العربية

How one individual can influence your opinion

WGS001B19 How one individual can influence your opinion Shutterstock 637095478
WGS001B19 How one individual can influence your opinion Shutterstock 637095478

How easy is it to spot people who are telling the truth in a world where disinformation has become a tool of statecraft?

How do you discern what’s really going on when “fake news” is a criticism levelled against anyone who expresses an opposing view?

That we find these issues so tricky is perhaps partly explained by a new study that suggests that the magnetism of one person can make entire groups disregard facts. And they will continue to disregard them no matter how ignorant such figureheads are of what they are talking about, nor how strong the evidence against them is.

Insight or no-sight?

The University of California Santa Barbara study looked at the reality of group dynamics using a mathematical model to measure how personal influence works.

The study found that how open or closed individuals are to having their opinion swayed depended on how familiar they are with the topic being discussed. Group tests showed those who knew a subject well were unlikely to be swayed, while those unfamiliar with it could be manipulated by someone who merely appeared to be authoritative.

Co-author Francesco Bullo, a professor of mechanical engineering, says: “There are two things at play. There is the scientific logic, a rational way with actual numbers that say ‘this is the truth’, and then there are people who don’t understand the method or who say ‘I don’t believe the method or the outcome’.”

Who’s the leader?

The question over who dominates a group also has important implications for workplaces, students and policy-making forums. If one person is too dominant their view can lead to “group think”, or be based on inaccurate information, or not be up with changing events.

For example, studies of group dynamics by the University of Washington suggest the outcomes of group project work can be affected by a dominant personality.

Students were split into single or “jigsaw” groups, each given three assignments during an introductory biology class.

In the single-group activity, students jointly completed a worksheet with the same people throughout, while those in the jigsaw groups were assigned different sections of the worksheet to do with different people.

The jigsaw group appeared to result in more collaboration, with participants 67% less likely to report that someone was dominant. Those that did report dominant personalities fared worse than those who expressed no concerns.

While groups’ ethnicity and gender were not part of the study, international and Asian-American students were six times more likely to report someone dominated the group than white Americans.

Lessons from history

The past offers insights into what can happen on a global level if one person is trusted on a subject despite others knowing more about it.

In 1964, the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident involved a controversial and misleading official account of a naval encounter between North Vietnamese and US naval vessels. As a result of this account, President Lyndon B Johnson asked Congress to support a resolution allowing the US to support South-East Asian countries threatened by “communist aggression”.

Despite opposition from Senator Wayne Morse, who was tipped off that the US naval account was untrue, representatives backed Johnson, a move that contributed to the Vietnam war.

Whom do you trust?

Numerous lessons from history indicate the need for states to educate citizens about how they can decide who or what is – or is not – trustworthy via better science, maths, civics, history and philosophy classes.

Increasingly people are being asked to make up their minds about a host of complex questions, on everything from climate change to how whole economies are run – even though they know little about them. [LINK TO WGS REFERENDUM PIECE]

Thanks to the internet, the ability of powerful, charismatic personalities to mislead the public by blending emotive rhetoric with selected facts has never been greater – but the internet can also be the source of knowledge that can dispel such distortions if people choose to look.

And the need to start educating citizens now has never been greater. As University of California researcher Friedkin observes: “A person can be highly charismatic, but ignorant. The charisma or authority position may outweigh expertise.”