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Peace Talks Radio host Suzanne Kryder talks with Dave Straker, author of Changing Minds: In Detail.
STRAKER: Campaign managers use many, different methods. One is a method, taught by Freud and, way before him, by Aristotle, which is simply the principle of pleasure and pain. Two, basic needs for people are that we tend to go toward things that are pleasurable, and go away from things that are painful. They’ll push the buttons. For example, right now, the price of oil is a pain button. It can be a pleasure button, being able to go on trips. But it can be a pain button, when it starts hitting our purse harder. If a campaign manager would want to talk about the effects of this – either their candidate is going to do something good about it or the other candidates are going to do something bad for us, they’ll push those buttons for us.
KRYDER: Political parties increase their power by associating with specific groups that, they feel align with their values. For example, in the U. S., the Republican Party identifies with the National Rifle association, and the Democratic Party might align with labor unions. Does that mean parties are trying to change people’s values? I thought people’s values were pretty cemented.
STRAKER: Values are fairly deep, but they can be moved, slowly. Particularly, what can happen with values is that, when we’re stressed, our values change. You might say, “I would never hurt another person.” But if someone came up and started hitting you – or hitting a friend next to you – maybe your values about not hurting another person might change, quite suddenly. One way fear is used is to push values into another direction.
KRYDER: Explain how that works.
STRAKER: Because one of our basic and fundamental needs is for safety, if those deep needs are threatened, we’ll forget values and go backwards, to those more fundamental things. It’s easy to do, to start pressing those deep worries, because those will undercut. An opponent is talking about becoming the greatest person you can be, about hope, and so on. You start undercutting by saying, “That’s all great, but we’re not going to get there without addressing the terrorists, who are in our homes.” The same thing happened, a few years ago, with the reds under the bed and the fear of Communism. It drove a lot of the political agenda, because the fear was used, very powerfully, to affect the electorate.
KRYDER: Is there anything voters can do to neutralize the use of fear?
STRAKER: There are two ways that voters process decisions: one is consciously and the other is without much thought. If you want to really change somebody in the long term, they have to think about it. It’s about getting people to think about the real issues, to talk about them. That’s how you change values more permanently. If you want an immediate reaction, a short-term effect, you press those buttons that make people respond rather reactively, without thinking about things, taking short-cut decisions. You almost suggest the answers for them, so they just say, “Yes,” without any thought. This is why, for an example, just before an election, as people are coming up to vote, any approach that’s going to cause short-term thinking will be increased, because people won’t really have time to ponder the messages.
KRYDER: What do you want people to remember most about how political campaigns try to change our minds?
STRAKER: The first thing to remember is that they’ll use any method they believe will work. Their goal is not to make your life better; it’s to get their candidate elected. You have to try to see through the methods onto the real intent of the political people in power. Look to the persons, themselves. Do those persons have those qualities that Max Weber said they should have? Do they have passion? Do they really mean what they say? If you can get a politician who’s like that, I’d vote for them, whatever party they’re in.
Peace Talks Radio host Suzanne Kryder talks with Harvard’s Howard Gardner, author of Changing Minds.
KRYDER: Dr. Gardner, in your book, Changing Minds, you say that the way to change the minds of a diverse audience – like an entire nation – is to appeal to what you call, “unschooled minds.” What do you mean?
GARDNER: When we were talking earlier about people who give theories or concepts – in shorthand, schooled ways of thinking: I’m back in history or physics class, and I need to know what gravity means or Newtonian theories are – most of us have gone through this and either liked it or didn’t. By the time people are adults, most of them don’t go through it voluntarily anymore. That’s why wrestling or reality TV shows are watched by a hundred times more people than watch PBS or listen to NPR. I call that the unschooled mind, because you don’t need to have any kind of rich information, let alone any kinds of sophisticated concepts or theory. You really understand, very much, in the way that a five-year-old, who hasn’t gone to school, would understand. There are good guys or bad guys, people who are likeable or unlikeable. This person is trust worthy; this person can’t be cheated; this person, in front of an American flag, must be good. That’s the unschooled mind. You don’t need to have any education for that. When we talk about a heterogeneous population, there are going to be some people in that population who do actually look at platforms, which would be a studied, schooled, way of doing things. But most people don’t; they want to make sense of a political campaign very much they way they want to make sense of a comedy show on TV.
KRYDER: What about grassroots, door-to-door campaigning? Is that an effective way to change people’s minds? What advice would you give to a door-to-door campaigner?
GARDNER: Any campaign, where there’s any chance of reaching a significant portion of the population – for example, states like Iowa or New Hampshire, which have early primaries and aren’t very populace – door-to-door, there’s nothing like it. We basically evolved, as a species, to take seriously human beings we can look at in the flesh, look at, directly in the eyes. It’s much harder to resist a person who actually talks to you, listens to you, than it is someone who’s on a screen or in an ad.
The only thing I would add there is that you have to feel resonant with this person. So, a person you take an instant dislike to – because of the color of their skin, their religion, gender, way of dress and so on – there isn’t a positive effect. There may even be a negative effect: “My God. If that person is for X, then I want to be against X.” You want to make sure the people who are walking the precinct are sympathetic. You are much better off, in these cases, if you are a good listener and good at picking up cues. If I were advising someone, I’d say to go in and establish a warm relationship with the person, without even getting into politics. Ask them some questions about themselves to make them feel important, but also to get a feeling about what kind of person this is, what vocabulary he or she is using, what they seem to be interested in.
I have a technical definition of what a fundamentalist is: a fundamentalist is somebody with a commitment not to change his or her mind. Once you’ve discovered somebody’s a fundamentalist, you should make a quick exit because you’re not going to change their mind. One of the skills of the ward healer, as we call them – people who go around neighborhoods and talk to people – is: this person’s committed on your side; give him a hug and get out. If the person’s a fundamentalist, “I’d never vote for a Black, I’d never vote for a Republican,” don’t waste your time. Try to see if this person is a swing voter, might be inclined in the other direction, or even inclined in your direction, but hasn’t made up his or her mind. That’s where you want to spend your time. But you can’t convince them unless you know what they’re like. And that’s why you have to listen. The most underappreciated aspect of mind changing is understanding the resistances that people have. You can’t know their resistances unless you listen and watch.
KRYDER: I know you’re not an advertising executive, but I’m curious what you think about the impact of television ads on changing voters’ minds.
GARDNER: I think the most important thing about ads is to make the same, basic point in many different ways. Let’s say that you think Obama is inexperienced or that McCain is out of it, you don’t want to say it just once; you don’t want the same person to say it. You don’t just want even to say it in words; you want to show it in many, many ways. Just to be funny about it, you’d want to show Obama looking even younger than he is and you’d want to show McCain as being even older than he is, and fumbling around. Those are ways, without any words, of emphasizing the negative, the reasons why someone might not want to vote for someone who is too young or too old, to put it in polar opposite terms.
Peace Talks Radio host Suzanne Kryder talks with Rachel Gorlin, political ad specialist
KRYDER: When you’re putting together a television ad for a candidate, do you develop it based on the base voter, or supportive voter, or do you do it based on trying to change somebody’s mind?
GORLIN: It varies a lot. I keep coming back to Congressional races, because that’s what I’m most familiar with. Usually, early in the race, using the Labor Day start model – when voters are beginning to tune in to a race, you start with an ad that’s going to introduce the candidate to voters in a way that’s going to excite the base. But don’t assume that everyone out there who is going to be seeing it has that much information. You’re trying to do both things. You’re not necessarily trying to persuade the undecideds, right out of the box.
KRYDER: What are some specific ways that campaigns target undecided voters?
GORLIN: In any partisan race, partisanship is still the single, most important fact in a voter’s decision. The partisan affiliation of a candidate is not going to be the most important factor to an undecided voter. In fact, that’s your challenge: if someone is undecided ten days before an election, parties do nothing for them. They’re obviously probably less well-informed than people who are making their minds up earlier. It’s axiomatic. If you have less information, you’re probably going to be less quick to make up your mind. They’re probably undecided about other races, as well. You’ve got an issue. There’s something that is not quite sitting right about either candidate, and you’re wrestling with it. One of the things that we haven’t talked about that I, as a person who makes ads, will be relying on, very heavily, is public opinion research, whether it’s focus groups, interviews conducted in person or online and polling. Try to get some understanding of this voter’s thought process.
KRYDER: Give us a behind-the-scenes look at an ad. We’re seeing a successful, political ad. Tell us what are some things we could see in that ad that are trying to catch an undecided voter in those last, ten days.
GORLIN: You’ve got to understand what it is that’s holding a voter back from making a decision. Is it that they just don’t like the candidate? That happens. Likeability, whether we think it’s intellectually-defensible or not, is a really important factor. It’s hard to measure. You’ve also got voters’ own prejudices. I don’t use that term pejoratively. People bring their own life experiences to a voting decision. It’s an emotional decision.
KRYDER: You’ve taught political, media production at American University in Washington, D. C. You’ve used Drew Weston’s book, The Political Brain. Give us a brief synopsis of his basic theory in that book.
GORLIN: His theory, which, I think most people in politics – in political persuasion, let’s put it that way – would agree is the case, is that voters make up their minds based on emotional response to the candidates and the campaigns, rather than a rational, list-making kind of approach to their political decision-making. It’s a choice of the gut, rather than of the head. It still has to pass the head test, but . . . He’s drawing on some very interesting work that’s being done now in neuroscience: actual studies of the brain’s reactions to different, political stimuli – whether it’s an ad, still photos, film clips of the candidate in action. We’re starting to understand, much better than we ever had, that there is actually a physiological for assuming that this is not a “totally rational” process. I think that’s very valuable.
KRYDER: What’s most important for people to remember about political campaigns?
GROLIN: Pay attention. And do your homework. If something seems like it’s not quite one hundred percent to you, you wonder about the facts, check them out. You don’t want to be feeling like you’ve got buyer’s remorse on Election Day, plus one.
KRYDER: That’s right. Because we can’t return it.
GROLIN: You can’t return it. You buy it and it’s yours.