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October 29, 2001

False accusations are a staple of wartime propaganda, expert says

By Jennifer McNulty

Wartime propaganda is a critical element of military strategy and political success, and it warrants scrutiny by a vigilant public, according to persuasion expert Anthony Pratkanis.

False accusations are a common element of wartime propaganda, from Adolf Hitler to Osama bin Laden, said Pratkanis, professor of social psychology at UCSC and coauthor of a new study that underscores the disturbing effectiveness of what is called "the projection tactic"--falsely accusing someone else of the misdeed you are committing.

Adolf Hitler used projection in the late 1930s and early 1940s when he wrongly accused the Jews of a plot to brutally dominate Europe and then the world. In the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy often accused his opponents of lying during his investigation of alleged communist activities in the United States. And Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., has accused the United States of terrorism.

"When it comes to false accusations and blaming others for your own negative behavior, Hitler and McCarthy were masters," said Pratkanis, whose research was inspired by numerous historical examples of projection. "Bin Laden's accusations may be widely discredited within the United States, but they appear to be resonating with his supporters."

"Projection works--that is what is so disturbing about it," said Pratkanis. "Making false accusations works in our everyday lives just as well as it does during times of war."

In four separate experiments designed to test the effectiveness of the projection tactic, the results were the same: The person making the accusation was exonerated from blame and the target was seen as the culprit. The findings held up even after suspicions were raised about the accuser's motives, after evidence showed that the accuser was guilty of the misdeed, and when the accusation was timed to occur after the misdeeds came to light.

"Projection turns out to be a very powerful tool for exonerating the accuser," said Pratkanis, who coauthored the paper with Derek Rucker, now a graduate student at Ohio State University. "It was effective even on the people who didn't think it would work on them--the people who thought it would boomerang and bring more suspicion to the accuser."

The projection tactic involves accusing another of the same negative traits, characteristics, and behaviors that one possesses with the goal of deflecting blame away from one's own misdeeds.

For example, Joseph McCarthy called the publisher Henry Luce a liar even as McCarthy proceeded to tell lies about Luce. Both McCarthy and Hitler used projection to increase the blame on the "target" of projection and to exonerate themselves, said Pratkanis.

"Children use projection all the time when they do things like try to blame a sibling for starting a fight or sneaking a cookie," said Pratkanis. "Unfortunately, the consequences can be severe when projection is used on the global stage. Projection is an incredibly effective influence tactic. People need to know how effective it is in order to make themselves less susceptible."

Projection is a common feature of political campaigns, with candidates invariably accusing opponents of negative campaigning even as they sling the mud themselves, noted Pratkanis. Another chilling example of the effectiveness of projection is the case of Gary Dotson, who spent six years in prison after he was accused and convicted of raping a young girl. Six years after being sentenced, the accuser retracted her story, telling authorities she had made up the rape charge to cover up a sexual experience with her boyfriend. Dotson asked that his conviction be overturned, but the original judge would not reverse the decision. Ultimately, the governor of Illinois refused a pardon but commuted Dotson's sentence to six years served.

"Both the judge and the governor continued to believe the original story," said Pratkanis. "They found the false allegation more believable than the truth." Four years after the recantation (12 years after the projection) Dotson's name was cleared by DNA evidence.

The best defense against projection is a strong social norm against "bearing false witness," said Pratkanis. Beyond that, individuals need to first recognize that they are vulnerable to projection as a tactic in order to discipline themselves to examine the motivation of the source of information and investigate the consistency of the story, he advised.

"You can ask yourself, 'Why is this person telling me this? What do they have to gain? What is the evidence for this statement? What are the arguments for the other side?'" suggested Pratkanis. "If there aren't definitive answers, it's probably best to withhold judgment."

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