Summary of Age of Propaganda by Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Age of Propaganda by Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson

Propaganda is defined as the dissemination of information to influence public opinion. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are faced with propaganda and persuasion every day. It’s not just used by politicians and news channels, but it is also cleverly used by companies to influence our decisions and purchases. This is actually where propaganda slips by unnoticed and works its magic, but to whose benefit?

The trick to not get sucked into propaganda is to be able to recognize it. If you are familiar with how propaganda is used and the strategies employed, you will be able to make your own choices devoid of outside influence. 

In this book summary, readers will discover:

  • Rational choice or persuasion?
  • The difference between persuasion and propaganda
  • The four stratagems of influence
  • Where propaganda works best
  • How to fight propaganda

Key lesson one: Rational choice or persuasion?

We live in a world where everyone tries to influence other people’s decisions in some way or the other. It could be trivial like what to eat for lunch or what movie to watch, or it could be something more important like who to vote for or which product to add to your company. Persuasive techniques range but most commonly, persuaders will provide us with just enough information to make a rational choice. This generally means that we will be given both sides of the argument, both for and against but then receive facts that disprove one or the other. 

With these actions, persuasion works by making you change your decision by making a stronger case for a particular option. After all, if you were to deliberate all the information, that decision would feel like the rational choice. You are unaware of any form of persuasion as you have weighed up all the pros and cons, collated all the information and then came to a decision. This works based on the central route of information processing we all possess.

But, there are also methods of persuasion which are not so straightforward. This is what will be discussed next.

Key lesson two: The difference between persuasion and propaganda

The main difference between propaganda and persuasion is that propaganda does not give you the time or both sides of an argument to make a decision. Instead, it aims to work subliminally. The sole purpose of propaganda is to influence your decision without you being conscious of it. In order to achieve this, propaganda is delivered in a pretty package distracting consumers from the actual information. This is done carefully so that everything being said is considered attractive and its factuality is never questioned. Examples of this are seen every day when at the grocery store, something is labelled carefully to attract our attention. 

Whereas persuasion works with the central route of information processing, propaganda works with the peripheral route. It relies on a distracted consumer to not ask any questions. How many times have you watched an advertisement on television and have been distracted by the music or flashing images? Even if you were not interested in the product at all, those images and music stay with you and next time you are in the store when you see the product, your brain will make the connection and possibly tempt you to buy it. This is propaganda at work and it is found pretty much anywhere. 

To make matters worse, we are more or less in a distracted state most of the time due to our busy lives. Therefore, by not concentrating on what we are exposed to we leave ourselves open to being subconsciously influenced by all the propaganda around us. 

Key lesson three: The four stratagems of influence

Propaganda is based on the four stratagems of influence. These are source credibility, message, prepersuasion and emotions. 

Source credibility refers to the person delivering the message. If they are people who consumers are inclined to trust, then they can do their job easily. Propagandists are therefore very selective when it comes to choosing the person to deliver their message. They want consumers to focus on the person more than the words they are saying. Hence, they aim for those considered attractive or, even better, a public figure who is already well-liked and popular. A good example of this is athletes who promote food products like cereal and protein bars. If it’s good enough for them surely it is good enough for you, right?

Thus, people end up buying the product without even checking its nutritional value. 

The message refers to the actual message that is propagated. It often misleads the public, telling them exactly what propagandists want them to know. It usually contains strong positive statements that cleverly disguise the truth. Most of the time products are pretty average, but they make them seem extraordinary. For example, an advertisement for pain medication may claim that no other product works quicker than theirs. However, what they don’t say is that no other product works any slower too. These clever tactics make the product seem better than anything else available.  

Next up is prepersuasion. Prepersuasion creates a vulnerable mindset in the public. This is when propagandists build public support by emphasizing certain ideas. For example, politicians may push the news to report crime stories as a way to bolster support for projects aimed at drugs and crime. People would be more likely to support them because of all the crime stories they see on the news. Likewise, companies that sell guns may use self-defence as a way to market their guns as people would need to protect themselves from the dangers they have seen on the news.

The fourth and last stratagem is emotions. People often make decisions without considering their consequences when they are emotional. They just want a quick fix to get their emotions in check. Propagandists use this to their advantage.

These four stratagems are used every single to influence us. The fact that our modern world allows these messages to flow freely through so many different media types makes it so much easier for propaganda to achieve its goal. 

Key lesson four: Where propaganda works best

Do you know where propaganda works best? War. During periods of war, propaganda, fear and rational thinking all work together to influence the public. Politicians rely on propaganda to gather support from the public and convince soldiers to go to war. How many times have we seen the justification of war as retaliation or as an attempt to save a country from a brutal leader? Messages of fear are spread hard and fast that without action, there might be fatal consequences.  This was exactly what happened when The US invaded Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Propaganda was used to silence the deaths of innocent Iraqi civilians making them necessary casualties in a war against a dictator. It was also seen when the Nazis targeted the Jews. The spread messages that described the Jews as ‘rich money grabbers and profiled them by their ‘dark hair and big noses’. The Jews became easy targets because of this.

The other situation where propaganda seems to thrive is in cults. When cults look to recruit new members, they use reciprocity, distraction and self-sell. Reciprocity works so well as a tool since we are more likely to reciprocate kind behaviour. If someone gives you a gift, you will probably listen to what they have to say because it’s the least you can do, right? Then, once they have your attention they might try to distract you with some other activity that might camouflage their true intentions. Once they have you distracted, they might convince you to find other potential followers based on the same values they used on you. This is called self-sell. Another strategy that cults use is to keep their members isolated from other influences. This is why cult members tend to have very little to no interaction with people who do not belong to the cult themselves. They are so devoted to their leaders or ideals of the cult because they have been filled with propaganda that the cult is better than the outside world. 

Key lesson five: How to fight propaganda

Given that propaganda surrounds us daily, it is important not to get swept away in it. The first step anyone can take to fight propaganda is to understand how it works and there is no age limit on this. In fact, educating children early is crucial as they get caught up in propaganda from extremely young ages. They are exposed to commercials for toys and fast foods when they are watching television and even happen in between educational programmes. This propaganda moves kids away from developing their own central route of processing the information as they grow. They end up being peripherally persuaded from a young age. Thus, you should ask your kids why they think the toy or sweet would make them happier thereby encouraging them to think more about it. It’s a small step but one that can help greatly in the future.

Also, as adults, you can also ask questions to fight propaganda. If you hear a politician saying something and you want facts, then write to them and ask them what they have to back up their claims. You can do the same with companies regarding their products. The brilliant thing about our modern world is that everyone is just a phone call or email away. You can easily contact the relevant people to ask for information. The way they respond will let you know exactly what you are dealing with.  

The key takeaway from the Age of Propaganda is:

We are surrounded by propaganda every day. It comes in all shapes and forms, on all different types of media and has one main purpose – to influence us to do things whether we want to or not. The first thing we can do to combat propaganda is to understand the strategies employed by those who spread it. You can thereby identify it and avoid it, ensuring that all your decisions are your own. 

How can I implement the lessons learned in Age of Propaganda:

Ask questions. Don’t be so quick to accept everything that you see or hear. You should not be afraid to ask for more information. The more you do this, the easier it becomes to spot the truth from the exaggerations and people will learn from your lead.

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