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How Does Propaganda Work? A Political Psychology Podcast Episode

how does propaganda work, social psychology podcast and political psychology podcast episode

For the podcast’s first ever political psychology episode, I wanted to investigate how propaganda works. Since lots of people think propaganda is simply brainwashing people into believing stuff, but it doesn’t work like that. For example, there is evidence that even in Nazi Germany, the Nazi propaganda failed to convince lots of people of the Nazi’s righteousness.

However, propaganda can work sometimes, so that raises the critical question of how does propaganda work?

This episode has been sponsored by Social Psychology: A Guide To Social and Cultural Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.

Why Is It Important to Know How Propaganda Works?

As I write this in late March 2022, it is the Russia-Ukraine war and it is extremely alarming that the majority of Russian people support the illegal invasion of Ukraine. Since the Russians believe that Ukraine is a major security threat to them, and they believe that NATO is an offensive alliance. Nothing could be further from the truth, so it begs the question, how did Russia convince so many people to believe such nonsense.


Therefore, propaganda can work sometimes to influence people, and control their behaviour. That’s why propaganda is critical to study in social and political psychology.

In addition, effective propaganda works in two main ways. It increases support for the regime and it confuses and disunities the opposition.

This will probably be a part-two podcast episode so there is a lot of fascinating content to unpack here so in today’s political psychology episode, we’ll focus on how propaganda gathers support for a regime.

How Does propaganda Gather Support For A Regime?

Quite simply, one of the most fundamental truths about propaganda is that it works for people who want to believe it. For example, and I am trying to keep out of politics here, but this is how Brexit propaganda works in the UK. The people who want to believe Brexit works believe the propaganda, but for people who don’t believe it worked, the propaganda doesn’t affect them.

In terms of psychology, propaganda offers what looks like the facts as well as the overall narratives that feed in our motivated reasoning. This term is ubiquitous and it is our tendency to treat evidence selectively to justify our beliefs that align with our preferences.

And this motivated reasoning isn’t specific to propaganda because we use it regularly. For example, when we have to assess whether our beliefs are right, whether what we did was right or wrong and if our work deserves more recognition than we got.

Therefore, when it comes to thinking about what a country did was right or wrong. The citizens of that have a preference to think that it is so propaganda can be very effective. Since it provides the justification that people to believe in.

Using the war example, the Russian people might not want to believe their government invaded Ukraine out of some evil intent and they’re breaking international law. So it is easier to imagine that Ukraine is the enemy with their so-called biological weapons.

Additionally, because propaganda works with our motivated reasoning, it works best when the regime using it can foster feelings of nationalism amongst their citizens. And increase their national identity.

As well as we know from social psychology, our group identities are very, very strong and are fierce when members of our group are in conflict with another group. This doesn’t just apply to countries, it applies to all ingroups and outgroups.

Leading to cooperation to increase within the group, and aggression to increase towards outgroups. Again this only increases support for a government because the citizens want to cooperate with their own group, and be hostile towards the outgroup.

As a result, by increasing and making closer bonds within a country, the government is able to support itself with the citizens’ nationalist feelings and the government is less likely to be questioned because of their decisions. This is what all propaganda wants.

Support the propaganda creator and question them less. (Um, reminds me of Cult Psychology!)

And something that I love psychology is there is an effect name for everything. So in terms of this propaganda topic, this effect is known as the Rally-Around-The-Flag effect. Also it is known to favour leaders who see their support increase in times of war, at least at first.

Overall, the key goal of propaganda is to reinforce and create an “us vs them” narrative along with the propaganda firmly reinforcing the message that the ingroup is innocent. Whilst at the same time, repeating all the abominable and outrageous (real or fake) aggressions that the outgroups have committed. Leading to these messages having a very strong emotional impact on a country’s population and this fosters a willingness from the people to accept the propaganda.

More On Using propaganda When A Country’s Unpopular With It People

We narrow down on how a country uses propaganda when it does something that isn’t popular with its people. For example, lots of Russians don’t like the government invading Ukraine because they have a close relationship with each other. Propaganda can channel citizens through three steps to rationalise what’s happening.

· Denial

· Minimisation

· Justification

When people are in the denial phase, propaganda can help people reject factual evidence and believe that it isn’t happening. For example, “there is no war in Ukraine. It is just a special military operation,”

In the minimisation phase, as factual evidence (like the targeting of a maternity hospital) becomes harder to ignore and outright reject, propaganda can help people minimise the problem. For instance, “There is a conflict but it’s limited to the Capital or south of Ukraine,”

Lastly in the justification phrase, propaganda can be great for getting people to believe that the problem was needed, and they accept as well as support this new reality. Such as, “There is a war, but it was needed,”

The Sad Truth:

If we turn slightly pessimistic for a moment and actually apply this understanding. It is a great shame that propaganda can be used effectively to change a population’s factual perception and thus not generate massive opposition to a regime and their actions. For example, the invasion of Ukraine.

Therefore, it isn’t necessarily the case that Russian people do disapprove of the war when the evidence of its reality becomes questionable. For example, in terms of the extreme inflation, the price of everything increasing and the increased oppression they live under.

How To Stop Propaganda Working?

If we ever want to stop propaganda from working then we need to stop a person’s motivated reasoning. This is where the cost (be it human, economic or another type of cost) increases to such a degree that the person's personal interests conflict with the war itself. Because the war then becomes a problem to their personal interests.

With that mind in, the quick-round-the-flag effect which happened after the invasion and jingoistic support that on full display in many parts of Russian Society may slowly crumble (or really quickly). All because the huge costs of the war will move down onto Russian citizens.

And that is why sanctions are such a viable economic weapon.


Please believe me when I say what’s currently going on in the world is tough, horrible and scary. I am concerned but that’s because I don’t understand it.

After this episode, I’m really hopeful about the future because I now understand critical Western sanctions are for breaking people’s motivated reasoning. So hopefully if these sanctions increase and continue, there will be an end to this war in the future and the war will not go past Ukraine.

And at least we know that propaganda can be stopped and undone.

I really hope you enjoyed our political psychology podcast episode.

If you want to learn more, please check out:

Social Psychology: A Guide To Social and Cultural Psychology. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.

Political Psychology and Social Psychology Reference

Mercier, H., 2020. Not born yesterday. Princeton University Press.

Epley, N. and Gilovich, T., 2016. The mechanics of motivated reasoning. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 30(3), pp.133-40.

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