Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Carlin on Newspeak: Modern Day Mind Control

“Smug, greedy, well-fed white people have invented a language to conceal their sins. It’s as simple as that. The CIA doesn't kill anybody anymore, they neutralize people - they depopulate the area. The government doesn't lie, it engages in disinformation. The pentagon actually measure nuclear radiation in something they call “Sunshine units!” 

Whilst George Carlin’s ‘black comedy’ is controversial at times, after being voted as the second best stand-up comedian ever by Comedy Central, few could argue with his delivery. In the above clip, Carlin describes a form of politics entwined with modern language – newspeak. The phrase was coined in George Orwell’s great dystopian novel “1984” in which the state control language as a means to limit self-expression and freedom.

Carlin continues to display examples of how society performs mind control on itself (Some are highly contentious, like his view on names for people with disabilities. Other examples are more easily appreciated). In the true Orwellian use of newspeak, you can see the political consequences of using the phrases like “collateral damage” to mean civilian deaths.

Hardisty, Johnson & Weber (2010) demonstrate how the exact words used to describe something influence our thoughts - depending on moral and political stance. In study one, 245 American participants (democrat, republican or independent) performed a decision making task where they had to choose between two services. These were identical, but one of the services had an extra cost for CO2 emissions. The proportion of people who chose the costlier product is demonstrated in figure 1. 

As the figure demonstrates, when the extra cost was labeled was labelled as an “offset” rather than a “tax” then republican and independent participants were significantly more likely to choose the more expensive service. Republicans don’t like the sound of a tax. There was no significant difference between the proportion of democrats who would choose the more expensive product whether it was called an offset or a tax. While this demonstrates that word perception depends on political orientation, it is clear that the media representation of words effects our opinion on them.

The "tax" was functionally identical to the "offset". This means that the perception of the word must have influenced the participants cognition. As Carlin states, even if 'soft language' has the same functional meaning as words we originally used, the opinion that 'soft language' gives us is different. Although Carlin’s examples may be intense at times, it’s true that the way we hear the media alters our thought. Is this modern day mind control?

Hardisty, D. J., Johnson, E. J., & Weber, E. U. (2010). A dirty word or a dirty world? Attribute framing, political affiliation, and query theory. Psychological Science, 21, 86-92.

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