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.
“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…