Friday, October 12, 2018

Brainwashing and subliminal manipulation – – another entry in our failed postwar technology series and an excuse to play a great movie clip.

[now with links]

We've had a thread going for a while now on technologies and lines of research that looked promising (if "promising" is the right word in this case) in the postwar era but which have failed to produce substantial advances in the 50 years that followed. We came up with a pretty good list (see here and here and make sure to check out the comments), but I don't believe that we included one field that seem to be making major developments in the 1950s and was a major component of postwar pop culture.

The brainwashed secret agent was a standard fixture of the spy fiction of the time. In Fleming even had a mind -controlled James Bond tried to kill M in the Man with the Golden gun. The first and best remembered example is the novel the Manchurian candidate each came out in 1959. The film adaptation (we will ignore the remake) was remarkably faithful to the book, but it considerably toned down both the sex and the politics. The James Gregory character in the movie suggests Joseph McCarthy. In the novel, there is no question that Raymond's stepfather is meant to be tailgunner Joe.

As Pauline Kael pointed out at the time, Richard Condon took a popular contemporary joke about the senator actually helping the Soviets so much through his crude attacks that he might as well be an agent and made it funnier and more subversive by playing it straight. He did so by positing a connection between two Cold War topics that were on everyone's mind, McCarthyism and the breaking of American POWs by the Chinese in the Korean War.

Robert Cialdini has an excellent discussion of the topic in his seminal book on marketing psychology influence. In his account, the large majority of American prisoners who were found to have collaborated with the enemy after the war were persuaded by entirely mundane but highly effective techniques applied incrementally and based on intuitive and well-established concepts like reciprocation, social norming, and commitment/consistency.
In the popular imagination, however, the process was seen as a mysterious and incredibly advanced application of cutting-edge psychology and neuroscience, usually involving drugs, hypnosis, high-tech torture, and Freudian psychology. Once you stripped away the science and the pseudoscience (mainly the latter), you are left with a magical trope that even predated Mesmer. The idea that there were secret techniques that would allow you to impose your will upon others was further boosted by books like the hidden persuaders which substituted subliminal images for spells and incantations.

As we've said before, it is essential to view these postwar concepts in the context of their times. From the vantage point of the mid-1950s it seemed reasonable, perhaps even self-evident, that virtually every field of science and technology was about to break open with a flood of new advances and discoveries. Any attempt at a list will almost invariably be incomplete, but it was an age when people were mastering the Adam, reaching out into space, making machines that could think, and seemingly on the verge of curing all diseases. In the light of all that, the notion that we had finally unlock the secrets of the brain was believable, perhaps even to be expected.

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