Hugo Mercier is a cognitive scientist at the Jean Nicod Institute in Paris and his research focuses on function and workings of reasoning . Hugo has recently published a new book called NOT BORN YESTERDAY. He recently presented his book at CVBE Lab Meeting at LMU and we did an interview with him about the book.
CrowdCognition: Hello Hugo! Your book highlights that propaganda does not change people’s beliefs, including its supposedly most successful examples such as Nazi propaganda. Can you explain?
Hugo Mercier: Indeed. Many studies looked at exogenous effects on exposure to propaganda, and tested if exposure to propaganda predicts attitudes/behaviours. Example: does being situated closer to radio towers, and thus getting more Nazi propaganda, predict more anti-Semitic acts? Answer: NO.
CC: If not, then what does propaganda ACTUALLY do?
HM: One thing it can do is foster collective action, for instance by providing practical information (which targets to hit), by reassuring that the authorities support the action, or by helping create common knowledge in the population, as people see others react in the same way.
CC: Is it possible that propaganda’s main function is something other than what you (and all the papers reviewing the historical evidence) have tried to measure? I lived under a totalitarian regime for long periods, and I think propaganda mostly aims to induce INACTION : to force the disagreeing citizens into retreating from public sphere, to REDUCE turnout in elections and to project fear enough to freeze everyone into silence. What do you think?
HM: Yes, propaganda can also be used as a display of power and to silence dissenting voices, thus potentially creating pluralistic ignorance (when people don’t realise how strong opposition to the regime is). Here I have explained my opinion about how propaganda may work.
CC: Your book also cast doubt on the efficiency of advertising. Can you tell us more?
HM: The best piece on the effectiveness of advertising is, I believe, this paper which concludes that “advertising effects are … hard to measure” perhaps more importantly “the vast majority of brands over-invest in advertising, and could increase profits by reducing advertising”. Note one of the authors works for Google.
CC: Could this be what advertising companies WANT us to believe so that we don’t know we are manipulated?
HM: This research is based on the data that most companies used, which is collected by third parties.
CC: How about a game-theoretic interpretation of advertising? Suppose if coca-cola advertised with no rival, they would be very successful. Similarly, if Pepsi advertised alone, everyone would flock to buy their product. But markets are tough, and Pepsi and Coca-Cola compete. Therefore their advertisements CANCEL each other : their adverts do not earn much for either company, but neither company can stop advertising because the moment they do, the other company will win. What does your book say about this?
HM: Companies do not have knowledge of their competitors’ advertising strategies in advance, so this doesn’t apply to studies of advertising effectiveness, which look at the effects of an increase in advertising by one company (or use RCTs, and so this criticism applies even less).
CC: Thank You Hugo. To our readers, you can read more about Hugo’s book here in his article in the Guardian