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Teaching Teenage Students about Undue Influence

We are always on the lookout for best practice examples of educating teenage students about the prevalence and dangers of coercive manipulation in the modern world. The following story definitely meets that criterion:

While a middle school class was learning about the Salem Witch Trials, the teacher explained that as part of the learning experience the students would have to play a game.

He went on to say, “I’m going to come around and whisper to each of you whether you’re a witch or a normal person. Your goal is to build the largest group possible that does NOT have a witch. At the end, any group found to include a witch gets a failing grade.”

The students quickly began grilling each other. One fairly large group formed, but most of the teenagers broke into small, exclusive groups, turning away anyone they thought showed even a hint of guilt.

“Okay,” the teacher said. “You’ve got your groups. Now it is time to find out which ones fail. All the witches please raise your hands.”

No one raised their hands.

The kids were confused and told the teacher that he had messed up the game.

“Did I?” Was anyone in Salem an actual witch? Or did everyone just believe what they were told?”

Now that’s how you teach teenage students about how easy it is to
unduly influence and divide a community.


PS – The aforementioned classroom story has been circulating on Facebook and the Internet for the last ten months. We do not know for sure if it is a true story or the product of a very creative and well-intentioned writer and educator. Either way, we are grateful for the effort and pleased to share it.

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.



Cognitive Dissonance at Work

Knowing how cognitive dissonance works is the key to understanding why the human brain is so really bad at responding to ideas that conflict with a person’s core beliefs, regardless of how nonsensical they may be.

One educator describes cognitive dissonance as, “The brain attacking information that conflicts with its beliefs, just like the immune system fights off viruses.”

Why is the brain so closed minded? What must one do to recognize cognitive dissonance in action if they want to increase their tolerance and promote real conversions across different ideologies?

If you are interested in finding answers to those questions, we invite you to listen and watch the following 5-minute primer on cognitive dissonance and free speech at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FafR7zC0ex4&feature=youtu.be

Our Susceptibility to Undue Influence

It is not just the Internet that is rife with scams. Trickery is an aspect of human nature, and it reaches back long before the advent of the world wide web. Indeed, some students of animal behavior say that lying is the first stage in the evolution of intelligence.

Californian jays have been observed pretending to bury food, and then quickly concealing their actual stash, while their rivals scrabble about in the false hiding place.

a confidence trick

a confidence trick

Pride does indeed come before a fall. If there is one lesson that we should all learn, and relearn, as often as necessary, it is that no one is invulnerable to unethical persuasion (undue influence).

Not even those of us who make it our life’s work. Indeed, it is confidence in our invulnerability that makes us so vulnerable.

Despite decades of immersion in the world of hucksters, I, too, can still be charmed, cajoled, and led like a lamb to the slaughter.


This post is an excerpt from Jon’s new book, Opening Minds – A Primer on Undue Influence, scheduled for release in the fall of 2019

News: Fake or Real? Try the Scientific Approach

As you scroll through your social media wall you encounter an article someone shares that sends your blood boiling or confirms something you know. This person did what? What’s going to happen? I knew it!
You’ve taken the bait. You read it. You believe it. You share it. You later learn that the information you shared was false or misleading. How frustrating! Especially when you consider that there are those that do report the news accurately who are accused of presenting “fake news.” 
Fake news disguised as real news here, real news accused of being fake news there. What is a person to do? How can we avoid our gut feelings and biases to cloud our judgment? How do we avoid being fooled? 
Researcher Emma Frans has a suggestion. We can think like a scientist. As Emma Frans points out, science offers us tools for “evaluating information in a rational way.” 
The following post, “How to Read the News as a Scientist” is part of TED’s How to Be a Better Human series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community. The Open Minds Foundation is happy to share this useful and relevant information with its readers:   

Cyberscams – Undue Influence Online

Online scams have been around almost as long as the Internet itself: indeed, some of the scams floating around the net today are 21st century versions of much older frauds. While some scams – such as the “Nigerian Prince” (or “419”)– are so well-known that they’ve become a comedy staple, new variations appear regularly, and even the most obvious snares will trap someone. 

Agent X comics – used with permission. www.agent-x.com.au

As in the “real” world, we are all also vulnerable to scams on the Internet – especially when we think we’re immune. So, it’s always a good idea to be aware of some of the most common scams, and follow some basic Internet safety rules.

We’re all aware that we should give out our personal information only on trusted, secure sites. However, it’s also worth checking to see that the site you’re on is the one you think it is: some scammers will set up “phishing” sites masquerading as your bank, internet provider, or computer company. They will then send you an e-mail, citing a “problem” with your account, asking you to click on a link which sends you directly to their fake site, where you will be required to fill in your password, payment details, and other private information. When in doubt, it’s best to go to the homepage of the site in a fresh browser window, and access your account from there. Better yet, call their customer service number to confirm what you’re seeing onscreen.

A similar fraud involves scammers assuming the name and logo of a nonprofit organization, and then either asking for donations, or even offering fake “grants”, to “phish” for the private information of anyone who fills in the online form. Our regular readers will already be aware that the Open Minds Foundation was the target of this sort of scam last spring, which we were able to neutralize almost immediately due to a couple quick-witted friends who reported it to us instantly.

More recently, the Facebook community was targeted by scammers who opened fake accounts with the names of real users, who then send new friend requests to that person’s “friends” list. As always, be sure that you’re talking to the person you think you’re talking to – especially when they ask for personal information or money. It’s better to ask your friend for some validation, or even suggest that any private information be shared directly over the “old fashioned” telephone, or even face to face, if possible. A real friend won’t mind a bit of security; only a scammer will act hurt.

All in all, it’s best to remember these basic rules of online safety:

  • Keep your personal information private – even when sending information to someone you trust, you never know who might be able to see it on the other side.
  • Keep your antivirus program updated – firewalls were invented for a reason!
  • Keep your privacy settings on the strongest setting possible – like locking a door, your online activity should be locked, too. And make sure your internet connection is secure!
  • Create strong passwords – and change them, regularly!
  • Make online purchases only from secure, trusted sites – and make sure to update your bookmarks to those sites frequently; popular sites can and have been hacked before!
  • Be careful what you post – generally, don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your dear aunt Martha – or the rest of the world – to see.
  • Be careful what you download – check for viruses and don’t download from unknown sources.
  • Be careful who you meet online – if you do meet, meet in a public place with friends – and ask to video conference first, to see that they are who they say they are.
  • Be careful where you browse – don’t browse sites lacking proper certification, and stay far, far away from the “Deep Web.”
  • Use a search engine that doesn’t store (and sell) your information – duckduckgo.com, for instance.
  • For secure email, use a program that doesn’t harvest your data – such as protonmail.

For more on online safety, check out our new online safety and cyberbullying section of our resources page.

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 an online scam that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 


Five Tips for Critical Thinking – Video

Every day, we are bombarded by dozens, if not hundreds of decisions, from what food to buy to what candidate to vote for. This comprehensive TED video by Samantha Agoos outlines five steps of critical thinking, creating a useful guide for making decisions critically.

Also check out the expanded article, 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!



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! 

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