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When the Alarm Sounds

Imagine you are at work. You are sitting at your desk, engrossed in a task. Suddenly the fire alarm goes off. What would you do?

Most of us reading this probably think we’d immediately get up and evacuate the building. However, research paints a different picture. We are in fact much more likely to try and gather more information, consult with colleagues or attempt to investigate the situation ourselves. Unfortunately, this type of hesitation can come at a great cost.  People have lost their lives because they failed to leave the building at the sound of a fire alarm. Stephen Grosz, author of ‘The examined life’, attributes this hesitation to a fear of a change. A fear so strong that it ‘prevents us from acting when it matters most’.

With some creative license, we can use the fire alarm as a metaphor in coercive control situations. For example, domestic abuse victims might recognize the ‘warning signs’ but worry about what could happen if they leave. Will others believe me? What will my friends and family think when they find out? Where can I go? Similarly, victims of coercive groups experience difficulties and hesitation at the thought of leaving a coercive group, despite hearing the metaphorical ‘fire alarm’ going off.

Recognizing how our brains work and how undue influence affects our lives are the first steps on the road to personal autonomy.


This post was inspired by the 2013 Medium article authored by W.W. Norton, available here.



Learning Something New About Undue Influence

If you would like to learn something new about a subject most people know little about, you are in for a treat. And the price tag is only 53 minutes of your time; unless you choose to stop after 15 minutes, which will be well worth your time.

In this delightfully engaging video conversation, Jon Atack and Susan Gaskin bring to life what, to many, is a dry topic: undue influence. They begin with Jon’s colorful definition and appropriate synonyms, such as coercive control, exploitative persuasion, manipulation and brainwashing.                       

After briefly chatting about the history of these expressions, Jon explains why Open Minds has decided to default to the legally recognized term of undue influence.

Jon and Susan then liven things up by sharing scientific research which shows how easily the human mind can be swayed, and how predatory, abusive groups use undue influence to regulate their members’ thinking, dehumanizing outsiders and creating barriers between people.

Jon expertly explains why it is so important to educate young people to make up their own minds, rather than having their emotions manipulated by someone else. They also discuss what educational conventions actually work to prevent healthy personal autonomy, and share the latest news about some amazing reforms in education geared to create engaged, curious, and independent learners in our schools.

Among some of the fascinating topics discussed are:

  • What is undue influence, and how does it work?
  • How is it different from coercive control and exploitative persuasion?
  • What is manipulation? Where does the term come from?
  • What is brainwashing, and why has the term become inaccurate as we use it today?
  • What does social psychology teach us about influence?
  • What is personal autonomy?
  • How does our sense of infatuation lead to manipulation, and why is it so important to be careful with our love?
  • Why does chocolate taste so good?
  • What is the best way to avoid a scam?
  • Just what did Mrs. Mattel say when she first saw the Ken doll?

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

And be sure to check out Susan’s YouTube channel, too!

Spike and Pearse Talk to Aaron and Uncle

Advisory Board Member Spike Robinson and Open Minds on Air podcast host Pearse Redmond are the most recent guests on the two back-to-back podcasts, Trans Resister Radio and Uncle The Podcast.

For the first hour, Spike and Pearse visit with host Aaron Franz, and they take a serious look at some of the lesser known aspects of undue influence, such as magazine crews and time-share scams, as well as discussing high-control groups and the mechanisms of control. In the second hour, Uncle joins in for Uncle The Podcast, and the mood becomes a bit lighter as they talk about pop culture, American football, and even debate the feasibility of a combination spaghetti strainer/ mop bucket. 

Here is the first segment, on Trans Resister Radio, and here is the second hour, on Uncle the Podcast. Or you may listen to the two shows as one, here.

Video – Liminal Thinking and the Elephant

This light-hearted whiteboard animation discusses liminal thinking – the part of our reasoning which happens just below the threshold of conscious thought. This phenomenon is demonstrated with the classic tale of the blind men and the elephant: one man, grasping the animal’s trunk, declared the elephant to be a rope, another, feeling the elephant’s leg, disagreed and said it was a tree.

The liminal thinking that we each rely on to construct our unique version of reality is similar, employing a pyramid of factors: our experiences inform our needs, which in turn inform our assumptions, which inform our conclusions and finally our beliefs, each step relying on the one before it – all of which we unconsciously accept as “obvious” reality, but is, like the different parts of the elephant, actually just a fraction of the overall picture.

Author Dave Gray, assisted by animator Michael Keay, demonstrates the necessity of bringing our liminal thinking into our conscious thought, to examine the pyramid of our belief structure, and compassionately explore the beliefs of others with different worldviews.

Harry Potter and the Mysterious Mentor – Who Taught Harry Self-Respect?

The least believable part of the Harry Potter franchise isn’t the flying broomsticks, or the spells and potions, or even the fantastic beasts (wherever they are found). It isn’t even that people can disappear through a barrier in the middle of the busiest railway station in one of the world’s most populous cities without anyone noticing. These are all part of the rich fantasy world JK Rowling has created, a world we accept with a willing suspension of disbelief.

in New York City, Harry's cupboard could cost upwards of 20k a monthThe most unbelievable thing about Harry Potter isn’t that he’s a wizard; it’s that he is assertive. Orphaned at the age of fifteen months, and consequently raised by his only living relatives, the dysfunctional Dursleys, Harry endured a childhood of severe psychological, emotional, and physical abuse: forced to live in the cupboard under the stairs, bullied constantly by his cousin, coerced into domestic servitude, and subjected to an endless litany of ill-treatment in an atmosphere designed to suppress any individuality or sense of self-worth.

And yet, the youngster we see in the book first book and its film adaptation has a surprisingly assertive and vibrant personality, able to stand up for himself and insist upon his rights. He makes friends easily, and has no problem asking questions of adults when things are unclear; several times throughout the series he practices intelligent disobedience, calling out bad behavior on the part of his teachers and other authority figures.

This vital skill should be taught to all children, of course, but an abused child is not taught self-respect, let alone self-protection. We could assume that Rowling, who had a close and supportive relationship with her own mother, was not able to portray the character of an abused child. However, Rowling shows that she has no problem doing so: in the sixth book, we see a slice of life belonging to Merope Gaunt, a young woman who cowers in the presence of her brutal brother and father, clearly displaying every sign of someone who has lived with abuse from infancy, frozen into learned helplessness and unable to assert herself.

Neville Longbottom, friend of Harry and alternate "Chosen One"We can even see the aftereffects of abuse in Harry’s schoolfriend Neville Longbottom, whose family, doubting he possessed magical powers, devalued his life enough to allow an uncle to throw him out of a window (he only survived because he had enough magical power to save himself instinctually). When we first see this young wizard, he is timid and easily cowed, a stark contrast to his self-assured and confident friend, Harry Potter, who comes from an even more abusive home, but who has learned self-respect.

So where, if not at home, did Harry learn this self-respect? Although an easy (and enticing) answer would be that Harry, blessed with his mother’s parting protective spell of Love, was able to realize his own self-worth, it is much more probable that there was someone in this young wizard’s life who taught him this valuable lesson, long before he even heard of the wizarding world and his exalted place in it. In order for Harry to be the confident, assertive, and above all, self-respecting youngster we see entering school, he must have had someone in his life who, early on, taught him the valuable lesson that his opinions mattered, that he mattered, and that he could stand up for himself when necessary.

Although he might have been given this instruction by some kindly teacher at school, there is a more probable mentor already in his life: none other than minor character Arabella Figg, cat-crazy neighbor to the Dursleys, who knows of Harry’s origins and abilities, due to her own connection with the magical world. Moreover, as a “squib”, a non-magical person born to magical parents, she has personal experience of the second-class status bestowed upon those who are “different”.

Arabella Figg, crazy cat-lady, squib, and the most likely candidate for teaching Harry about self-respectThis woman, with her flat full of felines and stale cake, is often asked to take care of Harry in his younger years. Although Harry doesn’t enjoy his visits with her, finding her tedious, he does feel safe in her home, free from the emotional and physical brutality of his relatives. She alone treats him with respect, subtly teaching him through example that he is worthy of love and kindness.

Children learn what they live, and too many children are not given the basic tools they need to resist undue influence – the most powerful tool being simple self-respect: the sense of self-worth. Although anyone can be seduced into a high-control group or abusive relationship, the path of the predator is much easier with those who never learned how to stick up for themselves. To create a world free from undue influence, all of us, even those of us who are not parents, should remember to “be there” for the children in our lives, as Arabella Figg was for Harry, and bestow upon them the precious gift of self-respect.

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? Is there another popular culture fandom you’d like to see us discuss through the lens of undue influence? We’d love to hear from you!



Keeping the Internet Free From Undue Influence

We have seen how the giants of Internet platforms mine and use our data; most of us view our dwindling privacy with concerns – predatory groups, political parties, and abusive individuals can buy, steal, and use our information against us, swaying our views and luring us into a multitude of traps. Fortunately for us, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, is also concerned, and has come up with what he hopes will be a solution, according to a recent article in the online journal FastCompany.com.

Last week, Last week, Berners-Lee launched Inrupt, a startup backed by Glasswing ventures. Its mission is to decentralize the web, by keeping our private information private, allowing users of the platform to control their own data – and who gets to see it.

Read the full article here.

Open Minds On Air 7 – Communication or Miscommunication?

This month, Christian Szurko of the Dialog Centre returns, joining Jon and Pearse in this informative, witty, and often hilarious discussion. They start with the idea of how communication is used – or, rather, misused – as a means of control in recruitment and indoctrination, and the impact this has in the recovery of those leaving authoritarian relationships. They move on to explore how the misuse of communication plays out in groups such as cults and gangs, as well as in everyday relationships. They also take a hard look at how our education system can act as the foundation for this type of control, and discuss how redefining words and phrases has long been used by authoritarian groups to exert control.

If you wish to download as an Mp3, use this link.

What do you think about this interview? Do you agree? Do you have a story about a misuse of communication that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Teaching Children Resistance Skills: Ira Chaleff on “Moms Everyday”

Our friend Ira Chaleff, author of Intelligent Disobedience, has just done an interview with the popular web news program, “Moms Everyday”. Once again, he shares the importance of teaching children to say “no”. To quote the article:

“Children learn to never get into a car with a stranger, but it’s equally as important to for them to learn that even a trusted adult may try to convince them to do something they shouldn’t do.”

What do you think about this video? Do you agree? Have you read Ira’s book? Do you have a story about teaching children to say ‘no’ that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Why Open Minds?

Why are we called the Open Minds Foundation, and what precisely is an open mind? I was at the meeting where the name was first suggested, but was out of the room, and no one seemed sure who had come up with it. I wanted to know, because I embraced it immediately.

But, if an open mind is open to influence, would a closed mind be better? I think we are on fairly safe ground. The online Cambridge Dictionary tells us that to keep an open mind means, “to wait until you know all the facts before forming an opinion or making a judgment.” And that is precisely what we would like people to do.

It is also worth realizing that we may never actually have all the facts, so a truly open mind is willing to consider new information and revise opinions and judgments in light of that new information. An open mind is a healthy mind.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s book, Opening Minds? Do you have a story about having an open mind that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Blink, Think, Choice, Voice – Teaching Children to Say ‘No’ to Predators

Teaching children how to protect themselves is a priority for all parents: we all know the dangers that predatory individuals pose to a child. So, of course we teach our children about “stranger danger.” But what if the predator is someone we trust?

That is why we should be teaching children intelligent disobedience – saying ‘no’ to a direction when it’s not the right thing to do. Regular readers of this blog will know about Ira Chaleff’s sterling work in the area of intelligent disobedience; we were pleased to hear that he has released his new workbook, Intelligent Disobedience for Children.

This must-read manual gives an easy-to-follow, common-sense approach to teaching children what to do if an adult tells them to do something that isn’t right, such as hurting someone, stealing something, or even submitting to sexual advances. In his handbook, Chaleff explains the best method for teaching children the four easy steps to resisting a “wrong” direction: taking the time to blink, then thinking about the direction, making a choice, and then using their voice to assert themselves.

By following the clear, coherent steps in this handbook, parents can coach their children, deliver positive feedback, and engage them in the process of learning this important prevention technique. The advice Chaleff gives is sound and presented in simple language, with helpful tips on how to present this vital information to children of any age, from toddler to young adult.

An important part of healthy skepticism is the courage to stand up and speak truth to authority, and teaching children intelligent disobedience is a vital way to foster this courage in the citizens of the future. We hope that this handbook finds its way into as many homes, schools and offices as possible, and that the phrase “Blink, Think, Choice, Voice,” will empower future generations of children to stand up to predatory behavior and undue influence.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Ira Chaleff’s book, Intelligent Disobedience? Do you have a story about intelligent disobedience that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 


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