Emotional contagion and the other psycho-political techniques for manipulating people in foreign policy

As Leonardo da Vinci used to say: “If you are alone you belong entirely to yourself. If you are accompanied by even one companion you belong only half to yourself”.

Later, in the positivist era, Gustave Le Bon – in his Psychology of Crowds developed a concept whereby the crowd weakens all the individual’s rational abilities.

The crowd unleashes the Id, destroys the Ego and makes the unconscious prevail in history.

Also Freud – in his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” – shared that approach.

Benito Mussolini was said to have a copy of Le Bon’s book on the nightstand, while Eduard Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, created advertising and modern public relations in the United States. It was the same great country where,as the George Washington pulled him into New York Harbour, Freud supposedly  remarked to Carl Jung, who accompanied him, “They do not realize that we are bringing them the plague”.

The assumption of Bernays and of the commercial and advertising public relations he created is still the positivist one: to create a feeling of pleasure (or self-esteem) and then connect an object, a role, a person or a symbol to that same perception of pleasure – in such a way that, as Pavlov  taught us, the human brain can do without the real object and is activated anyway when a sign or a symbol is triggered off.

In fact, contemporary society is the one that has raised the symbol to the rank of primary object of the exchange, the Ersatz, the symbolic substitute, which is much more sold and valued than the real object.

This is the reason why politics has currently taken up the same methods as marketing and advertising. Indeed, it is currently pure commercial communication and distribution of substitutes.

In fact, Bernays used to say that for his professional practice in the US companies he had used both his uncle Sigmund’s theories and Le Bon’s psychology of crowds, as well as the “conditioned reflex” theory of Ivan Petrovic Pavlov, who had won the Nobel prize in Medicine in 1904.

Currently, however, the situation is very different: the political and commercial messages are too many to be perceived according to the typical advertising criteria, while the signals of the ruling class and politicians are all processed according to the same paradigm.

This further confuses the end user of the message, of the sign created by mass communication.

Being recognizable in the emotional marketing arena has become very difficult.

As De Saussure taught us, a sign is composed of an inseparable link between signifier and signified.

Currently political communication tends to change the signifier by artificially maintaining the original meaning.

As said by Neuliep, one of the most interesting experts of mass habits in our time, culture provides the aptitudes and general attitudes that prompt behaviours.

Hence all contemporary cultures are like icebergs: a small visible part, and a shadow area accounting for almost nine-tenths of “culture”, but obviously in the anthropological sense of the word.

Deep values are the hidden part, the data that unconsciously rationalizes behaviours.

Hence, using the terminology of “affective contagion”, “culture” is the collective programming of the mind.

Marketing, the psychology of Public Relations (PR), always comes from a cultural context and expands its limits, by confirming the socially good behaviours (i.e, those “within” the cultural group) and punishing those that push us outside the group.

This means that the “bad” behaviours are those which  deviate from De Saussure’s artificial link between signifier and signified of a cultural value.

In the analysis of advertising and public relations experts, however, modern cultures are divided according to some standard models, which also apply to the individuals belonging to very different cultures at social and geographical levels.

There is the model of “distance from power” or that of the contrast between “individualism” and “collectivism”. There is also the clash between masculinity and femininity and finally the concept of “aversion to uncertainty”.

Furthermore there is the dimension between dynamism and long-term orientation.

Whoever can play this keyboard of original and culturalized feelings well together has the destiny of  peoples in his/her hands – more or less like the Pied Piper of Hamelin who mastered the fate of the children who followed him attracted by the music he played.

Hence if the key to change behaviour is the pre-rational one – from Le Bon to contemporary marketing – emotional contagion is defined as the ability to influence the others’ feelings and behaviours directly or indirectly.

While commercial and political advertising and communication have always been characterized explicitly in relation to the context of each culture, emotional contagion tends to change the mass of the cognitive iceberg which is below sea level.

Emotional contagion eliminates the separation between marketing and politics, between politics and affective and private communication, between the symbols of the Ego and those of the group.

As also Charles Darwin maintained, at evolutionary level emotional contagion serves to synchronize our emotions with others’ and to express our primary needs, which are processed by the limbic system and by the hippocampus of our brain.

Furthermore, if we study some current mass political phenomena, in addition to the rallies and demonstrations already studied by Le Bon, we can better understand the issue.

The “Arab Springs”, in fact,were a political model in which feelings played a primary role, far beyond the classic and now outdated contrast between “reason” and “emotion”.

In that context, the Arab masses’ motivations were based precisely on the classic elements of the emotional system, namely fear, anger and pride.

Fear of repression, anger for the predictable reaction of the Authority, namely the wounded or symbolically dead Leader, pride for being the only ones who know the Truth.

A model that applies to all revolutions, regardless of their being political, violent or symbolic and all played on communication.

These are the three categories that differentiate a new “culture” from the old one, and which define the new group – in terms of values – compared to the original one of each single member of the “revolution”.

As the astronomical origin of the word suggests, revolution is a return and a new beginning. It is the end of time and Paradise Lost at the same time.

Hence each revolutionary culture presupposes its own reference group as a “paradise” – to use the current definition of the Egyptian young people in Tahrir Square during the insurgency against Mubarak.

Today, however, the emotional entrepreneur – as some scholars call him – tends to influence the emotions that shall be popular and to later set the moment in which they arise, as well as to finally control the way in which they are expressed.

The techniques for regulating emotions concern the management of duration, magnitude and efficacy of mass emotion.

There are three types of emotions, namely the subjective, the group and the collective emotions.

Every political actor – especially in the sphere of foreign policy – is an engineer of mass emotions.

How can we manipulate emotions?

It is not difficult: in a first phase the situations in which you can find masses are selected.

Stages, side events, serious or happy news about which  everyone talks, and obviously television – what you choose to communicate in the first place.

The issue mainly lies in avoiding the meeting or comparison between a political proposal and the opposite one.

This must be done not through pseudo-reasoning, but through objective situations that avoid contact with the Other.

There is also the change of situation, namely the time, location and the aesthetic and symbolic aspects of the meeting.

Here the feel good factor comes into play, the “paradise” about which the young people of Tahrir Square talked.

The situation must be fully emotional, while the leader, the emotional operator, enhances the positive emotions and puts the fears or emotions generated by his/her opponents aside.

When the perfect emotional situation is reached, the emotional entrepreneur creates a new direction to which people’s attention must be directed.

Once done it, a “cognitive change” of the candidate or of the party needs to be developed, so that people perceive them as “different” and alternative, with a view to later changing the emotional impact of the leader chosen.

A good “emotional” politician modulates the response, by changing the perceptive situation of that moment to emphasize the characteristics that should be more interesting for voters and groups.

In fact, voters behave differently based on their different emotional states.

The study of many presidential election campaigns in the United States has led to currently identify some categories that prompt voters’ emotions – and we have already partially mentioned them.

They are anger, fear, enthusiasm, pride and compassion.

Anger and Fear rarely work well, especially on television; Enthusiasm always works well, while Pride and Compassion depend on the acting ability of the politician, who is the  emotional entrepreneur par excellence.

As we may easily remember, this happened in the Balkan wars, with all the local parties on the field that managed only Fear and Anger together, by trying to divert them towards the Enemy.

Indeed, without an Enemy, there is no politics -in fact,  politics is war by other means.

The “cognitive change”, which is used to select the useful feelings for the leader, is mainly a technique to weaken negative emotions.

The anxiety generated by the proposed changes, however,  can be manipulated by the opponent, as well as exaggerated and changed in order to make the leader under attack less reliable and less “mythical”.

With a view to avoiding this situation, the emotional entrepreneur can deny the opponent’s claims or make them marginal.

The classic techniques are the following: to declare oneself to be the target of “injustice”; to create a new identity of the emotional group and to develop new symbols.

In the past, affective reactions were evolutionarily useful.

In fact, they served to attract the attention of every member of the species to a cataclysm or to a new existential threat (a political theme, even today).

Moreover, according to some economists, the immediate reaction catalysed by emotions served to immediately communicate to everyone the real size and relevance of the problem and hence established immediate collaboration among individuals.

This means that the emotional contagion is very similar to financial contagion: we take our investment away from  company X, thus waiting for everyone to follow suit.

Fear drives us, but all the feelings and emotions we have at that moment never depend on the amount of real news we know.

If politics is manipulated feelings and sentiment, there is no objective data that can change a behaviour.

In this respect, if we look at the Italian and European immigration policies, we can confirm our model: fear, fear of the Other; other EU Member States’ behaviours; identity building based on pride and finally creation of a new collective imagination, be it immigrationist or contrary to the “invasion” from the South.

Or we may also accept the perceptions – disguised as thoughts – of some market actors who have already conquered a role, prestige and power.

It happens in financial crises and also in the political arena, which now imitates the dialectic between economic forces on the “market”, regardless of its being financial or political.

Hence we can sum up by saying that the emotional contagion stems from the Leader’s figure and symbolic ability, as well as from the narrative he/she proposes, which builds an imaginary world, just like a novel, and finally from the amount of support for his/her project.

A Leader is such only with a group, and the other way round.

The size of the group, however, always determines the Leader’s power.

Another aspect not to be overlooked is that – both in the case of old-fashioned politics and of current propaganda through social media – the symbolic relevance and the evocative power of a fact are essential, at electoral level, for using that fact as propaganda.

Nevertheless the evocative and symbolic power is built ex post and it is not present in the fact itself.

Currently, however, the Leader is – in himself/herself – a critical and endangered factor.

The slogan “One is one” is the current dogma of all contemporary politics, not of a single movement.

If it is only a matter of prompting emotions and symbols, there is no need for the rational development of political  discourse- hence all elites die and every “citizen” is the place of all powers.

Not even Rousseau would have gone that far.

Therefore, nowadays,we need propaganda politics that follows the old criteria, but eclipses the Leader, by making him/her polymorphic and devoid of apparent identity.

Today the Leader is like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a man full of ambitions but dominated by very strong dark and evil powers, who fulfils his destiny while the infernal prophecy of the three witches comes true:

“And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,

The instruments of darkness tell us truths,

Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s

In deepest consequence”.

This was stated by Banquo in Macbeth, but any skilful political analyst could say so.

Giancarlo Elia Valori
Giancarlo Elia Valori
Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is a world-renowned Italian economist and international relations expert, who serves as the President of International Studies and Geopolitics Foundation, International World Group, Global Strategic Business In 1995, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem dedicated the Giancarlo Elia Valori chair of Peace and Regional Cooperation. Prof. Valori also holds chairs for Peace Studies at Yeshiva University in New York and at Peking University in China. Among his many honors from countries and institutions around the world, Prof. Valori is an Honorable of the Academy of Science at the Institute of France, Knight Grand Cross, Knight of Labor of the Italian Republic, Honorary Professor at the Peking University