Powerful techniques to optimize your emotions, beliefs, and behaviors

Critical Thinking

Thinking twice about what we see, hear and read instead of being complacent. Questioning what we hear and how things are said instead of being apathetic. Recognizing how bias, distorted thinking, and prejudices play daily roles in our lives and how we can think for ourselves. Remembering to ask what is on the other hand before simply accepting what we are exposed to in the media, politics, and in our conversations with others. These are the practices Steve explores in this series of timely articles on thinking critically, taking on the habit of keeping our eyes, ears and minds open.  


For many ages, three keys of persuasion have been the secrets to winning, even controlling, minds. They are the appeal to emotion, such as fear or happiness; the appeal to logic, such as real or false proof or statistics; and the appeal to authority, also known as trust because it involves proving your authority or trustworthiness to your specific audience.


These days, the science of persuasion has grown to include a multitude  finely-tuned propaganda techniques that twist and distort the three keys into weapons of mass manipulation. Thinking critically in the face of persuasion is your defense against persuasion, propaganda, and the biases of others.

Propaganda: The Art of Hidden Persuasion


The goals of propaganda are to gain control of what folks believe, to make ideas appear completely true and without question.  Opposing views are made to appear wrong-headed, like lies, evil or even screwy.  Propaganda is hidden persuasion aimed at large groups. Well-crafted propaganda is so covert as to appear as a simple truth.  The person or groups utilizing propaganda aim to come across as non manipulative.


Election year is prime time for propaganda abuse by political parties and their candidates.  Propaganda techniques are employed in advertising, by dictators, during wartime, by corporations, by religious groups, and by just about anyone attempting to persuade others to their viewpoints. Propaganda is a fact of everyday life and is the primary tool in the battle for your support. 


Propaganda occurs often in mass-communications media such as TV, newspapers, radio, the Internet, and even on a much smaller scale such as folks spreading long email messages.  Only a few people, educated in discerning propaganda, can spot it and make informed decisions about its content.  Here are the core techniques of propaganda:


The Big Lie: A statement appears so outrageous that people are likely to conclude it isn’t a lie.  “Evidences” are created to support the lie and the lie is vigorously asserted repeatedly.  Anyone opposing the lie is said to have an agenda or is accused of lying.  Example: A government is accused of selling off land and this accusation is supported by ambiguous quotes attributed to a government member. The quotes are made to appear conspiratorial when viewed out of context in print.


Bandwagon:  A propaganda approach making it appear a cause or candidate is popular and heavily supported.  Bandwagon appeals to folks believing that large numbers of people supporting a cause or idea proves the cause or idea must have merit.  Of course large numbers of persons supporting a cause or idea is not substantive evidence.  Many persons at one time believed the Sun orbited the Earth and countless other fallacies.  Bandwagon can also be a belief that when large numbers of persons join a cause, they gain strong advantages from doing so.  People are urged to jump on board early to gain advantages.  This method takes advantage of people with a strong need for belonging and approval.  Examples: “Already millions have joined us in our support of X.  With so many people backing X, you know X must be right.”  Or “You don’t want to be left out. Come on aboard and get all the benefits early!”


Character Attack: An approach demonstrating someone is bad and untrustworthy.  The most common approaches used in character attack are name calling, discrediting them, defaming them, dehumanizing them, and demonizing them. Name calling is simply applying a negative label to them. “Ted is a bumbler.”  Discrediting may demonstrate evidence that someone’s approach and past decisions are poor.  Defamation damages someone’s reputation and good name.  “Waldo sold us down the river for a little envelope.”  Dehumanizing makes someone into a nameless thing.  “This bacterium has destroyed our form of government and corrupted our values.” Demonizing turns someone into an evil being or bad person. “The senator is a lying snake who is universally hated.”


Character attack can be true or lies.  It can be done by dragging out past errors.  It can arrive in the form of innuendo and slanderous stories. People can be accused of being communists, corporate dupes, unpatriotic or doing activities they never did.


Card Stacking: An argument is biased by utilizing only evidence in its favor while opposing evidence is discredited or not discussed.  Positives about our position are exaggerated and magnified and are backed by numerous testimonials while the opposition’s position is forgotten about or denigrated.


Information Control: Control information by gathering positive, negative, or created information to support an agenda or attack an opponent.  Uncover past histories, “dirt and baggage”, useful information, or create it.  Seek information or infiltrate offices.  Find videos and news articles from the past.  Spreading rumors and lies are favorite methods of propagandists.  Seeding the media with lots of glowing pieces controls information.


Spinning and reframing are popular methods of information control.  Magnifying small items until they appear large and weighty.  Downplaying makes large items appear smaller.  Making truths appear like lies and half-truths seem like complete truths is often employed in spinning. Statistic management is a potent weapon, especially manufactured statistics.  Timing information release can harm a political campaign.


Glittering Generalities: Using vague and powerful words to pump up speeches and make them sound important, yet the words are often meaningless or are suitable for projection.  Words appealing to ideals and values will trigger strong emotions and a trance like affect.  Examples: Patriotism, freedom, justice, injustice, integrity, dignity, love, law abiding, and the constitution. “Our constitution is under attack and all freedom loving patriots should come to its defense.”


Name Calling: The ad hominem attack may be one of the most used propaganda techniques.  Name calling is simply calling someone a derogatory name.  You knock them and their ideals, values, performances, and past.  Name calling often involves trivializing your opponent, rolling your eyes or smirking when you mispronounce their name.  Examples: “Ned is a known flip-flopper–what do you expect?”  ”My opponent has made the most of his life since being released from jail. Maybe you should call his parole board instead of taking up this man’s cause?”


Plain Folk: Is method to appear ordinary and connect with regular people. Your attire is relaxed, clean, and informal.  You appear to be just like the folks with whom you are visiting.  You employ the language of common people and use simple grammar and words. You act like a normal everyday person.


Testimonials:  Employing athletes, authors, celebrities, movie stars, and public figures to provide testimonials, often though agents, has become a standard practice of ad agencies and political action groups in promoting products, services, books, and politicians.  Even experts, clergymen, doctors, scientists, and dentists give testimonials.  Who has not seen an infomercial loaded with testimonials?


Stereotypes: These generalizations are used to negatively paint someone as a one-dimensional label with only one or a few traits or behaviors.  The person becomes one of them who is untrustworthy, worthless, and psychopathic–trying to take our jobs.  Stereotypes excite emotions.  “The illegals are swimming toward our side of the Rio Grande as we speak.  In another three days they’ll be delivering pizzas or taking jobs in Cleveland.”


Slogans: The use of a simple crowd motivational phrase. Example: “Change is great!”  “You deserve the best!”  “Put our country back to work!”  Slogans are used in advertising, public speeches, posters, hand bills, and radio spots.  Repetition makes slogans remembered.


Transfer: Become associated strongly with people or groups possessing credibility and trust.  Join well known organizations inspiring public trust and approval.  “Our president and the attorney general dropped by the other day and we discussed issues affecting our area.  It was a fruitful meeting.”


Bland Words: Often words are employed to make painful realities more palatable.  By the use of bland relabeling a situation becomes more palatable.  Civilian casualties are described as “collateral damage”.  Genocidal murder becomes “liquidation”.


Sub-Humanizing: Making an enemy appear brutal, psychopathic, without redeeming qualities, and without care for human life.  Accuse them of atrocities, rape, inhuman torture, hospital bombing, slaying old people and children, and butchery.  This SUB-HUMANIZING can excuse destroying an enemy by any means possible.


All the Time: Turn a single incident into something that occurs all the time.


The Lesser of Two Evils: A method used to convince us of an idea or proposition by displaying it as the least problematic option.  A highly negative idea or proposition is put across as the only other option available.  “Well, it’s an easy choice really, we can invest in defense and invade Chelanka or we can do nothing and watch our cities incinerated one after another by terrorists who have sworn to destroy us.”


Hype: The utilization of exaggeration with impressive language that is meaningless and vague in order to spark positive emotions.  “State-of the-art”.  “The greatest advance of our century.”


Symbols: Images, designs, words, and music can convey ideas, emotion, nationalism.  A symbol can infuse anything being spoken about with its emotional power.  A politician is backed by the image of the American Bald Eagle or an American flag.


Heroes Versus Villains:  Our people are heroic, on God’s side, and champions for what is right while the enemy are loathsome monsters who know nothing but evil.


Propaganda Labeling:  Call their information propaganda and point out how it is contrived and deceptive while your information is based on clear and incontrovertible evidence.


Make Them Laugh: Poke fun and make jokes about your opponent’s positions and they are diminished.  Laughter also makes someone more susceptible to your argument.


Defend Our Country: Make it appear your country or values are under attack or are threatened.  “Our country is under attack from enemies from within.”


Patriots Versus Traitors:  Call people who support your position patriots and those who oppose your positions traitors. Example:


“Why of course the people don’t want war. Why should some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally the common people don’t want war neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country”:  Hermann Goering, Nazi Air Marshall at the Nuremburg Trials.


Repetition: Keep repeating the same message over and over, even with variation, and it begins to take hold.


Flattery: Say something to your audience that makes them feel good about themselves.  “You folks are intelligent and won’t be easily fooled by what my opponent is trying to spread.”


Promises: When a politician offers his audience something for their support.  “They’ll be a chicken in every pot if I’m elected.  I’ll end poverty.”


Straw Man: Falsely attribute a statement to an opponent and then attack him for it.


Simple Solutions: Reduce complexities to something easily solved and wonder aloud why this never occurred to your opponent.


Better Days: Since people generally gloss over the way things actually were, linking a message or product to the good old days will provide your message or product with a positive brush stroke.  “Remember back in the old days when your bank actually was in your corner?  Century Bank has turned back the page.  We’re in your corner.”


Pseudo-Science:  Using meaningless charts, graphs, unscientific studies, models in doctor’s outfits, pseudo-scientific name dropping, lab equipment backgrounds to enhance a pitch.


Yes Sets: Getting your audience to say yes three times in a row will make them susceptible to a pitch.  “You are a living breathing human being? (Yes).  You read something in the last 5 days? (Yes)  You got dressed this morning?  (Yes)  Then you would enjoy…”


Endorphin Bombing: Have your audience laugh, recall great times, cheer, watch rousing speeches, employ group singing, or watch long parades with marching bands. Psyching folks up rah-rah style will raise their endorphins, lower their critical reasoning, and make them more open to your pitch.


Snob Appeal: Appealing to the need to feel superior to others and having the “best” things.  “Of course you won’t settle for anything less than the best?”  “Like the finest wine you expect to pay more.”


Red Herring: Creating a problem that did not exist in order cover over the real problem or providing compelling, but irrelevant data or issues meaningless to the argument and using them to validate the argument.


Either-Or Thinking:  Failure to recognize categories in the middle or gray areas.  “You are either a conservative or a Commie.”  “They are either good guys or crooks.”


Fear: Using fear to promote an agenda.  “Either go out and campaign, or we will lose the country.”


Quotations Out of Context: A famous statement is used out of context such as “The Bible says…” Selective quote editing changes meanings. Documentaries created to discredit someone or an opposing viewpoint employ this method.  Popular in politics.


Slippery Slope: A dire warning about the consequences of taking a course of action and how it will lead to worsening conditions. Example: “If allowed to euthanize animals, the next step is baby murder and before long they will be coming after you.”


Appeal to Prejudice: The use of emotive or loaded terms standing for morality and higher values.  Examples: “Hard working men and women everywhere don’t want to shoulder the burden of those leeching off the system.  Let’s put an end to living off the dole!”


Beautiful People: Using attractive models and famous beautiful people to promote products or ideologies.  This gives the impression that people will become attractive if they utilize the products and ideologies being promoted.


The featured editorial cartoon above by Art Young was published in Life magazine in 1907, titled “This World of Creepers; Afraid of Themselves and of Others, Afraid of the Almighty, of Life and of Death”. Source: The Library of Congress.


How Biases Shape Our World


Biases of various kinds strongly influence how we look at news and events, politics, history, religion, other people and races, how we hear what’s said, and even ourselves.  It would behoove us to look within and notice our common lenses and how they distort our world, events, others, and ourselves.  Our biases, often out of our awareness, can stimulate kneejerk habits and our emotional reactions.   Many of these biases below appear in Michael Shermer’s outstanding book: The Believing Brain.  I’ve added a number of others.


Confirmation bias:  The tendency to seek and find confirming evidence to support preexisting beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirming evidence.

Hindsight bias:  The tendency to reconstruct the past to fit present knowledge.

Mood bias:  The tendency of those with either elevated moods or down moods to experience either overly positive recollections or overly negative recollections that can distort how we look at the past.

Self-justification bias: The tendency to rationalize decisions “after the fact” to convince ourselves we did the best we could do under the given circumstances..

Attribution bias:  The tendency to attribute differing causes for our own beliefs and actions than what causes other folks beliefs and actions.  Examples: Someone’s beliefs or actions are attributed to the environment such as luck, circumstances, and having good connections. Or the cause of someone’s beliefs and actions result from an enduring personal trait like intelligence, creativity, and discipline.

Sunk-cost bias: The tendency to believe in something because we paid more for it or made sizable investments in time.

Status quo bias:  The tendency to pick whatever we are used to doing–the status quo.

Presentation bias: The tendency to draw different conclusions based on how data and evidence are presented.

Anchoring bias:  The tendency to rely heavily on a past reference or chunk of information when deciding.

Availability bias:  The tendency to assign probabilities of potential outcomes based only on examples immediately available to us.

Inattentional-blindness bias:   The tendency to miss something obvious and general while focusing on something special and specific.

 Authority bias:  The tendency to value the opinions of those seen as authorities.

Bandwagon bias:  Because many believe in something there must be something true about it.

Barnum bias:  The tendency to treat vague and general personality descriptions as accurate and specific.

Believability bias:  The tendency to evaluate the strength of an argument based on the credibility of its conclusion.

Clustering illusion:  The tendency to view clusters of patterns as a pattern yet miss the randomness of these patterns.

Confabulation bias:  Imagined memories or others accounts taken as our experience.

Expectation bias: The tendency of observers to note and select data and evidence that agree with their expectations.

False-consensus bias:   The tendency of folks to overestimate the degree which others agree with their beliefs.

Halo bias:  The tendency to generalize one positive trait of a person to all the traits of that individual.

Herd bias:  The tendency to adopt beliefs and follow behaviors of the majority.

Illusion of control bias:  The tendency to believe we can control or influence the outcomes that most people can neither control nor influence.

In-group bias:  The tendency for persons to value the beliefs and attitudes of fellow group members and to discount the beliefs and attitudes of outsiders.

Just-world bias:  The tendency of persons to hunt for actions that a victim of an unfortunate event might have done to deserve it.

Negative bias:  The tendency to focus on and give more weight to negative occurrences, beliefs, and information than positive.

Positive bias:  The tendency to focus on and give more weight to positive occurrences, beliefs, and information than negative.

Possibility bias:  The tendency to discount the possibility of a disaster that has never previously occurred.

First events bias:  The tendency to notice, recall, and assess initial events as being more valuable then subsequent events.

Projection bias:  The tendency to assume that others share the same or similar attitudes, beliefs, values, and behaviors.

Last events bias:  The tendency to notice, recall, and assess more recent events as being more valuable then initial events.

Rose-colored glasses bias:  The tendency to recall past events as being more positive than they actually were.

Self-fulfilling prophecy bias:  The tendency to believe and act in ways that conform to our expectations for our actions and beliefs.

Stereotyping bias:  The tendency to assume that all members of a group will have certain traits believed to represent the group, yet individuals in that group may not possess those traits.

Click here for tips on changing any belief, biases included.

Here’s a list of common distorted beliefs, many of which are biased, on our Distorted Thinking page.