The psycholinguistics of propaganda: mechanisms of subjugation and how to challenge them
Keywords:ascriptive definitions, disinformation, essentialism, generics, propaganda
This paper reviews current research on the oppressive and dehumanizing use of language by those in political power to promote essentialist thought about oppositional groups, including during the war in Ukraine. Essentialism is the implicit belief that categories of people–those of certain ethnicities or nationalities, for example–have intrinsic, immutable properties, driven by some deep, unobservable, and often deterministic causal essence. There is robust evidence that cross-culturally, both young children and adults sometimes employ an essentialist heuristic when reasoning about cultural traits, and that they see others’ traits as being less mutable than their own. Strikingly, though, cultures vary drastically in the particulars and extent of this cultural essentialism. Thus, it seems clear that cultural input can to some degree either exploit or overwrite a tendency toward cultural essentialism, with language being an especially powerful mechanism. In this paper, I demonstrate ways that language is intentionally used by those with political power to promote essentialist thought and to justify violence. In particular, I highlight use of generic language, ascriptive definitions, and the language of opposites within propaganda. I end with consideration of ways to be responsive to instances of propaganda within our own communities and as global citizens, such as through pro-social repurposing of the linguistic tools that have been used destructively, promoting nuance through the use of differentiated language, and by capitalizing on an intuitive human belief in essential goodness and desire for truth.
Deepest gratitude to Alexander Barhavin for translating the abstract from English into Ukrainian.
Berg, J.A. ( 2015). Explaining attitudes toward immigrants and immigration policy: A review of the theoretical literature. Sociology Compass, 9(1), 23–34. https://doi.org/10.1111/soc4.12235
Casarez, R.S. 2020. This land is (not) your land: Racial boundaries and ascripted Americanness in the formation of attitudes about immigrants. The Sociological Quarterly, 63(1), 114-133. https://doi.org/10.1080/00380253.2020.1804813
Devos, T. & Mohamed, H. (2014). Shades of American identity: Implicit relations between ethnic and national identities. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 8(12), 739–54. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12149
Diesendruck, G. & Haber, L. (2009). God's categories: The effect of religiosity on children's teleological and essentialist beliefs about categories. Cognition, 110(1), 100–114.
Ecker, U. K. H., Lewandowsky, S., Fenton, O., & Martin, K. (2014). Do people keep believing because they want to? Preexisting attitudes and continued influence of misinformation. Memory and Cognition, 42(2), 292-304. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2008.11.001
Gelman, S. A. (2003). The essential child: Origins of essentialism in everyday thought. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gelman, S.A. & Tardif, T. (1998). A cross-linguistic comparison of generic noun phrases in English and Mandarin. Cognition, 66(3), 215-248. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0010-0277(98)00021-3
Gil-White, F. J. (2001). Are ethnic groups biological "species" to the human brain? Essentialism in our cognition of some social categories. Current Anthropology, 42(4), 515–554. https://doi.org/10.1086/321802
Hirschfeld, L. A. & Gelman, S. A. (1997). What young children think about the relationship between language variation and social difference. Cognitive Development, 12, 213-238. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0885-2014(97)90014-9
Hirschfeld, L.A. (1998). Natural assumption: Race, essence, and taxonomies of human kinds. Social Research, 65, 331-349.
Keller, J. & Andersen, H. (2002). The Jew as Criminal (R. Belser, Trans.). JRBooksOnline. Original work published in 1937. Retrieved from https://www.jrbooksonline.com/PDF_Books/TheJewAsCriminal.pdf.
Leslie, S.J. (2017). The original sin of cognition: Fear, prejudice and generalization. The Journal of Philosophy, 114(8), 1-29. Retrieved from https://www.princeton.edu/~sjleslie/The%20original%20sin%20of%20cognition%20upd010518.pdf
Mahalingam, R. (2007). Essentialism, power, and the representation of social categories: A folk sociology perspective. Human Development, 50, 300–319. https://doi.org/10.1159/000109832
Matthes, J., Kaskeleviciute, R., Schmuck, D., von Sikorski, C., Klobasa, C., Knupfer H., & Saumer, M. (2020) Who differentiates between Muslims and Islamist terrorists in terrorism news coverage? An actor-based approach. Journalism Studies, 21(15), 2135-2153. https://doi.org/10.1080/1461670X.2020.1812422
Moty, K., & Rhodes, M. (2021). The Unintended Consequences of the Things We Say: What Generic Statements Communicate to Children About Unmentioned Categories. Psychological Science, 32(2), 189–203. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797620953132
Mumford, S. (1998). Dispositions. In The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Taylor and Francis. Retrieved 7 Dec. 2022 from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/ dispositions/v-1. doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N116-1
Pauker, K., Ambady, N., & Apfelbaum, E. P. (2010). Race salience and essentialist thinking in racial stereotype development: Racial stereotype development. Child Development, 81(6), 1799–1813. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01511.x
Reich, T. & Tormala, Z. L. (2013). When contradictions foster persuasion: An attributional perspective. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(3), 426-439. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2013.01.004
Reiter, N. & Frank, A. (2010). Identifying generic noun phrases. Proceedings of the 48th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics, (40-49). Retrieved from https://aclanthology.org/P10-1005.pdf
Rhodes, M. & Gelman, S. A. (2009). A developmental examination of the conceptual structure of animal, artifact, and human social categories across two cultural contexts. Cognitive Psychology, 59, 244-274. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogpsych.2009.05.001
Rhodes, M., Leslie, S.-J., & Tworek, C. M. (2012). Cultural transmission of social essentialism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(34), 13526–13531. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1208951109
Rose, D. & Nichols, S. (2019). Teleological essentialism. Cognitive Science, 43(4), e12725. https://doi.org/10.1111/cogs.12725
Rosenberg, M. (1981). The self-concept: Social product and social force. In M. Rosenberg & R. H. Turner (Eds.), Social Psychology in Sociological Perspectives (pp. 593-624). New York: Basic Books.
Rucker, D. D., Petty, R. E., & Briñol, P. (2008). What's in a frame anyway? A meta-cognitive analysis of the impact of one versus two sided message framing on attitude certainty, Journal of Consumer Psychology, 18(2), 137-149. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcps.2008.01.008
Saul, J. M. (2017). Are generics especially pernicious? Inquiry. An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy. https://doi.org/10.1080/0020174X.2017.1285995
Simonsen, K. B. (2016). How the host nation’s boundary drawing affects immigrants’ belonging. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 42(7), 1153–76. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369183X.2016.1138854
Smiley, C. & Fakunle, D. (2016). From "brute" to "thug:" The demonization and criminalization of unarmed Black male victims in America. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 26(3-4), 350-366. https://doi.org/10.1080/10911359.2015.1129256
Tessler, M. H. & Goodman, N. D. (2019). The language of generalization. Psychological Review, 126(3), 395–436. https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000142
Valentino, N.A. & Brader, T. (2011). The sword's other edge: Perceptions of discrimination and racial policy opinion after Obama. Public Opinion Quarterly, 75(2), 201–226. https://doi.org/10.1093/poq/nfr010
von Sikorski, C., Schmuck, D., Matthes, J., Klobasa, C., Knupfer, H., & Saumer, M. (2022). Do journalists differentiate between Muslims and Islamist terrorists? A content analysis of terrorism news coverage. Journalism, 23(6), 1171–1193. https://doi.org/10.1177/1464884921990223.
Wylegała, A. & Głowacka-Grajper, M. (2020). The Burden of the Past: History, Memory, and Identity in Contemporary Ukraine. United States: Indiana University Press.
Dixon, R. (2022, February 21). In long speech, Putin recognizes two Ukrainian regions as independent, a potential pretext for war. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/02/21/putin-speech-ukraine/
McArdle, M. (2021, March 27). The numbers undercut myths about mass shootings and White men. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/03/27/numbers-undercut-myths-about-mass-shootings-white-men/
Narayanaswami, K. (2011). Analysis of Nazi propaganda. Retrieved from https://blogs.harvard.edu/karthik/files/2011/04/HIST-1572-Analysis-of-Nazi-Propaganda-KNarayanaswami.pdf
Perrigo, B. (2022, February 22). How Putin’s denial of Ukraine’s statehood rewrites history. Time. Retrieved from https://time.com/6150046/ukraine-statehood-russia-history-putin/
Peterson, J. (2021). A multi-level, multi-method investigation of the psycho-social life histories of mass shooters. Office of Justice Programs’ National Criminal Justice Reference Service, Document number 302101. Retrieved from https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/302101.pdf
Smith, D. L. (2021, November 3). The dehumanizing imagination. The Junkyard: A Scholarly Blog Devoted to the Study of the Imagination. Retrieved from https://junkyardofthemind.com/blog/2021/10/29/the-dehumanizing-imagination.
Spencer, R. (2014, December 17). Keynote address at the David Horowitz Freedom Center’s 20th Anniversary Restoration Weekend, Palm Beach, Florida. Retrieved from https://archive.ph/ooWIZ
Utley, G. (Moderator). (1989). Meet The Press. Retrieved from https://www.nbc.com/meet-the-press/video/garrick-utley-moderator-of-meet-the-press-1989-1991/NBCN995077759.
How to Cite
Copyright (c) 2022 Nora M. Isacoff
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.