Sometimes scientists exert undue influence on their field. The cleverest people can use their cleverness to convince themselves that even their most foolish ideas are right. For instance, in the US, psychology was dominated through the third quarter of the twentieth century by Behaviorism, which insisted that nothing could be known about what happens in the mind. We can understand the stimulus and the response, but nothing that happens in between.

Of course, once you’ve convinced yourself – and taken over a field of study – that nothing can be known about the mind, you will make sure that any attempt to find out what happens in the mind will be discouraged and probably will not be funded. So, Behaviorism took over the universities, put rats in the laboratory and insisted that the human mind is an impenetrable “black box”.

B.F. Skinner, the most famous Behaviorist, boasted, “Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything.” Like Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, he probably believed he could transform a Cockney sparrow into a countess. He could create a poet, an inventor, an entrepreneur, an engineer or a great dictator, through careful indoctrination.

Skinner built his Skinner Box to experiment with rats, and raised his own child using “operant conditioning”. But, eventually, those psychologists who dared to peek inside the “black box” of the human mind proved Skinner wrong – along with John Watson, who originated this ugly, irrational notion.

Some sociologists cleave to the Watson-Skinner faith: they believe that nothing is known about the human mind or human behavior, save in the broad strokes of their own creators – Weber and Durkheim. The painstaking work of the post-War social psychologists – Asch, Lewin, Milgram, Zimbardo and their colleagues is brushed aside as unethical or speculative.

But the world has moved on: practical problems need practical solutions; social psychology has given us some practical solutions.

For instance, when Muzafer Sherif led his remarkable Robbers Cave study, he not only predicted that groups of eleven-year-olds would behave like lords of the flies, but also showed how to unite the warring gangs by giving them a problem they could only solve by pooling their resources. This part of his study has been largely ignored.

With the proliferation of cult groups and the rise of terrorist radicalization, there has never been a greater need for evidence-based enquiry into undue influence. At Open Minds, we are helping to spread that evidence and proof people against the tricks and traps of manipulation.

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