Here’s an interesting thing about the way we learn. And, when I say “we” I don’t just mean all my 7.5 billion human brothers and sisters out there but also other, more distant cousins. What creatures tend to do is put particular emphasis on their first experiences. In my culture, we memorialize this truth with comments such as: “Now, make sure you look nice on your first day. It’s important to make a good first impression.” Given the prevalence of this kind of advice, I think most people seem aware of this effect when they go on job interviews, first dates, etc.
There seems to be an interesting asymmetry about our folk wisdom though. While most of us seem quite aware of how we can influence others by first impressions, we seem fairly oblivious to the impacts that others are making on us.
“I can’t understand it. They seemed so nice on our first date. And, then, every one of our six dates since, they treat me like trash. I might have to break up.”
Imagine instead someone saying this: “I can’t understand it. They treated me like trash on the first date. And on the second. And on the third. And every one of our first six dates. And, now, on the seventh, they seemed so nice!”
Many studies confirm the primacy effect under a wide variety of circumstances. In this case, the folk wisdom about the importance of first impressions is confirmed by science.
This has an interesting ramification for propaganda effects.
Let’s suppose that you live in a country where there are two competing parties. Each of them typically likes to put a certain “spin” on events. For instance, let’s say that there’s a big plane crash in the Colorado desert or a hurricane in Florida. These events are reported on the media. Now, the two parties might frame or reinterpret these events in different ways. One party might try to say that the crash was likely due to drug use on the part of the pilot and that drug use among pilots is because pot is legal in Colorado. And, they might claim that even though there is no real evidence. In fact, subsequent events actually confirm that the pilot was not on drugs, nor has there been any uptick in drug usage among pilots (they would lose their jobs) and these particular pilots lived in NY and just came from NY. They did not suddenly score a joint 30,000 feet in the air. But because people in the audience heard that story about pot usage being responsible first, some of them may recall it even years later — and are much less likely to recall the actual facts that came out later.
Conversely, let’s imagine another party puts out a statement that blames the crash on lax standards for air safety. It blames these lax standards on the other party. It further points out that the airlines who pushed for the lax standards were heavy campaign donors to the party who fought for the lax standards. If you hear this version of the story first, you will have a different first impression. It will be just as “uncomfortable” for you to now consider evidence that perhaps the pilots were high than it will be for the people in the scenario above to consider that lax safety standard were involved.
Similarly, one party might relate the hurricane and mention that global climate change makes for more and more severe hurricanes. Another party might use the opportunity to request funding to put up a hurricane fence around the Gulf of Mexico to keep hurricanes out. One of these explanations would be supported by the vast majority of scientists. Of course, no-one is saying that a particular hurricane could not possibly have happened without global climate change. But warming waters mean more energy goes into hurricanes in general. On the other hand, no real scientist would imagine a hurricane fence would do much to keep a hurricane out!
But if you hear about the hurricane fence story first, and then find that scientists think such a strategy is absurd, instead of rejecting the idea for the bunkum it is, you might check the Internet for someone to support the idea. And — given the nature of the Internet, you will definitely find someone to support the idea — a Russian troll, a nutcase, or an operative for the other party. Rather than using the Internet as a way of determining whether a particular idea is or is not reasonable given the balance of evidence, it will be tempting instead to use the Internet to find a way to reinforce your first impression rather than challenge it. Who gets the story out first has a big advantage.
You can see why parties compete to get their own version of stories out first.
The above scenarios were examples of reactions to external facts that “happened.”
But what if your party is not only reacting to disasters — what if they are intentionally creating disasters? This gives them a crucial and perhaps crushing advantage. Because they are creating the crisis, they can have a narrative for every story worked out ahead of time. They can release it contemporaneously or even slightly before an event occurs. In this way, they will be able to frame the narrative first every single time. And, equally importantly, people who eventually hear both sides of the story will underestimate how much they are swayed by the primacy effect.