.
- Look at the statistical number correctly: If a commercial says that 85% of plastic surgeries are successful, it means there is a 15% chance of having a negative surgical outcome.
- Use special resources to verify facts, for example, truthorfiction.com or hoax-slayer.com.
Bonus: Flying penguins
On April 1, BBC edited a funny video where they claimed to have found a new species of King Penguins that didn’t just fly, but could also migrate to hot tropic islands. 6 million views and 21,000 likes only prove the fact that fake information is spread at lightning speed.
Do you have your own methods that help you tell the difference between the truth and a lie? Which piece of news on social media or in newspapers looked completely fake or like nonsense to you?
Preview photo credit James Whatling/Mega Agency / East News