Psychology of control is the study of the actions and methods by which people may be controlled by another person or group of people. Humans may be controlled by several means. On the smaller person-to-person or person-to-group level, persuasive speaking, social pressure, and threat of violence may allow one person to control another. Examples of these methods are plentiful in George Orwell's Animal Farm, a fairytale that explores the communist nation’s descent into dictatorship. Orwell uses the metaphor of an English country farm to prove his point and models the farm’s sentient animal inhabitants upon political players of the early USSR. On the larger scale of government-to-person, propaganda, manipulation of the media (a person’s main source of information in a highly populated and technologically advanced society), and rule by terror can also be used for control. Orwell’s 1984 describes an all-controlling totalitarian regime and a couple’s failed attempt to thwart it. 1984 showcases each method of large-scale psychology of control. Methods of large-scale and small-scale control are similar in form but different in execution (e.g., persuasive speaking and propaganda). Understanding control is very important in today’s society, as the news media, whether it leans left or right, wittingly or unwittingly colors the public opinion rather than simply providing information. Many governments today seek or have sought to oppress and control their own people and have largely succeeded, with the now-defunct Taliban of Afghanistan a prominent example. Mankind can prevent itself from being unjustly controlled against its will only by understanding control.
One of the least obvious methods of psychology of control is persuasive speaking and nonverbal cues. When someone sees another person speaking, he or she will most always make judgments about the speaker based upon the speaker’s race, attire, and disposition. These judgments can influence the speaker’s persuasiveness or detract from it. “Your gestures, posture, facial expression, look and touch all say something about your status in a group, too. Large, sweeping movements of your hands and head and a relaxed but controlled stance show that you enjoy a privileged position.” (“How Groups Work”, p. 1827.) For many people, an energetic and confident speaker in a suit would prove more persuasive than a nervous, mumbling speaker in casual dress, even if the two were arguing the same point. Several studies have been performed that support the idea that nonverbal cues can be important in increasing an individual’s persuasiveness.
In one study, three groups of men reviewed the evidence in a personal injury lawsuit to help them decide on a suitable award for the plaintiff. All of them initially favored a sum of at least $10,000. They then watched a videotape of a man who argued that a settlement of $2,000 was quite sufficient. For the first group, the man displayed a number of status cues. He wore a tie and sports-coat and looked directly at the camera while speaking. His voice was firm and clear and he did not hesitate or stumble over words. The man the second group watched wore a sport-shirt and no tie. Although he never mumbled, he hesitated occasionally and did not look at the camera. The third group’s man wore a T-shirt and seemed nervous, saying “um” and “er” and fumbling for words.
After listening to the speakers, all three groups changed their initial award. The group who watched the first speaker were sufficiently impressed to cut their settlement down by an average of $4,273. Those watching the second speaker reduced theirs only slightly (an average of $2,426). The third group actually increased the sum they wanted to give the plaintiff by an average of $2,843.
(“How Groups Work”, p. 1827)
When people watch politicians talking on television, they evaluate them upon their clothing, confidence, and oratory ability. In the 2000 presidential elections, the press made much ado of soon-to-be President Bush’s tendency to stutter while speaking in public. Apparently, this brought his governing ability into doubt. Although stuttering has no relation to Bush’s capability as President, it made him seem less intelligent or less confident. On a darker note, Hitler was known for his ability to enthrall large audiences when speaking and to fill their hearts and minds with hatred. Mankind must always be wary of those who seek to control through passionate words and seemingly well-intentioned promises.
In Animal Farm, the animals are spurred to rebel against the cruel farmer by the idealistic words of Old Major (a Lenin/Marx figure), the eldest pig on the farm. After Old Major’s death, the pig Napoleon (a figure who represents Stalin) finds an ally in Squealer, one of the younger pigs. Squealer’s job is to persuade the other animals to follow Napoleon and to secretly doctor the laws of Animal Farm to Napoleon’s benefit.
The best known among them was a small fat pig named Squealer, with very round cheeks, twinkling eyes, nimble movements, and a shrill voice. He was a brilliant talker, and when he was arguing some difficult point he had a way of skipping from side to side and whisking his tail which was somehow very persuasive. The others said of Squealer that he could turn black into white.
(Orwell, p. 36)
Squealer continues to trick the other animals of the farm into believing the sovereignty of Napoleon. Despite the pig’s flawed logic and malicious intent, the other animals believe Squealer’s words because of his “way of skipping from side to side and whisking his tail”. Sadly, real human beings are often inclined to do the same when the tail and skipping are replaced with proud gestures of the hands, a booming, well-carried voice, and promises of glory.
Control may also be exercised by social or peer pressure. Most of the time group members will be influenced by the group or feel pressure to follow its rules (“How Groups Work”, p. 1840). When a leader sets these rules, he or she can control its members. Numerous studies have shown the power of peer pressure in controlling people’s thoughts and actions.
In a famous series of experiments, the social psychologist Solomon Asch set out to discover when and why we conform. Groups of participants, including some “plants” (Asch’s assistants), had to look at pictures of sets of three vertical lines and estimate which of the three was closest in length to a fourth line. In some cases, the plants unanimously gave the wrong answer. Even though the right answer was obvious, 75 percent of the participants agreed, at least once, with the wrong answer given by the plants. Objective reality was less important for them than the social consensus about that reality.
(“How Groups Work”, p. 1840)
Sometimes social acceptance is more important to people than reality. This can prove dangerous, as most mobs come to exist when the members forget themselves and their personal values to adopt those of the group.
After the animals oust the spiteful farmer Jones in Animal Farm, they (led by the two pigs Snowball and Napoleon) resolve to purge all things human from it. “Human” activities include the wearing of clothing or baubles, and, of course, consorting with human beings. A show horse named Mollie who was one of the best-treated animals on the farm before Jones left is very vain, and continues to wear ribbons after they are banned on the farm. She was better off when Jones was still on the farm, unlike the other animals, she had no qualms with humans. Research has shown that dissenters within a group may disassociate themselves from the group if the pressure to conform becomes too strong (“How Groups Work”, p. 1841). In Mollie’s case, she refuses to be controlled by the pigs and other animals and elects to leave the farm where she has lived for much of her life.
Three days later Mollie disappeared. For some weeks nothing was known of her whereabouts, then the pigeons reported that they had seen her on the other side of Willingdon. She was between the shafts of a smart dogcart painted red and black, which was standing outside a public-house. A fat red-faced man in check breeches and gaiters, who looked like a publican, was stroking her nose and feeding her with sugar. Her coat was newly clipped and she wore a scarlet ribbon around her forelock. She appeared to be enjoying herself, so the pigeons said. None of the animals ever mentioned Mollie again.
(Orwell, p. 62)
Although Mollie is viewed as a traitor by the animals, her decision to leave probably saved her life. Later on, Napoleon takes over the farm as dictator and slaughters many of the animals.
The most obvious method of small-scale control is threat of violence or control by terror. The great majority of people are afraid of death and pain. This allows a morally bankrupt person to control others by threatening them with said punishments. Although it is not often studied due to its morbidity and simplicity, it is no less common than the other methods of control.
Threat of violence is central to Napoleon’s control of Animal Farm. He enforces his rule through nine dogs loyal only to him.
Napoleon took no interest in Snowball’s committees. He said that the education of the young was more important than anything that could be done for those who were already grown up. It happened that Jessie and Bluebell had both whelped soon after the hay harvest, giving birth between them to nine sturdy puppies. As soon as they were weaned, Napoleon took them away from their mothers, saying that he would make himself responsible for their education. He took them up into a loft which could only be reached by a ladder from the harness-room, and there kept them in such seclusion that the rest of the farm soon forgot their existence.
(Orwell, p. 51)
Napoleon secretly trains the puppies in secret until they are full-grown, ferocious dogs and then uses them to exert his control over the other animals of the farm. The dogs’ first mission is to remove Snowball, another pig who is Napoleon’s only rival, from the farm. “At this there was a terrible baying sound outside, and nine enormous dogs wearing brass-studded collars came bounding into the barn. They dashed straight for Snowball, who only sprang from his place just in time to escape their snapping jaws.” (Orwell, p. 67). Later on, Napoleon keeps the nine dogs as his bodyguard and as a police force that kills dissenters. Control by threat of violence is is a blatant disregard of human rights and it should be stopped wherever it occurs.
Large-scale control involves governments controlling people. The methods of large-scale control are similar in form to those of small-scale control but are targeted toward a larger audience. Propaganda and controlled media are persuasive speaking on a greater scale. Propaganda is media that exalts and advertises a particular point of view. It can include movies, cartoons, audio, pamphlets, and any other type of recorded media. In America, a large amount propaganda was created and released for public consumption during the U.S.’s involvement in World War II (1941-1945). During that time, posters spoke of the monstrous devilry of the Japanese, who were often portrayed as apes, and movies (the “Why We Fight” series is the best-known) bolstered support for the war effort. Whether propaganda is justified or not is up to debate, however, there is no doubt that it does control. Product advertising is a form of tamer propaganda because it espouses the virtues of a product rather than asking viewers or listeners to support a war (although some American product advertising since 9/11 subtly proves to be an exception).
In 1984, a totalitarian regime called The Party controls Britain and several other Western European countries. Winston Smith, a low-level Party official who lives in London, renamed Airstrip One, is the main character of the story. The Party keeps its hold on its subjects through several methods of large-scale control, including propaganda.
On each landing, opposite the lift shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.
Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list of figures that had something to do with the production of pig iron. The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, although the words were still distinguishable.
(Orwell, pp. 1-2).
The posters on the wall of the landings in Winston’s flat are one example of propaganda. A large part of The Party’s agenda is to erode the sense of self in its members. A constant sense of Big Brother’s (the made-up patriarch of The Party) presence and paranoia helps to accomplish this, hence “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU”. “Some political and religious figureheads are imaginary but all serve to reinforce the dedication of their followers to longstanding goals.” (“How Groups Work”, p. 1809) The voice emanating from Winston’s telescreen (a television that can also receive images, a television/video camera that The Party uses to observe its members while simultaneously feeding them propaganda) and speaking about pig iron is explaining that pig iron production has increased. The Party often lies to its members about production rates of food and other materials to increase morale, just as Squealer does in Animal Farm. That is also a form of propaganda.
Threat of violence is also a method of large-scale control. It is very similar to small-scale threat of violence, but aims to affect a larger group of people. Government-wise, it is/was most common in police states or fanatical theocracies like Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and the Spain during the Inquisition. Governments like these usually don’t last long for the simple reason that they constantly mistreat their people and are overthrown.
The threat of death, torture, and violence is the underlying force behind The Party’s authority. All Party members live in constant fear of the Thought Police, who scour Oceania (as the Party’s area of jurisdiction is known) for any instances of dissension or anti-Party ideas. The following description of Winston’s thoughts shows Party members' general feelings:
Whether he wrote DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER, or whether he refrained from writing it, made no difference. Whether he went on with the diary, or whether he did not go on with it, made no difference. The Thought Police would get him just the same. He had committed-would still have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper-the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you.
It was always at night-the arrest invariably happened at night. The sudden jerk out of sleep, the rough hand shaking your shoulder, the lights glaring in your eyes, the ring of hard faces round the bed. In the vast majority of cases there was no trial, no report of the arrest. People simply disappeared, always during the night. Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the usual word.
(Orwell, p. 17)
Throughout the book, Winston hears of others being abducted by the Thought Police, until he and his unofficial wife, Julia, are also captured and tortured. Rule by terror is still exercised in many non-democratic countries like Iraq and China and used by those governments to control their people. It is an abuse of human rights that should be eradicated.
The control of people against their will unquestionably continues today. In countries ruled by oppressive governments, like North Korea, China, and Iraq, the truth is suppressed and replaced by pro-government propaganda. Many of the people live in fear and poverty, unable to find peace or a sympathetic ear in a land where freedom of speech is a myth. Others, their minds controlled and brainwashed by propaganda and idealistic words, have no desire to help their nation escape from its plight. Animal Farm was written by George Orwell to warn the world about the dangers of Communism in the USSR. Today’s Cuba, China, and North Korea show that Animal Farm’s lesson is still applicable in the modern world. 1984 notes the injustice of totalitarianism, in which the state is emphasized over the individual to the point where the individual’s rights are forgotten. Throughout the world, a biased media subtly inserts its opinion into the mind of viewers, listeners, and readers. On the smaller scale, peer pressure drives young people to abuse alcohol or drugs, and persuasive or impassioned speaking creates single-minded mobs. In both cases, it is important to understand the psychology of control and to prevent these events from occurring. There are many lessons in history to help mankind stop totalitarian governments from forming and prevent social pressure from influencing people’s decisions for the worse, but it is man’s choice whether to heed the warning of past mistakes.
Sources: Orwell, George. 1984. New York, New York: Plume/Harcourt Brace, 1983.
Orwell, George. Animal Farm. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.
The Marshall Cavendish Encyclopedia of Personal Relationships: Human Behavior (Volume 15): “How Groups Work”. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1990.
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