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Just Imagine…the Neuroscience of Propaganda

Photo by samer daboul via

Until recently propaganda may have seemed like a matter of throwing mud at a wall to see what sticks. It was effective because financial support enabled a high-volume approach to propaganda. Now, building on neuroscientific research, propaganda can be more targeted and even more frighteningly effective.

We now know what it takes to make the human mind more receptive to propaganda. Negative propaganda begins by preconditioning people to be in an emotional state of fear or uncertainty. Those who are targeted are often facing economic stress or are facing threats to their social status.

When people are preconditioned to be attuned to a propaganda message, the brain produces chemical responses that bypass the logical part of the brain and go directly to the fight-or-flight region of the brain. Propaganda with dehumanizing messages is particularly powerful. That’s why name calling is particularly effective.

While the propaganda may seem to be nonsensical to many of us, those whose brains have been preconditioned by fear and threats to their social standing have a sense that the message just feels right to them. The more this propaganda is repeated, the more hardwired the brains become. It becomes almost impossible to reverse the hardwiring.

Conspiracy theories follow the same neurological acceptance pattern. The closer the conspiracy theory is to the propaganda message, the easier it is for it to be accepted.

How do we prevent the hardwiring of brains to such negative messaging? That’s where we don’t yet have definitive and scalable answers. It’s easy to talk about becoming good at critical thinking, but those who are receptive to propaganda are unlikely to educate themselves for such critical thinking. In fact, they are drawn to simplistic thinking that sounds rational.

The only thing that we know so far is that disruptive events can bring about new perspectives. The old military saying about there being “no atheists in foxholes” conveys how moments of extreme stress can rewire our minds. However, that rewiring can be for the worse, making people more susceptible to disinformation, not turning them away from it. The shock of the COVID pandemic seems to have combined with propaganda messaging to increase the spread of conspiracy beliefs.

Just imagine if we have lost a segment of our population to a new form of addiction: conspiracy theories. How might we heal this new addiction?

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“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” – Frederick Douglass

This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.