I made a post on another thread but think it deserves a space of it's own. The latest New Scientist magazine has a great article on how and why people get taken in by con artists.
There is a great section on the use of emotive stories to gain mental traction. There have been numerous comments here that the depth of study and knowledge that Witnesses seemed to pride themselves on has been replaced by far more simplified content that appeals to the emotions, especially with the broadcasts and videos.
Instead of giving people strong faith through doctrines that are clear and defendable, weak doctrines are being whitewashed with emotive videos that tug on the heart strings. From the research presented in the article it would seem this simply mirrors proven techniques to gain the trust of people.
For those that don't have a subscription here is the section:
Spinning a good yarn
When psychologists Melanie Green and Timothy Brock decided to test the persuasive power of storytelling, they found that the more a tale transports us into its world, the more likely we are to believe it. In one study, Green and Brock gave volunteers different types of short story to read, which contained some omissions or parts that didn’t follow. For instance, “Murder at the Mall” is based on a true account of a Connecticut murder, in which a little girl called Katie is brutally killed in a busy shopping mall. Her assailant was a psychiatric patient let out on a day pass. After reading the story, participants answered a series of questions about the events, the characters, policies about psychiatric care, and the like. Then came the key question: were there any false notes in the narrative, any contradictory statements or things that didn’t make sense? Green and Brock called this “Pinocchio circling”. They devised a scale to measure how engrossed a reader was in the story and found that the more a tale transported people into its world, the more likely they were to believe it – and the fewer false notes they noticed.
What’s more, the most engaged readers were also more likely to agree with the beliefs the story implied, in this case relating to mental health policy. It didn’t matter what they believed before the story; the tale itself created a new, strong set of views. And that’s what Gibson’s story did. It shows that you can believe yourself to be a hard-nosed sceptic, only to learn of Gibson’s ordeal and say, “maybe there’s something to this”.
Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University in California, has observed a similar phenomenon in his work on the power of stories in our daily interactions. He has repeatedly found that nothing compels us to receptivity quite like an emotional, relatable narrative. In one study, Zak and his colleagues had people watch a film where a father talks about his child. “Ben’s dying,” the father says, as the camera pans to a carefree 2-year-old. Ben has a brain tumour that, in a matter of months, will end his life, he says. But he has resolved to stay strong for the sake of his family. The camera fades to black. Watching the film prompted about half of the viewers to donate money to a cancer charity.
Why? Zak monitored people’s neural activity as they watched the film, specifically the levels of certain hormones. Many of them released oxytocin, a hormone that has been associated with empathy, bonding and sensitivity to social cues. Studies show that when people release this hormone they reliably donate to a stranger or charity even when there is no pressure to do so.
Then Zak changed the story. Now Ben and his dad were at the zoo. Ben was bald. His dad called him “miracle boy”. But there was no real story arc and no unequivocal mention of cancer or of the boy’s chances of survival. The people who watched this film were less engrossed, their oxytocin levels remained low and they donated little or no money.
Narratives like Ben’s, and Gibson’s, are particularly strong because they appeal to your emotions, rather than logic, and emotion is the key to empathy. It causes our brains to release oxytocin, making us more generous – with our money, our time, our trust, ourselves. The better the story, the more we give. The better the con artist, the better the story.
So as much as we would love to call Gibson an outlier, that’s simply not true. As long as we continue to be swept up by emotional stories, of tales of redemption, of overcoming odds, there will be a Belle Gibson ready and waiting. After all, what’s better than a good story?