Thursday, May 01, 2008

Reagan, the Great Communicator (and how he got that way)

You know, I cannot believe that I never wrote about this before, and yet, I can't find anything about this in my blog... so I must have never gotten to it for some reason. Reagan was already beginning to show signs of senility in his first term and in fact spent a good deal of time watching his movies in the White House screen room. (Hey, stop getting cranky at me about this; in 1984, his marketing people bragged about how he hadn't done anything his first term and wasn't King Log better for us all?) I often wonder why it is that people who have a dogmatic hatred for Hillary Clinton and keep claiming that she was running the White House--a laughable assumption on the face of it--don't have the same vehemence for Nancy Reagan, who was in much more of a position of power, as witness her battles with George Schultz about policy issues. But I digress....

Okay, so, Reagan's out to lunch. His speeches at the time showed increasing signs of this: sentences without verbs, things that didn't make sense, recollections of things that didn't happen, and so on. My favorite of the latter was
at a lunch with a bunch of journalists when Ronnie made reference to how in WWII there were two crew members in a bomber that'd been shot up and was going down. One of the guys was seriously wounded and, IIRC, had no chute and encouraged his buddy to bail out and save himself. The buddy said that, no, he'd ride it down with him. Reagan then said "Congressional Medal of Honor, posthumous." A political journalist who was at this lunch looked up the stories of the CMOH winners and couldn't find anything that matched that. What it turned out Reagan was remembering was something from a war movie. Nice to have a president that's drifting in and out like that, but then, I never thought I'd miss Nixon, either. (Check it out: this was written up by Herblock in one of his last books.) But I digress, again....

Okay, so, Reagan's out to lunch. He couldn't articulate thoughts, he rambled, he was not all there... and yet in 1982, he got dubbed "The Great Communicator." How the hell could that have happened? Were the Republicans just that stupid that they could buy into this? As emotionally appealing an hypothesis as that is, the answer is "No." Here's what happened.

Once upon a time, there was a man named Milton H. Erickson. (Ed. note: this one's not a digression. Bear with me.) Milton Erickson was a fascinating man. He was crippled most of his life from childhood polio. One of the many amazing things he did was pioneering in the field of hypnosis. With the premise that inducing an hypnotic state is a function of confusing the mind a little so that it "stumbles" and then taking advantage of that stumble to keep it stumbling a little more and a little more, he was able to hypnotize people very quickly, even with a handshake.

How the heck do you hypnotize people with a handshake? We all know what to expect from a handshake in terms of timing, grip, sensation, and termination, so if you use random, slightly jerky, unexpected motions, additional finger touches, and odd timing of events, it throws people off.

You can also distract people by speaking word salad and throwing in unexpected carrot words that they aren't expecting. There's just a brief instant where your mind stumbles to process that unexpected word or phrase and then hurries to catch up. If you do this while making random, jerky body motions, you're assaulting someone's consciousness on the most two powerful levels: sight and sound. At that point, your mind's probably going to get completely confused and go off and sulk.

Ericksonian hypnosis techniques are teachable and, in fact, are taught by several schools. You can learn to do this. But some people are naturals at it (such as Milton Erickson himself). Hey, it happens.

What are the two things that Reagan impersonators copied most? His odd, random, jerky motions and his tendency to speak things that didn't always make sense. They SOUNDED like they made sense, but nope, they didn't reeeeeeally. Reagan wasn't trained in it and probably was totally unaware of it, but the boy was a natural Ericksonian hypnotist.

Okay, another point I need to raise. (I promise, we'll get where I'm trying to take you Real Soon Now.) Numerous studies have shown that when you get one side of the brain to do something, the other side, even without knowing about it, will come up with robust, articulate, even complex explanations for this behavior. This is easiest to show in studies with people who've been in accidents or had surgery where their brain hemispheres have been disconnected, but you can demonstrate part of this trait for yourself: put several unrelated items on a table, such as a lightbulb, a pineapple, a rubber duck, and a tea pot, then ask people "How are these things related?" They will bob and weave and wave their hands and they're going to come up with these really bizarre explanations. It's fun. And disturbing.

The point here is that people come up with explanations for the things they're perceiving and doing, even when there's no reason for those things whatsoever. Writers and tech support folks have to deal with this all the time, preventing opportunities for the users to embark on 'superstitious behavior' of some kind: "I won at Solitaire a lot over lunch and the accounting program didn't work right, so I never play Solitaire anytime before I'm going to run the accounting program." Humans are rationalizing animals. We just can't cope with things that aren't explained, even if they're TOTALLY random.

Okay, let's put this all together at long last: what's being in a hypnotic trance like? You feel warm, comfortable, and you are really, really, really focused on whatever the hypnotist is saying. Combined with another human trait of wanting to explain things, you have to come up with some explanation for what you were doing and you will leap through hoops that are on fire to rationalize all of this.

And lo! Reaganomics. "The Great Communicator." People running around going "Don't you hear the inspiring message?" ("No, what message?" "Well, uh... but it's really inspiring! I feel so GOOD! And America's wonderful!!")

The reason I didn't fall for this is that I wasn't glued to the TV slavishly sucking up Ronnie's words. (As I think back, I seem to recall hearing someone in the room saying "Die, you senile fuck!" for no particular reason.) Neither were a lot of other people who also thought that Ronnie was, in fact, a senile fuck. But it's only fair to say that this really and truly has nothing to do with party affiliation, although it's a shame for the world that it was someone who was as much of a social asshole as Reagan. But it could just as easily have been a Democrat, or a Socialist, or a Libertarian, or anyone. It's basic human programming that works right down around the brain stem level, so one's personal ideology has nothing to do with it.

Addendum, Jan 30, 2011: Great article on Reagan's legacy (oh, lucky, lucky, us!) here:


Evie said...

And if today's political candidates all chose to apply NLP techniques, we might have more civilized campaigning. I'm still staggering from the stupidity of the lies that all the candidates have tried to foist off on us, about things big and small. I wouldn't mind it so much if it made me feel warm and fuzzy.

Ealasaid said...

Wow, that was awesome. *thumbs up*