The following article was first published on May 5, 2015.
You and I are shockingly easy to manipulate. Decades of social science experiments show that we can be induced to donate or steal, stand for justice or proliferate racism, vote or stay home, torture or pity.
It’s time we stopped reading social science for fascinating facts about humans in general, and started using it to navigate our own lives. It’s time we acknowledge how little control we have over our own behavior—and start taking control of the things that control us. Only then will we be the real agents of our own behavior. Only then will we be able to live up to the morals, goals, and aspirations we most cherish.
A great place to start taking control of the things that control you is to become an Influence Spotter. As you move about in public, engage with media and interact with others, pick one influence tactic at a time and spend a week learning to spot examples of it. Our research shows that you are least subject to manipulation when you are most conscious of its attempt. For example, if you know someone is raising her voice in order to intimidate you, you may feel a bit less intimidated.
Here are four great “spotting” exercises to begin with. They come to us from Stanford Psychologist Albert Bandura. In Bandura’s latest book, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves, he describes four common ways people like you and me are manipulated into supporting and doing despicable things. To help bring them to life—see if you can spot them in our most recent Behavioral Science Guys experiment.
1. Minimizing the behavior. This is often accomplished by using sanitizing euphemisms to describe what we’re doing that sanitize it. There’s a reason CIA officials insist on referring to waterboarding as “enhanced interrogation” rather than “torture.” In our experiment, we test whether having a confederate urge teens to “sweeten their score” causes more to compromise their morals than if we call it “lying.”
2. Minimizing consequences. In our experiment, the confederate helps subjects minimize the consequences of their choices with advantageous comparisons—for example, “It’s not like we’re killing someone here!” For years, tobacco companies attempted to salve consciences by refuting connections between smoking and cancer. The murkier they made the connection, the less repugnant their product appeared. We sometimes minimize consequences in our own minds when we make choices inconsistent with our values—for example, “One ice cream cone won’t cause a heart attack!”
3. Dehumanize victims. Last year, the world was in an uproar about the apparent North-Korean-backed cyber-attack on Sony Studios. The alleged goal was to stop the release of “The Interview”—a comedy depicting an assassination of Kim Jong Un. Absent from all of this moral outrage is appropriate disgust at a comedic representation of the assassination of a sitting head-of-state. Why no outcry? Because we see Kim Jong Un as a ruthless buffoon. He is a caricature not a human—so we give ourselves permission to act toward him in ways we would not toward say, President Obama. Imagine our reaction if another country produced a television sitcom celebrating the kidnap and torture of our sitting head of state. Manipulating the representation of victims is one of the most common tactics practiced on you.
Sometimes it’s used in reverse. For example, a study showed that voters are 90 percent more likely to favor protecting a species called the furry-nosed otter than the same creature if called the sharp-clawed otter. Change Sheep-eating Eagle to American Eagle and we are 75 percent more likely to take it under our wing. In our experiment, some teen subjects were told they were competing against a team called “The Rats” while others were told it was simply “Team B.” On hearing their name, one boy wryly commented, “That’s an unfortunate name.” Notice also that as we debate the use of various coercive methods in the US, we refer to those whom we practice them on as “enemy combatants.” An unfortunate name if you want people to consider your humanity.
4. Finally, the granddaddy of all manipulations: moral justification. We are in peril of disconnecting from our conscience when we begin to justify our means with noble-sounding ends. In our experiment, some subjects were offered the chance to donate their winnings to a children’s charity (we did, in fact, make the donation). They were told that the fictitious other team was keeping their winnings for themselves. As subject kids cheated, it was common to hear, “It’s for the children!” Dr. Bandura pointed out a painful hypocrisy in our own experiment: “You are justifying lying to kids in order to pursue knowledge—how do you feel about that?”
When we loaded our subjects (if you just noted that “subject” is a dehumanizing word you’re already influence spotting!) with all four manipulation tactics they made more than three times as many dishonest choices. Think about it! These aren’t bad kids—these are normal kids being subjected to powerful influence tactics. Their choices were far less about them than about the things controlling them. Which is why you and I need to learn to take control of the things that control us.
Now, let me hasten to add that I am not taking a position here on decisions like the manufacture of cigarettes, the use of water boarding, or deception in social science experiments. I have my own feelings on those topics and I suspect you do as well. What I am suggesting is that as you and I sort out our opinions, there are things we and others do that cloud and confuse the moral calculation. If you want to stay connected to your conscience, the best course is to learn to spot these manipulations—both self-imposed and external—and reframe the choice in an honest way.
“I am breaking my commitment to myself by ordering a Mucho Grande Mocha Latte. Do I want to do that?”
At times, the answer may be yes. But at least it will then be a thoughtful yes.
Join me in creating a better and more conscious world by becoming an Influence Spotter.