Is The Tactic of "Changing the Narrative" Changing Us As Well?

The psychological tactic of changing the narrative is blurring the lines between what is truth and what is fiction.
Marcia Wendorf

Here at Interesting Engineering, we tell stories, or narratives, about topics related to engineering and science. But, we don't build narratives just when writing articles or telling stories.

All of us shape the narrative and the way we establish our tone in what we post to social media sites. Whether it is by crafting our tweets on Twitter, the pictures we post on Instagram, or the videos we upload to YouTube.

Changing the narrative

On the same day, December 10, 2019, two instances appeared of a tactic called "changing the conversation" or "changing the narrative." The first instance involved the wife of actor Bill Cosby, Camille Cosby.

When the Superior Court of Pennsylvania denied Mr. Cosby's appeal of his sentence for drugging and raping a former Temple University employee, Andrea Constand, Mrs. Cosby released the following statement.

"When are we, the people of the United States of America, going to end the acceptance of overall corruption? I can assure you that our personal battle against clear, racist, incestuous vindictiveness, within the Pennsylvania criminal justice systems, is not over. Reform is a soft word; the action word, 'purging' is what needs to be done."

Suddenly, the narrative was no longer about how a wealthy man was able to evade justice for so long after over 60 women came forward claiming that Cosby had drugged and raped them as well. Instead, the new narrative was about "... racist, incestuous vindictiveness, within the Pennsylvania criminal justice systems ..." and her "political prisoner" husband.

That same day, on which the U.S. House of Representatives released two Articles of Impeachment against President Donald Trump, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) accused the FBI of running a "criminal enterprise" in which they "made stuff up" to smear the President.

Suddenly, the narrative was no longer about whether Mr. Trump had indeed abused the power of his office or obstructed Congress. Instead, the narrative became about whether there was a conspiracy at the FBI to damage the President, or as the President intimated, stage a coup.

We're hard-wired to like stories

It is ingrained deep in our human nature to feel a certain appeal to emotional stories, but what happens when we're flooded by an endless stream of stories on a daily basis? How do we recognize what is true and what isn't anymore? And the funny thing is that by simply tweaking the narrative, damaging facts are deflected, and new stories are created, stories that some people find more appealing. By controlling the narrative, you gain control over the reaction you want to have from people.

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This constant stream of disinformation makes it difficult to separate out what is truth and what is fiction. Narratives containing conspiracy theories blur the lines of what has actually taken place.

According to former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov, and Vladimir Putin foe, a never-ending stream of misinformation confuses people, and exhausts their critical thinking. Speaking to CNN, Mr. Kasparov called the current environment "... a post-truth world."

Research on neural functioning shows that our brains have adapted to infer themes from narratives, whether those narratives be written or spoken. We experience empathy for characters in these narratives, and if you doubt that, try watching the scene in ET the Extra-Terrestrial where ET "dies" without crying.

We are connected to a larger community through the stories we are told from infancy on: fairy tales, parables, and the experiences of earlier generations. These all shape who we are and how we interpret the world.

Is The Tactic of "Changing the Narrative" Changing Us As Well?
Source: ra2studio/iStock

Even though our environment no longer contains saber-tooth tigers, we humans still retain the Fight-or-Flight Response. We still get a rush of adrenaline when we encounter people or situations deemed "dangerous" in our stories. And, if you control the narrative, you get to say who is "dangerous", or bad, and who is safe, or good.

A 2002 study by Graesser, Olde, and Klettke found that narratives are easier to process than straightforward facts because our brains weave together stories we have heard with real-time experiences.

Ways to adjust the narrative

The psychological tactics that people use to change the narrative include:

  1. Amplification - if you express an attitude with certainty, even if untrue, that attitude makes the story more believable.
  2. Information manipulation - occurs when a persuasive person doesn't provide full or accurate information, provides information that isn't relevant or provides information in an overly easy-to-understand way, including non-verbal actions.
  3. Priming - occurs when prior stimuli affect your thoughts and actions; an example is a stage magician who uses the words "try" and "cycle" in several sentences when priming someone to think of the word "tricycle".
  4. The Scarcity Principle - people want what they think is in short supply, and they hate those who they think are getting what is rightfully theirs.
  5. Social Influence - we are strongly influenced by people with high social standing, big companies or brands.
  6. Ultimate Terms - certain words carry more power than others; "God terms" such as "progress" and "value"; devil terms such as "fascist" and "pedophile"; and charismatic terms such as "freedom" and "contribution."

Another tactic is the use of the word "perfect". Advertising is rife with concepts like "the perfect wedding," "the perfect house," "the perfect husband/wife." In this imperfect world, who doesn't want at least something in their life to be labeled as "perfect?" If someone in authority tells us something is "perfect", maybe it is.

Our response to narratives

A good narrative requires a coherent and compelling story, and it requires the identification of characters as either protagonists or antagonists, good guys or bad guys. When people are pitted against one another, the only possible winner is the author of the narrative.

It is vital that we all develop mechanisms for understanding our responses to the narratives we encounter. Studies have shown that it is our immediate, "automatic" responses to a narrative that determines our behavior, rather than our later, more reasoned "explicit" responses.

When a particular narrative induces our Fight-or-Flight Response, and our heart rate increases and the level of cortisol in our blood goes up, we are more apt to behave aggressively.

Is The Tactic of "Changing the Narrative" Changing Us As Well?
Source: Pict Rider/iStock

When reading Camille Cosby's statement, who doesn't experience indignation at the thought of a black man unlawfully incarcerated by "incestuous vindictiveness"? When we read that President Trump was the "victim" of an organization that "made stuff up" about him, who doesn't think that maybe the Democrats in the House of Representatives are making stuff up about him as well?

Minister of Propaganda for Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945, Joseph Goebbels, famously said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. Thus, it becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

Engineers are taught to think critically. At no time in our history has that skill been more needed.

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