The best books for understanding propaganda and persuasion

The Books I Picked & Why

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

By Tim Wu

Book cover of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

Why this book?

You may think you can tune out advertising, but you’re wrong. You may think it’s natural for so much entertainment to be available “for free” on all your digital devices. But most of us don’t realize how many businesses are profiting from harvesting our attention—and they keep finding new ways to entertain, inform, and persuade us, that we may not even notice them. I loved this book because of the engaging way that Tim Wu chronicles the history of the many industries that feed on human attention. He demonstrates how influencers, hawkers, celebrities, politicians, and pitchmen are not just salespeople, but the living heart of media and technology systems. 


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Propaganda

By Edward Bernays

Book cover of Propaganda

Why this book?

There’s no magic wand, no defensive armor, vaccine, or potion that can inoculate people against the influence of propaganda. But learning about propaganda is essential for people of all ages who want to hold on to their democracy in the face of threats. What will surprise you when you read this classic work, written in 1928, is how timely it remains. Bernays anticipates the rise of influencers and memes because he knows that people rely on thought leaders for most of their opinions and beliefs about the world. But the most important feature of this book is what he has to say about propaganda and democracy. Bernays convinces you that propaganda is not inherently evil, and he even makes the case that propaganda is necessary for democratic societies to flourish. 


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Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes

By Jacques Ellul

Book cover of Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes

Why this book?

I love how the study of persuasion and propaganda provides plentiful opportunities to address values, ethics, and morality. As a theologian, Jacques Ellul interrogates propaganda to demonstrate the practice of critical thinking that increases human autonomy and freedom. What I love about this book is its spirit of optimism: through inquiry, dialogue, and reflection, we can evaluate propaganda’s explicit and implicit claims. We can discern between propaganda that is designed for personal gain and propaganda that is trying to benefit society. We can acknowledge our own vulnerability to propaganda and recognize when our buttons are being pushed. 


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Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

By Robert B. Cialdini

Book cover of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Why this book?

With the rise of the internet and social media, it’s become obvious that people are born vulnerable to persuasion because we’re hard-wired to cooperate in social groups.  In fact, we depend upon others for our understanding of reality. This book helped me spot the different ways that people try to influence others through what they say and do. When I was seeking to be a more effective communicator, I found this book valuable because it gives names for the fundamental persuasive techniques that I use every day, at home, in the workplace, and in daily life. But what I love most about this book is how it reveals that persuasion isn’t something that is done to us – in the end, we ultimately persuade ourselves.  


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Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator

By Ryan Holiday

Book cover of Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator

Why this book?

I couldn’t help but love this book for the marvelously dishy stories from inside the belly of the beast. You might think Ryan Holiday is dangerous, because he used all kinds of devious PR strategies to get journalists to promote his clients by giving them attention in their publications. He did it by arousing strong emotions, simplifying information, attacking opponents, and appealing to people’s deepest hopes fears, and dreams. But this entertaining read gets profound as Holiday reveals the dangers that can result from placing propaganda in the public sphere. Through rich storytelling, he unpacks the personal, social, and reputational damage caused by the many new media manipulators seeking to profit from controlling your attention.  


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