Propaganda and Persuasion: The Social Animal on Social Media (3):

[Part 3 of 9: The Social Animal on Social Media, Part 2, Part 1]

In his classic social psychology book, The Social Animal, Elliot Aronson says that we live in an age where mass communication is also mass persuasion. Radio, television, books, magazines, and newspapers, all have someone trying to educate us and convince us to buy a product, or believe their version of what is true.

The same can be said of social media. As well as those links to newspapers, television and magazines forwarded by our network, we also have ads in our Facebook newsfeeds which are often linked to our Google or Amazon searches, and promoted tweets in our Twitter stream which recommend products targeted to our demographic, which is ascertained by the data we put online.

However, even in this age of social media many people still have their lives mediated by TV and newspapers even online, which means they are told where to focus online. Regularly now newspapers curate Tweets and create a story around them. Today the Daily Mail online has taken model Katie Price’s instagram photos about her new haircut and created a whole article around them. It is an easy way to create news and attract viewers. Attracting viewers are ratings, Aronson says, is still a major factor in deciding which stories to choose and claims that a director of the British Broadcasting Corporation (he doesn’t say which one) once said that television news is a form of entertainment.

News reports tend to focus on violence, terrorists, protesters, strikers and the police, because action is much more entertaining to watch than people behaving well, and it is the same with social media. The most popular type of information to share is information which surprises us in the form of stories, short videos, and images. Apparently, we all seek that twist in the tale.

The other types of information we share can be classified according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (or in this case Maslow’s hierarchy of social media):

  • Physiological: Information that make users fearful or angry.
  • Safety: Information that helps us or others and is useful.
  • Social: We all want to be seen and heard, and to belong and feel loved.
  • Esteem: We all want to look cool so share our new yoga pants or smart knowledge because we need society to respect us and we like to respect and follow others.
  • Self-actualization: We like to share compelling narratives.

We rarely share anything without some motivation so why would media outlets be any different? The wish to get ratings is all important so that breaking news and follow ups create yet more news and higher ratings. As Aronson says: Selective emphasis puts the media in the position of determining subsequent events – not simply reporting them. He cites examples of copycat poisonings and car crashes in the US. A similar UK example is the Bridgend hangings and an article in Vanity Fair says: Publicity dramatically accelerates the spread of the contagion. 

We are all affected and influenced by the media, even if we think we are not, and not just news reporting, but in the advice and products with which we are bombarded daily.

Research has show that the more familiar an item is, the more attractive it is to us. If a person has seen washing powder adverts for one brand and is overwhelmed in the supermarket, they will simply reach for that most familiar washing powder.

This phenomena applies to everything from US presidential candidates to toothpaste which is why presidential campaigns cost such a lot of money. The candidates want to be familiar – the one people reach for when it comes time to vote.

It works the same way with catch phrases and sound bites, which is why so much money is spent on them. We are more likely to remember a rhyming phrase than non rhyming phrase and as such it becomes familiar to us.

But it is not just familiarity. It also who the messenger is and how they look which influences us. This approach was discovered by the sales people at Wheaties and their breakfast of champions as early as the 1930s. In 2010 The Telegraph published a list of celebrities’ fees paid by local councils in order to encourage the uptake of certain council programmes. Keith Chegwin encouraged locals to recycle their rubbish and Daley Thompson wanted everyone to use the new sports facility.

We are influenced by attractiveness and likeability – if the above two don’t do it for you, then think of your favourite celebrity and what they endorse: perfume, underpants, broadband suppliers. Aronson says that we behave as though we were trying to please that person, and trust them especially if say, David Beckham has nothing to gain from us buying Calvin Klein underpants, he just likes to see Justin Bieber wearing them, we might be more readily influenced too: Bieber looks good in Calvin Klein, even David Beckham said so. Perhaps Calvin Klein would make us look good too.

This idea works really well on Instagram or other photographic social media. We have an influencer: someone who has a lot of followers, or indeed a celebrity like Beckham or Bieber, and we see them looking good or saying that something is good, and so we want to look good too. The best bit about social media is that anyone could be the next influencer. It is all up for grabs.

It is not just how people look, it is how the message resonates with us, especially if it frightens us. Aronson says that all other things being equal, the more frightened a person is by a communication, the more likely he or she is to take positive preventive action.

Fear appeal experiments show that fear-arousing messages which contain specific instructions about how, when, and where to take action, are much more effective than recommendations which do not give any advice. Like the Don’t die of Ignorance campaign in the 1980s in the UK. It became known as the most successful Public Health message ever. A follow-up leaflet was sent to every household in the country and a week of educational programming was scheduled so everyone was terrified but knew exactly how to practice safe sex.

In contrast, people cannot tolerate living in a state of constant anxiety. Thus, if vague warnings recur and prove to be false alarms, most of us will eventually drift into a state of denial and become complacent. When I worked in a delicatessen in the 90s, there was the threat of bombs weekly. The first time, I ran out of the building, nearly screaming. However, after a few weeks, I would take my time, pop upstairs to get my purse, or perhaps go to the toilet. Bomb threats had become welcome tea-breaks.

People need some fear and specific instructions, or indeed they need anecdotal advice, when someone tells you a vivid true story, then you sit up and pay attention. Indeed, fictional journalism is a whole field which developed from the personal anecdote, because journalists know that a personal story wins people over much better than statistical information.

The final factor in how people get persuaded is, the initial position of the audience. If the audience is already predisposed to believe an argument, a one-sided presentation has a greater impact than a two-sided presentation. If the audience is leaning in the opposite direction, then a two-sided refutational argument is more persuasive. Most politicians are aware of this phenomenon which is why the speeches they deliver at their party conferences are very different from the speeches they give elsewhere.

However, there are at least four ways in which the members of an audience can stop feeling uncomfortable if they are being presented with an argument they don’t like. They can:

  1. Change their opinion, something they might do if they realise they may become social outcasts and it’s best to conform.
  2. Try and persuade the presenter to change his or her opinion.
  3. Find other people who share their views, in spite of what is being said.
  4. Convince themselves and the people around them that the presenter is an idiot or immoral or untrustworthy.

Actions 2,3,4 can be hard to do, but this has become so much easier with social media. You can always find someone to join forces with, because when we have a choice of say 307 million people on Twitter, someone somewhere will have a similar opinion to someone else, even if it outlandish. And, nowadays we can regularly witness trolling and abuse online as people perform action 4.

Some individuals would rather discredit and abuse someone else than allow them to go on expressing an opinion, contrary to their own. One explanation for this is that we are no longer dealing with simple opinions. Aronson says that attitudes in people – which are a factor of experience, education, and background – are much harder to change than simple opinions. Human thinking is not always logical and can lead to all sorts of random results, something we will explore further in Part 4.

Posted in Musings | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Conformity: The Social Animal on Social Media (2)

[Part 2 of 9: The Social Animal on Social Media, Part 1]

Recently, the Guardian newspaper decided to shut down comments on articles about race, immigration and Islam, saying that the majority of comments are racist and toxic, and there is very little point in having the comments open.

Of course there has been much debate (click on the link above) around whether the Guardian should or shouldn’t do this. Apparently, their Comment is free slogan has been viewed ironically for some time because moderators regularly remove comments. However, since it is the Guardian’s website and everyone who leaves a comment is a guest then surely they should behave themselves. Instead of debating whether comment is free, surely we should be debating why and when did it become the norm to feel that it was ok to write toxic comments on the Guardian website?

No one probably even noticed at first, because people conform very quickly because we have a powerful need to belong. In his social psychology handbook  The Social Animal, Eliot Aronson says: Acceptance and rejection are among the most potent rewards and punishments for social animals because, in our evolutionary history, social exclusion could have disastrous consequences. Even though we are sitting at our computers, or wandering about with our phones, we still look to our peers to find ways to be accepted.

In a 2014 study Pew Research Center found that people are less likely to share their honest opinions on social media, and will often only post opinions on Facebook with which they know their followers will agree. Moreover, people will not speak up with a dissenting opinion in a discussion on Facebook or Twitter. This is known as the spiral of silence, and existed as a social psychology theory well before social media came into being to confirm what was already known.

Khan Academy has a lovely presentation explaining conformity and groupthink using the example of training a dog either with a shock collar or treats.  If you don’t know how to train a dog, and the group suggests a shock collar, you might go along with this idea, which is called informative influence. However, if you are an expert and know that shock collars are a terrible thing to do to a dog, you might still decide to go along with the group in order to avoid becoming a social outcast. This is known as normative influence and embodies the main fear that most individuals have, which is a fear of social rejection.

Clearly, this contradicts the popular belief that social media allows voiceless people to have a voice. Although, social media sites have been used to plan protests and gain attention for specific causes, these are few and far between. The reality is that social media sites too often suppress thought and debate. Jon Ronson, author of: So you’ve been publicly shamed, says: The great thing about social media is that it gave voice to voiceless people, but now we’re creating a surveillance society where the smartest way to survive is being voiceless.

This is in spite of the fact that in the West, to conform, or to be viewed as a conformist is to be seen as an inadequate person. Whereas, to be called an individualist or a nonconformist is to be recognised as a great person. Often society celebrates the brilliance of nonconformists long after society has treated them terribly and they are no longer around to appreciate it. Alan Turing is one example who springs to mind.

However, it is not just fear of rejection which drives us. Often, we conform to the behaviour or opinions of an individual who is similar or important to us, or who appears to have expertise or authority in a given situation. Aronson says that research has shown that people are more willing to comply with a demand from a person wearing a uniform than with someone in civilian clothes.

It is the same online. We often take the opinion of someone we don’t know over someone we do because we trust people who are seemingly in the know, even if we don’t agree with them. Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, calls these people connectors. They are talking about appropriate topics in appropriate places and are the tipping point to get a trend started.

It doesn’t even matter if this trend is good or bad for us, we conform because we don’t want to be socially outcast and we rely on other people as a means of determining reality. We ignore ourselves and our own moral compass and adopt a when in Rome attitude, which can be dangerous especially when we are in a group which no longer has a dissenting point of view. And, this surely what is happening all over the Internet when no one wants to write a dissenting opinion.

In 1972, social psychologist, Irving Janis called this groupthink, which is when people no longer make proper decisions because they don’t have any opposing opinions to consider. They just go along with the general consensus and because they don’t feel any individual responsibility, terrible decisions are made. Aronson cites two examples: Hitler and the Holocaust, and NASA’s 1986 Challenger Shuttle Disaster.

However, all is not lost. We can encourage positive conformity just as easily as negative groupthink. Happiness expert, Shawn Achor describes in his 21 days to happiness course how a waving campaign in a high-crime neighbourhood in Salinas, California facilitated police acceptance.

Originally, police officers went door to door in order to get to know the neighbourhood, but they were not well received and needed a different approach. So, whilst on the beat, officers began waving and smiling to everyone. Eventually, this new behaviour caught on and people began to smile and wave back. The neighbourhood conformed and found that waving and smiling was the new reality – when in Rome, etc. This led to more friendly relations with the police force and eventually an engaged community which experienced a dramatic drop in crime.

Given, that people can conform positively just as easily as they conform negatively, it seems logical that social media platform owners owe it to their users to find ways to encourage positive behaviour until everyone conforms.  As Shawn Achor says in his book, The happiness advantage: happiness is a choice and happiness comes from behaving in more positive ways. Let’s hope we get more happy on social media soon.

Posted in Musings | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Women in Storytelling – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

We always wanted to write Rey as the central character, but it was just one of the things we knew we wanted to do: to make the film look and feel more like the way the world looks and feels. – JJ Abrams, The Guardian

It is well known that Star Wars is based on the hero’s quest which is an archetypal story that transcends culture and time. According to Joseph Campbell, the hero’s quest is hard-wired in our psyche and so when our hero battles villains and the powers of darkness, it resonates and entertains each generation anew. The hero’s quest never gets old which is why the Star Wars franchise, begun back in 1977, has endured.

The pattern of our hero receiving a call to action, going on an adventure, doing great things, and returning home to great reward is very satisfying and appears in many of our stories:Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, to name just two. However, these stories have only ever had women in supporting roles as temptresses or goddesses, and other stereotypes (prostitute with a heart of gold, love interest, the really hot girl disguised in glasses) while men do the self-actualisation.

In Star Wars: A New HopePrincess Leia seems to be the only woman in the whole of that galaxy far, far, away. She is a born leader, but still has to wait around for Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Chewbacca, because everyone is following the rescue the princess trope. She may be feisty (*groan* = a terrible word. Why are men never described as feisty?) doling out snappy one liners and keeping her cool whilst in the clutches of Darth Vader, but she is still doing her best with a terrible supporting role.

Therefore, to watch Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens: a female character, a woman centre stage at last, is completely satisfying. And, Rey is not alone in this story. The ever fabulous Princess Leia is now a more rounded character as General of the Rebel Alliance, a mum and wife (possibly ex-wife). Leading the stormtroopers is Captain Phasma. And, wise guru, Maz Kanata, is the voice of Force wisdom.  So, we have female stormtroopers, female pilots, and female medical staff in the Rebel Camp. Star Wars has becomes representative of the world we live in today. No one feels the need to explain or justify these women’s place – it is the way of the world – a balanced world of equal opportunity.

The story which contains these women is brilliant. Not least of all because this episode of Star Wars reuses all the best parts of the previous Star Wars episodes, and sets up the promise of a satisfactory ending from the very beginning, whilst continuing to build momentum right to its resolution in the last frame of the film. I didn’t even realise I was holding my breath until the credits started to roll. We follow Rey right to that ending, leaving us to speculate about her full story, and looking forward to meeting her again in the next episode.

We believe in Rey because we first meet her on the planet Jakku where she lives as a scavenger who finds scrap metal and machinery from abandoned space ships to trade for not enough food. It is a lonely existence in which she has learnt to become self-sufficient, and how to defend herself.

Like all great characters, she has worked long and hard to learn her skills. She is knowledgeable about spacecraft and how they are put together which has kept her alive all these years.

When her lonely existence is interrupted, first by a droid, whom she refuses to trade for food, we know that she is a good person. And, then when she is called upon in a crisis to fly the Millennium Falcon, we are not surprised that she not only can she fly it but she can fix it too. It is completely plausible and logical that she is a talented pilot. She has learnt through many lonely long days of taking apart spaceships for food. Han Solo recognises her talent and offers her a job.

However, Rey has her own ideas about what she needs and follows the heroine’s quest of answering the call, transcending her circumstances, and creating new ones for herself whilst becoming happy (or at least happier) in the process of self-actualisation, which has only just begun.

At the end of the film, we know that Rey is a brave woman with still as yet untapped skills and powers, who does the right thing. But, she is still a mystery to us. There is still a lot more for her to discover about herself and for us to vicariously experience as she does.

Finally, we have a Star Wars heroine on her quest of her own.

Roll on Episode VIII. I can’t wait.

Posted in Musings | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yoga Lessons: Bikram one year on

the 26 Bikram yoga poses

Last year, I discovered the heat of Bikram Yoga. However, once my 30 day introductory pass was over, I didn’t sign up again. Then winter came, and with it, my struggle to keep cheerful once Christmas and New Year was over.

This year, instead of dreading January, I made a plan. I signed up for a Bikram 10 session pass and embraced #dryjanuary: no alcohol for a month.

I limited classes to once or twice a week because last year I couldn’t physically manage Bikram yoga everyday. I would find myself so tired after class that I would nap in the afternoons and lost whole days to Bikram.

This year I decided to go at my own pace and do what was right for me. Fast forward four weeks and I have already used up the 10 sessions and bought a six months unlimited pass, I now look forward to every minute of Bikram and am disappointed if I can’t get to a class.

What has changed? Everything and nothing. But, I have learnt some lessons this past month in Bikram’s Torture Chamber as Bikram Choudhury himself calls it (oh yes, I bought the book too: Bikram Yoga). Here they are:


We all know that the one constant in life is change. We are changing, others change, and circumstances change too. So, the things I didn’t like about Bikram last year, like the script and the amount of time it took out my day, have changed somewhat and things which are the same don’t seem to matter as much.

At the studio I go to, some of the teachers have changed, and they are less rigid and speak the script more freely. They remain faithful to the order and timing of the poses but don’t always use the silly phrases e.g., like a Japanese ham sandwich. And occasionally when they do, I don’t mind. My attitude has changed. I care less about what other people are doing, and more about what I am doing.

Time has changed for me too. I used to begrudge the time it took to do Bikram, but now I find it gives me more energy so I can quite happily stay up until midnight and sleep well and get up at 7am, and have time to do all the things I need to and things that I want to do. It would be a false economy for me to say I don’t have time to do Bikram. It gives me time.

My body has begun to change. It feels stronger and leaner. Abstaining from alcohol has been very easy, and limiting tea and coffee, and drinking lots of water makes me feel much better. I have changed once more into the clean living yogi I always aspired to be.


I am no slouch when it comes to achievement: I ran my own business, I have a PhD (which I did to become a lecturer), I am a lecturer (something I aspired to be), my husband and I did 20 months every night of peritoneal dialysis on our daughter at home, and I dragged myself off to chemotherapy when I was so weepy and scared.

However, what Bikram has made me realise about myself is that I don’t ever really commit to anything. I start everything with an attitude of I’ll see how it goes, I can always leave. I have, throughout my life, done everything this way. I have never committed wholeheartedly to anything. I don’t know why. But, I know Bikram will help me find out. And things I have really wanted to do: like write a book, I haven’t ever managed to do successfully, because I lack commitment. I get part way through and give up, or worse, I never get started.

What I have found is that committing to something saves so much mental energy. Like #dryjanuary, whenever I found myself in a restaurant this month, instead of my usual script: Shall I have a drink? I shouldn’t really. What shall I drink? Shall I have another? I shouldn’t, yes I should. Go on then, you deserve it. Oh, I wish I hadn’t drunk so much. Not drinking was such a relief. I didn’t have to go through any of that mindless chatter.

The same thing happens in the studio. Most poses only last a minute. So, for that minute I commit to do the best I can. Instead of I can’t do this, maybe I can’t, I can take it easy, I can always stop. I take a breath and do it, whole heartedly. Then I commit to doing another pose for another minute, over and over for 90 minutes.

Just this week, I took that whole hearted feeling outside the studio and I am committed to writing that book this year.


Last week, I was getting ready for Camel pose or Ustrasana when I thought yet again: I can’t do this and then my mind started the usual argument script, as I call it: Yes you can, course you can, you have done it a million times… Not in this heat, I can’t, I won’t, I don’t want to.

So, I bent over into Child’s pose and cried into my mat. I cried for all the times when I had to do things I just didn’t want to do, and for the things I still have to which I just don’t want to do, and then I got back up and into Camel pose for the second set.

Only by inquiry can you find sometimes the truth behind whatever it is that is bothering you. I took that thought off the mat and am currently applying Martha Beck’s three Bs in order to bin, bag, or barter the things I really don’t want to do.

And this is another thing I have learnt. I don’t like Camel Pose at all, but the benefits of Camel Pose are far greater than any discomfort I may feel. Camel pose is good for the thyroid and nervous system. This realisation is so useful when deciding whether to do something or not. How does this benefit me? If it improves my thyroid and nervous system even if it challenges me, I will do it and feel good. Taking that off the mat, I can ask if this of benefit to me? If it isn’t and it is making me feel cranky, then it’s time to stop it.


I find that focusing on myself is a great gift. How am I doing? How am I feeling? It is not a selfish approach – which is what I used to believe. It is better for me and for everyone around me. In the studio, I am there to get the most out of the practice. This means looking in the mirror and correcting my poses to feel the most benefit. It is not about anybody else. It is about me.

It also means looking in the mirror and accepting myself right where I am, whatever I look like, and whatever I am capable of doing. It is a hard thing to see myself exactly as I am. But, it is also a fabulous thing. I am developing much more compassion for myself: You look a bit tired today Ruth, how about an early night, my love. Once you see and love yourself for exactly who you are without wishing to change yourself, it is much easier to do the same to others, to meet them exactly where they are with compassion and without wishing them to be any different to how they are.

The same goes for my feelings. When I focus on how I am feeling – say I am feeling a bit irritable and behaving in a snippy manner. I accept that and recognise how I feel. I do not take it out on my children. I don’t need to shout at my kids in order to get them to change their behaviour in order to soothe something inside myself which has nothing to do with them in the first place. Only I can make myself better. And, flipped the other way, only I make myself feel bad. No one else should have that power.


I have committed to Bikram for the next six months, but have practiced Yin Yoga consistently for the last three years, and before that Sivananda and Iyengar for much, much longer.

What I know for sure is that: Yoga will get you there, as yoga teacher Barbara Currie used to say when she was on TV. It is true. I have seen myself achieve poses I never dreamt I could because I had the patience to practice everyday.

And, that is another thing I am learning once more in Bikram. I have the patience to practice only the first part of Standing Head to Knee Pose (Dandayamana-Janushirasana) with just my knee up, until I have a firm foundation and a locked knee. I am receiving the benefits of that part of the pose – mainly leg strengthening, which was another reason for me signing up for Bikram. I wanted a stronger core, and stronger legs. Once my legs are strong enough I know I will progress to the full pose. I know that I need patience until my body is ready.

Patience is a great thing to be able to take off the mat. I am calmer when I drive and I am calmer when I interact with others. I don’t have to get frustrated. There is nowhere else to be. I am here until I am not. As much as we think we are stuck, we never are, we can change, at the very least, the way we view any situation, in order to gain some relief. If we can learn that discipline, we can make any situation better.

I am beginning to feel that with discipline, there comes freedom and a clarity of mind. Who knew that I would learn that whilst grunting in hot pants in a sweaty mirrored room?

I am so grateful I did.

Posted in Musings | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Social Psychology: The Social Animal on Social Media (1)

[Part 1 of 9: The Social Animal Series]

Last year I wrote a blog called Alone Together: Is social media changing us? in which I discussed Sociologist Sherry Turkle‘s assertion that social media is changing us and taking us to places we don’t want to go. At the time I said that social media was just reflecting us, but now I see that Turkle and I were both right.

Turkle was mainly concerned with how, when we are on social media (or communication technologies, as she referred to them), we are absent from the world around us – our children, our friends, our family, and our work colleagues. I haven’t seen too much of this behaviour, but there has been a definite shift online as to what people feel they can say freely. Things that people would never say face-to-face. However, secure in their own houses watching telly or whatever it is they are doing whilst tweeting or leaving people mean messages, it is very easy to cross a line and not really think about the effect your words can have on the rest of the world over the Internet.

Are these people a crazy minority? These people who have taken to the Internet to troll and verbally abuse others. It would be nice to label them as such. It keeps our lives tidy. Social psychologist Eliot Aronson, in his classic social psychology handbook: The Social Animal, says we tend to label people when we want to separate them from ourselves.

But why is it that certain people feel the need to be so awful? And don’t we all engage in some sort of awfulness one way or another? For example, 60 per cent of conversations between adults are about someone who isn’t present. But, when did we cross that line to openly gossip and criticise on the Internet?

Is technology taking us where we don’t want to go? Or are we having honest conversation? According to Aronson we are constantly adapting and reforming due to social influence and asks:

  • How are people influenced?
  • Why do people accept influence?
  • What are the variables that increase or decrease the effectiveness of social influence?
  • Is influence a permanent effect or a transitory one?

We are social animals and we are conditioned from birth to give people what they want from us. Will we continue like this or not? Or do we need some sort of law on the Internet to rein in our behaviour.

To answer these questions I will be looking at each of the chapters of The Social Animal and social media in order to see if we are being changed. How that happens? And why?

No one really knows how social media works, but we do have some idea of how people work, thanks to social psychology. As Aronson says, we are all social psychologists. We spend a lot of time talking about the effect other people have on us, wittingly and unwittingly changing our behaviour to adapt.

[Part 2: Conformity]

Posted in Musings | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment