By MARYA SALAMAT
A new study by Dana Carney of Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University, as reported in The Economist, sheds light on how people can be brainwashed or greenwashed, and therefore manipulated to hold certain views. Well, this is not exactly how the researchers worded their findings. Or how The Economist interpreted and presented the study.
But if you follow the researchers’ conclusions, this can be the logical summary – that people can be brainwashed and manipulated to hold certain views, as long as these views get aired first. Understand now why censorship and control are big issues for governments and big businesses. Why they must get their version of things and events in all media outlets first as much as possible, and why the holders of opposing views are marginalized, vilified, hounded, even killed. The research concluded that the first view or explanation that reaches the people is often what the people would believe in.
In their paper entitled “First is Best,” Carney and Banaji contend that the first option in a series will be “consistently preferred” if the chooser is under time pressure or slightly distracted. Since being under time pressure and slightly distracted is our way of life, given the daily challenge of subsisting, relationships and entertainment, we can assume that the research’s finding is also true for most of us.
Only those among us who consciously wrestled with time pressure and the distraction to study matters much more carefully, with an open mind, can tell us an alternate view. But how will you regard the analyses of these scientific critics, if it always get broadcasted (if at all) as poor second messages next to the more powerfully blared first?
In testing the “First is Best” study’s hypothesis, the researchers had reportedly conducted a series of experiments. In one, they showed volunteers pictures of two violent criminals. Then they asked the volunteers which one deserved parole. Most felt more merciful toward the first mugshot they were shown. Other volunteers, first shown mugshots of different criminals, chose these different villains.
The bias for the first affects commercial decisions, too, The Economist reported. The researchers asked respondents which type of chewing gum they preferred, and it seemed that 68% of respondents at a railway station in Boston picked the first stick they were offered. In another experiment, volunteers more often wanted to buy a car from the first salesperson they met rather than the second.
And the first TV commercials that get aired immediately upon a show’s break is said to command the higher price.
The researchers did not delve into the effects of repeated first airings, and The Economist did not tackle how the ‘first-is-best’ affects political life, but you and I can supply the rest. If the first airing prompts you to like it best, imagine the effect of multiplied, cumulative and unchallenged airing. It means that we tend to wholly swallow ideas that always get aired first.
With power comes censorship?
The researchers’ findings could explain then how a self-interest-based assertion, hammered into our brains again and again, can marginalize if not obliterate the truth for you. This may explain how we, sons and daughters of freedom fighters, descendants of the first nation in Asia to establish a republic, could get afflicted with colonial mentality decades later; how we could call revolutionaries such as Macario Sakay a bandit, and today’s revolutionaries as “terrorists.”
Historian Renato Constantino called it the “miseducation of Filipinos,” and given the findings of the Haas School/Harvard University researchers, it is the effect of consistent first airing of an idea. Consistently first, because the source of the messages comes from the ones in control of government, and this government tells the media which tells the people that revolutionaries and those who challenge the state are to be vilified and hunted down as radicals, rabble-rousers, and now, terrorists.
The ‘first is best’ power of the oft-aired assertion could also explain how the US, for example, with the most stockpile of nuclear weapons and number of bases and troops scattered all over the world, could call its posture as “defense” rather than the more appropriate “offense.” And present itself as “friend” rather than the more appropriate “attacker” or “exploiter.”
In the Philippines, ‘first is best’ seems to be currently favoring the ruling clique of President Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III. After he ousted Chief Justice Renato Corona, there seems to be little traditional opposition left squeaking in politics nowadays. Only Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago sounds as the lone traditional politician speaking out against one of Aquino’s cronies.
The only consistent opposition and criticism to Aquino’s ruling clique is coming from the progressive party-list bloc, the progressive peoples’ organizations, and the revolutionary communists. But all of them are under attack, and their messages, when not actively prevented from coming out, are systematically being limited, sometimes misinterpreted, and often vilified.
What does this tell us?
Despite difficulties, we can take as warning the research’s findings that we have a tendency to fall for our first impression. That just because we hold certain beliefs now because of what we’re repeatedly told, doesn’t mean these are correct, or good for us.
Take for example the repeatedly said info that working people’s wages in the Philippines are already high. That is patently wrong, the workers have been saying. But always their statement is aired limitedly or as a poor second to the wrong info. That is, when their statement is aired at all. Yet, even a recent UBS research confirmed that, after comparing wages in 72 cities around the world and determining how long the workers here have to work to buy a Big Mac, they find that Filipinos are some of those who have to work the longest.
If you believe the often first aired messages of the labor department and the employers, that is obviously not good for you, isn’t it? They are the advertisers if not the owners of the media, so beware what you hear. Counter your tendency to fall for first-is-best.
President Aquino may smile himself silly praising his administration for “achievements,” but if you don’t feel it in real life, abandon, or stop, his bandwagon.
Let’s try to always have “fresh eyes,” to keep open minds, to combat our prejudices; to hack through the distractions and oppose the lure of first impressions.
Let’s hope there would be more critical media reports, more in mainstream hopefully, and more support for the alternative media. And now that the internet and advances in technology are making it slightly easier for more critical ideas and inconvenient truths to get aired, let’s hope the long hand of censorship cannot stifle it. So far it may already be moving in disguise, dressed for example in anti-cybercrime clothes, or as a slip through in measures to counter the supposed freedom of information.