Exploring the need for artists and writers to understand psychology.
| Art is power. It may sound like a cliché, but it’s true. The artist holds more power in his or her hands than even the most authoritative of world leaders. In the end, the presidents, prime ministers, and czars of our fair planet must all bow in humble reverence of the artist’s might. In case you haven’t guessed, I’m an artist myself.
Now, all self-glorifying statements aside, everything I’ve said thus far is true. Art has a profound affect on how we perceive any information that is presented to us. Honestly, that’s enough power in itself. It can grow, however. Any studious artist who has aptitude enough to actually understand how people think can be a formidable force to reckon with. As good ol’ Uncle Ben Parker from the movie Spider-man says, “With great power comes great responsibility” (Raimi). Sorry, that was a geek moment there. Anyhow, the statement still holds true. Knowing how a person, or a group of them for that matter, thinks added to the ability to produce appealing audio and visual pieces of art gives the artist the almost awe-inspiring power to sway opinion. And, like the various, colorful characters found between the covers of today’s popular comic books, this awesome power can be either used as a prevailing force for good…or a force for evil. In plain speech, the technique of using human psychology to enhance the thought-provoking or, in more cases than not, thought-guiding capabilities of art can and have been used in every manner from the mundane to the malevolent.
Since I want you to stick around past the first page, we’re going to start things off with a bit of the mundane. Don’t worry. The exciting and malevolent will come soon enough, just stick around and see.
Now, before I get into anything on how artists use psychology, I suppose it’s only fair to mention how psychologists use art. Art has a wonderful therapeutic effect on the troubled mind. Trust me, I know.
During my high school and early college years, I struggled with bouts of depression and a much worse case of social anxiety disorder. I’d like to say that my ability to talk about it now means that I’m completely over it now. I’m not. I just have a bit more control than when I was younger. The point of my anecdote is this, during my years in high school I turned to my art as a kind of therapy. I would draw interesting characters and try to create visual stories for them. Once I realized my mind worked faster than I could draw, I started writing those stories and have been doing so ever since. The process, at times, allows me to express myself and how I’m feeling on paper when I may be unable to do so verbally.
Okay, deep breath. I apologize for the sad little story, but it was necessary to illustrate my point. The fact remains that art allows us to express even our most deeply buried emotions in an environment that feels unthreatening. We all know that letting those repressed feelings of ours get a little fresh air is good. Pent up emotions like anger or guilt only get worse over time and could lead to some tragic outcomes.
Psychologists often use art in psychological studies. Children are often the subject matter because they are some of the most imaginative and outspoken creatures on our planet. They often have some profound insights, too. I read an article recently on the website salon.com written by a woman named Vivienne Walt back in 1999. Don’t worry. It’s not an article about hair. Anyway, Vivienne wrote about traumatized children in war torn Kosovo and how they expressed their emotions through art. In the little areas fenced off for children to paint and play, she says “there are children who draw burning houses, bombs exploding, and dead people bleeding on the ground” (Walt par. 1). Now, you’d think that was absolutely horrendous and it is, but apparently we don’t have to worry about these children as much as you’d think. Their art tells psychiatrists that, tragic as it may be, they are fully in touch with the reality around them. Vivienne goes on to write that the children that need the most attention are the ones that “paint sunflowers and daisies, cloudless blue skies and golden sun rays shining down on a cut lawn. On paper, everything is right with their world” (Walt par. 1). Knowing which children need the most care is a great benefit to the caretakers of these refugee children and it is the art these kids produce that gives them that insight.
Okay, so art is useful in psychology. But, that’s not what this paper is about, is it? No, no. We’re more interested in how psychology is useful in art and the awesome power it bestows upon the wielder of the pen. It is mightier than the sword, you know, and with good reason, too. But, I’m not going to talk about that just yet. Sorry to keep tantalizing you like this, but all that is still to come towards the malevolent part of this essay. I just want to make sure you’re paying attention.
What I am going to discuss with you now is a positive way to use psychology in art. Personally, I think of it as being one of the greatest ways: Writing. My major at the Illinois Institute of Art was in Media Arts and Animation. However, I only chose this field of study because of my enjoyment and pure delight in storytelling. Not surprisingly, I’m a writer of sorts and am currently working, rather slowly if you ask me, on a novel. Upon hearing this fact, people often ask me what type of story I’m working on, in other words, what genre. Nowadays, I tend to reply that it is a character study. My characters may be fictional, but they are nonetheless very human. They have the same psychological issues as any other person and should deal with difficulties in the same manner as any other person. To pull off realistic characters, an author must have a clear understanding of how people think. And, as you may have already deduced, psychology is the key.
Once again, I dashed to my handy-dandy computer and asked Jeeves to help me find something that would help me further my point. I was lead to an article by Lawrence Buentello called The Psychological Effect. He writes that “in every work of fiction, the protagonist—or in longer works, the protagonists—must experience a psychological effect” (Buentello par. 1). To put it in plain English, the fictional character, especially the main character, should act and react as any real life person would when faced with a problem in relationship to their self-concept. Buentello defines this self-concept as a “belief in who and what they are in physical, intellectual, and psychological terms” (par. 8)
Buentello gives the example of the character Scarlett O’Hara from the novel Gone with the Wind. Admittedly, I’ve never read it, but I hear that it was a good movie. Back to the point though, Scarlett is very confident and has a high opinion of herself. Therefore, every crisis she comes across is faced with this view. Buentello makes it clear he believes that “in the best fiction, the psychological effect is a perfect collision of a character’s psychology with his or her problem or dilemma” (par. 6) Still using the Scarlett example, he explains the psychological changes that occur within her character are due to the conflicting nature of her views of herself and her predicament. As the story progresses, her self-concept slowly changes and, thusly, the outcomes of her problems change (Buentello par. 7).
So, now you’re probably thinking that that was a bunch of psychological mumbo-jumbo and that Buentello is a little high on his fiction-analyzing horse. I don’t think so. Sure, there was some complex sentence structure and a few big words, but all he was essentially saying was that to tell a good story that will keep audiences riveted, and maybe even teach them something, the characters must seem absolutely real.
Lyman A. Baker says there are two types of characters: Static and Dynamic. The static character is pretty easy enough to pin down. He or she doesn’t change throughout the entire course of the story. The character you met at the beginning is essentially the character you’ve got at the end (Baker par. 1). I’ve personally come to notice this to be truer of villains or antagonists. I know mine’s a stubborn one. And through logical deductive reasoning, I bet you’ve been able to determine that a dynamic character does change over the course of the story. Once again, I’ve personally found that this type of character is more commonly the hero, more technically known as the protagonist.
What’s the use of all this, you ask. This type of character allows the audience to take the emotional/psychological journey with them. Remember, art can create a non-threatening safe zone that allows us to explore emotions and ideas we’d rather not share just yet. Writers who understand that their stories can affect change also realize they’ve got a lot of power contained within their computer keyboards.
Allow me to elaborate. Dr. Thomas Tufte, an Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, wrote an interesting essay entitled Telenovelas, Culture and Social Change. You wouldn’t think a guy from Denmark would be interested in Latin soap operas, but to each his own I suppose. Dr. Tufte did a case study in Brazil, taking 13 women from three different towns. What he found was that the women took in an average of three to four telenovelas everyday. They didn’t always physically watch the show, but more often listened to them as they went about their daily chores. Although melodramatic, the characters and story had captivated them (Tufte 2). Our doctor from Denmark writes, “In general terms, telenovelas are on one hand a source of entertainment, but the recognition and relevance that the audience accords to the narratives reveal the meaningful social, cultural and even political function that can be attributed to the telenovelas. In many cases, television fiction proves more relevant and thus more meaningful than the evening news” (3 par. 3).
Did you hear that? “More meaningful than the evening news,” he said. It’s all about association. If an author can create a character that audiences can relate to, it won’t matter if they’re fictional. The audience will become emotionally attached in someway. A news report about rising cases of HIV among teenagers who have unsafe sex might change a few people’s habits, but tell them a story about a young guy or girl who led a decent life until their life was torn apart by the disease and a few more people might pay attention.
Let’s see here. We’re a little over halfway done here. Congrats on sticking with me this far. I’m proud of you. As a reward, I’m going to inch things on a little closer towards the malevolent uses of psychological, artistic power I know you’ve been curious about. Can you guess what it is? It’s still on the mundane side of life, but with a slightly evil, often obnoxious twist. That’s right: Advertising.
Commercials, the bane of our existence during our favorite television shows. In our day and age, it’s hard to avoid them and it is getting harder as time passes. They’re everywhere: On television and radio, the Internet, in movies and video games, magazines, billboards, on the sides of buses, on top of delivery trucks, at sporting events, and many, many, many more places. Advertisers are always finding new ways to tell you about their products for the sole purpose of getting you to part ways with your favorite green presidents (and Benjamin Franklin, too).
Now, I’m not saying advertising is bad. It is important for businesses to get information about their products or services out and about. They can just go overboard sometimes.
The question that has probably come to your mind as I’ve babbled on is most likely somewhere along the lines of: What does advertising have to do with psychology and art? Well, everything. Advertising is an art. It’s not a fine art, but a powerful one. As the dictionary states, art is “an esthetically pleasing and meaningful arrangement of elements, as words, sounds, colors, shapes, etc” (Funk & Wagnalls 35). In other words, art is the creative expression or communication of an idea with a purpose. Advertising’s purpose is to make money and sell things. Advertising gets people to realize that a product or service is worth their money, but whether or not it will do that is sometimes questionable. How does advertising do that? That’s right, psychology! Advertisers must learn how people think in order to properly market their products. It’s just the same with creating a fictional character. The goal is to create something your audience will relate to and accept.
Ed Osworth, the “Success Professor,” had this to say of psychology in advertising: “The competent advertising man must understand psychology. He must learn that certain effects lead to certain reactions, and use that knowledge to increase results and avoid mistakes. Human nature is perpetual…So the principles of psychology are fixed and enduring” (Osworth par. 1). He goes on to give an example of one of our most human traits: curiosity (par. 1).
A good advertiser knows that to advertise a product, you don’t necessarily need to show the product, only create a sense of interest. Take, for example, the early iPod commercials on television. We’ve all seen them. You know, the ones with all of the silhouettes grooving to the mad beats of musical talents like U2, who apparently can’t count in Spanish. True, the iPod is visible on the screen, but our attention is on all the movement, not the product, which takes up little space comparatively. What this does is create interest. At the time of the first iPod, no one knew what in the world an mp3 player was. Apparently, enough people wanted to find out. According to Arik Hesseldahl of Forbes Magazine, “it has contributed $ 2.8 billion in gross revenue over the ten quarters since the company started breaking out iPod sales in its results” (par. 2). That was back in 2005. With the introduction of the iPod Nano and Shuffle, and the continuation of their interesting advertising style, I’m sure those sales have only grown.
Advertisers help consumers to better associate with their products by using different commercials for different audiences. Take children for example. You know, those travel-sized versions of people who run around making messes, but are just too cute to stay mad at for too long? Yeah, those. Despite their compact size, they have an overwhelming influence over their parents at times, especially with the incessant crying. Advertisers realized this and, in the latter half of the 20th century, began to focus commercials for toys, candies, and such on children, instead of their parents. Judging by the growing practice, it must be working. In the March/April 2000 issue of Psychology Today Magazine, Rebecca Segall wrote that “advertising to kids has skyrocketed in recent years, resulting in their spending over $24 billion of their own money in 1997—and directly influencing the spending of $188 billion of their parent’s money. This is not surprising considering that advertisers have been going to the experts—child psychologists—to learn how to best target children” (Segall par. 1).
Breaking out our handy calculators, we learn that, due to direct advertising to children, most of which probably don’t yet have jobs, the various industries influenced the spending of about $212 billion. Now, that’s a lot of benjamins. How do they do it? You’ve probably seen commercials marketed towards kids at some point in your life. Don’t tell me you’ve never watched a single Saturday morning cartoon, because I know you’d be lying if you said no. Anyhow, these commercials are usually loud and obnoxious, for boys, or elegant and pretty, for little girls. Once again, it’s all geared towards the proper audience. The ads don’t tell the children the usefulness of the product or how long it will last, because they honestly don’t care. All they are told is that they want it for whatever reason using bright colors and the appropriate musical accompaniment. And the kiddies realize that, yes, they do want it. This is about the time the pleading and incessant crying starts.
I recently heard a radio commercial for a cell phone. I forget the brand, but it really doesn’t matter. The commercial is basically a conversation between a teenaged girl and an intelligent, yet corny sounding man. The girl is having problems making friends, or something along those lines. The man tells her that the easiest way to overcome this problem is to get this brand new cell phone, with built-in mp3 player and so on. Then she would be cool and have no problems making friends. Sure. All of our adolescent problems would have all vanished if they’d only invented this phone sooner. Of course, I say this as a person for whom the ad was not intended. I’m sure it works just fine on teenagers still going through their adolescent angst. For them, this ad is perfect. I feel sorry for their parents already. Who a product is marketed to dictates how it is marketed.
Separating people into marketing groups isn’t just dictated by age. Oh, no. There’s practically an entire science behind how to sift people into categories. On top of age, there’s race, economic status, gender, religion, and a whole slew of others. They sometimes even break it down to whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, but we’ll get into more of that in just a moment. I promise.
All in all, it comes down to this: No matter what is being sold to whom, understanding how people think will sell products better. However, advertising isn’t always to sell you a product. Sometimes it’s to sell you an idea. Politicians use this to get elected. In a world where information is considered powerful, public opinion is a hot commodity. They advertise, not for money, but for votes; and the ways they do this is how the power of advertising can slip dangerously into malevolence.
Speaking of malevolent, I suppose we should be moving things along. We’re getting pretty close to overtime here, so pay attention. What you’ve wondered about since the beginning is about to be revealed.
Advertising is an art. If art is power, as my opening statement suggested, therefore advertising has power. Once again, great power requires the wielders of that power to be responsible for it. Like any power, it can be, and has been, misused.
Propaganda is the term used when advertising goes bad. It is more a manipulation than a suggestion. I bet you’ve already thought of examples like the Nazis during World War II. Unfortunately, that was only one chapter in the long and continuing history of propaganda. Wikipedia defines propaganda as “a specific type of message presentation directly aimed at influencing the opinions or behavior of people, rather than impartially providing information” (par. 1). The propagandist is the master of the psychological uses of art. They understand their audience and present their material in an accepted manner. You see, propaganda isn’t always bad, and until WWII, it had never been considered bad. In many ways, propaganda and advertising are essentially identical. The only difference nowadays is the usage.
Okay, since I’m not going to get around the subject without mentioning it, here it goes. The reason why we put so much of a negative connotation on propaganda is because of Nazi Germany during WWII. Most of the information supplied in Germany at that time went through the Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. These days, a name like that would dissuade us from believing anything that was said, but remember, back then, the word wasn’t all that appalling. Back to the subject, all writers and artists were required to register with the Ministry (Wikipedia 12 par. 1).
Information is power. That’s what they say today. It’s one of the many things that give art the power it has. He who controls the information and the artist has more influence than art can do alone. That’s a pretty scary thing. What’s even scarier is that Hitler got the idea from us. You heard me correctly, America. Apparently, he noticed how well Allied propaganda lowered morale along the German frontlines during the First World War. Hooray for us. So, he met with his chief official at the Ministry, Joseph Goebbels, on a daily basis (12 par. 2). The artists of Germany were reduced to communicating the Nazi beliefs through posters and, interestingly enough, movies. Nothing was seen by the public unless it had been approved by the Ministry.
In fact, most propaganda involves the arts. Simply stating something isn’t all convincing enough for the human brain. We’re emotional beings. Art helps us relate to the information we’re given. It isn’t our fault if the information we’re given isn’t entirely accurate or skewed just enough to imply something that isn’t true.
Now, enough of that. Let’s move on to something more up to date. It seems that propaganda thrives in wartime. It is about the only time we hear about it. The current “War on Terror” has just as much propaganda as you’d expect from any war. It’s the source that’s surprising. It’s expected that Saddam would have looming paintings of himself as the great leader of Iraq. That’s just what dictators do. It’s in the Dictating for Dummies handbook. However, out of all the research I’ve done on current propaganda, the good ol’ U.S. of A. popped up quite a bit. In 2001, when we invaded Afghanistan, the United States jammed local radio stations and supplied their own pro-American stations (13 par. 6). We also dropped leaflets that portrayed “Americans as friends of Afghanistan…emphasizing various negative aspects of the Taliban” (13 par 7).
You might be thinking right now that what I just told you isn’t so bad, and you’d be right. It’s not. Of course, the propaganda is never bad when you’re on the side that’s doing the propagandizing. I’m not even sure if that’s the proper usage of the word, but go with it anyway. When propaganda is used correctly, and honestly, it is simply a more convincing advertisement. What happens all too often is that someone uses it for all the wrong reasons.
Alright, now I’m going to tell you how this all pertains to you, the reader of this fine essay. So far, all of the victims of propaganda examples have dealt with other people on the other side of the world. However, there is one certain piece of artistic expression that can be debated as propaganda, depending on which side you’re on, and it happens to be targeted at the people of the United States. I see it as the perfect use of psychology in art, despite its use.
I’m speaking of Michael Moore’s controversial film Fahrenheit 9/11. Now, admittedly, I’ve never seen it. The mere premise appalls me. The thing is...I think it’s supposed to. Moore is obviously trying to make a statement against the war in Iraq and pulled out all the stops to do so. In some people’s opinion, he pulled out every street sign he saw along the way.
You see, the reason why propaganda is so much nastier than advertising is that advertising essentially tells the truth. The propagandist will tell the truth as well, but only if he agrees with it, and never will tell it as long as there is something more persuasive. Many people believe Moore is a propagandist for that very fact. Although, he claims everything in the movie is absolutely true, and apparently has threatened to sue anyone who states otherwise (Rhoads 26 par. 3).
Dr. Kelton Rhoads of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication studied Moore’s film in an article called Propaganda Tactics and Fahrenheit 9/11. He does a fine job of remaining neutral in his analysis of the movie, although he is apparently against its message and sees it as “effective propaganda” (Rhoads 2 par. 2). He goes on to say that Moore used many of the same tactics propagandists have used for as long as the art of manipulation has existed. I don’t have the time or space to go into as much detail as he did, so I’ll just review the basics. Don’t worry. I shouldn’t take much more of your time.
The first tactic is omission, which simply means leaving things out that would argue against your point. According to Rhoads, it’s the most popular. It’s not exactly lying, but it doesn’t quite tell the whole truth. The audience doesn’t miss what was cut because they don’t notice it’s missing in the first place (2 par. 3). This is also a common advertising technique. The second Rhoads calls contextualization, or adding to information already present. He calls it a defensive tactic of propagandists. This outright information isn’t always said, instead implied (7 par. 1). Sometimes, the targets of propaganda are guided into their ‘own’ conclusion.
The third is ingroup/outgroup manipulations. What this essentially means is that we have a tendency to prefer our own group to another (8 par 6). This was a popular one with the Nazis. The Jews were used as scapegoats to bring others to the Nazi cause to better the world. We all know how that turned out. Another tactic was trapping. This technique essentially embarrasses those who oppose the propagandist’s view no matter how they argue their point (13 par. 4).
The last tactic of his I will mention, and believe me there were a lot more, is the convert communicator. This is basically a person who once agreed with the opposition and now agrees with the propagandist’s view (17 par. 1). This is extremely effective because humans are emotional. We often put our emotions before logical thinking. If we see a person similar to ourselves that suddenly changes position and is better for it, according to what information we’re given, why shouldn’t we do the same? What we don’t realize is that sometimes that convert was actually working for the propagandist the whole time.
Colin Allen states that this might be the reason why Colin Powell was so convincing to the UN in his argument for the war in Iraq back in 2003. Allen writes, “He had been publicly against the war in Iraq until a few weeks ago. Because of his change in position, perhaps he was influenced by the facts himself” (1 par. 1).
Okay, time to wind things down now. My fingers are getting numb from all the typing and I might be coming down with that carpel tunnel thing people keep complaining about. What I’ve essentially been saying over the course of this entire essay is that an artist who understands psychology has both great power and great responsibility. How the artist uses the power is important. It dictates if people get hurt or not more than actual dictators.
So, here’s my plea to the artists of the world: Be careful how you use your power. Great things are possible, but only if you’re willing. Remember, change doesn’t happen globally or even on a national level overnight. Change happens a single mind at a time. Our art coupled with our knowledge of psychology are the instruments we use to initiate that change. Just be sure the change you’re making is a good one.
Works Cited (As of June 2007)
Allen, Colin. “The Art of Persuasion.” Psychology Today Magazine. 6 Feb. 2003. 13 Nov. 2006
“Art.” Funk & Wagnalls Standard Desk Dictionary. 7th ed. 1986.
Baker, Lyman A. “Static” and “Dynamic” Characterization. Kansas State University. 7 Mar. 2001. 11 Oct. 2006.
Buentello, Lawrence. The Psychological Effect. 11 Oct. 2006.
Hesseldahl, Arik. “When IPod Sales Run Out of Steam.” Forbes Magazine. 14 Jan. 2005. 29 Nov. 2006.
Osworth, Ed. Scientific Advertising. 2005. 14 Nov. 2006. <http://www.successprofessor.com/scientific_advertising/
“Propaganda.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia 28 Nov. 2006. 29 Nov. 2006.
Rhoads, Kelton. “Propaganda Tactics and Fahrenheit 9/11.” 2004. 2 Nov. 2006
Segall, Rebecca. “Psychology’s Child Abuse.” Psychology Today Magazine. Mar/Apr. 2000. 13 Nov. 2006.
Spider-man. Dir. Sam Raimi. 2002. DVD. Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, 2002.
Tufte, Thomas. Telenovelas, Culture, and Social Change- from Polisemy, Pleasure and Resistance to Strategic
Communication and Social Development. Nov. 2001. 14 Nov. 2006.
Walt, Vivienne. Psychology of Art. 4 Jun. 1999. 14 Nov. 2006.