When the Masses are Stupid

Even smart scholars sometimes make the mistake of assuming the masses are stupid.

During election fever, media critics in particular view publics as empty slates ready to be inscribed with persuasive messages.

For example, pundits wring their hands over negative ads and their effectiveness. For some reason, we figure the ads must be effective over some poor slob willing to believe the media twaddle.

But the science behind persuasion is a bit more sophisticated. Negative ads actually fail to persuade most publics, and certainly fail it when comes to persuading folks who have already made up their minds.

Most people find negative ads annoying.

What would happen if we shift the paradigm, away from people as tabula rasa to people as smart and rational?

The current election methodology encourages politicians to stay on topic, repeating the same message over and over. Linguist George Lakoff recently wrote that language “activates and strengthens conservative brain circuitry.”

But I argue that Lakoff’s model views publics as empty-headed where the right message can work its magic by manipulating the brain.

But neuroscientists argue that the brain is rather elastic: changeable.

So it makes a difference if you think of people as idiots ready to have their minds massaged or if you think of people as sentient creatures capable of mulling over decisions rationally.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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