Full text of Christopher Cummings’ talk: The Dark Magic of Communication – How We Manipulate Others at TEDxNTU conference. Through this talk, Christopher unravels the magic behind communications, revealing to the audience the coercive trick of communication.
Listen to the MP3 audio here:
Christopher Cummings – Assistant Professor at NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information
Communication is a lot like magic.
Now our stories, our myths and our legends and our cultural histories teach us that magic can be used for good or evil, for benevolent purposes where we can try and improve the lives of others, or for more malicious intentions.
And I think that communication is actually quite similar. At its very best, communication can help us to demonstrate our love and our affection for one another. It’s communication that allows us to share our stories and our daily lives as we commune with our friends and our families.
And it’s communication that allows us to inspire others to come together, to face the most difficult challenges that we see in a generation.
However, there’s a dark side to communication. Communication can be used to foster injustice and breed intolerance. It can also work to improve the idea that hate is okay, and it can even be used to incite violence.
Now it’s my goal for our time together today to discuss how, yes, communication can be like magic, but to more importantly, understand the roles of communication, so that way we can improve our ability to be good communicators while also making sure that those who might use communication in a more malicious way don’t cast their spells upon us.
So, that’s our goals for today.
Now when I talk about communication being like magic, I really mean it. When we look back at all those stories and histories, magic typically takes one of three forms. The first type is a magic of creation. That’s where the magician might pull a rabbit out of a seemingly empty hat.
And then there’s the second form of magic: The magic of transformation. Like alchemy, turning lead into gold.
And the third type of magic that we see from our stories and our histories is a magic of control, where we can actually cast a spell and make others do our bidding for us.
And I see certain parallels when we talk about communication. The first one, when we’re talking about a magic of creating, I see that as communication itself. The basic conception of communication is to note that we might take an idea from our minds and be able to put that same idea in somebody else’s mind. Literally, create shared understanding. That’s pretty magical to me.
The second form, that magic of transformation. Well, that seems a lot like the actual physical process of communication as I see it. You see, when we actually want to communicate anything, we go through an incredibly elaborate process that it actually transforms the energy that we use to create this shared understanding.
So, when I have an idea in my head that I want to share, my brain sends an electrical signal down to many parts of my body and more than 100 muscles are actually involved in me producing speech sounds.
And these muscles don’t just fire at random, they have to fire in perfect harmony. And in doing so, they create pressure that pushes air up out of my lungs and that air travels up to my larynx and through my vocal cords where I shape the volume and pitch of my words.
And that air goes further forward and is shaped further by my tongue, my lips, my jaw, even my nasal passages, all play a role in producing those vowel and consonant sounds.
And what started as an electrical impulse in my brain, suddenly travels out to all of you as sound waves. It’s been transformed. And those sound waves travel out and they hit those big beautiful satellite dishes of ears that you have on the sides of your head and those satellite dishes of ears funnel those sound waves down as vibrations and those vibrations hit your eardrum and they go and hit those three tiny bones that you might remember from your seventh-grade science class: The hammer, the anvil and the stirrup, right?
And it goes to your inner cochlea, which magically or seemingly magically transforms those vibrations back into an electrical impulse that travels along your auditory nerve and hits your brain and poof, we have shared understanding. From my brain to yours, we’re able to see this magic of transformation.
Now it’s the third form of magic that I really want to talk to you all about today. In our histories, we talked about this idea of a magic of control, right? Hypnotism, in this full form where we can put you under a spell and get you to do exactly what we want you to do.
And for me, as a health communicator and a risk communicator, I’m fascinated in the idea that communication can be like this magic of control, that there are things we can do with communication that might actually get you to barely even think about what you’re doing and instead act on a greater impulse.
Let’s put it to the test. I’m going to give you a classic test that was developed in the 1920s. On the next slide, you’re going to see two shapes. Your job is to tell me which shape should be called Boba and which shape should be called Kiki. You ready? Here we go.
All right, on three, I want everyone to yell out the name of the shape on the left. One, two, three. Kiki. That’s correct. And that makes the one on the right Boba.
Now how did I do that? Right? This is a classic test that shows that yes, I can predict exactly what’s in your heads already, right? Not fully. What this test helps to demonstrate for us is that all of our senses are connected to how we envision in the world. Right? To how we actually perceive and make decisions in real life. It’s called ‘synesthetic ideation.’ A big fancy word that notes that our senses are connected.
Now when you think about the pronunciation of the words, Boba and Kiki, you’ll note that Boba is a rounder sound, that you actually make a round shape with your mouth which parallels Boba, the amoeboid shaped image that’s on the side over here. Right?
And Kiki has a higher pitch and fall rate which generally makes you think about a shape that looks more spiky like our Kiki here. Fascinating.
Now we know that there’s not full 100% control for communication. The magic isn’t fully real, right? But it is still pretty powerful. And as a health and risk communicator, I’m really interested in the ways that we can potentially use communication to influence people to that next great degree.
Now I don’t want to scare you but I’m going to show you an algorithm. All right? This is the general risk algorithm that we use to actually calculate health risks. What it says is that risk is a function of magnitude times probability.
Now if we break that down, we’re actually looking at two basic variables: magnitude and probability. Magnitude is the likelihood or is the degree to which something can cause harm to you. The degree to which something can cause harm to you.
And probability is the likelihood that that thing might actually happen to you. So, we can actually grid this out and look across at some different things in the world and look at them and see what kind of risks are they. So, we might have a low probability, low magnitude risk.