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June 25, 2015 (Culture Witness) — Have human beings become too clever for their own brains? Our understanding of human psychology has advanced to the point where we can create marketing and propaganda schemes that effectively manipulate people's opinions and behaviour. But most people have not yet gained the ability to withstand this kind of psychological pressure.

In fact, most people are completely unaware of the problem. They do not recognize the pressure that is affecting their unconscious instincts and making them alter their conscious choices and opinions. Our knowledge of ourselves can now place us in chains, and we may not yet be clever enough to unchain ourselves. We may have become smart enough to outsmart ourselves.

Here's an example. The movement for the normalization of same-sex marriage owes a good portion of its success to an intentional exploitation of human psychology. As a recent article on LifeSiteNews describes, for several years the gay rights movement was getting nowhere fast. But things changed six years ago:

…[A]fter their 2009 “gay marriage” referendum defeat in Maine, the homosexual movement decided to craft an entirely new approach toward elections. 

They brought together groups of political strategists, psychologists, pollsters, organizing experts, and various “think tank” types. They meticulously studied the data and their election experiences and designed a new set of strategies and tactics to win against their “right wing” adversaries…They created a sophisticated propaganda campaign. 

Expertise in human psychology – effectively “mind manipulation” through advertising, marketing, and other psychologically-based strategies – has made a crucial difference to the same-sex marriage campaign. Since that shift in strategy, there has been a rapid advance in the same-sex marriage cause, both in Ireland (where same-sex marriage has been legalized by popular referendum) and in the United States.

Quick, follow the herd

Psychologists, economists and marketing professionals have known for decades that our behaviour is highly influenced by others. And for most of us, this is not a total surprise: we have noticed copy-cat behaviour in other people. 

But research shows that most of us think of ourselves as exceptions to this rule. We think we are original and independent. Even when we conform to the group, we think our reasons are rational and different, and that only the 'others' are blindly following the crowd.

Here's a surprise: if you ask the 'others', they all think just like us. They think they are different too. And they can't all be right, since most of us end up conforming. The feeling of being “alone in a crowd of sheep” is very common to the human experience.

The desire to be part of the group and to “go with the flow” is hard-wired into us. The evidence is everywhere. We see it in trends of all kinds, including the rising and falling popularity of various consumer goods such as technological devices, toys and fashion. We see it in the way that certain books or pop songs work their way up the charts or bestseller lists. We even see it in runs on the stock market.

In 2008, psychologists at the University of Leeds reported that “humans flock like sheep and birds”. We instinctively want to run where the herd is running, fly where our flock is headed. We all want to be liked, accepted and respected by other people, and this unconsciously steers us towards conforming to the standards and preferences of our social group.

Seeing through group-coloured glasses

Research has shown that human brains suffer psychological distress when we believe that our perceptions are somehow different from what is perceived by the group. What's more, the pressure to conform can be so great that people will unconsciously reject their own perception of reality and adopt the perception of the group, even if the group's perception is clearly incorrect.

The study which made these findings was carried out by psychiatrist Gregory Berns of Emory University and published in 2005. The Berns study was a follow-up to a similar study done in the 1950s by Dr. Solomon Asch. 

The Berns study took the Asch study still further, with the addition of MRI imaging to see what was actually happening in the minds of the subjects. The groundbreaking results of the Berns study have powerful implications for propaganda schemes. Let's look at it in more detail.

Dr. Berns placed his test subject into a room with four other “volunteers” (actors). The group was left alone to chat and otherwise develop a rapport. Dr. Berns then placed the real subject into an MRI machine. He brought out images of three-dimensional objects, and showed them to the actors. He asked them to make a 'group decision' about whether the images were the same or different (the actors had been instructed to give an incorrect response). Then, Dr. Berns showed the images to the real subject. Dr. Berns told him the group's decision, and asked him the same question: are these images the same or different?

Here are the staggering results: on average, about 41 percent of the subjects went along with the group's decision, even though this decision was obviously wrong.

Even more shocking, conformity to the group's choices lit up the regions of the mind that are associated with perception. As such, the subjects appear to have unconsciously altered their actual perception of the images, so that their answers did not appear obviously wrong to them. In other words, they came to really see the images as the group saw them, and they were never aware that they were choosing social conformity over reality.

Dr. Dan Ariely, a professor of management and decision making at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that this finding ''suggests that information from other people may color our perception at a very deep level.” Dr. Berns puts it this way: '''We like to think that seeing is believing'…but the study's findings…show that seeing is believing what the group tells you to believe.”

There is still more. In cases where the subjects chose not to conform to the group, the MRI scan showed activity in areas related to emotion. This suggests that going against the group carries a cost in terms of emotional distress. The implication is that going against the group and sticking to our own beliefs can be very unpleasant.

Herded towards the “right side of history”

Same-sex marriage propaganda calls on people to join the “right side of history.” Of course, not a single person in this movement can be sure that their side will really be vindicated in history books. But the truth is far less important than the impression.

The aim of this slogan is to create the illusion of a historic movement, akin to the civil rights movement. The message is: the crowd is turning and running in this direction.

If those who hear this message begin to believe that it is true, then they will experience unconscious psychological pressure to join in as well. And so, the message can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So how did the same-sex marriage movement even begin the process of shifting opinions? Getting the ball rolling would seem to be hardest at the start, when there is no momentum to sustain the tidal wave.

But as it turns out, it is not nearly as hard as we would think. In 2008, psychologists at the University of Leeds reported that “it takes a minority of just five per cent to influence a crowd's direction – and that the other 95 per cent follow without realising it.”

If a small “seed group” is successful at convincing some people to join the cause, then a momentum will begin to build. The herd mentality will take over and continue the wave towards complete victory.

It's not even necessary to make an airtight case for same-sex marriage. In fact, as they jump on the bandwagon, people will end up convincing themselves. A 2014 study showed that people will copy others to the extent of “evaluating personal beliefs when they contradict what others are doing”.

What's more, the study showed that “individuals have evolved to be overly influenced by their neighbours, rather than rely on their own instinct”. We are not just influenced, but too influenced by our group, to our own detriment: “individuals will overuse 'social information' and copy others more than they should, to the extent of damaging their ability to make the right decisions.”

So at least unconsciously, we are more concerned with making the 'popular' rather than the 'right' decision.

Shame as a weapon

Aside from herding us towards the “right side of history” (the carrot), the same-sex marriage movement is also effectively employing shame (the stick). It is now commonplace to refer to supporters of traditional marriage as “bigots” and “haters”, akin to the racists of the Ku Klux Klan.

As explained by Joseph Burgo, Clinical Psychologist, who is a proponent of same-sex marriage, this is intentionally done: “a great many of us have come to view legislators who enact laws that authorize discrimination as bigots and homophobes. We go to our Facebook pages and Twitter feeds to publically denounce them; we intend to expose and shame them for their acts of intolerance.”

Note the obvious irony: the gender ideology movement at first rejected shame as an unjust oppressive tactic by the heterosexual majority. This irony is not lost on Dr. Burgo, but he is unphased. On the contrary, he is happy to re-appropriate shame now that it serves his purposes: “Over the last hundred years, shame has gotten an increasingly bad name, but as it turns out, shame sometimes has its beneficial uses.”

One thing is certain: shaming is proving wildly successful. Shame further exacerbates the emotional distress which, as we saw in the Burns study, people feel when they believe they are going against their group. The prospect of being isolated, rejected and mocked by their social group can prove unbearable for many people, unconsciously but also consciously.

Shaming instills fear, and this fear is legitimate and well founded. The consequences of going against the group are often very real. For instance, one study showed that a person who was perceived as opposing the group and rejecting all arguments to change his opinion became the least desirable person in the group and was given the least important tasks. Today, many people have begun to feel afraid of being financially and professionally ruined if they do not support the gender ideology agenda.

The incredible advantage of shame as a weapon is that it often influences people on the level of instincts, not in the conscious mind. In effect, shaming is the modern “Trojan Horse”. It gets through the mental walls of our rational and conscious mind, and can wreak havoc not just with our loyalties but even with our actual perceptions of reality.

By reason alone…

Across the divide, the traditional or 'conjugal marriage' side is trying out a completely different tactic. In the spirit of democratic debate practised since ancient times, this side is attempting to appeal to people's reason and common sense. The target of this side is thus the conscious human mind, and the hope is that people will consider the arguments, the pluses and minuses, and that they will freely come to the decision to support the ancient institution of conjugal marriage.

Click “like” if you want to defend true marriage.

On this side of the debate, we have learned and visionary scholars like Ryan T. Anderson, Sherif Girgis and Robert George, who are pumping out books and participating in debates, all in an effort to make a solid case that will convince people. Many other conservative speakers and academics are also shouting from the rooftops their rational and convincing arguments for why marriage only makes sense between a man and a woman.

But notice something remarkable: the proponents of same-sex marriage are not meeting these arguments with replies in kind. Nor do they intend to, because they have discovered that rational discourse is not necessary for the victory of their cause. As Dr. Burgo put it

Would it be better to remove shame from our discourse and try to persuade the legislators in Indiana to our point of view with rational argument? Which one would be a more effective deterrent to behaviors of which we disapprove?

At the end of the day, perhaps the most we can hope for is to drive bigotry and intolerance into the closet.

Clear as a bell – if the proponents of traditional marriage can be driven “into the closet” with a campaign of shame, then there is no need for rational discourse anymore.

And the winner will be…

Which will prove more powerful, our instincts and emotions or our rational mind? The Berns study demonstrates that at the very least, instincts and emotions can be formidable opponents for our rational mind.

What's more, it really isn't a fair fight. We are hardly in a position to stop ourselves from becoming influenced when we aren't even aware that social conformity is influencing our decisions. And most of us have no idea how much we are being influenced. In fact, many people would laugh at the suggestion that their conscious decision-making is actually a post-facto rationalization for an instinctual decision.

In a 2008 study, researchers were able to get people to increase recycling simply by using “normative messages” about how much others were recycling. But the participants in the study didn't believe that the “normative messages” were influencing their behaviour. Instead, they found other more rational explanations for their behaviour shift – they “attributed their conservation efforts to environmental concerns or social responsibility needs.”

What we see then, is that people will continue to be blind to their own motivations even after conforming to the group. They will set up other more acceptable and more conscious reasons for their behaviour. However, arguing against these reasons can hardly be effective when they are not the true causes of the conforming behaviour.

Calling all heroes

People who belong to conservative movements and groups may find that such groups act as a shield against the social pressure of the same-sex marriage movement. This is because members of these groups can rest assured of the support of these groups, reducing their fear of ostracism and their need for conformity to the gender identity agenda. 

But while self-identified conservatives may feel some relief from liberal pressure, the same cannot be said of people who consider themselves “centrist” in the political sense. People who do not have an alternate social group to protect them from the pressure to conform, or who perceive themselves as belonging to the same social group as same-sex marriage proponents, will feel the most pressure to conform to the liberal agenda.

The people who are “caught in the middle” of the culture war, so to speak, are the ones whose emotional alarm bells (as the Berns study showed) are ringing the loudest. To go against the group, they have to be willing to suffer the consequences of social ostracism. 

For these people, going against the same-sex marriage movement requires a deliberate and uncomfortable act of bravery. The courage they must summon is, in fact, even greater than the courage that is being shown by those who self-identify as conservative.

The gender identity movement has launched our society into a giant psychological experiment. The results of this experiment remain to be seen. 

How many people will choose to be heroes, and even martyrs, in the fight for the definition of marriage?

Reprinted with permission from Culture Witness