Social Psychology – Persuasion and the BNP

December 12, 2008 at 8:43 pm (Good Science) (, , )

The BPS Research Digest has a post up on the tools of persuasion used by the BNP. Here is a link to the abstract of the paper in question. There is discussion of the accentuation effect and essentialism. These are two concepts that are new to me – so it would almost certainly be better to read what BPS and the study authors have to say for yourselves rather than my uninformed witterings (or as well as I suppose, if you’ve got the time – I’ll try to be brief). There is also, later in the BPS post, reference to a “show concession” – this reminded me of Cialdini because his book Influence – Science and Practice refers to this phenomenon (albeit under a different name).

Basically, the idea is to concede something unimportant or to merely appear to concede something. For an example of this tool of persuasion, Cialdini relates a story of a boy selling $5 tickets to an annual Boy Scout Circus. When Cialdini declined the offer of a ticket, the Boy Scout came back with “well, if you don’t want to buy any tickets, how about buying some of our chocolate bars? They’re only $1 each.” Cialdini duly purchased some chocolate bars and promptly realised that something of note had occurred – because, for one thing, he doesn’t like chocolate (Cialdini also points out that he does like dollars; that he (Cialdini) was standing there with two bars of chocolate; and that the Boy Scout was heading off with two of Cialdini’s dollars). This all comes under the reciprocity rule – we feel obliged to return favours and to make concessions when others offer make them for us. Here’s a quote from the BPS post on the BNP use of reciprocity:

Griffin also uses what the researchers describe as a “show concession” – making an apparent admission (e.g. “yes, we’re politically-incorrect”) before invoking a morally superior motive (e.g. “but at least we’re telling the truth”).

The concession is that they are willing to admit to a minor failing – but they then hit you with a plea that seems to imply what they are doing is for the greater good, that they have to be politically incorrect in order to tell you the truth. They give you a small concession in admitting to this minor failing, but ask for a larger concession from you – to concede that what they say is true. I think that if someone admits to something you can plainly see for yourself, you will tend to ignore the fact that what they have admitted to is obvious and will begin to think of them as being more trustworthy than you otherwise might have done.

This is a good example of why Social Psychology can be important. Racism is not a frivolous issue. Here’s why the authors wrote this paper:

“If social psychology is to offer suggestions as to how to reduce prejudice, it must also look at how to upset these malign sources of social influence,” the researchers said. “As many anti-racist campaigners have pointed out, opposing right-wing extremism requires us to have a detailed knowledge of their arguments, so that effective counter-arguments can be made.”

Essentially, they are telling you to ensure you ‘know your enemy’. This is something that is worth taking the time to do whether you are blogging about AltMed quackery, listening to politicians making a pitch for your vote, or buying something. Understanding the tricks they use can help you immensely.


The Mind Hacks blog has looked at Cialdini before and this blog has summarised The Psychology of Persuasion. I was introduced to Cialdini by Holford Watch and Oliver Burkeman and am grateful to both.



  1. Alex said,

    I think the reciprocity in the BNP case is actually a bit more complex – bit of a double edged sword. Had they said, “yes we’re racist, but we tell the truth” then I guess that would be straightforward reciprocity.

    The phrase “politically correct” has a currency all it’s own with the BNP/Daily Mail crowd. So it works on two levels, potentially offering reciprocity to people who are uncomfortable with blatant racism, and offering coded “we’re on your side re: all this PC rubbish” to the hardcore.

    It reminds me of the Republicans’ notorious Southern Strategy – use coded racist rhetoric to let the Southern white population know you’re on their side.

  2. Neuroskeptic said,

    Mmmm – I’m not quite sure about this. of course they’re right about the rhetorical tricks the BNP use, but – everyone uses them (or equivalents). It’s part of the art of argument, really. How many times have you seen an atheist say “Well yes I may come across as arrogant, but at least I’m right?”

    I think the big problem with this kind of thing is that it encourages people to criticize opponents by criticizing their method of argument rather than the actual substance of it. The only reason to criticize anyone is that they make false claims – whether they do it with lots of rhetorical tricks or just put the claims out there as boringly as possible.

    The danger is that you become so sophisticated at deconstructing rhetorical moves that you lose sight of the truth – a bit like post-modernists I guess…

  3. jdc325 said,

    Hi Alex – good point about the use of language. That hadn’t occurred to me. It’s something the BNP are adept at though – once they realised they could circumvent laws on incitement to racial hate by using religious labels instead of nationality labels they were straight in there with shiny new leaflets proclaiming that Muslims were a problem or a threat.

    Neuroskeptic: yes, I can see your point – but I think the point [that I failed to get across] is that some people abuse rather than use rules like social proof, reciprocity, consistency and this is what we should beware of. I would rather know the tricks used by salesmen and politicians than not. As I see it, it’s no different really to reading Darrell Huff’s How To Lie With Statistics* in order to spot how and where the newspapers are misleading us with dodgy graphs, post hoc conclusions etc. It’s fair to say that pointing out rhetorical tricks or logical fallacies isn’t tremendously important if done in isolation.

    *In fact, Huff’s How to Lie with Statistics, Cialdini’s Influence, and Goldacre’s Bad Science fit together quite neatly (IMHO). If I could recommend three books to the lay reader who wished to fine-tune their bullshit detector they would probably be these.

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  5. Its normal, yo. said,

    Its normal. I had a sudden epiphany after reading this post.

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