I’ll begin with a brief quiz. You don’t need to study for this; I think you’ll do quite well. Read the prompt and pay attention to the first thing that pops into your head:
- powerhouse of the cell
- king of pop
- quicker picker-upper
- two roads diverged in a wood and I,
- make America
I suspect most folks – at least in the US – will have immediately thought of . . .
- Michael Jackson
- Bounty paper towels
- I took the one less traveled by
- great again
In advertising, branding, music, politics –– even when studying for your biology test –– repetition can make simple associations stick. I’m not exactly sure of the mechanism or theory behind this phenomenon, but I think it has to do with the brain seeking familiar patterns. Familiar thought patterns are attractive because they take less effort than the mental attention required to make sense of an unfamiliar set of ideas. I think of it like needing to get across a field and having the choice between following a well-groomed path or cutting your own way through the greenbrier and raspberry.
Familiar mental patterns can be relaxing and comforting internally, but they can also be powerful unifying forces for big groups, as is on display anytime a sports teams needs a boost from the hometown fans, chanting something in unison.
Comfort. Tribalism. When these emotions are played to advance some agenda of the playER, they can be powerful enough to affect human behavior even when it might conflict with otherwise objective realities. When we sacrifice logic for these repetitively-driven thought patterns, that’s where I would say we’ve crossed into the realm of hypnotic repetition. In a place of familiar comfort and solidarity with people like us we can fall prey to some pretty awful ideas.
If repetition helps us remember something, that’s memorization. It might be too simplistic to get us very far, but it’s generally innocuous. If repetition changes the way we think about something, that’s the hypnotic part. See hypnotic repetition in politics here.
Of course, few have mastered this art quite as well as Donald J. Trump. It’s how he got elected, and he uses it all the time.
Crooked Hillary. Lock her up! Fake news. No collusion.
Pithy slogans like these are the Trump doctrine. It makes sense, too: his entire real estate career and most of his other ventures have to do with branding. Labeling something Trump, in his mind at least, means it’s the best of the best. It’s the most most glamorous. The glitziest! He’s made a fortune not in constructing the most spectacular buildings, but in acquiring properties and existing structures to brand with his name. The more he says that Trump products are the best, the more people come to believe it because it’s familiar and familiar is good. The better his “ratings” are the happier he is, because he understands that every time a human being encounters his name, he’s likely to make more money.
Hypnotic repetition gets dangerous when it’s combined with great power. Then you’re potentially manipulating the thought processes of millions of people. (“Under His eye.” “May the Lord open.”) In Trump’s case, his latest attack on the free press as Amy Siskind illustrates above is reckless. It may even have already cost lives at the Capital Gazette, but it’s also counter to the guarantee of a free press established in the First Amendment of the US Constitution:
Amendment I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
In other words, Trump’s deft application of hypnotic repetition is being used before our eyes to –– on its face –– sow discord among Americans concerning the Mueller Probe. That’s bad enough, but if successful in casting doubt on the validity of our free press or indeed its right to report on Mueller’s investigation, Trump’s use of hypnotic repetition will have damaged a core principle of what it means to be American.