If you think knowing more than other people is the key to influence, think again. Two University of Southern California researchers say it’s more about controlling the flow of information, withholding some facts deliberately and making sure others don’t become known to anyone.
"It's not necessary to have extra information," says economist Isabelle Brocas, co-author of “Influence Through Ignorance,” published by The RAND Journal of Economics. "You can induce people to do what you want just by stopping the flow of information or continuing it. That's enough," she claims.
According to Science Daily, the study by Brocas and Juan D. Carrillo is the first to thoroughly examine situations where power comes from controlling the flow of public information, as opposed to possessing private information. They note that since pharmaceutical companies like Merck must make all their research findings public, they sometimes simply avoid doing follow-up studies before releasing their drugs. "Optimally, you want to provide enough information so the other party reaches a certain level of confidence, but stop once you reach that level," Brocas explains. "Otherwise, it may be the case that more information causes the confidence level to go down."
Looking at how public officials use ignorance, they point to the search for WMDs. In the run up to war, committee chairs cut off discussion, rejected new evidence, and called votes when sentiment was leaning in one direction. This effectively curtailed how much everyone involved, including the chairperson, knew about the issue.
"Overall, the ability of to control the flow of news and remain publicly ignorant gives the leader some power, which is used to influence the actions of the follower," the researchers wrote. "Our result suggests that the chairperson, the President and media can bias the decision of the committee, electorate and public by strategically restricting the flow of information."
The paper also indicates how public opinion is affected when more sources of information are available to everyone – and aren’t too costly to get. Media diversity and public research funding not only help persuade those controlling the flow to release more information but also reduce the "influence through ignorance" effect.
Next, Brocas and Carrillo plan to study how well people understand the phenomenon. "We're interested in whether people understand their ability to manipulate information,” says Brocus, “and if they do it optimally."
Thanks to Science Daily, ACME and Frank Baker of the Media Literacy Clearinghouse.