Thursday, September 6, 2007

458 Soap opera psychologists

Message no. 458[Branch from no. 452] Posted by Thomas Culhane (1311520071) on Wednesday, February 21, 2007 2:06pm Subject: Soap opera psychologists

Patrice, I think you are right on the money (literally!). The people who produce for television have been hiring statisticians and psychologists for many decades now, and they constantly do surveys and market tests. Remember the "Nielsen" ratings system? Many of our brightest and most ambitious psychology graduates end up working for such organizations, and they apply every thing you are learning in this course to their jobs. But unfortunately their jobs are rarely trying to improve our environments, but to make money off of us, as you can imagine!

Knowledge is power, and the pen is mightier than the sword. In many countries (such as Egypt, and Iraq when I lived there) the State controlled the Television stations. All programs went through censors and were used for propaganda and sales.

Scripts for television are passed by the advertising sponsors who have some measure of creative control. They deliberately time the number and length of commercials and, yes, they know what kind of stories will make you sit through more commercials, and which will make you get up to go to the fridge -- in fact, since the people who fill your fridge are often the same companies advertising on TV, they WANT you to get up and go to the fridge -- and they run their commercials several times so that at least once you will see it, be subliminally seduced, and the next time say, "I've already seen that commercial" and get up and go to the fridge (usually to grab the thing that they were selling!). They also expect you to go to the bathroom, which is why they put so many "please don't squeeze the charmin" adds on during nightly sitcoms when I was a kid. They pretty much KNOW the different environments available to you at home, and they deliberately play with your minds.

In truth, the stories and the ads are ALL meant to manipulate our behavior. And it doesn't really matter what any given individual does or thinks because they are not after "you", they are after "the statistical average person". Their studies show that they can capture, say, 80% of consumers. That increases sales by, say, 23%. What do they care if 20% of you have learned environmental psychology and are immune to their techniques and tricks of manipulation? As long as they are turning a profit, the educated consumer is no threat at all.

All psychological studies that I know of work this way -- they tell us statistics: means (averages), medians, standard deviations, significance values... With these data the power holders can manipulate just enough people to turn large profits.

I am fairly sure some earnest grad student has even studied whether villains make us buy less or more of a product. I think the answer is "no" for the most part. Even though nowadays villains tend to smoke cigarettes and heroes tend not to (though it was different in the past), and even though we now have solid evidence that cigarettes not only kill the smoker, but spread radioactive Polonium 210 (the substance the KGB used to kill the soviet spy Litvenenko!) into the room and into the air and water and food to slowly poison and kill non-smokers, cigarette sales world wide have actually INCREASED! The tobacco companies showed the largest profits in history this year.

When you read chapter 14 you will learn that the sad fact is that most techniques to "exhort" or "convince" people to stop doing something do not work on a mass level, statistically speaking. And perception of what seems like far off danger (years away) has little effect on THE MAJORITY of people. The mere fact that a VILAIN does something bad probably has less effect than the mere fact you saw SOMEBODY doing the action or using the product who was "BIGGER THAN LIFE". Your brain remembers that another human did something, and seemed to enjoy it, and "monkey see monkey do" seems to be more powerful than "who did that? Do I like or approve of them?"

The advertisers and TV show makers know this-- they have access to the statistics. So they probably say, "it is worth the risk -- I'll wager that if we have a bad guy smoke or drink, and kids see it, they will be more inclined to smoke or drink the next time they have a conflict with their parents, because they will associate with somebody who has some power, if only the power to rebel against the "goody two-shoes authority figures".

It is complex, but I think the data are now showing that many behaviors, particularly addictive ones, can not be stopped by "moral suasion" -- the mere fact of seeing it is enough to trigger the behavior in MOST (definitely not all!) people.

The solution? We need to conduct rigorous studies and analysis of what DOES work. Then we need to apply the solutions, realizing that we, too, can never capture everybody, but can at best capture the MAJORITY.

This is a game of constant catch up and shifting statistics. The fortunate thing is that we are not clones, and that there is always individual variation!


Tom Dennen said...

You are quite right, but how many enthusiastic grads are actually working on it?

This ran in several publications in South Africa, NY Times and – please pass it on.


By Tom Dennen

When Did Governments (and tobacco companies) Know About Polonium 210 and How Long Have They Known?

Polonium 210 is found in trace amounts in cigarette smoke and is the major reason it causes cancer in tobacco smokers.

Robert N. Proctor, Ph.D., in "Puffing on Polonium" (New York Times, 1 December 2006), says, "When the former K.G.B. agent Alexander V. Litvinenko was found to have been poisoned by radioactive polonium 210 last week, there was one group that must have been particularly horrified: the tobacco industry. The industry has been aware at least since the 1960s that cigarettes contain significant levels of polonium.

“Exactly how it gets into tobacco is not entirely understood,” he added, “but uranium ‘daughter products’ naturally present in soils seem to be selectively absorbed by the tobacco plant, where they decay into radioactive polonium.

High-phosphate fertilizers may worsen the problem, since uranium tends to associate with phosphates. In 1975, Philip Morris scientists wondered whether the secret to tobacco growers’ longevity in the Caucasus might be that farmers there avoided phosphate fertilizers."

Customers at a restaurant and a hotel visited by the poisoned ex-KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko will be tested for the radioactive substance that killed him, Polonium 210, said British health chiefs last week.

Polonium 210 is the only component of cigarette smoke that has produced cancers by itself in laboratory animals by inhalation - tumors appear at a level FIVE TIMES LOWER than the dose to a heavy smoker.


Lung cancer rates among American men kept climbing from a rarity in 1930 (4/100,000 per year) to the No. 1 cancer killer in 1980 (72/100,000) in spite of an almost 20 percent reduction in smoking through anti-smoking information campaigns. But during the same period, the level of polonium 210 in American tobacco had tripled. This coincided with the increase in the use of phosphate fertilizers by tobacco.

(From Lenntech Water treatment & air purification Holding B.V. Rotterdamseweg 402 M):

As radon decays, its electrically charged daughter products (including Polonium 210) attach themselves to dust particles, which adhere to the sticky hairs on the underside of tobacco leaves. This leaves a deposit of radioactive polonium and lead on the leaves. Then, the intense localized heat in the burning tip of a cigarette volatilizes the radioactive metals. While cigarette filters can trap chemical carcinogens, they are ineffective against radioactive vapors.

The lungs of a chronic smoker end up with a radioactive lining in a concentration much higher than from residential radon.

These particles, including Polonium 210, emit radiation.

Smoking two packs of cigarettes a day imparts a radiation dose by Polonium 210-emitted alpha particles of about 1,300 millirem per year. For comparison, the annual radiation dose to the average American from inhaled radon is 200 mrem.

In addition, polonium 210 is soluble and is circulated through the body to every tissue and cell in levels much higher than from residential radon. The proof is that it can be found in the blood and urine of smokers. The circulating polonium 210 causes genetic damage and early death from diseases reminiscent of early radiological pioneers: liver and bladder cancer, stomach ulcer, leukemia, cirrhosis of the liver and cardiovascular diseases.

Former United States Surgeon General C. Everett Koop stated that radioactivity, rather than tar, accounts for at least 90% of all smoking-related lung cancers. The American Center for Disease Control concluded: "Americans are exposed to far more radiation from tobacco smoke than from any other source."

Cigarette smoking accounts for 30% of all cancer deaths.

Only poor diet rivals tobacco smoke as a cause of cancer in the U.S., causing a comparable number of fatalities each year. However, the National Cancer Institute, with an annual budget of $500 million, has no active funding for research on radiation from smoking or residential radon as a cause of lung cancer, presumably to protect the public from undue fears of radiation from smoking tobacco.

Corruption, anyone?

Meanwhile, the British Health Protection Agency last week called for people who had been to the Itsu sushi restaurant or Millennium Hotel in central London on November 1 to come forward.

Its appeal came as the Conservatives indicated that they would ask the Government to make a Commons statement over the affair.

The HPA is taking "extremely seriously" concerns that other people may have been contaminated by the Polonium 210 that led to the death of Alexander Litvinenko in hospital although it made clear the risk was low.

Doctors discovered that he had somehow ingested a large dose of the radioactive substance and samples of it were later found in the hotel and restaurant.

Mr. Litvinenko, a former colonel in the Russian security services, visited both places on November 1, the day he was taken ill.

A vocal opponent of Vladimir Putin, Mr. Litvinenko, 43, claimed in a statement made public after his death that the Russian president had had him poisoned.

Scotland Yard's counter terrorism unit is investigating but has not described it as yet as murder. Foreign Office officials have passed on a request via the Russian Ambassador, Yuri Fedotov, asking authorities in Moscow to make available any information that might assist police with their enquiries.

A post-mortem examination of Mr. Litvinenko’s body has been delayed while a risk assessment is carried out to see if it is safe to perform the procedure and what precautions may be necessary.

Polonium-210 is very dangerous to handle in even tiny amounts - milligram or microgram amounts - and special equipment and strict control is necessary.

Human damage arises from the complete absorption of the alpha particle energy Polonium 210 emits, which is captured by soft tissue.

Sources maintain that it is not only a very unusual method of assassination, but also that not even fiction writers have bothered with it as a difficult-to-detect murder weapon.


T.H. Culhane said...

Tom, Thank you so very much for this detailed explanation of the Polonium 210/Tobacco link. I am terribly allergic to cigarette smoke and I have been living in Cairo Egypt for the past four years where the smoking rate must be one of the highest in the world. In fact, my wife and I tell the sad story of going into the Maison Thomas Pizza restaurant in Zamalek (which caters to foreigners) and asking if they had a no smoking section. The maitre d' proudly said, "Oh no sir, not at all! You can smoke anywhere you like!". We have had this same problem all over Egypt where the air quality is so bad outside (> 10,000 deaths per year attributable to air pollution and a 4% average drop in IQ in children due to lead in the air, according to statistics we learned in an exhibit on Cairo at the Zeche Zollverein in Germany) you would think people would want to get away from bad air indoors. But Cairo is one big black cloud. Most of the cigarettes are American brands, and it frightens us so much to think that we are breathing this toxic soup everyday that we have decided to move to Germany to have our family (Germany was also country where you couldn't avoid cigarette smoke until just a week or so ago, when the new law banning smoke in public places went into effect, thank god!).

Anyway, we need to get the word out about the radioactive tobacco smoke issue. I welcome you to also post your comments on my other blog,, where I have written much more extensively about the issue of P 210 and tobacco.

Your insights and information would be a welcome addition there!

Thanks again!