The Situationist

Deep Capture – Part IX

Posted by Jon Hanson on March 11, 2008

This is the ninth part of a series on what Situationist Contributor David Yosifon and I call “deep capture.” The most basic prediction of the “deep capture” hypothesis is that there will be a competition over the situation (including the way we think) to influence the behavior of individuals and institutions and that those individuals, groups, entities, or institutions that are most powerful will win that competition.

Previous posts in this series (which are summarized at the bottom of this entry), reviewed a sample of the evidence indicating that pro-commercial dispositionism has been widely accepted as the presumptive starting place for policy analysis. Many administrative regulators, judges, and legal scholars, like most consumers–from cigarette smokers, to investors, to television-news enthusiasts–take dispositionism as the obvious truth. Implicitly, we have also reviewed one of the most common and effective strategies for promoting pro-commercial views. Before explicitly naming that strategy, it may be helpful to return briefly to the Milgram experiments and some variations of the rendition that we described above.

(Situationist artist Marc Scheff is providing the primary illustrations in this series.)

* * *

With numbing regularity good people were seen to knuckle under the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe. Men who are in everyday life responsible and decent were seduced by the trappings of authority, by the control of their perceptions, and by the uncritical acceptance of the experimenter’s definition of the situation, into performing harsh acts. . . . A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.

~Stanley Milgram

* * *

After discovering the unexpected power of the situation in his initial experiment, Milgram altered the situation in the hope of making visible some of the previously unseen influences. One of the key factors he varied was the credibility or authority of the person who gave orders to the teacher. In the basic experiment, recall that the person prompting the teacher to continue shocking appeared as a scientist, complete with a white lab coat. He seemed to have considerable knowledge and authority. When Milgram replaced that “experimenter” with an “ordinary man” to give the orders, the percentage of teachers who administered the maximum shock (450 volts) dropped from approximately sixty-five percent to twenty percent. Apparently, the same words were less persuasive or influential when they came from a less credible or authoritative source. In addition, when Milgram replaced the one lab-coated experimenter with two lab-coated authorities who gave contradictory orders, the complete compliance percentage dropped to zero. In that variation, teachers could more easily justify ending the shocking because one person with authority was encouraging them to do so. Those and other variations help make clear that the credibility of the messenger is often more important than the message itself.This underscores an important element of the deep capture hypothesis: the quest to promote certain ideas will include an endeavor to locate, create, and sponsor credible means of conveying those ideas. Often, those with the greatest stake in an idea have, for precisely that reason, questionable credibility when speaking on behalf of the idea. Thus, the search for an effective means of communication often includes a search for trustworthy spokespeople. The public relations firm Burson-Marsteller makes the point in just those terms when it describes its primary strategy as that of “having [one's] messages . . . communicated through a credible third party” in order to “influenc[e] those who influence a targeted audience.”Berman and Company emphasizes that the “key” to its success “is getting the most credible messengers to carry the strongest messages.” To access such credible messengers, Berman and Company developed what it calls an “academic research network:”

We commission more than a dozen major research projects each year to independent academics at leading research universities, including:
• University of Chicago
• Florida State University
• University of Texas
• Johns Hopkins University
• University of Wisconsin
• Massachusetts Institute of Technology//
• University of North Carolina
• University of California, Los Angeles
• Boston University
• Michigan State University
The credibility of the material produced by these independent researchers is unparalleled among “brand name” trade associations, law firms, or consultants active in the public policy arena.

Berman and Company relies on several other tactics to create favorable, credible third-party messengers for its clients:

Sometimes, the best messengers are line managers from affected employers. We have more than a decade of experience building and maintaining sophisticated grassroots activation systems through which managers can have maximum impact with a minimal investment of time. CEOs of major employers, working in teams managed by Berman and Company, repeatedly deliver powerful messages to key legislators and the White House. Whether drawing industry allies from associations, think tanks, or the private sector, Berman and Company reaches out to potential allies on a daily basis, providing data, information, and refined messages that others use to make their cases–and ours–in the policy arena. Our clients benefit when more allies use our research and repeat our messages. When Berman and Company publishes research from independent academics, we craft our publicity efforts so that the authors’ credibility shines in the legislative spotlight.
Sometimes, uncommon allies can get more attention than “traditional” spokespersons. Our staff has developed strong ties to individuals who are often perceived as “anti-industry” but who agree with focused messages that we seek to publicize.

To aggressively disseminate the credible third-party messages, Berman and Company attempts to “design unique programs for maximum impact in the debate . . . [and to] stick with the issue for as long as it takes to win.” Those programs include creating and maintaining “web sites that constantly elicit the ‘Wow!’ factor from users.”, discussed above, is an example of that creative approach. To “change the debate,” that Web site seeks to expose and resist “the Nanny Culture”–”the growing fraternity of’food cops,’ health care enforcers, militant activists, meddling bureaucrats, and violent radicals who think they ‘know what’s best for you”‘–”and protect consumer choices.”

The same basic principle was at work in the Galileo story: the Catholic Church dealt with Galileo’s threatening astronomical views by having its own worldview “communicated through” Galileo’s recantation. Likewise, the principle seems to underlie Stigler’s basic shallow capture message: institutions or groups with the requisite power employ the legitimacy of regulators to advance their own interests.

* * *

Part I of this series explained that our “deep capture” story is analogous to the (shallow) capture story told by economists (such as Nobel laureate George Stigler) and public choice theorists for decades regarding the competition over prototypical regulatory institutions. Part II looked to history (specifically, Galileo’s recantation) for another analogy to the process that we claim is widespread today — the deep capture of how we understand ourselves. Part III picked up on both of those themes and explains that Stigler’s “capture” story has implications far broader and deeper than he or others realized. Part IV examined the relative power (measured as the ability to influence situation) of large commercial interests today, much like the power of the Catholic Church in Galileo’s day. Part V described other parallels between the Catholic Church and geocentrism, on one hand, and modern corporate interests and dispositionism, on the other. Part VI laid out the “deep capture hypothesis” a bit more and began loosely testing it by examining the role that it may have played in the “deregulatory” movement. Part VII provided some illustrative examples of how atypical “regulators,” from courts to hard-hitting news networks, reflect and contribute to deep capture. Part VIII contrasted different cultures for evidence of commercial interests in promoting dispositionism.

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2 Responses to “Deep Capture – Part IX”

  1. [...]  (For those of you interested in the most recent post, which contains links to the earlier posts, here it is.)  They write, “[T]oday we have an extremely powerful institutional force with an immense stake [...]

  2. [...] dispositionism has been widely accepted as the presumptive starting place for policy analysis. The previous post in this series described the strategy of relying on credible third-party messengers. This post [...]

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