Obama's Self-Defeating Rhetoric

You can't debunk a myth by verbally repeating it. This is actually very basic stuff, so it is surprising that neither Obama nor his team understand it.
09/07/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

While Obama is a terrific rhetorician, he and his ad team don't understand a core principle of rhetoric. Never repeat the word your opponent is trying to push. That is not just a basic tenet of the 25-century old art of persuasion, but a well-demonstrated principle of modern psychology.

Never say things like "They're going to say I'm a risky guy. What they're going to argue is I'm too risky." All that does is plant in the listener's mind the word "risky" associated directly with Obama. It's like saying, "I'm not a crook."

Never say things like

"I know that Sen. McCain likes to call himself a maverick.... that doesn't meet my definition of a maverick. You can't be a maverick when politically it's working for you and not a maverick when it doesn't work for you, when you received your party's nomination."

Never run an ad with a picture of your opponent that opens, "He's the original maverick" and ends "The original maverick?" That's especially true because "maverick" is such a strong and memorable word.

When voters go into the voting booth, especially the key voters the campaigns are targeting with these ads that don't actually pay close attention to the race, they focus on just a few key thoughts and words. The last thing you want to do is repeat and reinforce your opponent's message.

The bottom line is you can't debunk a myth by verbally repeating it. This is actually very basic stuff, so it is surprising that neither Obama nor his team understand it.

It's why linguist George Lakoff titled his best-selling book, Don't think of an elephant. If I say that to you, you will think of an elephant. Negatives carry very little rhetorical weight.

This notion is so core to rhetoric that the ancient Greeks even had a figure of speech named for it -- apophasis, (from the Greek word for "to deny"), the figure of speech that emphasizes a point by pretending to deny it, that stresses an idea or image by negating it. As Shakespeare has Marc Antony say to the Roman citizens in the "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech after Caesar's assassination, "Sweet friends, let me not stir you up to such a sudden flood of mutiny." He wants -- and gets -- a mutiny.

This is not just a long-standing principle of rhetoric, but something demonstrated by numerous recent psychological studies. In one 1990 study, undergraduate students observed sugar from a labeled commercial container as it was poured into two bottles. They then labeled one bottle "sugar" and the other "Not Sodium Cyanide." Students avoided eating sugar from the second bottle even though they had watched it being poured and "even though they had arbitrarily placed that label on it" and knew the label was accurate--that it was not sodium cyanide. Such is the power of words or, rather, the insidious lack of power of the word 'not.'

Even more insidious, "when people find a claim familiar because of prior exposure but do not recall the original context or source of the claim, they tend to think that the claim is true," as noted a 2005 journal article, "How Warnings about False Claims Become Recommendations," which concluded

Telling people that a consumer claim is false can make them misremember it as true. In two experiments, older adults were especially susceptible to this "illusion of truth" effect. Repeatedly identifying a claim as false helped older adults remember it as false in the short term but paradoxically made them more likely to remember it as true after a 3 day delay. This unintended effect of repetition comes from increased familiarity with the claim itself but decreased recollection of the claim's original context. Findings provide insight into susceptibility over time to memory distortions and exploitation via repetition of claims in media and advertising.

As explained in a Washington Post article from a year ago explained, "Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach":

Indeed, repetition seems to be a key culprit. Things that are repeated often become more accessible in memory, and one of the brain's subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true.

Another useful article is " 'I am not guilty' vs 'I am innocent' " by Ruth Mayo et al in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2004, which found that for many people, the "negation tag" of a denial falls off with time:

"If someone says, 'I did not harass her,' I associate the idea of harassment with this person," said Mayo, explaining why people who are accused of something but are later proved innocent find their reputations remain tarnished. "Even if he is innocent, this is what is activated when I hear this person's name again.

"If you think 9/11 and Iraq, this is your association, this is what comes in your mind," she added. "Even if you say it is not true, you will eventually have this connection with Saddam Hussein and 9/11."

Mayo found that rather than deny a false claim, it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth.

It takes a lot of message discipline to do this. But then again, it usually takes a lot of message discipline to become president. Obama is lucky that he has one of the weakest presidential opponents in US history in terms of message discipline.

But if Obama could match his eloquence with a genuine understanding of the principles of rhetoric, this race would be a blowout.