Amazon.com Widgets

How Does The Tactic Of Guilt By Association Work?

by Dr. Rick Kirschner on October 5, 2008

The big story over the weekend is that the McCain Palin campaign has decided that the best chance they have to turn around their failing fortunes in the Presidential race is to go completely negative, and attempt to tar and feather Obama in the public mind using the tried and true political strategy of ‘Guilt By Association.’

bread, butter and milk

How does this tactic work?  In today’s post, I’ll give a brief overview of the power of association in the art of persuasion.  Then I’ll examine the tactic itself.  In the following post, I’ll show how it does its damage, and how best to counter it.  

First, the forming and reinforcing of associations plays a major role in our lives.  Association is one of the most powerful tricks of the mind.  Used wisely it can help us learn new information, by associating it to older information;  help us build habits, by associating old stimuli to new responses; and help us build up relationships…our shared experiences have the potential to form enduring associations (professional associations, fraternities and sororities, graduating years, corporate teams, etc.) 

And associations play a fundamental role in how we evaluate people.  Whether its their background, their family, their friends, their job, their hobbies, their education, the organizations they support, or the people who vouch for them, we use associations to glean valuable information about affinity, authority, credibility and ability. 

In the art of persuasion, the signal of affinity is a form of association that helps us decide whether or not to be persuaded.  Three types of association determine the effectiveness of the affinity signal. We like people who like us, or who are like us, or we want to be like.   If you like someone, and that someone likes a particular product or person, maybe you’ll like that product or person too.  Or if you are like the person, and the person likes a product or another person, maybe you’ll like the other person or product too.  Or if you want to be like that person, and that person likes another person or product, then maybe you should consider liking that other person or product too, in order to be more like them. 

Michael Phelps is a great athlete. Michael Phelps eats Wheaties. Great athletes eat Wheaties. Maybe you should eat Wheaties.  Then maybe you’ll be a better athlete.

Just as celebrity endorsements trade on this power of association, a negative endorsement attempts to produce the same effect in reverse.  If you don’t like a person, and that person likes another person, maybe you won’t like that other person because the person you don’t like likes them.  I imagine most politicians hope and pray NOT to be endorsed by certain others for this very reason.

In the persuasion tactic of GUILT BY ASSOCIATION, the idea is that you won’t like someone if they are associated with something you don’t like.  As McCain Palin are using it, it is an attempt to get you to believe that Obama is NOT like you and shouldn’t be trusted, because someone you despise and would never trust is someone that Obama likes. Using William Ayers as the means to an end, The McCain camp hopes to invoke your fear about Obama in such a way as to undermine any possible confidence you might have in him. Oh, and that Chicago developer, Rezko.  

They tried this before with Rev. Wright.  It didn’t stick, in part because Obama addressed it head on and made the larger issue of race the issue.  They can’t use Wright again, (though I’m pretty sure they hope to remind you, by association!) because of Sarah Palin’s crazy Witch Doctor blessing from Minister Thomas Murthee at her church in Wasilia.  Which is also now associated with her church’s Minister Larry Kroon, who in July of this year delivered a sermon called “Sin Is Personal To God” in which he declared “that great day of the Lord when God will finally bring closure to human history… a day of wrath,” and “Listen, [God] is gonna deal with all the inhabitants of the earth. He is gonna strike out His hand against, yes, Wasilla; and Alaska; and the United States of America.”  Yoiks!

Quick retreat from religious fervor, let’s get back to the current ammunition they intend to use, and how they intend to have it happen. The formula:

William Ayers was a terrorist.  Obama knows Ayers. Obama likes terrorists.

Now, here’s the problem with this particular syllogism. If you deconstruct it, it just doesn’t hold up.  Obama isn’t a personal friend of Ayers, nor Ayers with Obama. The association is minimal – same neighborhood, served on a couple of boards together, were at the same party once.   And Obama has spoken clearly and strongly against Ayers’ actions in the 60s, while noting that Obama himself was only 8 years old at the time. 

Put it together, the association doesn’t hold up to critical thinking.

Here’s the formula based on fact. Ayers was a terrorist.  Obama barely knows him and disclaims his actions in the 60s.  Obama isn’t friends with a terrorist.

Just to make it clear, let’s take it further.

You’re not friends with a terrorist.  You and Obama are actually alike. 

Hey, this is fun.  Let’s do another one.  

I have a cat.  Dr. Evil has a cat.  I am Dr. Evil.

Only it doesn’t hold up.

Dr. Evil’s cat has nothing to do with Dr. Evil’s evil.  My having a cat has nothing to do with Dr. Evil.

Take it further.  You or a friend of yours has a cat.  Neither you or your friend are associated with Dr. Evil.  I hope.

Before we go on to how to counter this type of charge, let’s try for another example of it, one that might be easier to make stick.

McCain hires lobbyists to work for his campaign.  Lobbyists know how to rig the system. McCain knows how to rig the system.   On most of the big issues we are faced with, McCain is no maverick.

Hmmm.  I think that one does hold up.  Let’s go further.

George Bush had an agenda regarding healthcare, regulation and war.  McCain supported this agenda 90% of the time, particularly regarding healthcare, regulation and war.  McCain’s basic agenda, when it comes to healthcare, regulation and war, is the same as the Bush agenda.

Take it further:  If you like the Bush agenda, McCain will give  you more of the same and you should support him.   If you don’t like the Bush agenda, McCain will give you more of the same and you should reject him.

Such is the power of GUILT BY ASSOCIATION.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the best response to this tactic.  Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your comments.  And if you’d like, you can have some fun with this.  Give me your own syllogisms and let’s see if they hold up!

be well,

Rick

Previous post:

Next post: