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Learning and Perception Management — An Introduction

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Perception management is a sub-component of information warfare; which is also a part of warfare. Perception management is employing non-lethal weapons in order to effect or shape subject’s reasoning. Even though we use this definition right away; definition of perception management is a controversial issue. Because it is a subject both to advertising-marketing and intelligence studies. There is a lot of different academic definitions in advertising and marketing area but they are nearly useless in the means of intelligence studies. Since intelligence studies is a relatively new area in academia; it is quite hard to find an accepted definition of perception management. In this paper popular definitions of perception management in intelligence studies will be shared and criticized.

There is also a lot of discussions about how perceptions are being managed. As we are going to see there is unfortunate answers like: convincing. Most of the authors who writing on the issue however accepting that it is a process of learning and manipulating. In this paper, learning component will be stressed mostly. Learning is a process which comprise all of human life. Therefore it is also became a subject to many researches and experiments. As a consquence there is a lot of theories about learning. In this paper only two of them will be focused on; since they are the most related theories to our topic: perception management. Also painless learning will be discussed under the scope of these two theories. Painless learning is a relatively new understanding of learning and solely examining painless learning isn’t that helpful to understand its nature.


Before we dig into theories of learning it would be better if concept of learning itself is argued. Learning is a process; which human and animals are sharing. Although there is differences between human and animal learning; it should be noted that at the most primitive level they are same.

In case of human learning there are prejudices about learning process. Although these prejudices are adopted by mediocre citizens rather than experts; they are still effective in case of our topic. There are three of those prejudices to note.

First of them is developed in terms of space. It claims that only educational institutions are the space for learning activities. That prejudice leads to excluding family and other social environments as a space for learning. Family and other social environments are as vital as educational institutions especially with regards to development of social understanding of world; as a whole of rules and traditions which interacting each other to create society.

Second prejudice is stressing on time limit on learning. It is believed that after a while humans are ceased to learn something and it is impossible to get over this problem. In fact, humans are constantly learning and unlearning. While children are able to learn without unlearn something; in case of adults it is a bit different. Learning for adults also brings unlearning. It is impossible to construct a new reality without breaking the previous one; of course it is possible to argue that usually learning isn’t about concstructing a new reality and mostly about fortifying that previous reality but even fortifying means change. So, in terms of adults learning always includes change. Third of those prejudices is that learning is always a concious activity. Indeed it is possible to learn while concious but as we are going to examine in this paper, learning through sub-concious is also possible. Those methods called painless learning which they usually manipulate sub-concious area by using below-threshhold or over-threshhold messages. Learning without concious may named as psychological manipulation also. Eventually it is possible to say that learning is relevant for all of human activities(Maisto&Morris, 2001: 163)

Learning can be defined as “The process by which experience or practice results in a relatively permanent change in behaviour or potential behaviour.”(Maisto&Morris, 2001: 164).


Classical conditioining has discovered by Ivan Pavlov. During his research on animal digestion, he realized that dogs began to salivate before he give them food. Without actual act; dog was giving response. So, he began to use bells. He rang a bell before he gave food to dog. After a while dog began to salivate only with the ring bell.

Classical conditioning can be defined as “The type of learning in which a response naturally elicited by one stimulus, comes to be elicited by a different, formerly neutral stimulus.”(Maisto&Morris, 2001: 164).

Elements of classical conditioning are: unconditioned stimulus, unconditioned response, conditioned stimulus, conditioned response(Maisto&Morris, 2001: 164). Unconditioned stimulus is an event that capable to trigger unconditioned response. In the context of Pavlov and his dog; food is unconditioned stimulus and salivating of dog is unconditioned response. Conditioned stimulus on the other is an event that repeteadly associated with the unconditioned stimulus(Maisto&Morris, 2001: 164). After a while conditioned stimulus can trigger the same response with unconditioned stimulus; which is now called conditioned stimulus; since response isn’t happening as a response to unconditioned stimulus. Conditioned response is a learned action(Maisto&Morris, 2001: 164).

As it is stated before in this paper, human learning and animal learning are two different processes. Naturally, the question of “Can classical conditioning be applied to human beings as well?” rise up. To answer this question a psychologist, John Watson, had tried to use classical conditioning to human beings. On a baby named Albert. Main question of experiment was that are human beings open to learn by classical conditioning; so they decided to implement a certain phobia to baby Albert. They showed a white rat to baby Albert; as a first response, baby Albert tried to play with it. He showed any kind of response that we can associate with fear. So, in terms of this experiment unconditioned stimulus is white rat and unconditioned response is happiness. Then every time they show a white rat to baby Albert; they made a loud and disturbing noise. Which make baby Albert terrified. Here, our conditioned stimulus is disturbing, high pitch voices. After a while baby Albert began to cry whenever he saw the white rat. That attitude also includes any white and fury object. He began to cry whenever see white and fury object, such as a white rabbit and a Santa Claus mask(Maisto&Morris, 2001: 166). Interestingly enough, our conditioned response has changed. First time, baby Albert tried to play with a white rat with joy, after a while he began to be terrified every white and fury object. That happened through a learning process without a doubt but it is also proving that conditioned responses are able to change. Nature of conditioned stimulus is highly effective in shaping conditioned response while it is pairing with unconditioned stimulus. So, it also possible to argue that after a while of pairing, conditioned stimulus is effecting subject’s perception of unconditioned stimulus. As an another experiment shows us, it is also possible to unlearn any kind of phobia through classical conditioning(Maisto&Morris, 2001: 166).

In accordance with the topic of this paper; it is also should be discussed that whether classical conditioning is useful in society level perception management or not? One of the very basic rules of perception management is secrecy. Target audience never should have aware of that their perception is being managed. In order to do that perception management highly relies on painless learning methods in both tactical and operational level.

Painless learning may occured through subliminal and supraliminal stimulations. Subliminal stimulations targeting our under-threshhold understanding. It means “embedding material in print, audio or video messages so faintly that they are not consciously perceived”(Rogers and Smith 1993, p. 10). That means target exposed subliminal stimulations without even knowing, because if a subliminal stimulation is visual, it is so fast that target isn’t even know that he saw it or if a subliminal stimulation is an audio-message, it is so silent; again target isn’t aware of he is exposed to that stimulation(Hawkins, 1970). In experiments it is understood that subliminal stimulations effective in increasing primitive instincts, influencing emotional reaction against a neutral stimulus and even capable of effecting brand choices in terms of marketing(Hawkins, 1970). It should also noted that another experiments which tried to influence subjects’ voting and eating behaviour through subliminal stimulations reach the conclusion of subliminal stimulations are effective in the means of changing voting behaviour but not dramatically; and experimenters even noted that that changes might have been occured by chance(Hoar&Meek, 1965). Although as Hawkins pointed out influencing emotions are possible with subliminal stimulations and it is more than enough in perception management. In post-truth age, which facts aren’t important any longer and emotions are the main factor while defining what is true or what is not, being able to influence emotions is equal to creating or shaping the truth itself; therefore subliminal stimulations and subliminal perception is crucial in perception management. Through subliminal stimulations and subliminal perception it is possible to employ classical conditioning by painless learning to conduct perception management operations.

Other method is employing supraliminal stimulations(Nelson, 2008). Unlike subliminal stimulations which targets our under-thresshold; supraliminal stimulations targeting over-threshhold. It is easier to associate supraliminal stimulation to classical conditioning. By using conditioned stimuluses too frequently with a certain unconditional stimulus; it is possible to apply painless learning through classical conditioning. It is appropratie to use The Corsican(Season 6, Episode 2) episode of The Blacklist, a TV series, as an example. The Blacklist is a TV series about an international criminal, which is both a main character and an antagonist, suddenly turn himself to FBI and starts to help them in order to catch other international criminals; while the antagonist/main character follows his own agenda by doing so. In the mentioned episode; an anti-globalist, alt-right terrorist decide to bomb a commission meeting in United Nations. To do so he need to bypass security; therefore he kidnapp and then killed a diplomatic courrier; which is a Turkish courrier and plant a bomb in diplomatic case. Since bag won’t go through any inspection, attacker manage to get inside to commission and leave the bag inside while he leaved the area. For the sake of plot, attack has prevented by American cops in the show. Interesting thing is throughout the show, case always get a close shot by cameras as the Turkish flag openly present. In a 42 minutes-length episode , Turkish flag got exposed even cinematically unnecessary situations. In this example Turkish flag is unconditioned stimulus. Unconditioned response of audience may change since it is too diversed but for the sake of arguement we will take neutral American audience against Turkey. So, unconditioned response to this unconditioned stimulus is neutrality. Bombed case with a Turkish flag on it, which targeting United Nations, a universal symbol of peace; is conditioned stimulus. Conditioned response will be most likely that Turkey is targeting international peace and security; therefore Turkey suddenly can turn into a threat in the eyes of domestic public opinion of USA. In this particular example, visual supraliminal messages have been used in order to manage American threat perception. Although one episode isn’t enough to conduct a strategic level perception management; this episode is a textbook example of operational level perception management through classical conditioning and painless learning.


Operant conditioning was discovered by Edward Lee Thorndike. Thorndike, in his experiment, put a hungry cat in a puzzle box and put food outside; where can cat see and smell it(Maisto&Morris, 2001: 168). First, it took a while to cat solve the puzzle but then trial after trial cat began to solve it even immedieatly. This kind of learning involves a certain response because of the consequences it brings(Maisto&Morris, 2001: 168). Operant conditioning can be defined as: “The type of learning in which behaviours are emitted (in the presence of a certain stimuli) to earn rewards or avoid punishments.”(Maisto&Morris, 2001: 168).

Operant conditioning’s elements are much easier than classical conditioning. First one is operant behaviour; which can be defined as “Behaviour designed to operate on the environment in a way that will gain something desired or avoid something unpleasant.”(Maison&Morris, 2001; 168). Second one is reinforces; it is also defined as “A stimulus that follows a behaviour and increases the likelihood that the behaviour will be repeated.”(Maison&Morris, 2001; 168). Reinforcers are usually rewards or satisfactions as a consequence of behaviour. Finally third one is punishers, which defined as: “A stimulus that follows a behaviour and decreases the likelihood that the behaviour will be repeated.”(Maison&Morris, 2001: 168).

There are differences between operant conditioning and classical conditioning. First of all while subject is passive in classical conditioning, in operant conditioning subject is active(Maison&Morris, 2001: 168). In classical conditioning behaviour learned by stimuluses but in operant conditioning behaviour learned for the sake of a reinforcer or just to avoid a punisher. Also we should have note that operant conditioning is relevant for both human and animal learning.

In any sense, operant conditioning is a reward-punishment system in learning perspective. So, it isn’t a quite easy task to apply it to painless learning methods; since an average person should’ve feel if he or she is being rewarded or punished but again it isn’t impossible. There is something called Skinner Box. Skinner Box is a box composed of solid walls which is relatively empty except for a reward and an activating device(Maison&Morris, 2001:170). After a while subject find its way to its reward in the box. It is invented a researcher who make a lot of researches on operant conditioning, B. F. Skinner. It is quite alike with Thorndike’s experiment but more instutionalized. In perception management through painless learning, Skinner Box is a valid method. Especially in the context of news, Skinner Box may prove to be a useful instrument. As it is mentioned earlier in this paper, we are living in post-truth age; where is biases and emotions matter more than factuality. To utilize it news can drop little hints during their screen time. For example injustices, which allegedly often occure in a country will put on TV with an agitating fashion; it is most likely that audience will associate this situation with political body. In Turkey, especially sexual crimes and child abuses use that way in TV’s. Reinforcing element here is; associating those crimes with political body therefore getting angry. Getting angry can be also a satisfying situation. Especially when it merges with an opposition against allegedly insensitive side of society. Through painless learning by operant conditioning perception management can be used in a domestic tactical way.


Perception management is a still vague area that can’t be defined properly. Although there is a lot of different definitions; this paper first stress United States Department of Defense’s definition; which is: “Actions to convey and/or deny selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, and objective reasoning as well as to intelligence systems and leaders at all levels to influence official estimates, ultimately resulting in foreign behaviors and official actions favorable to the originator’s objectives. In various ways, perception management combines truth projection, operations security, cover and deception, and psychological operations”(Siegel, 2005). Although this definition offers a very comprehensive understanding of perception management, still it has flaws.

First of all; target of perception management isn’t always necessarily foreign audiences. Domestic audience may also be a target for perception management. Although there is more undemocratic examples of domestic perception management in Turkey like Psychological Warfare Department’s operations during 28th February Case; it is also should be noted that any attempt to justify an action in public opinion can be related to perception management. Again an example from Turkey, before PYD/YPG’s offensive against ISIS and so-called Solution Process in Turkey; PYD/YPG terrorist organization presented as “Kurdish Forces” in TRT; state-owned television channel. After 15th July coup d’etat attempt by FETO(Fetullahist Terrorist Organization) it has changed and again PYD/YPG is began to present with its link to PKK and a terrorist organization. It was also a domestic justification process for an offensive into Syria, against PYD/YPG and ISIS. Also United States conduct many domestin perception management operations through Hollywood apparatuses and focus on so-called jihadi terrorism threat against United States in an attempt to justify their actions in Middle East; in the eyes of American public too.

Another flaw in this definition is its pre-assumptions. This definition assumes that perception management is limited to goverments use only. In fact many terrorist organizations and other NGO’s often use this method. PKK’s use of women terrorists in their propaganda videos in an attempt to create Western-like society, that should be supported, image in the perceptions of Western nations. FETO also use this method to create the perception of there is a dictatorship in Turkey and that dictatorship supporting ISIS; which is also perceived as the common enemy of civilized world, therefore Turkey’s elected and legitimate government should also be toppled by Western powers. FETO use this method in many cases; MIT Trucks’ Crysis, testimonies of pro-coup officers in courts, through their media apparatuses, through Twitter accounts; such as @kacsaatolduson and finally agitations of detainees in Turkish prisons. As an example of last part, it should be noted that female FETO terrorists in prisons got pregnant in order to cause a distress in public against governments struggle against terrorism.

Siegel defines perception management as “the ability to shape worldwide perceptions in one’s favor to foster compliance and facilitate mission accomplishment”(Siegel, 2005). Also Siegel notes that perception management not only US Department of Defense’s job but American government’s job as a whole(Siegel, 2005). So, he use a more comprehensive approach to perception management, which is well-directed arguement. Although perception management is a component of warfare; US Department of Defense, doesn’t have necessary resources. It is possible to apply this to every country. Also Siegel notes that perception management seeks to “build and preserve public opinion support (at home and abroad) to gain and maintain legitimacy; communicate intent and objectives to hostile and/or third parties to establish a high degree of credibility so they fully understand the consequences of their actions; influence the attitudes and behaviors of the local populations so they act in accordance with US(operator state or other actors) objectives”(Siegel, 2005). From that point of view a more satisfying definition can be made. Perception management is whole operations which targeting minds of target audience in order to build or preserve legimitacy and credibility about actions of operator actor. Although this definiton more satisfying it isn’t a complete definition. It is a definition of defensive perception management. It is also possible to de-legitimize any kind of actions of any actor’s through perception management; which is offensive perception management. To define offensive and defensive perception management more accurately it is appropriate to refer classics. In his classical work Art of War, Sun Tzu claims that before going into war there is five points that should be calculated. First, way; second; sky; third, place; fourth, commander; five, rule. Although each one them has importance for understanding war. This paper will only focus on the way. Way is the thing that makes ruler and people found a common ground; only then they can die together or live together and people wouldn’t back down from any kind of sacrifice. To make it more contemporary it is possible to change the word of ruler with the word of government. In modern terms we call it defensive perception management; since it is only discussing legitimacy and credibility in the domestic public opinion of operator. On the other hand there is Clausewitz. Clausewitz claims that war isn’t limited only to armed conflict; war is accumulation of everything to make our enemy yield. With undermining its enemies’ legitimacy and credibility both in their domestic public opinion and in international public opinion; operator side is conducting an offensive perception management operation.

Also both Siegel and US Department of Defense limited their definitions to operational and tactical level. Perception management also can be used in a strategic level such as social engineering.

According to Özdağ: “Perception management is convincing target society or individual to think in the frame of subject’s will”(Özdağ, 2015: 13). This definition is crucially flawed. Operationalization of perception management has paramount importance. This operationalization almost always happens as a painless learning process. There two sides in painless learning: one is active and one is passive, one manipulator and one manipulated. Operator side is the active one which conducting operation and the subject side is passive; his/her perception is being managed. Therefore operator’s secrecy is also being protected. Convincing on the other hand have two active side which actively arguing with each other and most importantly in convincing, subject is aware of he/she is being convinced. It is a conciouss activity. Also it is possible for subject to convince operator otherwise. This kind of qualification of perception management leads to ignoring one of the most important basises of perception management: secrecy; because subject is always aware of operator’s identity in the means of convincing process. It is also should be noted Özdağ’s understanding of this operationalization is also limited. He claims that perception management is necessarily includes flow of non-factual or already shaped information into subject’s mind(Özdağ, 2015: 20). In the means of perception management one factual information can come with four lies. It is clear that Özdağ is trying to explain perception management in post-truth era but his lack of knowledge about the concept of post-truth is highly visible; since his limited way to put it. As it is mentioned before; post-truth isn’t about giving non-factual information; but giving information in such a way that information will press into subject’s biases and emotions. So difference between right and wrong changes into difference between good and bad. Post-truth is about changing perception’s episthemological basis into an ethical basis; therefore diversifying it.

This author prefers to make a more philosophical definiton. This author defines perception management by relying Platon. There is a well-known allegory of Platon in his work Republic; allegory of cave. According to that allegory “There is a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality.” In the means of perception management; subject side is those prisoners which facing a blank wall and understanding the shadows as prisoners and operator side is their guardian standing between fire and prisoners; shaping those shadow either playing with it or increasing or decreasing fire’s intensity. Perception management is reality-shaping. Most important point is that all of subject’s sources of reality should be controlled or at least can be manipulated by operator and subject shouldn’t be aware of this control or manipulation. This definition is relying manipulation rather than learning process in the terms of perception management; after all learning itself is also a manipulation of reality.


Four different definitions of perception management have been discussed in this paper. All of them were criticized, especially Özdağ, since it is quite hard to precisely define what perception management is. Eventually it is possible to conclude this paper with arguing that perception management is a process to shape or create domestic or international public opinion by learning, manipulating and employing post-truth methods. Even though this definition isn’t also precise; its comprehensive way will allow to understand what perception management is better. In this paper perception management usually associated with process of learning. To understand learning precisely two of most related theories of learning is discussed in this paper: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. It is also discussed that these two theories are very convenient to apply painless learning methods. Since painless learning is a relatively new understanding of learning; it isn’t wise to discuss it as a sole subject.

Even though different theories and many definitions of perception management have been discussed in this paper, it appropraite to argue that: it is impossible to make a definition of perception management while excluding learning process.


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