How to sell a conspiracy theory

Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth (A&E9/11 for short), more than any other conspiracist organisation I’ve come across, showcases the psychology of sales techniques, influence, and persuasion. I don’t doubt the sincerity of those who believe the claims made by A&E9/11; all the supporters I’ve spoken to have been knowledgeable, eloquent, and passionate about their cause (of course, being passionate about something often leads to confirmation bias, but that’s for another post). I’d be surprised if the people at the head of the movement responsible for generating web content, documentaries, and DVDs aren’t equally passionate. But whether they consciously intend to or not, they take advantage of almost every psychological sales technique in the book.

And when it comes to the psychology of sales techniques, the book is Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini – a psychological classic describing the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) persuasion techniques which play on our inbuilt psychological foibles. These are most obvious when it comes to the realm of professional sales, where persuading people by any means possible to part with their money is often all that matters. But persuasion techniques aren’t only used by salespeople: they are an ever-present feature of social life, and usually when we’ve been influenced by subtle persuasive tactics we are completely unaware of it.

Cialdini breaks the research down into 6 key principles of influence. Let’s take a look at how A&E9/11 describe a DVD of their documentary Solving the Mystery of WTC7 in light of these psychological insights.

Hard core activists can buy 15 of these mini-DVDs for $15“Last September, our mini-documentary, Architects & Engineers – Solving the Mystery of WTC7, went ‘viral’ on YouTube, generating over 500,000 hits in less than four weeks. Now this powerful 15-minute film about the explosive destruction of WTC Building 7, narrated by legendary actor Ed Asner, is available as a 3-inch mini DVD to energize your outreach efforts.”

Straight away this intro demonstrates two of Cialdini’s principles. First, social proof – believing that a lot of other people want, like or think something usually makes you more likely to want like or think it yourself. Half a million people watched this video in less than four weeks? Well then there must be something in it… The second principle is liking – if a person we know, like, and trust is involved with something we are more susceptible to influence. This is why advertisers pay celebrities huge sums of money to endorse their product. A&E9/11 got Ed Asner to narrate this documentary, and who could be more trustworthy than the guy who played Santa in the movie Elf?

“This new DVD is one of the most effective 9/11 Truth materials to ever hit the streets. Why?

6) The smaller 3-inch size means you can easily carry it in your pocket for quick distribution – and, for the hard core activists among you, give out dozens more DVDs per day. They are so cute that almost everyone will take one – and more importantly… watch it!

9/11 Truth activists love to give away leaflets, pamphlets, and DVDs – I’ve got a drawer full of them. This illustrates another of Cialdini’s principles: reciprocity. If somebody does something for you, not matter how trivial, you are obliged to reciprocate. This is why marketers like to give away free samples; it’s not just about selflessly giving you the chance to try out their product for free, it’s about subtly obliging you to return the favour by purchasing the product later. If someone gives you a free A&E9/11 DVD, it kick starts unconscious processes in your brain which want you to watch it and like it so that you’re holding up your side of the social contract. And, regardless of the quality of the evidence it contains, the simple act of watching a DVD about 9/11 conspiracy theories means you’re psychologically primed to be persuaded thanks to the principle of consistency. When you commit to an idea, even in a small way like spending 15 minutes of your valuable time watching a free DVD, you face unconscious pressure to internalise the idea as part of your self-image rather than admit that you committed time or effort to something you don’t believe in.

One more principle worth discussing in relation to A&E9/11 is authority. We are particularly susceptible to being influenced by those we believe to have some kind of authority. This was most famously demonstrated by Stanly Milgram, who persuaded many of his participants to administer what they thought were lethal electric shocks to a fellow participant merely by creating an air of authority. In everyday life the effects are usually less dramatic, but we constantly look to authorities for an indication of how we should behave or what we should believe. Often we’re justified in doing so – the important factor is whether the authority is legitimate, and sometimes it’s hard to tell. A&E9/11 is predicated on creating the perception that the 1,700+ architects and engineers who have signed their petition have the authority, by virtue of their profession, to know that the World Trade Center towers could not have collapsed without the use of controlled explosives. But it’s worth bearing in mind that not every architect has experience with 100+ story skyscrapers and not every engineer has trained in the relevant kinds of structural engineering.

The prominent use of this seemingly large number, 1,700+, is another example of the social proof persuasion technique. However when given proper context it starts to look somewhat less effective…

Number of A&E for 9/11 Truth: approx 1,700
Total A&E in the U.S = approx. 2,728,000 1 2
A&E9/11 as a percentage of total A&E = 0.06%

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About Rob Brotherton

Rob is a Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London, and assistant editor of The Skeptic [www.skeptic.org.uk]. Follow Rob on Twitter: @rob_brotherton
This entry was posted in 9/11, Biases & heuristics, Social psychology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to How to sell a conspiracy theory

  1. hybridrogue1 says:

    “And when it comes to the psychology of sales techniques, the book is Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini – a psychological classic describing the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) persuasion techniques which play on our inbuilt psychological foibles. These are most obvious when it comes to the realm of professional sales, where persuading people by any means possible to part with their money is often all that matters. But persuasion techniques aren’t only used by salespeople: they are an ever-present feature of social life, and usually when we’ve been influenced by subtle persuasive tactics we are completely unaware of it.”~Brotherton

    Very good Rob, this very paragraph could open a dissertation on a conspiratorial critique of the fascist nature of the National Security State. Although very likely that critique would cite Bernays rather than Cialdini.

    I would point out that any sophisticated grasp of the sociopolitical understands that all forms of persuasive language can be correctly termed “propaganda” – in fact everything you boys write on this blog is propaganda. Propaganda and Counter-Propaganda, are both the same at the root of technique; just like Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence.

    The situation of the larger society and the major influence it receives is simply one of scale. What will have the largest influence on the overall population? The massively well funded mainstream Public Relations Regime or the counter public relations of it’s opponents?

    One of the main projects of counter-propaganda, which you so blithely term “conspiracy theory” is to enlighten those who remain unaware of what you refer to in your summing sentence above:

    “…and usually when we’ve been influenced by subtle persuasive tactics we are completely unaware of it.”

    This is why these subtle persuasion tactics are a large part of the teachings and discussion of “conspiracy theory” – the serious stuff concerned with a systemic critique.
    \\][//

  2. hybridrogue1 says:

    On finishing reading your article here Mr Brotherton, the entire thing could be turned around and thrown back in your face with just a few changes in aspect and language.

    You should review Orwell’s Goldstein book to grasp your own adherence to DOUBLETHINK.
    \\][//

  3. hybridrogue1 says:

    “One more principle worth discussing in relation to A&E9/11 is authority. We are particularly susceptible to being influenced by those we believe to have some kind of authority. This was most famously demonstrated by Stanly Milgram…”

    Turnaround:

    One more principle worth discussing in relation to NIST is authority. We are particularly susceptible to being influenced by those we believe to have some kind of authority. This was most famously demonstrated by Stanly Milgram…
    _______

    “Number of A&E for 9/11 Truth: approx 1,700
    Total A&E in the U.S = approx. 2,728,000
    A&E9/11 as a percentage of total A&E = 0.06%”

    And the number of A&E for NIST is?

    Yes indeed Mr Brotherton, you have internalized and sublimated your biases well.
    \\][//

    • oopsie :

      http://911-engineers.blogspot.co.uk/

      “Architects and Engineers
      I guess a lot of you have heard about the website ae911truth where a group of individuals claim that what happened to WTC 1, 2 and 7 could not have happened. This is just a claim, because they have nothing to show for their allegation that it could not have happened the way it did. You won’t find any calculations that show how the NIST Report is wrong. On this site, you will find many structural engineers – those who actually know what they are talking about – explaining why the towers collapsed the way they did. So feel free to look at all the information I have gathered about the research done on the collapse on the towers. The research has been published in numerous engineering magazines and all over the internet on engineering sites (See the links on the right side of this site).

      Only a handful of architects and engineers question the NIST Report, but they have never come up with an alternative. Although at first blush it may seem impressive that these people don’t believe the NIST Report, remember that there are 123,000 members of ASCE(American Society of Civil Engineers) who do not question the NIST Report. There are also 80,000 members of AIA(American Institute of Architects) who do not question the NIST Report.

      Although their field of expertise is not related to the construction of buildings – they don’t seem to have a problem with that over at AE911truth – there are also 120,000 members of ASME(American Society of Mechanical Engineers) who do not question the NIST report. There are also 370,000 members of IEEE(Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) who do not question the NIST report. There are also 40,000 members of AIChE(American Institute of Chemical Engineers) who do not question the NIST Report. There are also 35,000 members of AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) who do not question the NIST report. So who would you rather believe?”

      • hybridrogue1 says:

        “Although at first blush it may seem impressive that these people don’t believe the NIST Report, remember that there are 123,000 members of ASCE(American Society of Civil Engineers) who do not question the NIST Report. There are also 80,000 members of AIA(American Institute of Architects) who do not question the NIST Report.”~Killerguy

        How do you know how many of these ASCE and AIA members “do not question the report”? Simply because they have not done so publicly? So now you are a mind reader as well as a cretin who hasn’t the slightest abilities at critical thinking.

        You have no way to prove nor disprove your negative. Don’t you even know the fundamentals of critical thinking? Obviously not.

        Again where is “A&E for NIST”? Show us their website Killerdood.
        \\][//

  4. Mr. Brotherton,

    As someone trained in the field of psychology of social behavior, I would be extremely curious to hear your thoughts about a person, Mr. ConspiracyKiller, who seems to have assumed the job of being the guard dog for your blog. And, he seems to be a very well trained one at that.

    Since you seem to be operating in the academic and scientific realms, I can only assume that he has not been given his “job” by any of the four contributors of this site. But his knee-jerk comments trying to swat every fly that flies by seem to get zero attention or reaction on your part, which, in turn, gives the reader the impression that his function on these pages is approved by you to a certain extent.

    If he is indeed assigned such a mission, I think it’d be fair to expect that it is declared as such in some shape or form. But, if he is not, I feel he is doing a great disservice to your level headed (biased, but level headed nonetheless) academic blog which could easily be a place for some serious and multi faceted discussions that could be educational both for you and the readers.

    Kind regards.

    • Reposted for good measure I see

      • hybridrogue1 says:

        Actually Lilaleo asked some very pertinent questions.

        A question plies upon the mind killerfella; who the fuck are you and what is your purpose here? You seem to pretend at answering for the authors of these pages.
        Do you have an official function here? Or are you just another twit from the outer sanctum playing ‘Thought Cop’?
        \\][//

      • awwww look it’s angry.

      • hybridrogue1 says:

        “awwww look it’s angry.”~Killerguy

        You have a habit of posting stupid little quips like this when you have nothing of substance to say, or hiding the fact that you are just some goob pretending to guard dog this site and have no affiliation other than your having found a warm spot you can pretend is home.
        \\][//

      • Speaking of habits posting stupid quips, have you checked your own mountain of turd on the internet lately ?

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