How Does The Tactic Of Guilt By Association Work?

Ideas. Insight. Inspiration.

How Does The Tactic Of Guilt By Association Work?

October 5, 2008 Politics 12

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,



12 Responses

  1. Jens says:

    Bush made a bad, poorly vetted choice for VP and governed poorly.
    McCain made a bad, poorly choice for VP.
    So, McCain would govern poorly.

    McCain doesn’t understand economics.
    One can’t make good economic policy without understanding economics.
    So, McCain can’t make good economic policy.

    Obama and Biden’s policies help people that work for a living.
    I work for a living.
    So, Obama and Biden’s policies will help me.
    Change for Five

  2. Jens,
    Great work on all 3!
    Thank you for your comment, and do comment again!
    best wishes,

  3. Aden says:

    Character assassination is really just an avoidance technique. See, if people can sway emotion against their opponent they don’t have to make any actual statement of fact or value. Being charming lets you get away with alot too.

    The Biden/Palin debate is a good example of both. A lot of pundits thought Palin did great… even though she blatantly said she wasn’t going to answer the questions.

    I thought Biden nailed it, but that’s because I care about the answers… and I want them to be of value and be based on provable information (AKA facts). A lot of people don’t look for facts or even understand policy related discussion.

    He came across as boring.
    She came across as interesting.
    It totally sucks like that.

    On top of that you hear a lot of “be afraid of what will happen if you elect the other guy” which let’s ’em get away with never having to say “here’s what will happen if you elect me.” People have a tendency to fear the unknown… so when someone says… “yes be afraid of that” a lot of people buy into it.

    My two cents.

  4. Galib Rayani says:

    Great post like all the others Dr. K,

    Here’s a question: What is the best way to counter negative ads and “guilt by association”? Because, once the association has been suggested, the damage is already done (in my opinion).

    So how do you best make the case the other way? Fight it back with counter negativity, or take the high road and know that people are smart enough to make the right judgement?

  5. Aden

    Thanks for joining the conversation. I appreciate your views on the debate. I’m thinking you were going for a haiku or something. So now, how would you play the association game?

    Aden reads my blog.
    My blog has interesting articles.
    Aden is a very interesting person.

    By the way, speaking of facts, a really fun thing to do after these debates is google ‘fact check VP debate’ and ‘fact check Presidential debate’ and see just how many things both sides get wrong! The interesting thing here is that you were persuaded that Biden had the facts, and Palin had the style. Tell me more!

    Rick (aka DAD)

  6. Galib

    Great questions. I plan to answer them in my next post, going up tomorrow night. Please do check back. Here’s a preview. No matter how rotten the attack, played properly, it’s always a blessing in disguise. It gives you a platform, and the platform already has attention. It’s a matter of turning it to your advantage instead of being wounded by it.

    So do read the follow up, and meanwhile, welcome to the blog and thank you for your comment.

  7. David says:

    Excellent entry. It is quite true that guilt (and sometimes adoration) by association is often a logical pitfall. In the case of Ayers, I believe this is the case.

    The associations between Obama and Ayers have been, I think, both over and under-hyped by each respective organization. Not that I think Obama has anything to hide, but by playing it down while McCain tries to play it up, the middle ground with the truth gets lost. Not entirely mind you, we can still get the facts, but it is difficult to do so without spin.

    I doubt this will work, right now people want to hear about the economy. Really the main thing to watch will be the debate tomorrow (well, today now, I guess), will McCain carry the line of attack (showing he is owning the attack, and not his surrogates) and if so how does Obama respond?

    Personally, I don’t think McCain really has much to gain from this, after all, if he really forces the issue, Obama can hit back with McCain’s associations to the Keating 5. That or he can refocus on the economy. Or he can explain himself. Or a combination of all of those. To be quite honest, I think McCain ought to keep quiet during the debate. If he attacks, no doubt Obama will be ready, now having had a few days to prepare. Any attack McCain makes will probably backfire, and make him look out of touch on the economy + like a corrupt politician. Even if they both emerge looking corrupt, or both disprove each other’s attacks, neither side gains any real ground, which at this point is the same as an Obama victory.

    I think I’m gonna skip the debate though. Honestly, my brain is starting to hurt.

    However, I will post these other examples. (For fun, they aren’t real)(Except maybe for the Aunt one, that would be pretty awesome)(and the Skins one, that one already worked)

    My Aunt has a cat.
    My Aunt is Dr. Evil
    I have connections to Dr. Evil
    Dr. Evil has a death ray
    I have access to a death ray (Sweet)

    The Redskins beat the Cowboys.
    The Cowboys beat Philly
    The Redskins can/ will beat Philly (Proven true on Sunday, hey it isn’t a logical pitfall, it works)

    Here’s a nonsensical one:
    People wear watches.
    Cows do not wear watches.
    Therefore Dogs are obviously capable of spaceflight (I’m sure it makes sense somehow)

    And for good measure:

    George Bush lives in a house
    I live in a house
    Therefore I am George Bush
    Therefore I am the President (Funny how that works isn’t it)

    I swear some of these don’t exactly fit the mold, but I just went with what went into my head, though I suspect somewhere I switched over to an a=b=c, therefore a=c equation model.

  8. David

    Still smiling! Thanks for playing the association game, nicely done.

    The hardest thing in the world for me tonite is to hold back on my follow up post, which I have scheduled for late tomorrow night or early Wednesday morning. I may go ahead and put it up shortly, and skip Wednesday’s entry (I’m working on a book, and have only so much blogging time per week).

    I think countering the tactic of Guilty by Association is an opportunity every time it is brought into play. Of course, like any good tactic, there’s always a way to counter the counter. But who’s counting?

    I will be watching the debate tomorrow night. In part because I’m fascinated by the way persuasion comes into play (or doesn’t come into the play, depending on the candidates and how they play the cards,) in the debate.

    I have to say, I’m disgruntled that we even call these things debates. There’s not much debate to them, mostly just the trading of soundbytes and practiced rebuttals. Seeing Biden almost lose it emotionally in the VP debate was a nice moment for me, because it seemed authentic and so very human. No way to know, but it carried that emotional force for me.

    Here’s to being surprised delightfully by an honest discussion of policy differences between two candidates who love the same country but hold different visions for her future. (And if not, here’s to reading your comments about the persuasion or lack of in the debate!)


  9. For the last few days, I’ve been involved in a back and forth correspondence with someone who wanted to post on my blog who has a strong view on the Presidential campaign that differs substantially from what he reads here (He loves Bush, I think Bush was a disaster, he favors McCain, I think McCain has failed to make his case). This person insisted on using anger and insinuation in his posts, so I blocked them.

    My interest is in civil dialog, and like a mother protecting her child, I am vigorous in defending my blog from descending into name calling and arguments. When I read this morning that McCain has now come out and called Obama a liar , well, to me that is a very bad sign about what’s in store for the next few weeks until the election. What a shame. What a way to lose respect at a time when he needs to win it.

    Nevertheless, I think there was much in what this fellow had to say that is persuasive. So I’m editing down his comment and posting it as I would if I held his view and sought to be persuasive. Please do feel free to comment on this, in a respectful manner of course.

    With that as preface, here’s my rewrite of what this blocked commenter had to say. I’ve taken out the angry parts and tried to make it as persuasive as I can. I think he raises interesting points and am interested in your responses. My rewrite of his comment begins after this line.
    When a politician is competing for the highest office in the land and possibly they world, who they choose as their close friends and associates is relevant in my opinion. You may agree it’s even more relevant if without that person’s assistance they would never have advanced to their present position as a Presidential candidate.

    Obama has defended himself from being too close to Bill Ayers among others by saying, “He’s just a guy from my neighborhood,” and, “someone I served on a board with.”
    Now CNN reports Obama served on 2 boards with Ayers, not 1. Very few of us have served on 2 boards with someone who we barely know. CNN reports that it was Ayers who picked Obama to be the chairman of 1 of these boards

    I ask you, was Hillary Clinton unfair to bring it up the connection between Bill Ayers and Barack Obama? Do you feel I’m being unreasonable when I suggest independent voters and other voters on the fence may want to give it weight in their thinking when deciding whether Obama — or McCain… should be the next Commander-in-Chief?

    I began this election cycle thinking Obama was a decent man whose policies I didn’t support. I remember telling friends, “Hey, this is interesting. The Democrats are going to nominate a nice guy!”

    Then I learned that Obama associates with a domestic terrorist and his radical wife; he associates with Tony Rezko who pled guilty to several corruption offenses and is trying to get a deal from prosecutors even now. I learned that Obama purchased his home with a sweetheart deal from Rezko where Rezko didn’t make his usual profit.

    While every man is entitled to his religion, I learned Obama spent over 20 years in a church even Oprah Winfrey left years ago because of it’s radical nature. Obama, however, claims he was unaware of this, but brought his daughters there… where the agenda was often black “liberation theology” (racism) and hating America… which sounds suspiciously like Bill Ayers’ philosophy.

    Many people on this blog have said substance is more important than style in the debates and in this race. Association can reveal philosophy and poor judgement. Obama believes and promotes the idea that his judgment outweighs his lack of executive experience.

    I ask you to watch this CNN report and consider it fully. If you decide it’s not crucial to your decision, that’s your call, but I believe it is inaccurate and therefore substantially incorrect for Dr. Kirschner to say that “Obama isn’t a personal friend of Ayers, nor Ayers with Obama. The association is minimal.”

    Here is an additional link for your consideration. It is Bill Clinton dealing with a question comparing Obama’s association with Reverend Wright to a hypothetical about McCain or Bush associating with David Duke.

    I think associations do matter. This matters to me. I hope it matters to you. Thank you for your attention to this matter.
    And there you have it. I post this for two reasons. First, I find that it is possible to make a persuasive case out of the information this blocked commenter sought to provide. And second, to make the point that my problem is not with his politics, (I am open minded, and open to being persuaded) but with his approach. I hope he’s reading this. And I hope you are, too! Your comments in response to this will be helpful to us all.

    Best wishes,

  10. Meanwhile, it turns out that Sarah Palin is palling around with people who despise the USA and want Alaska to secede. Hmmm. It’s not terrorism. But still…really?

    Here’s a video about the party to which her husband belongs, that worked hard for her election as governor, and that she addressed when they convened this past year. I report, you decide. I personally find their ‘dress it up as Republican’ and infiltration ideas to be reprehensible, and far more odious that Obama’s tenuous connections to the outrages of Bill Ayer’s youth.

  11. […] mechanism in play is the pattern of association, something I’ve blogged about here.  Our minds form unconscious associations rather quickly, between what we know and what we don’t […]

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The comment’s server IP ( doesn’t match the comment’s URL host IP () and so is spam.

Comments are closed.