An insight into how propaganda and a good deal of culture works

I read a Wikipedia entry yesterday on what’s known as an information cascade.

An information cascade

occurs when people observe the actions of others and then make the same choice that the others have made, independently of their own private information signals. A cascade develops, then, when people “abandon their own information in favor of inferences based on earlier people’s actions”. (From the Wijipedia link above)

The way this relates to propaganda, including the softer, gentler kind employed in the West, can be found in point four below. These four points are the “four key conditions in an information cascade model:”

1. Agents make decisions sequentially
2. Agents make decisions rationally based on the information they have
3. Agents do not have access to the private information of others
4. A limited action space exists (e.g. an adopt/reject decision). (Ibid.; emphasis added)

The “limited action space” is the key to propaganda because it constitutes a false dichotomy that requires great strength for an individual to overcome. It’s much easier to accept whatever explanation is being offered by the state than to question it and run the risk of being called a kook or traitor. (“You’re either with us or with the terrorists,” as Bush famously said to support his war efforts.) This is remarkable because in many cases the only reasonable course of action is to want more information. How do we know for sure that Sadam has WMD? Where did that “yellow cake” information come from? Etc.

This same sort of “limited action space” relates to human culture and psychology in that all individual human beings embody thousands of results of “information cascades” determined by other members of their culture. We can call these results cultural mores, cultural beliefs or values, public semiotics, or most simply, the way things are done around here.

It takes enormous strength to question public semiotics but public semiotics unquestioned can cause enormous suffering, especially when they have major effects on interpersonal communication, which they always do.

The only way I know of to overcome this problem on an interpersonal level is to do FIML or something very much like it. The static, culturally engendered “information cascades” that lie in our heads and affect how we understand our loved ones are poison if they are not caught and observed carefully because each of them constitutes a “limited action space” that causes individuals to box each other in with profoundly mistaken interpretations.

Even a single instance can be serious. But many instances aggregated over the years almost always will lead to, if not interpersonal disaster, greatly reduced interpersonal communication and greatly reduced individual growth and happiness.

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