The Psychology of Mass Manipulation

Posted on November 1, 2017
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Are you tired of politicians and the amount of time and energy spent insulting and discrediting each other, rather than actually doing their job, which described in the American Constitution as “to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity?”  Do you also feel at times confused and manipulated by how politicians no longer stay with facts, but lie to stir up anger, disgust or fear?

Growing up in Germany, we were taught early and thoroughly about the horrific atrocities the generations before us had committed during the Third Reich. I remember how guilty and ashamed I felt being German, when I learned about the Holocaust and the many unimaginable acts of cruelty Jews, Romans, homosexuals and others were subjected to. Yet, when I visited Mauthausen, a concentration camp in Austria, everything I have heard and seen in books and films became much more real. I will never forget the eerie laboratories, where doctors conducted horrendous medical experiments, the gas-chambers that were disguised as group shower facilities and the crematory ovens, which horrifyingly still smelled like smoke and ashes. The crimes on humanity Germans committed must always be remembered to honor the millions that have suffered and died – and to remind us that if we are not mindful history will repeat itself.

I always wondered, how was it possible that an entire nation was seduced to make a little Austrian man their “Fuehrer.” Why did most Germans believe in this ego-maniac as their savior and accept his lies and doctrines as the truth? How could ordinary people denounce their neighbors and close their eyes to the brutality and inhumanity of their government? My parents, who were young teenagers during World War II, told me that when Hitler arrived on the scene Germans were desperate for a change. Still reeling from the aftermath of World War I and the Versailles peace treaty, there was hope that someone like Hitler would make Germany great again.

A little over 70 years after the fall of the Third Reich, we are facing globally a resurgence of populism and nationalistic tendencies. And similarly to what happened during the time of Hitler’s rise, politicians all over the world are preying on the worries, fears and anger of people, who are looking for someone to make their lives safer and better again. What is disconcerting is the fact that new populist movements already create a divide among families and friends. Basic values of decency, honesty and compassion no longer seem to unite a nation, but are denounced by some as wimpy, unpatriotic and liberal.

Thus it appears that it is time to remind ourselves of some of the tactics Hitler employed to manipulate the majority of Germans to follow him with unquestioning obedience. Let’s start with some of Hitler’s chilling quotes, which underscore his strategies on how to control a nation:

The broad masses of a population are more amenable to the appeal of rhetoric than to any other force.

The art of leadership… consists in consolidating the attention of the people against a single adversary and taking care that nothing will split up that attention.

Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it. It is not truth that matters, but victory.

Strength lies not in defense but in attack.The leader of genius must have the ability to make different opponents appear as if they belonged to one category.

I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few. What good fortune for governments that the people do not think.

Humanitarianism is the expression of stupidity and cowardice.

Besides consistently lying while attacking the press by calling them “Luegenpresse” (lying news) and focusing people’s attention on a common enemy that needs to be defeated, historian Goetz Aly points out that at the beginning Hitler was a “feel good dictator.” He made Germans feel important and cared for by giving them huge tax breaks and boost their national pride. Hitler’s superman image was further solidified by his false claims on how he single-handedly had turned Germany’s economy around. In one of his propaganda speeches he said: “By my own efforts, I overcame chaos in Germany, restored order, enormously raised production in all fields of our national economy…I succeeded in completely resettling in useful production those 7 million unemployed who so touched our hearts…I have liquidated that Versailles Treaty sheet by sheet whose 448 Articles contain the vilest rape that nations and human beings have ever been expected to submit to…”

Since opposing views and a critical media were oppressed and prosecuted, the majority of Germans didn’t clearly see that claims of the country’s recovery were not only inaccurate but also that the rebuilding of Germany had been founded on gross inhumanities, a depleting of the country’s finances and the ever increasing threat that the nation was heading towards another war. While according to historians the majority of Germans didn’t share Hitler’s anti-semitism, most chose to turn a blind eye on the prosecution of innocent people, because his self-praising claims reinforced their belief that Germany was finally on the right track. For them the good outweighed the bad.

So what can we learn from all of this? Are we humans so easily manipulated and brainwashed? Are we willing to give up on our innate values and decency when difficult situations arise? And is empathy and compassion only important to us, when we are doing well? It is a disconcerting trend that politicians and their propaganda machines no longer try to convince their electorates through presenting facts and well-thought-out programs, but instead aim to gain control by evoking three strong emotions – fear, anger and disgust. Each of them trigger basic human survival instincts. Fear arises when we are facing a threat; anger is a common response to pain; disgust is a usually associated with something that could make us ill.

If we want to avoid being manipulated and seduced by politicians, we must learn to:

  • Notice emotional triggers. We need to be aware of the words, imagery or body posture a politician uses to evoke negative emotions in the audience.
  • Take responsibility of our emotions. Rather than reacting to emotional triggers, we can choose to stay objective and discerning. After all, nobody can make us feel good or bad without our consent.
  • Stay calm and centered. Besides limiting the amount of time we expose ourselves to political messages, we need to become efficient in releasing negative feelings before they short circuit our rational mind. Journaling, meditating, talking to a friend, going for a run or listening to one of my guided meditations are just a few ways to declutter the mind from emotional charge.
  • Be informed. As self-aware citizens we have the obligation to make up our own opinion and to separate lies from facts by consulting multiple reliable sources.
  • Commit to our values. Just because politicians may have become more unscrupulous, egoistic and power-hungry doesn’t mean we have to abandon the core principles and ethics that define decent human beings. In fact it makes our commitment even more crucial.

Only when we resist the temptation to follow those, who prey on our emotions and distort our thoughts and judgments, we can prevent history from repeating itself. After all, considering the difficult and imminent challenges we are facing globally, nationalism is a risk we cannot afford.

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