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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

Prevention is Better

Many years ago I was looking into Transcendental Meditation, and was attracted by what I read and the by the possibility for change in myself and others.

Then I saw a brief piece on TV showing how this movement led to people believing they could fly. Basically it was a kind of weird sitting-hop that in no way defied gravity. Looked crazy to me.

So I didn’t pursue it.

The End.

So why have I told this non-story?

Because this is why I’m so enthusiastic about the Open Minds mission: educating people and thereby helping them to avoid the traps. Of course, there will be stories about specific groups, cults, scams and so on, but I believe it’s a more important goal to distil, extract and convey the principles behind all manipulation.

Anti-virus programs use what’s termed “heuristic analysis” to trap new viruses that haven’t yet been formally identified. They do this by checking for behaviour, rather than known code. I see the information provided by Open Minds as being very similar and equally as valuable as describing known threats. After all, one is more likely to be trapped by something that doesn’t show up in an internet search.

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 prevention that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

“C U, RASCAL!” – Using Cialdini’s Seven Laws of Persuasion to Protect Yourself from Predators

Those in the world of advertising and social influence will know Robert Cialdini’s Seven Laws of Persuasion as well as they know their multiplication tables; these principles are applied every day in business in order to help companies persuade their customers, their investors, and their associates that they are the people to do business with. Those who are successful in business or in personal interaction with others use these rules every day in a thousand different ways, even without knowing that they are applying them.

Most of us apply them ethically.

However, the effectiveness of any technique does not lessen when used for deceitful, or harmful, purposes. As anyone familiar with the darker side of the Internet knows, the very technology which has brought us global, universal communication, has also put each and every one of us within the grasp of any predator with a modem. Similarly, the Seven Laws of Persuasion, which Robert Cialdini has so exactly observed and quantified, can be used to harm as easily as they can be used to help.

And, of course, the best way to protect yourself from predators is knowledge of how they work. To this end, we have devised the acronym:


Although Cialdini has put these laws forth in a different order in his recent book, Pre-Suasion, we present them here re-arranged into an easily-memorized mnemonic, so you may better remember them, and use this vital knowledge to protect yourself from predators and their snares.

The seven laws are: Consensus, Unity, Reciprocity, Authority, Scarcity, Commitment, and Liking.

Consensus – “Everybody’s Doing It!”

consensusConsensus means agreement. We often act like pack creatures: we follow the group, diverting from the well-worn path at our peril. If we know that a certain soft drink or automobile or restaurant chain is the most popular, we usually decide that it satisfies our needs, and look no further.

This principle also works outside the marketplace, in the sphere of social expectation – we have all visited households where the request to remove one’s shoes at the door is communicated wordlessly by a resident pile of shoes just inside the entryway. Similarly, Cialdini found that hotels could influence their guests to recycle their linens – simply by informing them that a large percentage of other guests had agreed to do so in the past.

There is a flip-side to this phenomenon that is exploited by marketers, con artists, cult leaders and politicians: being different or a “maverick,” and straying from the pack. However, this tactic is tricky to manage, and sometimes backfires disastrously. Most often, savvy predators try to convince you that everyone is doing exactly what they want you to do – whether it’s buying into their investment scheme, or trying their new diet plan, or even joining their religion.

The first step to protect yourself from predators is to think for yourself.

Unity – “We’re just like you!”

just one of the crowdWe have all experienced that sudden emotional bond we have with people who are from our hometown, or went to the same college, or even root for the same sports team. Any good salesperson or politician knows how to use these connections – some more authentically than others.

Unity amplifies our sense of belonging and makes us feel more secure.

Clever manipulators manufacture a complete, individually tailored persona to mirror the victim’s likes and values, all the better to lure them into the trap. Very clever manipulators will let their victims fill in the blanks themselves; so, unscrupulous politicians win votes based on promises their constituents made on their behalf. Even without hearing the candidate’s views on a given issue, you know that he or she agrees with you on everything that you find important, because he or she is just like you.

Reciprocity – “Here’s a Small Token …”

reciprocity with hookToken being the operative word here: even if the value of a gift is literally pennies, we feel obliged when others give us something. Give and take is part of the architecture of human cooperation: our neighbors take in our mail, we feed their dog.

But it is a far cry from the mint handed out with a restaurant check garnering higher tips for the server, to the alcohol and drugs bought for an insecure teen to lure her into an obligation to the predator grooming her for sexual abuse. As with all of these laws of persuasion, it is not the methods themselves, but the desired result – and the honesty of intent – that make all the difference. Simply being aware that a gift predisposes you to cooperate should put you on your guard, especially if your “benefactor” is asking for something that you’re not comfortable with.

There is no such thing as a “free sample”.

Authority – “It’s The Rules!”

As the Milgram study chillingly proved, people are willing to do pretty much anything if they think that the responsibility has been assumed by someone “in charge”, even if that authority is only implied.

king with pawnsMany religious groups hold their position of authority by dictating the most intimate decisions of their devotees, based on the understanding that the leaders speak directly for a supreme being. Even if no divinity is invoked, we respond instinctively to people with the trappings of authority.

Although it is good to look for and be reassured by your doctor’s or lawyer’s credentials, or other professional certifications, sometimes those in authority have no business being there, and, indeed, will use their credentials – real or faked – to lure their victims: the infamous Doctor Shipman being one of the most heinous examples of this abuse of authority. But even if there is no ill intent, it is always a good idea to examine authority, and question any rules that don’t make sense.

Scarcity – “This is a Limited Offer!”

Those who know this principle well were not surprised, when, in 2003, British Airways announced it would be cutting down service on their Concorde, and sales the next day skyrocketed. Even though nothing about the flight had changed, people wanted it more, because supplies were limited.

last chanceAlthough anyone who has worked in retail will tell you that sales come and go in cycles, and that even if you missed today’s bargain, the same item will go on sale again in the near future, savvy predators still use the tactic of limited supply – and limited time to buy – in order to keep their victims from going home and thinking it over. An honest salesman knows that if the deal he’s offering you is as good as he says, you will return after sleeping on it. Conversely, a con artist doesn’t want you thinking anything over.

Simply put, if you have to “buy now”, DON’T.

Commitment and Consistency – “In for a penny, in for a pound”

Once we’ve started on a route, our inertia often keeps us moving. And the more public the first step, the more committed we are to following that route.

Although this principle can be used for good – to commit groups to positive action, or the raised probability of quitting smoking successfully when your peer group is told your intention – a predator can transform the need for personal consistency into a slippery slope. A teen being groomed on the Internet will be cajoled into sending first only slightly risqué shots before being blackmailed into posing naked – and the predator will be careful to employ a gradual process of compliance.

Although we tend to be more committed to something in which we’ve already invested time, energy, or money, we can and should have the strength to walk away from any situation that has become unpleasant for us – regardless of how much we have put into it – and then take a long, careful look at the steps which led up to the point of discomfort.

As the proverb says, we should never throw good money after bad.

Liking – “I’m Your Friend. Really.”

This is possibly the strongest – and the simplest – of the seven laws of persuasion: most of us are sociable creatures and we like to be liked. And most of us are worth liking: we are gregarious, inquisitive, and helpful, possessed of natural compassion and good humor. Even those of us with no negative motives use this method to let others know that our intentions are honorable.

We know that complimenting a neighbor on their garden, or a friend on their new hairstyle, is an easy, effective way to make someone else feel good about themselves, and most of the time, that lift of another’s spirits is our only motive. However, a predator will charm in order to manipulate, agree with whatever you say, and become your best friend and loudest supporter.

smily aliensAlthough those who are naturally gregarious readily feel affection for people they meet, it is always sensible to be wary of “instant friends”, whose advances seem just a little too friendly, too fast. Remember that if a friendship is real, it will last – and it will also stand a refusal of that offer to invest in a deal that really is too good to be true. If you find that your new best friend won’t take no for an answer, they’re most likely not your friend after all.


Cialdini’s Seven Laws of Persuasion are used by people with good intentions and bad, ethically and otherwise. It’s a very good idea to learn how to use them, if you wish to succeed in today’s business world, particularly if you work in marketing. But, if you wish to protect yourself from predators, it’s an equally good idea to look at the ways these laws are used to persuade us against our better judgment – and to be aware of when, how, and by whom these techniques are being used – and why.

Most people are well-intentioned and kind-hearted, but some people are simply Rascals.

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 protecting yourself from predators that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit – an Analysis

Astronomer Carl Sagan created a baloney detection kit that highlights common mistakes in reasoning that are used by manipulative predators to ensnare the unsuspecting. We’ve illustrated it with some fresh examples.

  • attacking the critic rather than answering the criticism (ad hominem argument):- Jones is a divorcee, so you can’t trust his opinion on anything.
  • bowing to authority:– We should believe what he says, because he has written six books; He is a priest, so there is no way he would molest a child.written 6 books baloney
  • adverse consequences:- If we don’t find him guilty, other people will commit the same crime.
  • appeal to ignorance—whatever has not been proved false must be true, or what has not been proved true must be false. Ambiguity causes cognitive dissonance or uncomfortable feelings:- Until there is evidence that UFOs don’t exist, we should believe they do, just in case.
  • special pleading—the attempt to rescue an illogical idea:- Shoplifters should be prosecuted, but not my daughter, because she just made one mistake.
  • begging the question—also called assuming the answer:- The death penalty discourages violent crime, despite statistics showing it is not a deterrent, and evidence that criminal psychopaths – who commit half of violent crimes – have no concern for the consequences of their actions.
  • observational selection—or the enumeration of favorable circumstances. Francis Bacon called this counting the hits and forgetting the misses:- I found a parking space because of my lucky rabbit’s foot, but I ignored its failure to protect me from a parking ticket.
  • statistics of small numbers—a close relative of observational selection:- They say that one out of every five people is Chinese, but I know hundreds of people, and not one of them is Chinese.
  • misunderstanding the nature of statistics:- President Eisenhower was surprised that half of all American citizens have below average intelligence.
  • inconsistency:- Build weapons to protect against the worst potential military disaster, but ignore scientific evidence of environmental dangers because they’re not “proved.”
  • non sequitur—Latin for “it doesn’t follow”:- Our plans will succeed because our leader is handsome; you will become a drug addict if you leave the group.
  • post hoc, ergo propter hoc—Latin for “it happened after, so it was caused by”:- Before women had the vote, there were no nuclear weapons, so nuclear weapons came about because women were given the vote.
  • with us or against us baloneyexcluded middle, or false dichotomy—considering only two extremes where there is a continuum of intermediate possibilities:- If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem; You’re either with us or against us.
  • short-term versus long-term—a subset of the excluded middle, but Sagan gave it special attention:- We can’t afford to educate or feed malnourished children, because we have to spend so much dealing with teen crime.
  • slippery slope— yet another form of the excluded middle:- If we don’t stop women from covering their faces in public, there will soon be suicide bombers everywhere.
  • confusion of correlation and causation:- A survey shows that more people with higher education are homosexual than those with less education – so, education makes people gay.
  • the straw man—caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack:- Evolutionary science proposes that that we are all just monkeys, so we needn’t listen to scientists.
  • suppressed evidence, or half-truths:- A “prediction” is reported, without explaining that it was actually made after the event. A war is fought based upon distorted and false information.
  • weasel words—where words are distorted to hide the truth:- “Collateral damage” attempts to justify the killing of civilians by dehumanizing them.

It is a good idea to think up your own examples, to better recognise these logical fallacies. The baloney detection kit was originally a chapter in Sagan’s fascinating book, The Demon-Haunted World. Sagan’s original baloney detection kit can be found here.

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Ballantine Books, New York, 1996.

In Praise of Praise

One of the nasty elements of predatory behaviour is false praise. Predators excel at the art of  flattery, charming their victims with ease. Those lured into the predator’s trap emerge understandably jaded on the whole subject of encouragement, which is a terrible shame: like an ironic twist on the story of the boy who cried wolf, sometimes a charming compliment is not the hallmark of a predator, but an earnest gift meant to please rather than manipulate.

It is sensible to suspect compliments that are given too freely by strangers, but we all should be ready to encourage those around us, not to lure them into psychological servitude as the predator does, but to develop the best in them.

Rachel Bernstein told me that in a workshop she asked adults to remember a time when they had been encouraged at school. The majority could not remember even a single instance, but they readily remembered being discouraged.

There is no doubt that honest praise is a fuel that helps us to develop competence. Perhaps a good New Year’s resolution would be to find someone to encourage at least once a week. Not for gain or influence, but to help others to blossom. Happy New Year!

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

Who’s Controlling Your Mind? Lady Cee Interviews Our Spike Robinson

Editor's Note: This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Spike Talks with Lady Cee

I was honored to be interviewed with Lady Cee of The Ex-JWCritical Thinker channel on YouTube. In this first part of our four-part interview, we discuss the basics of thought control, what makes a destructive group destructive, and just how vulnerable we are to coercion -and how to spot the signs of when you might be hoodwinked.

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 interview? Do you agree? Do you have a story about undue influence that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

How to Recognize a Confidence Trickster? CFURST

When trying to defraud you, a confidence trickster uses definite, well-worn tools for the task. So, in order to help you See those tools First, we’ve devised this handy acronym to remember them all: C FURST. The letters stand for Confusion, Fear, Urgency, Rapport & Reciprocity, Scarcity, and Trust.

A huckster will act to create a sense of:

Confusion: “What’s going on?”

Think of Scientology’s “personality test,” or any of the jargon invariably shot at a “mark.” Putting things in new and unfamiliar terms creates confusion, which fosters –

Fear: “Something bad is happening.”

Think of all the predictions of Armageddon used by innumerable cults to bring people in and keep them in line. But even a telephone fraudster will use fear, such as a phantom lawsuit, poisons in your basement, or your hard drive imploding. This leads to –

Urgency: “And you’ve got to act now.”

If you have to “Buy Now!”, don’t. It should come as no surprise to anyone that we don’t think as well when we’re rushed. One bully I encountered would get decisions made in his favor by counting down the seconds until we “had” to make up our minds – not one of the people I saw him manipulating (including myself) thought to ask him why he had the right to dictate how long it took us to choose. Of course, intimidation isn’t half as effective as –

Rapport & Reciprocity: “I’m on your side – see; I’m giving you something.”

When I was a teenager visiting Paris, I went to Sacre Coeur Cathedral in the Montmatre district, where a sweet-faced little old lady complimented me on my hair, my dress, and my very good French (which was probably horrible, to tell the truth). Then she gave me a blessing, a small tin crucifix worth perhaps a centime, and, after she then demanded “un peu d’urgent,” she also gave me a lesson on how easy it is to get grifted by sweet-faced little old ladies in metropolitan areas. If Mme. had really been on her game, she might have tried to convince me that the relic was rare, thus giving me a sense of –

Scarcity: “This is a limited offer!”

Not only does this give us a sense of being one of the elite (haha! I’m getting in on this sweet deal now, and everyone else will wish they had had the chance!), but it ties in with the sense of Urgency, because you have to move fast, and also creates Rapport, as you’re being picked out for special treatment.

All of the above combines to give us a sense of –

Trust: “Trust me …”

Aficionados of Disney movies will remember that iconic scene in the studio’s adaptation of Kipling’s Jungle Book, where Kaa, the wily serpent, sings a hypnotically sweet song to Mowgli, while leading the hapless “man-cub” into his coils. And although the young hero of the film has Bagheera the Panther to rescue him, putting your trust in someone who is using the tools above is never a good idea.

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 a con artist, grifter or huckster that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

From Small Lies, Great Lies Grow

A fascinating experiment, reported in New Scientist (no.3097), shows that the brain becomes desensitised through lying. Tali Sharot at University College London showed one group of volunteers jars of pennies with differing degrees of fullness and asked them to send estimates of the quantities of pennies to partners in another room.

The partners saw blurry images of the jars, so had to rely on the estimates they were given to guess the amount of pennies for a reward. When the volunteers were told they would receive a higher reward if their partners’ estimates were wrong – and the less accurate the answer, the greater the reward – they started to tell small lies. The lies soon escalated, so that a person whose small lie had garnered £1 may have ended up telling lies worth £8.

Brain scans showed that the first lie was associated with the amygdalae, which are involved with emotional responses. But activity lessened as the lies ramped up.

‘This highlights the danger of engaging in small acts of dishonesty,’ Sharot said. This research perhaps shines a light on the tendency for those who exaggerate to have less reliable memories, an area for future research.

For more on Dr. Sharot’s research, check here.

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

And make sure to check out Jon’s new book, Opening Minds: the secret world of manipulation, undue influence, and brainwashing.

Undue Friendliness

Episodes of undue influence can have many factors in common, but reflecting on this, I realised that something very frequently occurs at the start of the process. Yes, you guessed it: undue friendliness!

Friendship – true friendship – is a highly valued and wonderful thing to experience in our lives. Whether we reflect on its nature and presence or not, it enriches our lives and feeds an instinctive human need. This drive towards making and enjoying friends starts when we are infants and lasts our whole lives.

So much has been written about friendship, and hopefully, anyone reading this has experienced and can name at least one genuine friend. So I don’t intend to create a list of parameters that might define a true friendship, but focus briefly on a few points relevant to the start of manipulation that turns to undue influence.

It seems that true friendship starts with a ‘seed’ event or situation, like being in the same class at school, or taking the same bus journey to work and so forth. This seed, if nurtured with common ground, has the possibility to grow over time and eventually blossom into a life-long relationship that bears much fruit along the way. The more ground that is covered through time, mutual interest and experiences, the more resilient the friendship will become. This resilience can even stand many years of separation, without contact, and can be picked up where the friendship left off, without any apparent loss of connection.

In my own life, the longest period of no contact was about 35 years, whereby my budding friendship with Jon Atack was suspended when I stopped going to the same Birmingham Scientology outpost. Years later I found his email address, and basically, we just resumed from where we left off. I now consider him to be a great and true friend (the feeling is mutual – ed). The friend that nearly got away!

There are no formulae for enabling one to ‘create’ and keep a true friend – it simply has to be a natural unfolding – but the aspects I want to stress are that it always starts with a small seed and grows over time, before it eventually becomes a condition of genuine, deep and enduring value.

Unfortunately, there are many people who have become very skilled at emulating significant aspects of friendship, for their own hidden agendas. This works because of our evolutionary need to form social bonds for support and load-sharing. In this way, a predatory new ‘friend’ can easily bypass reason and appeal to our more instinctive, emotional selves via subconscious influence.

High-pressure selling is the most common manifestation of this approach. A good friend of mine went to look at cars at a nationwide used car outlet, just to see what was generally available. A sales guy approached him and started off with compliments about his wonderful children, and continued with very low-key friendly chat, picking up and running with any topic that came up. He was particularly keen to talk in a very friendly manner with the kids. The subject of cars was not broached. After some considerable time of just being a nice guy and building a rapport, he made his excuses and was about to leave when he ‘confided’ to my friend that his numbers were down that month, and he just needed to move a few cars along, not for a decent profit (because that was already in place), but just his numbers were low. So he said that as a favour for such a nice family, he could sell the car at cost and well below screen price, as long as it could be done quickly for his figures to work out. As I’m sure you can guess, my friend agreed to the sale and paid, went home and found the new price was actually a little above the going rate.

This is a true story, in spite of it being a total cliché, and in spite of my friend having a good business head and not feeling he was vulnerable. That short but intense run of undue friendliness, the skilful emulation of real friendship, had caused my friend to drop his guard and succumb to the undue influence that had been practised upon him and his family, with the sole intent of achieving the desired outcome: another sale.

Selling a product or service is probably the most common use of undue friendliness. Another is the undue friendliness initially applied to an individual to subliminally cajole them into joining a group they would otherwise probably avoid, or at least have no interest in. Of course, I’m talking about cult membership and the like.

The Moonies use a technique called love-bombing, which is an extreme manifestation of undue friendliness but, as far as I am aware, undue friendliness is the norm at the start of any cult indoctrination procedure. The target will always be led to believe they would be joining a remarkably friendly group, and displays of “friendliness” will be the first thing encountered, either in the street or in the meeting room, church or whatever. The driving force of this undue friendliness is getting and keeping a new person involved, and is not based on the personal merits of the target; nobody actually knows the target at this stage, after all. What follows will depend on the nature of the cult or group, but the target will have already been influenced, subliminally, by the wonderful apparent friendship offered. The door has been opened to undue influence.

A further and all-too-common demonstration of undue friendliness leading to undue influence is in inter-personal relationships where the undeclared aim may be sexual, financial, political or even social in nature. Of course, in some situations the goal may be obvious and even desirable, as in the case of an attractive person chatting you up, for example. Sadly, this is often not the case. When I was newly separated, I was with friends in a pub, and this nice lady was being very friendly towards me, and I was, at least, flattered. A real and true friend, who knew something of her, warned me to be careful, because she had kids and was on her own with no job. Several more drinks later, as she was getting ever closer, she mentioned that she needed a new washing machine, something she doubtless hadn’t planned to mention had the alcohol not revealed her true intentions.

So, where does this leave us? Should we be constantly on our guard and cynical of any possible budding friendship? I would say definitely not.

We should simply be aware of two important aspects of real friendship: initial intensity and rate of change. Alarm bells should ring if either feels too high. If the display of friendliness is inappropriate or disproportionate, then expect at some point a hidden intention of undue influence. They want something from you.

We warn our young children not to go anywhere with a stranger, but often the person with bad intent first makes sure they’re not a stranger to their quarry. So we may be better warning our kids off people who are being friendly when the child wouldn’t expect them to be.

Friendship is a great gift of life, but not all gifts are given freely.

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 someone being way too friendly that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Mind Your Language – the Perils of Verbal Deception

Sometimes we simply do not know what we are saying. For instance, how many atheists pause before they say ‘goodbye’, because they understand that it is a contraction of ‘God be with you’ so contradicts their beliefs?

Words move away from their original meanings – ‘tawdry’ from ‘St Audrey’s lace’ or ‘exorbitant’ from ‘out of the wheel track’, for instance. And words can also vary in their meanings from one country to another. As George Bernard Shaw said, the US and the UK are ‘divided by a common language.’ Even simple terms like ‘potato chips’ have different meanings (and please avoid ‘fanny’ in polite company when in the UK!).

The dictionary-makers track the movement of language and try to keep up, but with over a million words and counting in the English language, it is a hard task.

Language separates us from the other species. Without language, we would be nothing more than chimpanzees. Language provides us with collective memory, so allows us to build on the insights – the memes – of past generations.

Because of language, we can explore the world and our own consciousness with a vast literature from the very first named author – Princess Enheduanna of Babylon- to the present day.

Alongside the language of words, some see music and mathematics as languages. But where music and mathematics are for the most part logical and honorable, verbal language is capable of tremendous deception. And the use of language to cajole and coerce is an everyday aspect of human life.

The distinction between concrete and abstract language is vital to our understanding of verbal deception. Language is used to describe not only objects but also feelings and concepts. Abstract language is the essential tool of persuasion: it flowers into poetry and song, celebrates messages of harmony and unity and can at times help us to transcend the mundane world; but language is also the essential tool of deception.

Orators and propagandists, demagogues and tyrants are all familiar with the thought-stopping platitude and the armour-piercing phrase. Careful examination can show that such arguments are at times pure sophistry: ways of twisting logic to gain consent.

John Wesley used a relatively simple approach to convert thousands to his Methodist creed: he would describe the beauty of heaven and the horrors of hell, and then warn his listeners that death might strike them down as they strolled home from his sermon. If they had not repented their sinfulness, they would surely plummet straight into the fiery pit. Words can be very powerful, as every hell-fire preacher knows.

Loaded language is an essential aspect of Robert Jay Lifton’s remarkable delineation of thought reform.[1] Words become weapons to the totalist, who appeals to emotion rather than reason. Lifton pointed to ‘loaded language’ as a tool of manipulation: specialised meanings with an emotional bias.

Smart people immediately question the idea of a ‘loaded language’ by pointing out that medicine and the sciences are loaded down with complex terms. This is true, and at times a forest of verbiage becomes a screen for ignorance; a way of retaining authority through highfalutin jargon rather than actual expertise.

Historian Barbara Tuchman put it this way: ‘Let us beware the plight of our colleagues, the behavioral scientists, who by use of a proliferating jargon have painted themselves into a corner – or isolation ward – of unintelligibility. They know what they mean, but no one else does. Psychologists and sociologists are the farthest gone in the disease and probably incurable. Their condition might be pitied if one did not suspect it was deliberate. Their retreat into the arcane is meant to set them apart from the great unlearned, to mark their possession of some unshared, un-sharable expertise. No matter how illuminating their discoveries, if the behavioral scientists write only to be understood by one another, they must come to the end of the Mandarins.’[2]

And, with the collapse of Imperial China, the Mandarin bureaucrats came to a very bad end. The latest iteration of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Society (DSMV) highlights this propensity for definitions. Yet again, the APA has produced a labyrinth of symptoms rather than actual ailments. It is likely that the thousands of variants described in this vast manual will diminish exponentially, once their neurology is comprehended. So we have to be cautious: words do not necessarily enhance understanding: at times, quite the opposite.

Where the terminology of the behavioral sciences should be viewed with skepticism, the same does not hold for real medical terms. My friend, Spike, tells me that contrary to popular opinion, there is a name for the back of the knee – the popiteal fossa – and the rest of the body is pretty well covered from the hallux to the coronal suture (from toe to tip, that is). This means that doctors know where to look, and what they are looking at, and can easily communicate their observations to others schooled in the same language.

Robert Jay Lifton gave this description of loaded language: ‘The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.’[3]

Members of totalist groups speak in slogans: ‘thought-terminating clichés’. When challenged on any aspect of doctrine, they will tend to parrot an example given by the leadership. Words are used to induce phobia, guilt, and loathing. Any disagreement with the leadership will be labeled ‘selfish’. Any conflicting perception will be quickly dismissed.

George Orwell finished his last book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, with a remarkable appendix on the potential of language to confine thought. He suggested that a ‘thoughtcrime’ against Big Brother might even be impossible without the words to think it.

While language is not our only means of thinking, it can all too easily persuade us. For instance, adding the word ‘because’, and only the word ‘because’, to a request to use a photocopier will significantly raise your chance of jumping the copier queue (‘I need to use the copier, because…’). We respond automatically to words. This automatic tendency – compliance – is a basis of thought reform.

A new language is donned like a new set of clothes, but at times they prove to be the Emperor’s new clothes. The words are empty of meaning but loaded with emotion. Scientologists are told that members of the ‘élite’ Sea Organization can do anything, whether they are trained or not. They are urged to ‘Make it go right!’ Even as a believer, I did not accept that an unqualified person could build a nuclear reactor from a length of damp string, but I’ve met many people convinced that with the right ‘necessity level’ – their leader Hubbard’s expression – they could.

Indeed, one long-term Scientologist when asked her response to the imminent nuclear war predicted by Hubbard in 1980, said that she would simply ‘mock up’ (create out of nothing) an ‘electropsychometer’ and counsel out her own trauma. The impish chap who had put the question to her simply said, ‘Do it now. Go on: prove that you can.’ And she, of course, responded that her ‘necessity level’ was not high enough.

English professor and US Senator Samuel Hayakawa said this: “Everyone needs to have a habitually critical attitude towards language” his own as well as that of others, both for the sake of his personal well being and for his adequate functioning as a citizen…. If the majority of our fellow citizens are more susceptible to the slogans of fear and race hatred than to those of peaceful accommodation and mutual respect among human beings, our political liberties remain at the mercy of any eloquent and unscrupulous demagogue.’[4]

As with so much else in manipulation, time is of the essence. When subjected to impenetrable jargon, it is necessary to retreat and regroup, to take time away from the persuader and consider the ideas in private and with the help of sympathetic friends. With enough discussion, profound-sounding philosophy can soon degenerate into mumbo-jumbo. Whenever you are urged not to offer your opinion- for whatever reason – it is definitely time to leave, because we understand in part through putting ideas into our own words. Totalists tend to censor communication for this very reason.

Just because someone uses unfamiliar words does not mean that they are wise. As we have seen, psychiatric jargon deserves suspicion, and we should feel able to say, ‘Yes, but what does that mean in everyday language?’ If someone cannot explain in simple terms, it usually means that they don’t know what they are talking about; but it can also mean that they are intentionally fomenting confusion with the aim of recruiting you.

On this occasion, I will agree with cult-leader Ron Hubbard that it is very important to know the meaning of words, but let me add that it is even more important to understand the intention behind the words. When large sums of money or blind loyalty are demanded in return for these words, they are probably part of a trap. Beware!

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

[1]Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism

[2]Barbara Tuchman, Practising History

[3]Robert Jay Lifton, op.cit., p.429

[4]S.I.Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action


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