Evolutionary Basis of Propaganda


Our species differs from other mammalian species in a number of important ways: bipedalism, reduced body hair, sweat glands in skin, hands with flexible fingers and opposable thumbs, omnivorous, large brain, high intelligence, multi-organ speaking apparatus, awareness of selfhood combined with highly developed social awareness. For years, scientists have debated the relative importance of these characteristics, and their probable sequence of evolutionary appearance. Why are we different from the other animals? Easy questions with, as yet, no conclusive answers.

Two-time Pulitzer prize winner E.O. Wilson, in his controversial 2012 book “The Social Conquest of Earth,” argues for the critical importance of our ability to cooperate with other members of our species. Our socialness is an ability, a desire, a source of great personal satisfaction, and first and foremost a necessity for our individual and species survival. Only the social insects (ants, bees, termites) developed comparable high levels of social organization involving thousands, or millions, of members. But they are small bodied, small brained organic robot-like creatures guided almost entirely by instinct. Humans are large bodied, large brained with individual consciousness, capable of independent thought, emotion and behavior.

Humans did not evolve within the mass societies we see today. For millions of years, our ancestors lived within small bands of 10-200 members. These bands were eusocial: multiple generations prone to perform altruistic acts as part of their division of labor. The group protected and nurtured individuals, the individuals defended and supported their group; the origin of “One for all and all for one.” Over the millennia their young took longer to reach maturity, while the necessary learned tactics of survival increased in number and complexity. Band-living enhanced the probability of individual survival, mate-finding, and the rearing of young. In natural selection, the successful production of young is the definition of evolutionary success.

The importance of group living meant that factors promoting group cohesion were reinforced by natural selection; factors acting against group cohesion were selected against. Such cohesion-building factors included: communication, larger brains, speech apparatus, sensitive fingers, comforting touch, expressive facial and bodily gestures, and various emotions including affection, shame, disgust, envy, desire to cooperate, empathy, sadness, and the desire to communicate and improve communication skills.

Out of simple communication signals developed the symbolic sounds we call words; our ancestor’s speech and thought became ever more complex. Communication meant speakers, listeners, the sharing of thoughts and emotions, and giving direction and following direction. In emergencies, rapid obedience can be necessary for individual and group survival.

We have now reached the biological basis for the effectiveness of propaganda.

Some psychological researchers have suggested that “…to comprehend a statement, people must at least temporarily accept it as true. On this view, belief is an inevitable consequence of – or, indeed, precursor to – comprehension.” [1]

While suspension of belief during listening is possible, it requires: a high degree of attention, considerable implausibility of the message, or high levels of distrust while listening. Typically the deck is stacked towards acceptance, not rejection, unless other factors suggest the speaker’s untrustworthiness. Going beyond this acceptance default requires additional motivation and cognitive resources. [1]

When people do thoughtfully evaluate the truth value of information, they are likely to attend to a limited set of features:

  • Is this information compatible with other things I believe to be true?
  • Is the information internally coherent, do they form a plausible story?
  • Does it come from a credible source?
  • Do other people believe it? [1]

This evolutionary need for communication among human band-members, and the default mode of belief to gain comprehension is all that is necessary for propaganda to be effective. People need not be stupid, gullible, weak-willed, foolish or ill-intentioned to be persuaded by applied propaganda. They need simply be normal, average members of society. What they must not be is especially attentive, skeptical, distrustful, or motivated to analyze the statements, and they must not possess additional cognitive resources supportive of suspension of belief.

This is why this website is focused on supplying “additional cognitive resources.”  We determined that the first principle of defeating propaganda is to recognize propaganda as it occurs, and the best and easiest way of doing this is to learn the fundamental principles of propaganda which propagandists use to actualize their ill-intentions. We believe that the easiest, cheapest and fastest way to get these principles into the hands of those now treading water in a sea of propaganda is with our pocket-sized set of principles. These principles are available on the download page of this website, and we give them to all participants of our live presentations.

Learn the principles, carry them with you, and recognize them when used, and you need never be swayed by them again. We have used this extremely simple method for over ten years. By knowing them, we recognized before the first Republican debate the danger posed by Donald Trump, the likelihood that he would win the nomination, and the possibility that this public menace would become president. Most political reporters or pundits still fail to appreciate his mastery of the principles of propaganda, and sit bemused by his other peculiarities.

[1] Lewandowsky, Stephan, Ecker, Ullrich K.H., Seifert, Colleen M., Schwarz, Norbert & Cook, John (2012). Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Vol. 13(3), 106-131

The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson, Edward O. (2012). New York, W.W. Norton & Company
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