Sunday, August 28, 2011

Outsourced Brainpower: An Untapped Resource for Opinion Molders

     Common sense incorrectly suggests that we should always think for ourselves. Actually, we often outsource brainpower for valid reasons, usually to friends, spouses, and other family members.
     Let’s say your teenage son is fascinated with computers, and you’re just barely computer savvy enough to be reading this article. Of course, you’re going to direct computer questions to your son, but there’s more to it than that. Your son knows that you expect him to know, so he’s more motivated to learn. In fact, each family member outsources some of his brainpower to other family members.
     In a recent study, married couples competed with paired individuals who didn’t know each other, in a Jeopardy-style contest. Consistently, the married couples scored significantly higher than the paired strangers. That's because close acquaintances have a tendency to outsource some of their memory and other brainpower to each other.  Each knows what interests the other has, so each outsources responsibility for finding out about those areas to that person.
     Most people rely on brainpower outsourcing when they vote. The good news is, they don't outsource their brainpower to the corporate media.  For people who “don’t have time to keep up with the issues,” as they say, that’s not really a bad strategy because most people who employ that strategy are outsourcing their brainpower to people they know, trust, and respect.
     People like that are called mavens—people who eagerly acquire information and share it with others. Because others recognize political mavens as such, they willingly outsource their political brainpower to them, which, in turn, further encourages them to keep up with the issues. In many cases, these mavens are also connectors: people who seem to know everybody and everybody seems to know them.
     Compare that arrangement to the people who tell you, “Oh, I just wait until the campaign season and listen to each candidate, and I make up my mind based on what each one has to say.”  People like that should stay home on Election Day.
They really should. Most elections are won or lost within a range of three percentage points. A switch of 1.5% of the vote can change the outcome of most elections. At the same time, think of how many people are still undecided when they arrive at the polling place—probably more than 1.5%. That suggests that most elections are decided by shallow, uninformed people who decided how they would vote only on the spur of the moment.
     Is it any surprise, then, that most congressmen are better looking and have more hair than the average people in their age groups? It’s true. Check out “How We Created the Mess in Washington, Part 1.”
     Let’s get back to the mavens to whom people outsource their political brainpower.
     Candidates for public office, as well as political pundits such as I, should take the education of these mavens more seriously. Most people think that the opinion molders are all famous people such as Scott Pelley or people in respected positions, such as ghetto ministers. In a way, they are because the mavens do pay some attention to what those people say. For 80% to 95% of the people, though, the mavens are their most important sources of actionable information.
     The late political strategist Lee Atwater once engineered an election victory in Charlotte, North Carolina, by surveying voters in key areas and asking them which of their acquaintances most influenced them in their voting habits. Then he focused on those very few people, often in underhanded ways.
     Let me stress here that the mavens can be anyone—the mailman, a mechanic, a barber, or even a minimum-wage hamburger flipper at McDonald’s. If you want to go the route of influencing the mavens, keep an open mind as to where you’re likely to find them.
     There’s a touch of irony here. One of the chief arguments against relying on blogs such as this one for your information is that “professional” news sources—simply because they’re “professional”—should be considered more reliable. My counter argument has been that paid witnesses are less reliable than volunteers. Just consider who pays them. [Click here for the inside story of how Fox News withheld life-and-death information on Monsanto, due to advertising pressure.] The mavens who are the subject of this article are a slam dunk. Even before there was an Internet, it was the mavens—not the corporation-paid talking heads—who had the most influence with most people.
     To most effectively influence the mavens, somebody who is more computer savvy than I am will have to identify three types of people in the neighborhoods. According to Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, those three types of people are mavens, connectors, and salesmen. While you’re at it, read the book. Like most important books, it’s a small book, so it won’t take long to read. I’ve already read it twice, and I’ll probably read it again.
     If we’re serious about taking our country back, we shouldn’t neglect the largest pools of outsourced brainpower and political influence in America. As a resource, they’re virtually untapped. We can change that equation. 
     Here's a parting thought for you: Why do you think that there are very few minorities at Tea Party rallies?  No, it's not because Tea Partiers are racists or because Tea Party issues don't matter to minorities.  It's because it's nothing new to minorities.  They've been lied to, cheated, and stepped on for more than a hundred years, and you haven't seen many white people at their rallies.  The Tea Parties came about because white people have suddenly realized that the same stuff is now happening to white people.
     We're all in the same boat now.  It's time to identify their real opinion molders, as opposed to the talking heads that get interviewed by the corporate media, and start rowing.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Michele Bachmann Doesn't Believe Her Own Words. Why Should We Believe Them?

      Michele Bachmann is the Barack Obama of the 2012 presidential election cycle. The comparison goes to something more basic than their thin biographies, though their thin biographies are nonetheless worth a look.
     They were both trained to be lawyers. Both had unimpressive records in state senates before going to Washington. Obama served in the Illinois state from 1997 through 2004; Bachmann served in the Minnesota state senate from 2000 through 2006. Neither accomplished anything worth mentioning. Obama served as a U.S. senator from 2005 through 2008; Bachmann has been in the House since 2007. Neither accomplished anything worth mentioning. Both of them drew favorable national attention to themselves based solely on their words—words of hope and change that people wanted to hear and believe.
     Here’s where we get down to brass tacks. We know now, if we didn’t know it before now, that the words that got Barack Obama elected were lies. Unlike Michele Bachmann, Mr. Obama at least offered concrete policies and plans even if he didn’t believe his own words. Michele Bachmann offers nothing but words. Does Michele Bachmann believe her own words? If Michele Bachmann’s words are all she’s offering the American people as a reason for electing her President of the United States, then it’s worth checking to see if she believes them herself.
     One advantage we have as a lie detector is that Bachmann has been in Washington for less than four years. She hasn’t had as much time to perfect the art of faking sincerity.
     At least as early as 1978, and up to the present, behavioral psychologists have researched and written peer reviewed articles validating body language and face language. (For samples of articles or abstracts in social science citation index (SSCI) journals, see here, here, and here.) Experienced congressmen know very well that opponents (such as I) sometimes look for signs of lying, and experienced congressmen usually know how to disguise their lying more effectively than Michelle Bachmann does.
     Let me stress here that this is not a parlor game in which “X” always signals “Y” or something like that. Psychology and the human mind are more complex than that.  (In fact, not all liars signal their deceit in the same ways.)
     To give one example of unconscious signaling, when a person makes a statement and shakes his head “no” while saying it, there may be one of several reasons for the unconscious gesture. He may be lying. He may be ambivalent about what he’s saying.  He may be expressing his objection to something.
     When Michele Bachmann uses words such as no or not, or other words of protest, she understandably shakes her head “no.” When she says something positive, she often shakes her head “yes.” These gestures indicate that she believes what she’s saying. On the other hand, when she says something self serving, with a positive ring to it, and shakes her head “no,” that’s a good sign that she’s lying. Sometimes we can’t be sure.
     If you're skeptical of the concept, that's good.  You should be skeptical.  Here's an experiment you can try.  Say out loud, "I love my wife," or something else you strongly believe; and shake your head "no" as you say it.  It doesn't feel natural, does it?  That's because nobody shakes his head "no" when he's expressing a positive belief.
     I think that that’s enough theory. Let’s get down to facts. Watch Michele Bachmann in the following videos and draw your own conclusions. We’ll begin with a recent interview (here):

     Throughout the interview, she nods and shakes her head, but pay careful attention to her head shakes beginning with the 20-second mark and proceeding to the 7 minute, 53-second mark:
20-second mark: “I wish him [Pawlenty] well; I have great respect for the governor….”
1:00: [Says that self-identified people of all political stripes come up to her and say they support her and will vote for here.]
1:20: [on job creation] “I’ve been there, and I’ve done that.”
1:33: “They want someone who’s going to go to Washington [starts head shaking] and represents their values.” [She believes the part about the people wanting to send someone to Washington, but she starts shaking her head at the suggestion that she—Michele Bachmann—will represent their values.]
1:51: “They really want someone they can trust [begins head shaking here] that they believe in.”
3:25: “I will fight for what people care about.”
4:45: “We actually changed our entire educational system in Minnesota.” [In this statement, she’s taking full credit for what the whole legislature did.]
5:20: “No nation has ever been in debt to the levels that we are.” [Fact: The U.S was more deeply in debt as a portion of the GDP just after World War II.]
7:53: “I ascribe dignity and honor to all people no matter who they are….”
     (If you clicked on the link above, did you notice the key question she was avoiding in that interview?  How would she reduce the deficit?  Her only specific suggestion was to continue making Social Security payments to those now receiving them but to deny payments to retiring baby boomers and later retirees.  She didn't mention an obvious means of saving of trillions of dollars: End America's illegal wars of aggression and profiteering that were started under false pretenses.)

Bachmann for Congress: Israel
(Beginning at .57 mark: “I know that these are the views of people in my district.”

Bachmann for Congress: Israel (update)
8-second mark: “The overwhelming majority of Americans understand that our alliance with Israel is critical for both of our nations at all times.”
18-second mark: “…in the face of growing uncertainty…” [stopped shaking her head when she mentions “instability throughout the Arab world.”]
30-second mark: “rising dangers”
48-second mark: “The President is the most powerful man in the world….[head stops shaking here] When it comes to Israel and Israel’s importance to America, his [Obama’s] positions are shared [begins head shaking again] by a tiny minority.”
Referring to Israelis and Americans: “We share the same values and [head begins shaking] the same aspirations.”
Congressman Michele Bachmann's update on the potential shutdown
14-second mark: “I was a very strong voice in Washington, DC, about a month ago."

     If Michele Bachmann is going to follow in Barack Obama’s footsteps with no record of accomplishment, little experience, and only words of hope and change, and she doesn’t believe her own words, why should we believe them? If we want to support a candidate who doesn’t carry water for the Establishment elite, and really believes what he says, whom should we support? A virtual novice whom the Establishment elite give favorable attention at every turn, such as Michele Bachmann; or someone with a proven track record whom the Establishment elite studiously ignore? Think about it.
     After you've thought about it, maybe you and your friends might like to make a game of it.  How many of her lies can you and your friends detect in a single video clip?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

With Few Exceptions, Most Great Men are Bad Men

     (Most of the following article is excerpted from volume one of a three-volume history I’m writing. The name of the book is And West is West: De-mythologizing the Boxer Rebellion and the China Relief Expedition. This article contains additional material to suit the purpose of the article.)

     With few exceptions, most great men are bad men. To say so is to contradict a myth that historians perpetuate, but casual observation reveals the truth of this statement. Greatness among national leaders is usually judged by the scope and size of wars the leaders launch, the powers that leaders amass unto themselves at the expense of others, the number of human beings they slaughter or subjugate, and the size of the geographical areas they conquer.
     War is the ultimate exercise of power. It’s the ability to get large numbers of people to leave the comforts of family, home, and private pursuits and travel to distant places for the purpose of killing their fellow man, and be killed by their fellow man, to the benefit of no one but a comparative handful of people who bear none of the risks or hardships. War is the only form of homicide that leads historians to crown the perpetrators with glory or ignominy, depending on whether the perpetrator succeeds or fails in the attempt to bend others to his will. Those marked as the villains of history are the ones who fail.

Eighteenth-century China as One Example

     History delicately tells us that, in 1735, immediately after Chien Lung became emperor, his armies “suppressed,” or “put down” the Miao Rebellion. The Miao are recorded as rebels rather than patriots because they lost. The Miao were an ethnic minority who fought back against Han encroachment. The Chinese means of suppression involved destroying 1,200 forts and killing 18,000 Miaos. The causes of the revolt were left unaddressed and led to renewed fighting six decades later….
     Historians are equally fond of saying that empires “rise” and “expand,” or that they “fall.” They use these words every bit as glibly as you or I would use when speaking of a cake in the oven. The rise, expansion, and fall of empires are much messier and more serious affairs than cakes in the oven.
     …In terms that recognize the humanity of the people involved, Manchu rule was forced on unwilling subjects in East Turkistan (renamed Xingjian Province and henceforth redefined as historical and inseparable parts of China.) Dzungaria (a Mongol region), and other smaller regions also came under Han rule. The human cost for Dzungaria was the death, by war or smallpox, of 80% of the population, as well as the extinction of the Dzungars as an ethnic group.
     Chien Lung’s armies thwarted the Mongol attempt to take over Tibet. Driving the Mongols out of Tibet, Chien Lung installed the Dalai Lama as puppet ruler of Tibet.
     Nepal fell under Manchu hegemony, though not under Chinese sovereignty, and became a tributary of China. Meanwhile, at the eastern end of the Empire, China maintained control over Korea, another of China’s tributaries.
     Historians are not the only people who display the moral failing of excusing successful acts of villainy. Most of us—scholar or otherwise—overlook the human cost of great accomplishments and notice only the evidence of our eyes. Just as the Great Wall of China was constructed at the cost of thousands of Chinese workers who died building it, the Four Treasuries Project had its human cost. Chien Lung’s massive project had two major aims: to preserve great works from the past and to suppress works containing ideas that may have undermined support for his rule. The works that were not chosen for preservation were summarized, banned, or burned. Even the books chosen for preservation were subject to censorship via modifying or deleting passages. The banned or burned books included political opposition or writings about defense or frontier problems. In all, some 150,000 copies of 31,000 titles were burned or banned.
     More current writings deemed objectionable resulted in the writers themselves being modified or deleted. In 53 cases, the least unfortunate writers were the ones who were executed before their bodies were mutilated. As for the most unfortunate writers, executioners took their time killing them by means of an exotic Chinese torture called lingchi (凌迟): “death by a thousand cuts.”

(“Great” European Rulers Were Just As Bad If Not Worse.)

     During the Middle Ages, one third of all popes and European kings were murderers. The Crusades were mainly quests for power and wealth. The popes were as guilty as the nobility.
Of the five English monarchs who ruled from 1509 through 1603, all but one ordered the death of a close family member in the interest of personal power. The sole exception was seventeen-year-old Lady Jane Grey, who reigned for only nine days and was beheaded on the orders of her first cousin Queen Mary I. Mary, in turn, was executed on the orders of her first cousin once removed, Queen Elizabeth I. Since Elizabeth I died without issue, the Tudor line of succession enjoyed by that dysfunctional family was passed to another branch of the family, and so on.
     The dysfunctionality didn’t end with the Tudor line. Future generations refined it. Instead of crowned heads of Europe lopping off other crowned heads, they used proxies in the form of frequent wars. Most European royalty from Britain to Russia were blood relatives, a fact which casts a different light on the never-ending series wars to which Europeans seemed addicted.
     A case in point was the First World War, the last major war over which kings presided over opposing states one another. King George V of England and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany were first cousins—grandsons of Queen Victoria. Constantine I of Greece and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia were George and Wilhelm’s first cousins by marriage. George V and Nicholas II so closely resembled each other, that, when they posed together for a photograph in 1913, it was impossible to tell their faces apart.
     The European tendency toward homicide was so well known that, during the late nineteenth century, the American Hiram Maxim was advised, “If you want to get rich, come up with a more efficient means for Europeans to kill each other.” He got rich by inventing the Maxim gun, the most efficient killing machine of its day.
     These remarks about the criminality of European rulers don’t by any means excuse Emperor Chien Lung. Rather, they serve to demonstrate the degree to which most great movers and shakers of history, as I’ve said, are bad men.
     The point I’ve just stated and illustrated serves to spotlight yet another principle, which is one of the purposes of this book. In war and diplomacy, both sides claim to be right; and often both sides claim to enjoy the favor of heaven. Abraham Lincoln—another great man who committed great evils—wrote, “Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.” Both sides can’t be right, Lincoln pointed out, but both sides can be wrong. Just as Lincoln saw the War Between the States as the Almighty’s judgment against both sides, we may see the Boxer Uprising in the same light.

(What about Today?)
     You’ve just read about the evils of great men and women in various parts of the world from the Medieval Period up to the end of the First World War. You’re probably less surprised than I was while I was doing the research for these passages.
     My biggest surprise was the contrast between, on one hand, Emperor Chien Lung; and, on the other hand, Prince Duan and the Empress Dowager Tze Hsi. Historians generally demonize Prince Duan and Tze Hsi; yet, for all their faults, I found them far more sympathetic characters than Chien Lung. History doesn’t castigate them for their selfish ambition; it castigates them for unwise decisions they made in the defense of their country against foreign aggression.
     People find it easy enough to believe stories of past leaders’ evils and even criminal psychopathic behavior. Most people, however, find it impossible to believe that political leaders today could be criminal psychopaths. Ask yourself two questions: “At what point in time did criminal psychopaths disappear from political life?” and, “What event, if any, caused the disappearance of criminal psychopaths from political life?”
     Here are a few more thoughts for you. Three people—Bush, Cheney, and Rice—lied to the public over 90 times (about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction) in order to start a war that took the lives of over 70,000 Americans and 1,000,000 Iraqi civilians. Chief arms inspector Scott Ritter tells us that all of Iraq’s WMDs were destroyed by 1999. (link) Bush tells us that his administration’s belief in WMDs was all a mistake and that we’re supposed to sympathize with his embarrassment over the whole thing. Nonetheless, he was never embarrassed enough to pull out of Iraq, and neither was Obama, who, during the 2008 presidential election, had promised to do so.
     Plans to invade both Iraq and Afghanistan were in place months before the events of September 11, 2001.
     WMDs and 9/11 were the excuse for starting the bloodiest war in American history and one of the bloodiest in the history of the world. (The War Between the States resulted in the deaths of 600,000 people, mostly American servicemen. The present, illegal wars against the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya—have I left out a country?—have claimed the lives of over 1,000,000 people, mostly innocent civilians.)
     If neither Iraq nor Afghanistan provided the excuse for the slaughter, who did? Can it be that criminal psychopaths have not really disappeared from political life? (link) Whether the perpetrators are criminal psychopaths or just garden-variety gangsters, American judges and prosecutors have a responsibility to issue arrest warrants against the murderers of our fellow Americans; and an international war crimes tribunal has a responsibility to bind them over trial as war criminals.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Decision Landscaping and Choice Architecture: Tools for Low-tech Mind Control

     Choice architecture has been around for several decades or more. It’s the art of arranging selections so that people tend to select pretty much what you want them to make.

     Let’s say your company was hired to run a high school cafeteria. What do you want the students to do when they go through the serving line? Select the foods that are healthiest for them? Select the foods that cost your company the least to provide? Make selections on according to some other criteria?
     You already know that foods placed near the beginning of the serving line are more likely to be selected than those at the end; that foods placed at eye level are more likely to be selected than foods placed some other way; and that foods set apart from the natural flow of the serving line are less likely to be selected.
     What if you were running a newspaper? Unless you had no opinions on anything, you would probably use some form of choice architecture in your editorial policies whether you realized it or not.
     I coined the term decision landscaping to describe how opinion molders use the principles of choice architecture so that some decisions are automatically rejected as  “beyond the pale” or will not even enter our heads. Under the idea of decision landscaping, certain other decisions are decisions not at all; they’re simply the acceptance of the default setting that we have been given.
     I first became aware of decision landscaping—though I didn’t call it that at the time—during the Watergate Era. A commentator contrasted media coverage of the Watergate scandal to the Chappaquiddick homicide.
     Senator Ted Kennedy drove 32-year old Mary Jo Kopechne off a bridge one night. Over the next four hours, Kopechne gasped trapped air until she finally died of asphyxiation, as Kennedy spent those hours conferring with his lawyers on how to spin the episode.
     After three weeks of stepping on his own tongue and watching his nose grow ever longer, Kennedy offered his final flimsy excuse and announced that he’d say no more on the matter. Charges were mysteriously dropped, and the media just as mysteriously lost interest in the homicide story in which a United States senator was at the center.
     Since Watergate is recorded in every high school history book, there’s no need to go over it. In a nutshell, President Nixon committed crimes for which he deserved to be driven from office and probably prosecuted. In contrast with the three weeks of media publicity the Kopechne homicide received, the media spent about a hundred twelve weeks daily digging into Watergate.
     The commentator on the contrast wrote something like, “The media can not determine what we think, but they can determine what we think about.” Determining what people think about, and whether some thoughts are default as others are customized, are at the heart of decision landscaping.
     Most of the people reading this article already have the ability to question the default setting that the opinion molders offer us. Unfortunately, I’ve seen even the best informed pundits make the mistake of reinforcing the aims the Establishment’s decision landscaping.
     To give one example, how do most 9/11 skeptics approach the issue? Almost always, they address the default conspiracy theory—which we’ve been told many times is official and factual, therefore reliable—as if to pay homage to it. Their listeners (or readers) are then placed in a frame of mind in which the person putting forth an “alternative” theory has to defend and even prove his theory. Any flaw in the theory then is taken as proof that the listener shouldn’t go to the trouble of changing the default setting in his brain. It’s extremely difficult for a person to unthink something that he is hardwired to accept as fact.
     How should we approach the the 9/11 debate? We should approach it the same way a scientist approaches a phenomenon. He asks what caused the phenomenon, looks for facts, and uses reason to deduce the answer. He often begins with a hypothesis, while recognizing that a hypothesis by definition is a belief of which you’re uncertain.
     That’s also the way that police investigators approach a crime scene. With the exception of certain high-profile crimes such as the assassinations of the Kennedys and King, or 9/11, he begins with a hypothesis and does what a scientist does. He doesn’t establish a theory and collect only the evidence that seems to support the theory, as they did in the cases I’ve just mentioned. By the way, if it looks as though the crime was committed by more than one person, the police investigator’s hypothesis is a conspiracy theory.
     In discussing these crimes or other controversial issues—controversial issue being defined as an issue on which two or more sides have strongly conflicting views—we should ask more and preach less. “What caused the towers to fall?” you might ask. “Oh, I can see that you’re familiar with the issue,” you may say to his reply. “And what is the melting point of steel, and how hot does burning jet fuel get?” Instead of putting yourself into a position of having to prove a theory of your own, put your listener into a thoughtful frame of mind concerning the official conspiracy theory. Whenever possible, ask questions that have obvious answers, such as, “Have you ever heard a commercial airliner passing over at a low altitude?” (“Yes, of course,” he would reply, “they’re so loud that they’re hard to miss.” Most people may then wonder why most 9/11 “witnesses” failed to hear either plane passing over.
     Learn to present facts that your listener already knows but hasn’t considered. Most people have all the facts they need to be skeptical of the default theory, but they’ve been conditioned to ignore them. The corporate media has them sold on the idea that the question is settled; it’s the default setting.
     One myth (that people are hardwired to accept as fact) is that newspapers have a financial stake in telling the truth. I devised the three diagrams on this page for students.  Here's a diagram of the official version of the landscape:
      Actually, newspaper readers are among the least of a newspaper’s stakeholders. Here’s the way the landscape really looks:
     Of course, no newspaper just has advertisers; the advertisers have company names. No newspaper just has owners; the owners have names; and so forth. Let’s look at some of the names that show up among the stakeholders of large newspapers:
     As you can see, the default "news" sources have reasons for lying big time. 
    This article is longer than I had intended it to be. I’m glad you’re still reading. Those who have already set the article aside don’t know that I’m glad.
     Here’s the thought I want you to take away from this lesson. Be aware that your decisions are more than just a matter of reasoning through available facts. Decision landscapers are using every trick they know to determine what facts you will even consider. Opinion molders will do all they can to make the official version of events the default setting. Don’t just question the official version of events; question the way selections are arranged for your consideration. Free your mind.