When considering the damage that can result from falling prey to undue influence, it becomes clear that prevention is better than a cure. Here are a few tips for good mental hygiene, adapted from an excerpt of Opening Minds.

Take your time – and keep your balance!

We need to take time before making any important decision. Today’s insistent ‘buy now’ offer will continue until the goods are actually sold. Both optimism and pessimism are actually irrational: it is hard to reason when we are either too cheerful or too sad: realism is the best approach.

Enough sleep is vital to our mental and physical health.

Sleep deprivation is the ‘royal road’ to compliance, according to one Guantanamo Bay torturer – captives were woken every hour, to make sure they would never be fully awake.

Proper nutrition is also vital.

Extreme fasting endangers reasoning. The occasional day without food actually lengthens life, but too much fasting causes hallucinations. High-carbohydrate diets do not provide the nutrients necessary for the brain to function at its best.

Drugs and alcohol distort perception and reasoning.

And that includes medical drugs, such as anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills and painkillers. It is not enough not to operate machinery when under the influence: it is also important not to make any life-changing decisions. The same is true for the euphoria generated by the hypnotic techniques of totalist groups, and participation in group activities. It is wonderful to feel part of a group, but where a rock concert or an opera is usually a positive experience, this natural euphoria can easily be twisted into control by a manipulative group.

Meditate – mindfully

Ten per cent of 12 year-olds in the US have been ‘medicated’ for anxiety, hyperactivity or depression. Emeritus professor of neurology James Austin suggests meditation instead of medication. Improved concentration undoubtedly benefits our attention-deficient society: resistance to persuasion depends upon developing cool rationality – that is, the ability to quiet down emotional arousal – without losing a compassionate perspective. In this respect, new studies of secular meditation are very important.

The meditation Professor Austin recommends is not the repetition of mantras, leading to euphoric self-hypnosis, but the Buddhist ‘mindfulness’ meditation, where thoughts are quieted and attention heightened.[i]

However, meditation should be approached with care. Many groups falsely label their hypnotic procedures ‘meditation’. Also, some people are made nervous by meditation. This condition – called ‘relaxation induced anxiety’ – means that it is important to join meditative passivity with physical exercise.[ii]

Get good help, if you need it.

Psychotherapy has moved away from endlessly revisiting past trauma – which can strengthen that trauma and even create false memories – to approaches that teach careful attention to our own thoughts and responses, so we can develop new thoughts and better responses.

We must make clear distinctions between exploitative and ethical persuasion. The former always uses deception, where ethical persuasion is open and honest and reveals all of the known information in a clearly accessible way.

Question everything!

The simple truth is that we behave as we believe, so it is vital that we are willing to question our beliefs. By recognizing and overcoming manipulation or undue influence, we can greatly reduce conflict, better conserve our environment and lead more fulfilling lives. We have the tools to make a better world and we have the ability to use those tools. With an ounce of prevention, we can avoid the pain of undue influence.

recommended reading: John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

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

[i]  James Austin, Zen Brain Reflections, MIT Press, Boston, 2010.

[ii]  For a critique of meditation, see Farias and Wikholm, The Buddha Pill: can mediation change you?, Watkins, 2015.