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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:   

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.

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! 

Don’t Ever Let Go of the Basics

An accountant, known and respected for his accuracy and diligence at work, was nonetheless somewhat of a mystery in his small office for over a half century. Polite and soft-spoken, he talked very little and avoided conversation, preferring to work through his lunch hour rather than socialize. He was the first to arrive and the last to leave every day; no one could remember him ever taking a day off sick. However, everyone who worked with him noticed one small, subtle habit: at the start of every fresh task, he would open his top desk drawer, peer into a manila file folder kept there, nod to himself solemnly, and then replace the folder in the drawer and begin his work.

Although no one wished to ask him directly about this ritual, his co-workers speculated endlessly upon its meaning. What was in the folder? Was it some bit of inspiration or wisdom? Some rules of thumb that helped him in his task? A picture of a loved one? In this small, intimate office, it was the one topic of conversation that never grew old.

The accountant, however, did grow old, and eventually died: his co-workers arrived one morning to find him slumped over his desk, his slide-rule clutched in his hand. As the coroner took him away, the rest of the office waited a full five minutes before someone spoke the words that were going through everyone’s minds:

“It wouldn’t be disrespectful to look in the folder now, would it?”

The senior manager approached the drawer, the rest of the staff clustered around her. She slid out the drawer solemnly, and held her breath as she pulled out the folder and opened it. Taped inside was a single sheet of paper, with only five words:

“Debits go on the left.”

Although accountancy has changed since the days of slide rules and paper ledgers, the practice of entering debits to the left is so universal that the idea of an experienced accountant having to remind himself about it is absurd. However, this anecdote from early 20th century humorist Bennet Cerf contains an important grain of wisdom: no matter how absurd it might seem, it is always good to remind ourselves of the basics, and to check ourselves, regularly, to see that we really are following our own rules.

The hypocrisy of a high-control group campaigning for “human rights” while denying those rights to its members is easy to see – from the outside. But we are all blind to our own hypocrisies: from the environmentalist who uses K-cups for her coffee, to the vegetarian wearing leather shoes, to the economist who complains about the death of small retail, yet buys everything from Amazon and Wal-Mart.

When invoking critical thinking and healthy skepticism, it is important to check our preconceptions – even (and especially!) our dearest and oldest-held beliefs.

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? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a story about all-or-nothing thinking that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!

Jessica Terwiel on Conflict De-escalation

jessica terwiel

Jessica Terwiel recently appeared on the podcast “Left at the Valley”, discussing the often-neglected art of conflict de-escalation – stepping away and taking time to cool down. Jessica offers some solid life advice, sparkling wittily in her interview, which starts at 55 minutes into the show (though you’ll want to listen to the whole podcast, particularly their amusing breakdown of the top ten product failures of all time).



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