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Why We Love Tyrants – an Opinion

Today’s post is a response to this essay in Aeon.

I found this article to be both interesting and well-written.  It reinforced the need to develop critical thinking throughout society as an inoculation against undue influence.  Where authoritarians gain power over people by first painting a bleak picture, then finding an enemy to blame and finally offering themselves and their ideas as the way to “salvation”, critical thinking and scientific reasoning would soon show the fallacy of all three suggestions.  Things were probably not nearly as bad as Goebbels and Hitler made them out to be. The Jews and Social Democrats were certainly not the root cause of their problems.  And the illusory “pure” German breed was certainly not their salvation.

To draw a current parallel:  the economy, Mexicans and taxes really aren’t as bad as Trump paints them.  The root causes of the problems were not Obama, Hillary and the Democrats. And Trump, the border wall and tax cuts for the already well-off will likely not prove to be the solution. Authoritarians rely on simple, powerful rhetoric to stir an emotional response, but we need to think critically and take a cold, hard look at the facts.

This reminds me of the interesting idea put forward by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion: trusting obedience of children toward parents was important for the survival of early man.  This tendency remains as part of our evolutionary inheritance.  But now, in a more enlightened world, trusting, unquestioning obedience detrimentally opens us to a mental “slavishness”, a susceptibility to parent-like or god-like authoritarians.  Again, critical thinking and scientific reasoning is the real “salvation”. We must also overcome any innate tendency to passively accept authority through groupthink and emotional manipulation. (Either that, or make my lovely wife Queen of the World and we will all be better off!)

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? We’d love to hear from you! 

 Life is a Pitch (and Then You Buy) – an excerpt from Jon Atack’s “Opening Minds”

Ninkasi, the ancient Sumerian goddess of beer and brewing

Advertising, in the form of branding, reaches back at least to Sumeria, the cradle of civilization, where writing was first discovered. Beer bottle caps made there predate the crown cap by over 4000 years. This is a positive use of influence: remember our brand so that you can buy it again.

There is no clear dividing line between art, advertising and propaganda. For many centuries, European artists illustrated Bible stories for an illiterate population. In the Renaissance, art became a demonstration of wealth and influence, and a tool of propaganda utilised by the ruling class to maintain authority over the masses, as artists were paid to add images of their patrons to religious pictures.

In an early example of political spin, in the sixteenth century Queen Elizabeth I ordered all existing portraits of her to be destroyed. They were replaced with approved images, depicting her as a beautiful Virgin Queen. These approved images bore little resemblance to the reality.

By this time, advertising had been spurred on with the introduction of the printing press, which also heralded a new age of propaganda (originally the Catholic Church’s term for the office that lured defectors back into the fold, during the Reformation).

Modern advertising, however, began after the American Civil War, in the 1860s: the first modern conflict, which left a mass of physically and psychologically traumatised combatants. The pharmaceutical companies were born at this time, selling patent medicines that would be illegal today, because along with alcohol, they contained opium and cannabis. Cocaine was added to the mix at the end of the nineteenth century, and enthusiastically endorsed by Pope Leo XIII – on billboards for Mariani wine – and by Sigmund Freud, in his first published paper, Uber Coca.

Pope Leo went so far as to award a gold medal to the hard drug concoction ‘bearing his august effigy.’ Many celebrated figures endorsed the wine, including Thomas Edison, Jules Verne, the Russian Empress, Emile Zola, Alexandre Dumas and Henrik Ibsen. As with celebrities in contemporary advertising, it was hoped that endorsements by prominent figures would persuade the public at large that they would benefit from these products.

Ronald Reagan, advertising Chesterfield cigarettes

By the mid-twentieth century, advertising had come to include a plethora of new techniques. Corporations would now ‘sell the sizzle, not the steak.’ The housewife would be subjected to ‘two tarts in the kitchen’ advertisements. TV medical doctor Marcus Welby, MD (actor Robert Young) sold coffee, dressed up in a white coat. The appeal of authority gave way to the use of celebrities, so Ronald Reagan advocated not only for the Voice of America – the US anti-Communist radio station – but also Chesterfield cigarettes, in the years before his presidency.

In the 1970s, positioning theory showed that it was best to ‘position’ your product against a market leader. Avis car rentals ran against Hertz with their ‘we try harder’ campaign, which successfully increased their market share. In the UK, a very popular series of ads showed Leonard Rossiter spilling Cinzano on Joan Collins. Unfortunately for Cinzano, this led to a surge in market leader Martini’s sales. The outcome of covert influence is not always predictable.

Next came aspirational ‘lifestyle’ marketing, where the product was seen as part of an envied lifestyle. Sharper Image exemplifies this approach where the customer buys in to a way of life rather than a product.

Advertisers can afford the latest in technology, so by the 1990s, CT scanners were being used for ‘neuromarketing’ surveys. Instead of relying on verbal answers to questions – which might be influenced by the desire to please the questioner – volunteers were brain-scanned to see what their real uncensored responses were.

Coca-Cola was among the first corporations to use this new technique. This led to ‘emotional’ marketing, which tries to tap straight into the emotional centres of the brain. The most profound allegiances are rerouted, so, for instance, one fan of Pepsi talked about the patriotic rush he felt when looking at the red, white and blue logo on the can.

These days, manufacturers contribute to the funding for movies, with the guarantee that their products will feature prominently in the resulting film. This ‘product placement’ may very well work at a hypnotic level.

The whole drift of advertising is to induce an experience, to create an emotional demand for a product or service. And advertising is a mainstay of modern life. We watch films and go to concerts, because we want to be given an experience. Sitting at home and watching a film on the TV, or listening to music on a sound system, is quite different from participating in a group. This receptivity to group experience makes us more susceptible to the contrived tricks of exploiters. We experience a natural high when in company, whether it is a rock concert or a political rally. That innocent high is easily manipulated.

This is an excerpt from chapter 7 of Jon’s book, Opening Minds: the secret world of manipulation, undue influence, and brainwashing

Social or Antisocial Media? The Use of Undue Influence in Cyberspace

Has our social media become antisocial? Take a look at these interviews where two of the creators of social media talk about the manipulation of the brain’s reward system through the very platforms they helped to popularize.

Sean Parker, former president of Facebook, explains the origins of social media: “You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors – creators – understood this consciously, and we did it anyway.”

Chamath Palihapitiya, former head of Facebook Consumer Growth says, “We have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric…”.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Do you have a story about social media that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 


Emotional Intelligence and Pretend Empathy as Tools of Undue Influence

Can emotional intelligence and empathy be transformed into tools of undue influence by manipulators? Emotional intelligence became a buzz phrase 20 years ago, when Daniel Goleman published his best-seller on the subject. He was looking at the benefits of sensitivity to the emotions of others, and claimed that emotional intelligence was more important that general intelligence in business and social interactions. Since then, emotional intelligence has been accepted as an important idea.

However, manipulation also relies upon a sure reading of emotions by a predator. In his book Zero Degrees of Empathy, Simon Baron-Cohen explains that psychopaths have little “affective empathy” –they feel very little – but a high level of “cognitive empathy” – understanding the feelings of others. Baron-Cohen’s Empathy Quotient test is available online if you want to check out your own empathy level.

The problem with texts that explain empathy and emotional intelligence is that they will be used by predators to enhance their skills. For instance, Dale Carnegie’s famous text, How to Win Friends and Influence People, explains how friendly, caring people approach others. As such, it is not only a way to increase friendly behavior, but also a training manual for predators.

We are urged to develop empathy in an avalanche of literature over the last couple of decades, but these exhortations do not take account of the unconscious nature of true empathy. The sort of empathy we are talking about is an automatic reaction.

emotional intelligenceIt is theorized that some people are born with a surfeit of “mirror” neurons that mimic the emotional responses of others; psychopaths, it is inferred, have few or no mirror neurons. They understand the emotions of others, but they do not share them.

In Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom argues that we must go beyond our knee-jerk reactions and, as his title says, develop “rational compassion”. The parent who feels too much empathy may allow a child to leave those greens uneaten, watch TV all night, and avoid lessons. The surgeon who feels too much empathy may shake too much to make the first cut.

As Paul Bloom says:

“Empathy is related to compassion and concern, and sometimes the terms are used synonymously. But compassion and concern are more diffuse than empathy. It is weird to talk about having empathy for the millions of victims of malaria, say, but perfectly normal to say that you are concerned about them or feel compassion for them. Also, compassion and concern don’t require mirroring of others’ feelings. If someone works to help the victims of torture and does so with energy and good cheer, it doesn’t seem right to say that as they do this, they are empathizing with the individuals they are helping. Better to say they feel compassion for them.”

Where empathy is simply believing that you feel what another person feels, it can be redirected by a manipulator. Take for example the story used to ignite the first Iraq War: advertising agency Hill and Knowlton prepared the 15-year-old daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to testify to a Congressional hearing that she was present when Iraqi troops broke into the premature baby unit of a hospital in Kuwait City and tipped babies from their incubators.

This was a horrifying story, and it galvanized the western world into action: but it was only a story. Initially, even Amnesty International supported it, but with further examination, the witness changed her testimony to say that one baby had been briefly removed from an incubator. Propagandists know how to manipulate empathy.

To overcome this effect, we need to consider our feelings rather than simply acting on them. We will have better use for our emotional intelligence and our empathy if we do.

As with intuition, empathy and emotional intelligence are real assets, but only when they are linked with good critical thinking skills and healthy skepticism.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s book? Do you have a story about emotional intelligence that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 


Guns and Undue Influence

The regulation of guns is a sticky subject, politically and emotionally, especially in the United States. As I write this, the country is, sadly and inevitably, between mass shootings: there have been many, and there will be many more. Unfortunately, it is one of the few certainties for future news reports. I’m reminded of Billy Bragg singing “…we are between the wars”. [Since this article was submitted for consideration, there have been 15 shootings involving 4 or more people in the US ~ed.]

So, aside from all the lobbying from vested interests, where is the undue influence? A couple of ideas come to mind.

A slogan that is so often repeated that it has become embedded in the public mind, is: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. This is thought-stopping at its most blatant. The words can take hold because they’re true, on the face of it – but they’re not the whole truth. This phrase, repeated mantra-like, has influenced many people to abandon simple analytical reflection, while lazy and unquestioning thinking fertilises the concept. The truth is, quite clearly, if there were no people, there could be no shooting. But there would also be no shooting if there were no guns.

A more subtle source of undue influence concerns thought control, derived from the wilful and inappropriate interpretation of the US’s Second Amendment: the right to bear arms. Taking any passage out of context is a common ploy for manipulation. One classic example of this is the Jehovah’s Witness interpretation of bible verses concerning the consumption of blood, which has led to them banning blood transfusions for adherents – resulting in hundreds of deaths annually.

In the case of the Second Amendment, those who wish to exert influence never mention that it was written in 1791, following the American Revolutionary War, and applied to “A well-regulated militia”. Nor do they mention that James Madison, who wrote it, had a vested interest in protecting slave owners from revolt and from the abolitionists of the north, who might one day interfere with the status quo. And, of course, they never refer to the fact that the most advanced military weapon in 1791 was the musket: capable of firing infrequently, with a short range and a tendency to miss the target.

However, I think the most powerful factor in gaining influence is our own emotions, and the concept of “rights”. It’s natural that nobody wants to lose any rights they have been granted, so by playing on the notion of losing one of your cherished rights, it becomes possible for influence to gain traction. What the manipulators don’t mention is that this right leads to having the “right” to be randomly shot and killed at any time, any place and for no good reason.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about guns and undue influence that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Thought-Stopping Phrases, Concepts and Techniques

Thought-stopping is used by predators of all types in order to make you stop thinking for yourself. The quicker a predator can stop you from using your critical thinking skills, the sooner you will fall into their trap. However, along with a dose of healthy skepticism, knowing these techniques can help you recognize a dangerous situation.


Instead of answering any inconvenient questions, a predator will turn the question back on anyone asking for clarification or expressing doubts. This includes quizzing you on your “motives” for asking such questions (“Where did you hear such a thing?” “Why would you bring up something like this?”), or derailing the conversation into an irrelevant topic, or even turning the question inside out and accusing you of the same misdeed you are questioning them about.

Straw Men

A “Straw Man” argument is when someone uses an extreme example of your opinion to invalidate your position altogether. For instance, an abusive partner might answer your plea for a little time to yourself with: “so you’re saying you can’t stand to be with me!” – this is a dangerous form of black-and-white, Manichean thinking, as it forestalls any discussion or compromise.

Scripture Quotes

Whether from the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita, or even general folk sayings, certain “stock” phrases can be used to shut down any discussion. A false weight of “absolute” truth is ascribed to the saying, and the abuser’s interpretation of those words prohibits any dissent. These glib sayings will become ingrained in your mind with repetition, in essence becoming part of a self-policing system designed to keep you thinking – or, rather, not thinking – the “right” way. 


Not just religious or spiritual groups use chanting: advertisers, sports hooligans, and unsavory politicians of all stripes use chants to stir people up into a state of fervor. If a leader can convince a group of people to chant a phrase in unison, it becomes all the harder to go against the crowd and almost impossible to ask questions. Some abusive systems will use nonsense syllables – or phrases in a foreign language – to add an extra level of confusion, making it all the easier for you to fall into a suggestible trance state.


Making generalities and lumping people into categories is an old established human practice. But when we start using thought-stopping labels like ‘feminazi’, ‘chauvinist pig’, ‘fascist’, ‘libtard’, ‘uneducated’, and other terms of over-simplifying other humans, we have shut down our reasoning and our ability to listen to an idea – regardless of who is espousing it.


Although there are often valid reasons for shelving a difficult discussion for later, skilled manipulators will often put off until tomorrow the questions they should answer today – and with them, tomorrow never arrives. Such phrases as “all will become clear as you progress”, and “you don’t understand now, but you will soon” should be red flags in any setting.

Circular Reasoning

How do we know Dear Leader is honest? Because he says he is honest, and Dear Leader never lies. With a manipulator skilled in thought-stopping, there might be more than two steps to the circle, but essentially, if you are being asked to believe that A = B = C = A without any external proofs to the values of the individual steps, then you are being led down the garden path of circular reasoning.

Word Salad

As the Deepak Chopra Quote Generator shows us, sometimes all a spiritual or political leader has to do is string together a set of random words or phrases that sound good – and leave it to you to puzzle out a meaning in keeping with your own beliefs. This verbal Rorschach will have you believing that your guru, teacher, or candidate knows you and your needs better than anyone else; before you can stop to examine their words of wisdom, the manipulator has moved on to another “lesson”, using another string of words that make just as much – or as little – actual sense.

Credibility Dashing

This is a favorite for manipulative predators and groups alike: rather than address any criticism or accusation of wrongdoing, the manipulator will turn the accusation back on the accuser, discrediting the source of the criticism as someone with an “agenda”, or an “axe to grind”, and certainly not anyone who should be taken seriously. An expert predator will use your skepticism to his own advantage, dismissing news of his group’s abuses or even scientific evidence debunking his claims with a casual: “well, you can’t believe everything you read in the papers.”

Emotional Manipulation

When all else fails, throwing a screaming fit can end even the most persistent line of questioning. Protests such as “if you love me, you’d …” and “I’m too angry to talk about this” are standard gambits; sometimes the anger will be projected onto the victim: “well, if you’re going to act this upset, there’s no use discussing it!” Abusive traumatizing narcissists use tantrums and emotional blackmail to cloud their victims’ judgment; very few of us have the emotional wherewithal to remain unaffected by full-on narcissistic rage.


In general, thought-stopping phrases and techniques are designed to hijack your reasoning and bring your critical thinking processes to a crashing halt; recognizing these techniques is an important part of maintaining your healthy skepticism.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about thought-stopping that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Influencing American Healthcare

I feel very lucky to live in the UK, where our fine National Health Service (NHS) caters for all my medical needs. We don’t have to pay anything for the treatment we need, and only pay a small amount towards prescriptions. I know it is easy to point to imperfections and funding issues in the NHS, but it’s still a wonderful system and, after 70 years, we British are very proud and protective of it. It is worth pointing out that it runs successfully alongside a private health system. Some time ago, I watched the excellent film “Sicko” by Michael Moore. Today, I was prompted to reflect again on this film, and the plight of many Americans who can’t pay for insurance coverage or medical treatment. It was then that my Undue Influence alarm went off. It’s so simple, too.

Some Americans, who oppose a universal system like the NHS, refer to it as a Nationalised Health Service, instead of a National Health Service. Those four letters were deliberately added to influence the many Americans who take pride in their apparent freedom of choice and the right to free enterprise, and who balk without thinking at any notion or hint of nationalisation or state control. In fact, while the NHS is funded through public taxation, it functions as a set of independent health providers, who are closely monitored for their efficiency.

In his model of thought reform, Dr Robert Jay Lifton describes “loaded language”, where words take on an emotional meaning. Loaded language leads to “thought terminating clichés” – slogans and buzz phrases that are obstacles to reasoning. Propagandists are expert at the exact use of words to deflect criticism and shore up their own arguments.

By using an incorrect and loaded term, many are influenced to dismiss the very concept that could lead to massive benefit in their nation’s health and well-being. From where I sit, it seems that the American public are held hostage by health providers. The poor must rely on those public-spirited doctors and nurses who forego rich rewards out of a sense of public duty. It takes just a minor change to a single word, conjured up by vested interests – for whatever reason – to close down discussion through undue influence. As George Washington recommended, we need to be “eternally vigilant” when it comes to our rights and liberties. In the UK, we believe that healthcare is a fundamental right.

[ Spin doctor Frank Luntz’s Words that Work provides many examples of the careful use of language to color public opinion. On a plane journey to Chicago, some years ago, a retired Armenian American couple told me that they’d had eight unnecessary surgical operations between them, simply because they had health insurance. The husband then boasted, “But at least we don’t have your socialist health system!” Caring for everyone is not “socialist”; it is human decency. Two interesting comparisons of the UK and US health systems can be found here, and here. ~ ed.]

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree?  Do you have a story about loaded language that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 


Weaponized Empaths – When Good People Do Bad Things

Although the term “weaponized empath” sounds like something out of a science-fiction movie, almost all of us have been whipped into righteous indignation at some injustice or injury mentioned in the media, through word of mouth, or even delivered from the pulpit. Often, these feelings of anger at man’s inhumanity to man have played a beneficial role in society: such feelings of indignant empathy have fueled great social changes, from the Abolitionist movement that ended slavery in the West to the Arab Spring that began in 2010.

Empathetic people have a powerful drive to better their community; their empathy extends to complete strangers on the far side of the globe: natural disasters across the world are met with outpourings of help and support. When news of a horrible crime comes to light, the flow of support for the victim is mixed with anger at the perpetrator. A quick scan through the comments section of any story about a murder, rape, or other horrible crime reveals the full flavor of the weaponized empath in action: otherwise gentle, kind, law-abiding citizens froth over with rage, promising harm if they ever meet the criminal.

This behavior is nothing new: long before the Internet, (or its predecessor, the newspaper op-ed column), citizens vented these feelings on those locked in the pillory. But in these days of “clickbait” articles designed to incite anger and shock (and so more interest), and news stories boiled down for easy reading, this righteous indignation is easily misdirected – for instance, the death threats sent to 79-year-old Stella Leibeck, who sued McDonald’s after being scalded by hot coffee: the full story of the harm she suffered, and her struggles against the corporation were very different from the media description about the millions awarded to her in damages. Many believed the outright lie perpetrated by the media that Leibeck had been driving at the time, and were incensed that a “greedy” woman could spill a cup of coffee and turn it into a financial windfall. This despite hundreds of other cases of scalding, and prior warnings from the Shriners’ Burn Institute.

In a high-control group, weaponized empaths , believing that a sexual abuse victim is, in fact, “dragging Jehovah’s name through the mud,” will shun a victim or even show up at court in support of the abuser. A weaponized empath in Scientology will “strike a blow against the enemies of the group” by passing out pamphlets full of scurrilous, scandalous lies about a critic or ex-member. Idealistic youth become literal human weapons when they strap on explosive belts and walk into nightclubs – as Robert Jay Lifton put it in the title of his book on the murderous cult Aum Shinrikyo, they are intent on “destroying the world to save it.”

A recent documentary about Heinrich Himmler – the head of the Nazi SS and overseer of the death camps – was called “The Decent One”, because his letters, speeches and journals show a twisted sense of compassion for his underlings. For instance, Himmler said of the destruction of the Jews and the Romani, “It is a terrible sight for a German to watch. That’s how it is, and if it were not so terrible for us, we would not be Germans or even Germanic.” Himmler’s empathy had been weaponized: he justified horrific crimes because he was convinced that they were for the good of humanity.

Himmler is the most extreme example imaginable: his thinking had become so polarized that he believed that starving and murdering millions of people would somehow lead to a better world, and that the soldiers who had committed these appalling crimes would not be tainted by them.

Usually, the damage is far less draconian; for instance, people in the counter-cult field are naturally attuned to fighting for social justice, and many do so because they are natural empaths – they often make personal sacrifices because they care passionately about their work and the people they are trying to help. However, regrettably, some well-meaning people are drawn into public mudslinging, because they have been convinced that a colleague is malevolent, through a campaign of lies and exaggerations that often originated with one of the cults as deliberate triangulation. What should be private conversations happen publicly, and cult critics can waste much of their time in feuding, giving ammunition to the very groups they are exposing.

Many of those who work in this field can readily attest to the “friendly fire” of ad hominem attacks and whispering campaigns launched by people supposedly working for the same goals; even good, otherwise conscientious people can fall into the trap of believing a lie about a fellow activist, because they treated false or exaggerated information as a “fact”, and failed to check before broadcasting it, so spreading the harm. Sure enough, after a while, “everybody knows” that a targeted person is bad, and so a reputation is unjustly soiled. The pressure can lead to the targeted person simply withdrawing from the counter-cult field.

Yes, there are bad apples in every field, but no matter who tells you that a co-worker is a “sellout” or “incorrectly certified”, it is always better to check the facts, and diligently separate the distortions from the truth. It is also better – and more empathetic – to consult the targeted person and ask for clarification – and possibly a change of behavior – rather than leaping onto Facebook with an angry attack. We should treat our co-workers with respect and accept that, as we all have failings, we should be tolerant and compassionate towards them, just as we should be towards former and current members of high-control groups.

Often the empath is the unsung hero of our culture – the person who cares enough to send money to help victims of a war or natural disaster, the activist who speaks out against injustice, the volunteer who serves meals to senior citizens. Altruism is the glue of our society – but sometimes, the very thing that moves us to help others can be distorted into a weapon by a predator, who will use us to inflict remote harm, and perpetrate their abuse.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

[the editor recommends Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy: the case for rational compassion, on this topic]

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about weaponized empaths that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 




The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case – How Fake News Turned a Victim into a Pariah

We all remember the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case – as some national news anchors reported it, a woman had ordered a cup of coffee at the drive through, lodged it between her legs and drove through town, spilling the drink on her lap in the process. Angry over the incident, she sued the McDonald’s corporation and received over two million dollars.

It is a case that enraged many. The tale of a greedy woman misusing our court system to bilk millions from the system became a clarion call against frivolous lawsuits.

Except that the lawsuit was far from frivolous: Ms. Stella Liebeck, 79, was sitting in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car in the McDonald’s parking lot; the car had come to a full halt, and, because the interior of the car had no flat surfaces – this was before built-in cup-holders became a standard feature – she braced the cup between her legs in order to remove the lid. The spilled hot coffee soaked into her garments, causing third-degree burns, sending her into shock and nearly killing her, disfiguring her permanently.

hot coffeeThis was not the first injury via hot coffee McDonald’s had been made aware of – for ten years, from 1982 to ’92, over 700 men, women, children and even infants had been burned by hot coffee at McDonald’s; moreover, the Shriners’ Burn Institute had previously issued a published warning to the fast-food injury that serving liquids at temperatures above 130 degrees Fahrenheit was unnecessary and dangerous. Nonetheless, McDonald’s expressed no plans to change their policy at the time of the lawsuit, even though it had admitted that coffee served at 180-190 degrees was “not fit for consumption,” and would inevitably scald if spilled or drunk at that temperature.

The jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $160,000, and added 2.7 million dollars in punitive damages – roughly two days’ worth of the corporation’s income from just coffee sales. However, these figures were not what the plaintiff received; ultimately, she and McDonald’s arrived at a post-court settlement which was undisclosed, but believed to be just under $500,000 – enough to compensate for her medical and court expenses, but certainly not enough to compensate for the emotional aftermath of the case. Ms. Liebeck testified that all she ever wanted was for the restaurant chain to turn the temperature of the hot coffee down so that others would not be injured; in this, she succeeded – today it would be rare to find any drive-through serving hot coffee at or above 185 degrees; the average McDonald’s coffee is 165 degrees, only slightly higher than most home brewing devices.

Ms. Liebeck should have been hailed as a hero: a working-class woman, standing up to a corporation and holding them accountable for their unsafe policies, and changing those policies for the public good. However, as the story was repeated across the wire services – and the copy shortened to fit the national and international news – important details, such as the scalding temperature of the coffee, the severity of Ms. Liebeck’s burns and her repeated attempts to settle out of court for far more modest sums, were lost on the cutting-room floor. The emerging alternative narrative, of a money-grubbing woman misusing the court system to steal from the honest family company, was far from accurate – and much more useful to corporate lawyers intent on discouraging others from coming forward with similar cases.

Stella Liebeck became a despised pariah, receiving mail-bags full of poison pen letters, wishing her misfortune and pain. Forbidden by the settlement to speak on her own behalf, she and her beleaguered family could only stand silently by as she became a punchline in a Jay Leno monologue, a throwaway gag in sitcoms like Seinfeld and Futurama, and even a lyric in a popular country western song: “Plasma getting bigger/ Jesus getting smaller/ Spill a cup of coffee/ Win a million dollars”. The kneejerk reaction of outrage assured that the nation accepted the false news pouring forth from the media, demonizing a woman who had dared to sue a national icon. Emotions, running high, obscured the true facts.

Grassroots organizations of concerned citizens organized protests against frivolous lawsuits – except that the “concerned citizens” were, in fact, paid representatives of such large corporations as Pfizer, Texaco, and Philip Morris Tobacco: these multinational firms, under the name Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, continue to sponsor and stage protests to highlight the issue of frivolous lawsuits – an issue which, according to such experts as William Haltom and Michael McCann, in their book Distorting the Law: Politics, Media, and the Litigation Crisis, is vastly exaggerated in scope by these groups: in fact, such “personal injury” lawsuits are on a decline, and, instead of garnering millions for an injury, a plaintiff receives on average $55,000 – barely enough to cover the medical bills, let alone lawyers’ fees.

For Stella Liebeck, her legal fight might have been successful, but the conseqences were far from happy: for the rest of her life, she had to withstand endless abuse from misinformed people who, due to fake news, could not – and would not – see the case for what it really was. “My mother was made the villain… it feels like bullying,” her daughter recalled in a recent interview. “The emotion she went through – she felt like people were coming at her.”

Ms. Liebeck died in 2004, at the age of 92.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about fake news that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Predator, Narcissist, Psychopath, Sociopath or Anti-Social Personality?

Are human predators narcissists, psychopaths, sociopaths or anti-social personalities, or do they suffer from Machiavellianism? Which of these terms best describes the predator and why do we use “predator” instead of “narcissist” – or any of the other terms?

The answer is simple: all of the other terms are diagnoses, used by psychiatrists and clinical psychologists to describe disorders. It is for highly qualified professionals to make those diagnoses. Here at Open Minds, it is our task to warn people about predatory behaviors, rather than to diagnose anyone.

The clinical terms have also become complicated; “predator” is straightforward. The Oxford Dictionary tells us that a predator is “a person who ruthlessly exploits others”, and that is definitely what we are talking about.

In the same dictionary, “narcissism” describes “a person who has an excessive interest in or admiration of themselves”. Of course, many performers are narcissists, but that doesn’t mean that they are in any way predatory. In the psychiatric literature, we find “malignant narcissists” who are divided into “grandiose” or “vulnerable” types.

In the latest iteration of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association – DSM 5 – the psychopath and sociopath have disappeared. Instead, we are left with the “anti-social personality disorder” and the “narcissistic personality disorder” (“borderline personalities” can also be predatory).


There is an extensive and at times contradictory literature about psychopaths of varying disorders. Robert Hare’s checklists are used for diagnosis by clinicians, but there is no clear differentiation between any of the types: if you score 30 points out of 40, you are a “psychopath”, but that leaves a grey area, because the normal male will score below 4, so anyone between 4 and 30 is on the psychopathy spectrum.

Hare and his co-author Paul Babiak address this problem in Snakes in Suits, where they say: “Think of psychopathy as a multidimensional continuum, much like blood pressure, which can range from dangerously low to dangerously high … in between these two extremes there is a range of pressures, some considered normal and others reflecting varying degrees of concern, but not yet pathological.”

Our concern is to recognize predatory behaviors. So, if someone is domineering, manipulative, and convinces others to act against their own best interests, that person is a predator – whether they rank high on the Psychopathy Scale or not.

The problem is compounded by the addition of “apaths” and even “weaponized empaths“. “Apath” is a term used by Jane and Tim McGregor in their book, The Empathy Trap: “An apath is the type of person most likely to do the sociopath’s bidding. Being apathetic in this situation means showing a lack of concern or being indifferent to the targeted person.”

The McGregor’s estimate that over 60% of people are “apaths” who can be bent to the will of a sociopath (or psychopath) to attack people with high levels of empathy, or “empaths”.

The Empathy TrapThe term “weaponized empathy” is being used by Internet pundits to define the use of empathy to bring people to commit potentially anti-social acts. Lurid images of harmed babies have long been the stock in trade of propagandists – in 1914, fervor against the Kaiser was roused by reports that German soldiers were amputating Belgian babies’ hands; PR agency Hill and Knowlton fooled a Congressional Committee and the world into believing that Saddam Hussein’s forces had tipped babies from incubators in Kuwait City. Such images rouse our empathy for the supposed victims, and lower our empathy for the supposed perpetrator.

An unscrupulous leadership lacking in empathy – or a charismatic leader with a complete lack of feeling – can manipulate the empathy of otherwise good, altruistic people to excuse and even commit atrocities for a supposed greater good.

So, we use the term “predator” to mean anyone who behaves in a predatory way – no matter what their psychiatric condition. The measures used to estimate psychopathy are measures of predatory behavior, so give a valuable guide to assessing that behavior. We have no concern for the diagnosis, only the safety of those of us who are preyed upon. Predators walk among us, and we need to understand their characteristics for our own safety and the safety of our society.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read any of the books discussed here? Do you have a story about a predator that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

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