The Dark Magic of Communication – How We Manipulate Others: Christopher Cummings (Transcript)

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.

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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.

So, it doesn’t happen very often and when it does happen, the consequences aren’t that bad. So, this is what happens when you get a paper cut, right? It’s a very small risk, it’s not one that you typically read major headline news about. Right? It’s one that when the risk actually happens, you deal with it, you move on, you put a Band-Aid on, you go back to work. Doesn’t happen very often, doesn’t even hurt very much. The consequences aren’t very large.

However, we might have a low probability, high magnitude risk. Doesn’t happen very often, again, but when it does, it’s much more catastrophic. These are our airplane crashes. Right? These are things that are much more deadly but they still don’t happen very often.

And then we might have our high probability, low magnitude risk. Any allergy sufferers in the room? I’m with you. I have to take an allergy pill almost daily just so I don’t have the itchy watery eyes. Right? I’m even allergic to my dog. It’s not fair, right?

So, I take a pill and I move on with my life, right? The consequences aren’t that dire but they happen quite often. Right? I live with the animal. It sleeps on my bed, so I have to deal with it.

And then we have the high magnitude, high probability. And what’s interesting is that sometimes this particular type of risk doesn’t get as much coverage when we’re looking at health media as other types of risk. The high magnitude, high risk is cardiovascular disease. World Health Organization reports that cardiovascular disease kills more people than anything. More people than anything die from cardiovascular disease.

Yet it’s other things like airplane crashes that tend to get a lot of our attention, a lot of the coverage when we look at the media and that’s fascinating to me. And the reason why is because we need to revisit what we know about risk.

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In risk communication, we know that people don’t necessarily understand risks like experts do to just judge them on magnitude and probability. We add a whole new variable, all of us. And that variable tends to be outrage. It tends to be all of the other stuff, all of the emotional things that we bring to the table when we’re judging a risk.

And some of those we call Affect. And it’s what I want to talk about for the rest of the time that I have with you today is this concept of affect.

Now affect is the thing that happens to us whenever we confront a stimulus. Some other agent enters our lives, we have an instinctual and primal reaction. That’s affect. It’s the thing that drives us to understand and react and then form judgments about the thing that we confront.

Every organism has affect. So, you can imagine the jellyfish under the water. And I hit a rock. Okay, I’ll go this way. Oh, hit another rock, go back this way. Oh, found a nice tasty fish. Right? And I can eat that fish.

Well, what happens when the jellyfish bounces around in the ocean? It makes very quick primal sense out of what it’s bumping into, out of the stimuli. So, affect is a psychological and physical state that we go through and it’s one where we process primal emotions.

Now humans aren’t jellyfish. We’re a higher being. We have more complex emotions. This is the emotional color wheel that shows a lot of the emotions that we portray and go through in different times in our lives. And we have very complex emotions which are tough and is difficult to deal with.

Now for me, studying health and risk communication, I’m interested in basically one of these for the most part in my personal research. And the emotion that I look at when I’m dealing with investigating affect is the emotion of fear.

Fear is an incredibly powerful emotion and it’s an incredibly powerful affective state that we process… that number one, helps to keep us alive. Fear keeps us away from danger because it alerts us to danger well. Right? We can see the danger coming and choose to react appropriately.

But sometimes we don’t react in the right way. So, I want to, right here and now, have you all feel what that affect is like by confronting your very own fear message. You ready?

It worked. Now what just happened here? Because it’s a very interesting thing that just happened. Right? I jump out and go ‘ah’, the basic most primal fear message there is and every single person in the room had that affect of reaction. It didn’t just happen in your mind, it happened in your body as well.

And you go back and forth between the mind and body to make sense of what happened. The very first thing that happened was you jolted, right? You had that visceral reaction of fear.

And then you had a cognitive process to figure out what should I do with this fear now that I have this affect of fear state? And you kind of turned and you looked and you went ‘okay, am I at a safe place? Yes, this is a safe place. Okay, I can release the fear by laughing’. Right?

Now if I showed up in your bedroom at 3 in the morning tonight and I leapt out of the closet, you probably wouldn’t be laughing then. Right? It’s a tricky case. You have to understand what that fear means given the context.

And so, we see that fear is an incredible driver and it’s something that we can use effectively to communicate about health and risk but we can also see that sometimes it goes a little too far and sometimes we use fear when we shouldn’t.

There’s one very interesting historical case where in the UK, in the 80s, cow’s brains were eating the holes into themselves. Sounds very very scary, right? And the pictures are pretty gross. Basically, what was happening was cows were eating diseased food and because of it, the proteins in their brains were folding upon themselves and literally chewing holes through their own brains.

Now scientists said, ‘Well, we need to educate the public about this issue because there may, there may be a small chance that if people then eat that cattle, eat that beef that they too could have an associated disease’.

Now scientists had a name for it, they called it ‘Bovine spongiform encephalopathy’. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Right? It’s a mouthful. You win an award if you say it three times fast. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

Now when they started reporting about Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, they noticed that a lot of the public wasn’t really concerned about this disease called Bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Right? Why? Because it’s such a mouthful.

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There was a journalist, David Brown in 1990 who changed the term and he said, ‘You know, instead of describing what the disease is, we should describe what it does’ and he changed the term to ‘Mad cow disease’ which is how you all know the disease to be called.

What that did is, it provided a new touchstone that actually could elicit a different fear response among the public and they could then deal appropriately with their own emotion about it to make a decision about the risk.

Now interestingly, when press started coming out and demonstrating that yes, this disease might be dangerous and yes, it’s associated with another long sounding difficult disease called ‘Creutzfeldt-Jakob’ disease which affects humans in a very similar way, when we changed the name to mad cow disease, we saw people starting to pay attention and you saw people starting to pay attention in mass.

You saw people stopping buying beef, you saw people really angered about the issue, you saw people having protests about the issue and the like… and you saw it even spilling over into other sectors where it wasn’t just influencing beef but even other types of meat.

When we look at risks and we look specifically at how the public comes to understand risk, there are two sides. Both sides are wrong. That’s the sad part. There’s one potential true risk that’s the best understanding, the actual risk that we try to come close to in working with our scientists. Right? Our toxicologist, our epidemiologist, the like. Try to come up with this number, real risk, true risk, representative risk. That’s the line in the middle.

And unfortunately, when we are trying to communicate with the public, we oftentimes are combating with people being on either side of real risk and so, our job as communicators is to try and bring them back to closer to that real risk side.

So, we have on one side the attenuated risks. These are the risks that should be more feared by society and aren’t. For instance, radon. Radon is an odorless, tasteless, colorless gas that is radioactive and is known to cause lung cancer.

Same thing goes for high calorie diets. They are something that are everywhere in our societies nowadays and there’s something that needs to have a greater emphasis of fear upon in the public.

And then we have the other side, the amplified risks. Those are the risks that the public views as not risky or as risky but they shouldn’t be viewed as risky. They’re over amplified in their risk perceptions. And these are things like Y2K. If you lived through Y2K where they thought that the entire world was going to end when it… the clock struck midnight, changing into the year 2000.

I have a friend, his dad bought a house up in the mountains and packed it. Was ready to go just in case the world fell apart. And child kidnapping is another one. Where unfortunately, a lot of people are very concerned that strangers are going to kidnap your children.

When we look at the real data, your child is much more likely to be kidnapped by someone you know or an immediate family member. Alright, so these are different kinds of risks that are over amplified.

And it brings us back to a tough part about communication and risk communication where as Dr. Peter Sandman notes ‘One aspect of risk communication is figuring out how to scare people’. Right?

And then the next, and other component of risk communication is trying to get them to calm down again. And I think that understanding that people are purposefully and motivatedly trying to get your eyes, trying to get your attention through using fear lets you know that they’re trying to implement that third type of magic on you, that magic of control.

When you’re reading online and it says, ‘five things your teenage daughter is doing that could kill her’, these are the types of articles that are purposefully trying to get your eyes and get your body to align with what they’re saying through this type of fear message.

So, if you remember and understand that yes, people are indeed trying to use fear upon you, you can become a better communicator yourself by not using fear messages when you don’t think you need to, and by being able to protect yourself when other people are trying to put you under their spell.

Resources for Further Reading:

The 110 Techniques of Communication & Public Speaking: David JP Phillips (Transcript)

Louise Evans: Own Your Behaviours, Master Your Communication, Determine Your Success (Transcript)

Full Transcript: Pellegrino Riccardi on Cross Cultural Communication at TEDxBergen

Think Fast, Talk Smart Communication Techniques by Matt Abrahams (Full Transcript)