The messenger more than the message

It strikes me that there is a communicative phenomenon where the messenger is often judged more important than the message.

This first occurred to me consciously a while back with regard to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Though Democrats voted in favor of war (in a show of national unity I suppose), they later came out in public against the war. However because Democrats are stereotyped as being soft on military matters, their subsequent calls to end the occupation fell on deaf ears.

Presumably coming out against the war was seen as predictable or kneejerk on their part. It didn’t convey any information. In binary (or information theory) terms, Democrats were 0s shouting 0s. Not interesting. No (new) information conveyed, except that the message was the same.

On the other hand, each Republican who calls for the end of the war these days is like a 1 changing to a 0. These announcements become major news stories. These events turn the tide against the war. Each 1 that changes to a 0 is more valuable than a whole sea of 0s who’ve been shouting 0 all along. I find this disturbing. When coordinated, it gives a stubborn minority a strange power over the majority.

I see this effect in my personal communication. Let’s say I hold a well-known viewpoint on a given subject. If the people around me are talking about this subject (and know that I hold a strong opinion), I often find that I’ll hold back and not immediately chime in with my viewpoint—even if it happens to align with the general consensus.

This is partly a persuasive technique I think. People with opposing viewpoints tend to dig in their heels (even if presented with copious evidence to the contrary) when the messenger appears to be coming from “the other side”. Especially when that person’s association with the other side is well known.

I find that people are more susceptible to change their opinion if I just hear them out first. I think it’s partly because it relaxes them into thinking I’m on their side. Now granted, in the moment, I’m not consciously thinking all this. Listening just makes good communicative sense. And there are of course times when really listening to someone changes or redirects my own opinions.

But it does make me wonder, for the political health of the country, could people on opposite sides of the aisle please just listen to each other?

After one glass of wine tonight, I’ve decided I hate our two-party political system. If there was one thing I could destroy, it would be the Republican and the Democratic parties. Oh wait, I guess that is two things.

That is all. Carry on.

2 Comments

Eric Eisenhart

Aare you sure that’s two things?

Stephen

Justin, you are clever and thoughtful, but still living in the world of information theory. I’m an adolescent psychiatrist and I can tell you nothing is as simple as either/or. You are neglecting all matters of the heart and that most common experience – pain. And you with a partner who is French. I’m sure she can correct you. Life is about passion and food. Forget binary concepts.

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