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The Hidden Influences


Recently, I took part in a discussion that, among other things, delved into the extent to which influences one doesn’t care about (and are thus ignorant of) ultimately affect the indifferent individual. In truth, many things influence us, especially forces we don’t care about enough to examine seriously.

This is a famous scene from The Devil Wears Prada that, believe it or not, helps illustrate the point perfectly:


In this scene, Anne Hathaway’s character is dismissive toward Meryl Streep’s character, who is attempting to choose from two superficially identical belts in order to complete an outfit. Streep’s character is a powerful fashion magazine editor–a trendsetter. Hathaway’s character is her new assistant. Hathaway refers to the fashion world as “stuff,” as if to suggest it isn’t relevant to her. Streep takes issue with this, and delivers a monologue about Hathaway’s blue (“cerulean,” in fact) sweater, tracing its artistic lineage to demonstrate that, as much as Hathaway’s character may believe she is immune to the influences of the fashion industry, she is in fact a hapless victim of its whims.

This is an incredibly important point that holds relevance far, far beyond fashion. We are influenced by so many things around us: advertising, TV shows and movies, video games, music, newspapers and magazine articles, political and religious authorities, civil authorities, friends, family members, coworkers, bosses. As much as each of us may consider ourselves a unique individual, we nevertheless exist as the nexus of many social forces, both seen and unseen. We make our own decisions, of course, but those decisions are influenced in numerous ways that we may easily overlook.

Using some of the media described above, we are affected by far more than the contents of raw information. If someone is speaking on a TV news program about a particular subject, how we react to that individual is based on multiple factors. What is he or she wearing? Are they described as an “expert,” or what other credentials do they hold? Do they wear glasses? What accent do they speak with? How complex is the language they use? How do others on the program respond to this person? How old are they? Do they speak flatly, devoid of emotion, or are they impassioned? All of these factors together add up to what we call “credibility.” Each of us may have different standards for credibility, but there are some common criteria found in American media:

  * Men are considered more educated and factually accurate than women.
  * People wearing glasses are perceived as more intelligent than people without them.
  * Well-dressed people--that is, people in formal wear--are viewed as more credible.
  * People who speak with a "Midwestern" or even a British accent are seen as more intelligent and thus credible. Conversely, people who speak with other thick accents (especially rural or Southern accents) are considered less intelligent, regardless of credentials.
  * Older people are considered more credible than young people. Gray hair, at least on men, adds a sense of credibility.
  * A dispassionate, orderly relating of facts and statistics is viewed as trustworthy and credible. Impassioned speeches are an interesting case: they are highly appealing in the context of political and religious rallies, and perfectly suit solo talk show formats (think Rush Limbaugh), but emotional speaking is a serious liability on a news program. It also depends on the emotion: aggression and belligerence (stereotypically masculine emotions) are far more acceptable than sensitivity and empathy (stereotypically feminine emotions).
  * To some demographics, complex language--large words, jargon words, terms of art--is a sign of obfuscation and even dishonesty. These can hurt credibility, even though they may demonstrate a high degree of fluency in the topic at hand.
  * If a news source presents someone as an "expert," they are more likely to be seen as trustworthy. Words like "pundit" and "contributor" evoke less confidence.
  * White people are, as a rule, considered more credible than people of color. This becomes especially true if the topic at hand has anything to do with racial issues: black people are viewed as particularly "biased," for instance, when talking about issues of anti-black racism.

This is, of course, just one example. I have not provided citations for each point, though they exist if you’d like to search them out. You may even disagree that any of the points listed affect you–and that’s fine. You may not gauge credibility with any of the above criteria, but many people do, without even realizing it. This is important, and a critical aspect of culture and discourse that is often neglected by lay people (myself included).

As another example, perhaps one more generally relatable: prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, American support for torture was low. Before 911, well over half of Americans believed that torture was unequivocally wrong. But in the years that followed, these numbers flipped. As of 2014, 59% of Americans believe torture of terrorism suspects is justified at least sometimes. Roughly the same number believed it was always unjustified 15 years ago.

How did this reversal occur?

It would be hard to pin down any one cause, but I will mention a few possibilities:

  * In the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration avoided charges of "torture" by redefining several known torture methods as "enhanced interrogation techniques." Such language games are transparently Orwellian, and yet it confused the issue enough that there is now considerable disagreement over what torture _is_. This opened the door to a general softening on torture itself. If things that are similar to (but not) "torture" are acceptable, then why not torture itself?
  * Republican politicians like Dick Cheney have promoted the meme that torturing prisoners led to actionable intelligence that helped us stop further terrorist activities, and even led to the location and killing of Osama bin Laden. In case you are wondering, [this is flatly untrue]( Traditional intelligence-gathering methods are what led to bin Laden, not torture. And in fact, there is no evidence whatsoever that torturing any of the prisoners the US took after 9/11 has produced any positive results.
  * Television shows like _24_ helped cement torture as an acceptable means of intelligence-gathering by showing it, many times, as being effective. The available evidence indicates that it is wholly _ineffective_, but the research which shows this is not broadcast on prime time scripted dramas.

Indeed, Pew determined that Americans support torture, not because we are vindictive and hateful and want to make people suffer, but because we erroneously believe that it’s effective.

The people who believe this probably don’t think they have been led astray by the Bush administration, or that their thinking was influenced by fictional TV shows and movies, and yet the facts of the matter are irrefutable.

This topic is quite obviously a far cry from the color of Anne Hathaway’s sweater, yet it is all of a piece: we are surrounded by innumerable influences which affect the ways we think, act, and present ourselves to the world. Though I hate to come back to the Donald Trump well all the time, his inclusion here is apt, as well: his supporters feel a lot more comfortable vocalizing their beliefs now that there is a national figure who openly espouses and shares them. This reinforces their beliefs, even though if asked they would likely deny that they were less vocal in the past. This negotiation of what constitutes acceptable political debate is known as the Overton window, which I also discussed in a previous post. But the bottom line is that such “windows” of acceptability are found all over our culture, from what is acceptable to wear, to what you can say and eat and do for a living. Media sources both reflect existing standards and, at the same time, reshape them and communicate new ones.

None of this is news to people familiar with sociology or social psychology, nor those who have studied history, art (and its history), and mass communication. We are bombarded on a daily basis by myriad messages and cultural norms that we resist at our peril. It is easy to believe that, by dismissing a particular cultural force as irrelevant, we can escape its influence. But in fact, the exact opposite is true. If you do not work to form your own opinion on a topic by examining it, thinking critically about what it represents and what its influences are, and questioning your own preconceived beliefs, you are leaving the door open for someone else to dictate your opinion for you. And, due to how our brains work, once we’ve cemented a belief as true, we have a very difficult time changing our minds, even when irrefutably proven wrong.

This is why it is so essential to take a critical attitude toward the world around us, and to be very careful about dismissing certain influences as irrelevant. Before the 2010 election, the Tea Party was considered irrelevant, too–and since then they have caused untold turmoil in our government and produced real human misery in the states and localities where they have taken power. Ignoring influences is dangerous and has real consequences.

Take a little time to think about the hidden influences around you, too. There are likely a lot more than you realize.

Photo by symphony of love