Beware These Mind Control Tricks

Beware These Mind Control Tricks

Humans (and other higher mammals) successfully survived as a species by skillfully navigating life's risks. As a result, humans have an exceptional  capacity to store knowledge and use logic to thrive. However when we are presented with unexpected or unfamiliar threats, we must act quickly with little or no opportunity to gather information or consider our alternatives; we rely on instincts driven by emotions, particularly, fear or anger.

Fear causes us to seek safety and comfort. We become risk averse and flee or look to others for protection. A good manipulator knows this and creates fear while offering safe harbors that advance their hidden objectives. Anger makes us aggressive and willing to take risks. Skilled manipulators use this to their advantage and engage in fear mongering to motivate us to act on their behalf.

Fear and anger are powerful emotions and therefore powerful motivators. In normal situations emotions  influence our behavior in more subtle ways. For example, we are naturally wary when things are unfamiliar even in the absence of obvious threats. The more familiar things become the more comfortable we feel. Repetition breeds familiarity. And master manipulators use repetition to seduce us into accepting their pronouncements as truth.

In one experiment each of 100 college students was asked by psychological researchers to evaluate two equally qualified candidates for a lecturer position. After choosing the preferred candidate, each student unknowingly was paired with a specially trained "partner" to discuss their choices. Half the trained partners repeatedly highlighted reasons to select the student's choice and half did the same for the rejected candidate. 70% of the students were persuaded to change their selection when the trained partner repeatedly praised the rejected candidate. By comparison, only 2% of the students changed their selection when their original choice was repeatedly praised. Repetition is just one of many tricks master manipulators use to alter the beliefs and choices made by people who otherwise would rely on knowledge and logic.

Subsequent studies have demonstrated that we are more influenced by verbal repetition than by written repetition. Our minds are more readily changed by what we repeatedly hear than by what we repeatedly read. Political chants, marketing slogans and jingles, and persistent name calling erode our resistance to the intentions of clever manipulators.

Statements presented with high contrast (e.g., bold type) are more believable than their lower contrast cousins. Statements verbalized in a confident (trustworthy) voice are more readily accepted as true compared to voicing the same statement in a weak (untrustworthy) voice.  The more an assertion stands out, the greater is its credibility. The more often we hear a lie the greater is the tendency to believe it. These are examples of the illusory truth effect (i.e., a tendency to overestimate the validity of an assertion).

We hold many attitudes and opinions that derive from our culture, religion, family values and other experiences. When these perspectives are challenged or contradicted we  are inclined to construct "logical" rationalizations and seek supporting evidence to support them. Social psychologists call this "motivated reasoning", a form of confirmation bias.

Motivated reasoning is evident today in partisan politics. For example, functional MRI studies show that there are significant differences in brain activity  between areas of the brain controlling emotions and areas controlling logic when political and non-political positions are challenged. We appear to switch on our emotions and suppress our reasoning when our partisan positions are questioned. Astute politicians and commercial media exploit this phenomenon.

Skilled manipulators leverage our primitive instincts. They separate populations into "us versus them" and use well known in-group biases to strengthen bonds within the loyal group and promote hostility towards those outside the group. Social media provides a ubiquitous and convenient way to coalesce and bond  like minded people while manufacturing hostilities towards those with opposing ideas. Political parties are particularly adept at using in-group biases. 

A research paper by David Dunning and Justin Kruger published in 1999 demonstrated that, among adults in the U.S., there is an inverse relationship between the knowledge one has about certain subjects and one's assessment of their own expertise in the subject (e.g., more than one-third of software engineers in one company rated themselves to be in the top 5% of the same group).  Randomly selected participants in another experiment were tested on their knowledge of autism.  62% of the subjects who performed most poorly on the knowledge test rated themselves more knowledgeable that scientists and doctors specializing in autism and 71% of subjects who strongly believe there is a link between autism and vaccines believed they knew more than the experts. By contrast, 15% of those who scored highest on the knowledge test thought they knew more than the scientists and doctors.

Later studies have identified narcissism and group identity as contributing factors to overconfidence in one's abilities (interestingly, the Dunning-Kruger effect does not seem to be as prevalent in Japan; in a 2001 Japanese study the subjects tended to underestimate their knowledge and abilities and seek to improve them).

All of us are part self-directed and part a reflection of the influence of others. To be strengthen the part of our persona that is represents the best we can be, we must constantly examine our opinions, our principles, and our actions by asking: "Am I being true to the person I really want to be? Am I rationalizing values and "facts" that I have not fully considered or fact checked? Am I being influenced and manipulated by people and institutions to serve their own interests rather than further my own vision of the kind of world that I want to be inherited by my descendants?

Don't let those who are diametric to your true values seduce you to serve their ends rather than yours.