6 Creepy Brainwashing Techniques You Can Use Today
The world is full of shady self-help gurus and workplace seminars telling us how we can turn our lives around just by using the right words ("Don't say the cheese is 'spoiled' -- say it's 'aged'!"), as if language is a form of magic that can alter reality.
But here's the thing: The human brain is an odd, glitchy machine that is influenced in all sorts of weird ways you never thought of. This is why politicians and salespeople can trick you into going along with them, just by toying with the words they use. Science is just now catching up to them, and has found that ...
Repeating Your Opinion Makes People Believe It, No Matter How Stupid It Is
This is one that, sadly, you could have guessed if you follow politics or talk radio: Say it enough, and people will believe it. For example, how many of you think Al Gore claims to have invented the Internet? He said no such thing -- but pundits and comedians repeated it enough that it became truth. It's the same reason anti-vaccination zealots stick to their guns, even while they cause diseases to spread like wildfire. They "heard" vaccines were dangerous, and that's literally all it takes -- hearing it over and over. Even if the source is a total stranger and/or an idiot.
Why It Works:
It's just the way human social behavior works -- if a message is repeated enough times, others will begin to accept it as a commonly held belief in the group. In fact, studies have found that if just one person repeats the same opinion three times, it has a whopping 90 percent chance of converting three different people in the group to have the same opinion. Holy shit, that's how both politics and conspiracy theories work, isn't it?
And Internet forums!
Researchers at the University of Michigan have come to call the phenomenon memory distortion, and it's basically a brain glitch where the interplay of repetition and assumption makes us form our beliefs around whatever opinion is the most familiar to us.
But what makes it so treacherous is the fact that all it takes to sway people's beliefs is one crazy person. Hell, it doesn't even work all that well with multiple people: A study on the phenomenon exposed one group to an opinion repeated by three different people, another to that same opinion repeated by one person multiple times. Incredibly, the group subjected to one single guy repeating the opinion was three times more susceptible to changing their own opinions than the others. Even when we actively register that it's just one person spouting bullshit, we're still likely to believe it.
"If you look past the tinfoil hat, rambling incoherence, and trench coat covered in pigeon crap, he actually makes a lot of sense."
In other words, people who are obsessive or dickish enough to keep repeating a wrong idea have a natural advantage in human society, and probably always have. Yeah, that whole "Hitler" thing is starting to make a lot more sense, right?
Imitating People Makes Them Give You Things
If you work in a profession where tips make up a significant portion of your income, it's crucial that your customers see you as a pleasant enough person to, well, tip. It's good luck, then, that it's entirely possible to use a simple "repeated words" trick to sway people in your favor, to the point where they're way more likely to give you money.
All you need to do is repeat the last few words they said (well, that, and generally behave in a not-kicking-them-in-the-junk-because-they-asked-for-more-bread-sticks manner, but we're hoping that kind of goes without saying). And it's actually part of a broader set of techniques that every politician and con artist knows: You can bring people to your side -- and get them to do things for you -- just by imitating them.
Much of France was ruled by parrots until 1589, when peasants learned how to stick their fingers in their ears.
Why It Works:
It comes up in study after study -- the power of mimicry in social situations. Humans are social animals, and we all have a switch that flips in our brain that says, "This person is like me, therefore I should help them." In one study, they found that customers were more likely to buy from salespeople who repeated phrases they used, or their mannerisms. That's right, it doesn't even have to be verbal -- in another experiment cited in the link above, if the researcher mimicked the posture and body language of the subject, the subject was three times as likely to help him pick up a box of pens he'd dropped.
So in the Dutch study mentioned above that explored the relationship between mimicry and generous tips, they first went into a restaurant and calculated an average tip, then told the server to repeat what half of her customers said after ordering, exactly as they said it. With the other half, she would simply say what servers normally say ("We'll get that right out!" or something to that effect). The tips from mimicked customers were a whopping 68 percent more generous than those from the non-mimicked ones. Regardless of factors like the accuracy of the order and wait time, just hearing their words repeated back to them put them in a more positive, giving state of mind.
"Liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa, coming right up!"
Of course, there's presumably a limit to how much you should mimic a person. You can test it by following people around the office, parroting their every sentence, and log how much time passes before they finally turn around and stab you.
Resist Temptation by Saying "Don't" Instead of "Can't"
One reason why successful dieting is borderline impossible is because there is a complicated psychology behind cravings that science barely understands. For example, one study found that, bizarrely, you can screw up somebody's diet just by telling them obesity is a disease.
"And you, my friend, are my Ebola virus."
So for example, when you have a friend who's dieting, you can usually judge how successful they'll be based on a single word. When shown a doughnut or a deep-fried stick of butter, do they say, "I can't eat that?"
If so, they're probably screwed. What they should have said was "I don't eat that."
"WELL LA-DEE-DA, MR. PICKY!"
Two letters, but all the difference in the world.
Why It Works:
Researchers did a study where participants were asked to respond with either statement when asked to consider whether they would like an unhealthy snack. They then reported how empowered they felt after and, in the true test, were offered a chocolate bar or a granola bar on the way out the door. Sure enough, 64 percent of the I-don'ts went with the granola bar, while only 39 percent of the I-can'ts took it.
"Good choice ... yup ... no regrets."
It makes sense -- "don't" suggests that the desired item being spoken of is simply never part of the speaker's life; it's something they have actively eliminated themselves, a decision they arrived at personally. "I can't" means there's some external reason barring the speaker from what they truly want, and if this condition (i.e., a temporary diet) didn't exist, they'd be neck deep in chocolate-coated fried chicken. In other words, one phrase is empowering, while the other "inherently signifies deprivation."
These results were repeated in experiments dealing with exercise, too -- it's just easier to resist impulses when you frame it in your mind as "I'm choosing to do this" versus "My Nazi of a doctor is making me." Unless said doctor has a gun to your head, you're eventually going to rebel and do what you "really" want.
And if he does have a gun to your head, you're hallucinating and need to see a real (non-Nazi) doctor.
And somehow, that's only the second-weirdest food entry on this list ...
Performing a Ritual Before Eating Makes Food Taste Better
A human being is a creature of ritual and habit, even and especially when it comes to food. When it's your birthday, the cake tends to come to the tune of a discordant, unenthusiastic "Happy Birthday." If you're the religious type, chances are you precede your meals with a little prayer you give to your deity of choice before chowing down. Sure, there are all sorts of cultural reasons for that stuff, but there's a very neat magic trick these chants are able to pull off: They make whatever you're about to ingest taste better.
If you're not into saying grace before mealtime and/or the very first bars of "Happy Birthday" send you into a murderous frenzy, pretty much any quirky ritual will do. Mutter "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers" three times under your breath while grinning widely and eyeballing the couple at the next table. Stand on your head and loudly scream, "I dedicate this meal to A'grasokh, god of turmoil and madness." It doesn't seem to matter, as long as you do it.
While animal sacrifices at McDonald's aren't explicitly forbidden, you can tell they don't like it.
Why It Works:
You already kind of knew this on some level, based on your experience at restaurants. The steak served to you by a waiter in a tuxedo who offers it on a polished silver platter under soft violin music might be no different from the hunk of meat served in a plastic basket at Billy's Beef Bonanza down the street (hell, they probably use the same supplier), but there is a ritual to the former that makes that food seem more ... important, somehow. Kind of like if you see a scruffy guy pull up in a limousine with five bodyguards, you assume he must be a rock star or something. "They wouldn't go through all that hassle for some random asshole!"
So the food we perceive as important tends to taste better, and the easiest, cheapest way to make it important is to give it a little "Abracadabra" just before eating it. Several different experiments involving food ranging from carrots to chocolate have verified that this is a very real thing, and it changed the taste of the food so much that the test subjects not only enjoyed the food more and savored it longer, but were actually willing to pay more for it.
"The three-hour one man show really brings out the flavor."
In the case of the carrots, the ritual (completely non-religious in nature, by the way) was even able to increase the subjects' anticipation of eating the next carrot, despite knowing full well that it would clearly be just another carrot. Yes, they managed to make fucking carrots desirable. If that's not magic, we don't know what is.
Saying "I'm Excited" Reduces Stress
We want to apologize in advance, because this one really does sound like the kind of rah-rah "Think positive!" bullshit you've heard at some HR seminar at the office. But it turns out they might be kind of right.
That kitten wasn't just talking out of his ass, either.
We all have temporary spells of work bullshit -- maybe you're facing a seemingly impossible deadline, or a spine-crushing triple shift, or a huge test that your whole semester hinges on, and holy shit, it's tomorrow, you could have sworn it's not until next Thursday. That crap happens to everybody, and your biggest enemy is the panic itself. You're rarely at your best when you're shitting your pants in terror.
And here's where your disgustingly positive life coach will make you stop and say you're "excited" about the upcoming challenge, instead of "terrified," as if merely telling that to yourself can actually change your stress level (and thus performance) during the task.
"Yeah, and if that was true, nobody would suck at sex."
But the science suggests they're right.
Why It Works:
According to Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard, saying "I'm excited!" prior to a stressful circumstance (yes, you have to say it out loud) helps to change the pants-shitting perspective into something more positive inside your head. Once you have the positivity thing down, it greatly reduces your stress and makes you perform better at just about everything, from oratory skills to general work performance.
"And that's how I passed quantum physics with nothing but a tank of laughing gas."
You know what doesn't work? Trying to calm yourself down, or telling yourself it's no big deal. That apparently is the secret -- Brooks' research discovered that the whole "I'm excited" thing works because it doesn't deny the ball of anxiety in your gut is there or try to make it go away. It just tricks your brain into thinking it's a positive.
Adding a Reason to Your Request Is a Jedi Mind Trick
You're standing in line at a Starbucks. A busy-looking suit taps on your shoulder and asks, "Do you mind if I cut in front of you?" A week later, an identical-looking dude does the same thing, only this one says, "Do you mind if I cut in front of you, because I need to get my coffee?" Which one are you more likely to tell to fuck off?
"Well, I have two middle fingers, so ..."
Of course, your answer is "Both, and if he tries anything, so help me, I will initiate a slap-fight." Ours was, too. However, should this scenario actually happen, a whopping 93 percent of people would let the latter guy get his coffee before them just because he gave a reason ... even if the reason adds nothing to the situation. It's not like they dressed him in bloody surgeon's garb and had him yell something about being late for an open-heart surgery. Just giving a reason -- even if it's stating the obvious -- works wonders.
Why It Works:
The key is that it really only works on requests that don't require a lot of time or effort on the other person's end -- once they have a moment to think about what was said, they usually build up some resistance. But in our day-to-day lives, our resistance is pretty low. For instance, think about how you traveled to wherever you're reading this article now (school/office/company bathroom). Chances are you probably didn't have to think very hard about getting there. It was a familiar route, so your brain operated your body on automatic, leaving you to daydream about whatever bullshit you'd rather be doing. While this is a useful brain-tool to have, it also leaves us wide open to manipulation.
"Hm? Oh, yes, I'll contribute to Nuke the Whales."
When the brain is in the automatic state, our reasoning becomes simplified, to the point where almost any reason to do something is good enough for us. "Hey, can you move a little to the left so my space orangutan can better fling his acidic poop at the guy standing next to you?" becomes "Hey, can you move a little to the left because of [REASON]?" in our head, and we're automatically all "Sure, cool" and don't think twice about it until the screaming begins. If the favor is a bigger, more inconveniencing thing, the autopilot brain is more likely to nudge us a bit, but even then, it's likely to grant the favor if the reason presented is somewhat plausible.
None of this makes any logical sense, of course -- there has presumably been a reason behind every single request you've ever gotten, even if the person didn't state one. The existence of a reason for their request isn't new information. But it doesn't matter -- if you learn to reflexively give that "because ________" after every request, you'll find the world bending to your will.
Flimsy rationalizations: the true opiate of the masses.
Paul K Pickett is a Canadian writer. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Lacey Pickett is his sister, also Canadian.
Related Reading: You're being brainwashed right now, friend. Chanted slogans have an unreasonably large impact on your mind. And if you ever need to make a courtroom think you're smart and trustworthy, wear glasses to hack their minds. Prefer to brainwash children? You're a fucked up man, but these propaganda comic books should give you some ideas.
Want to know how to fight presidents? Daniel O'Brien can help with How to Fight Presidents: Defending Yourself Against the Badasses Who Ran This Country.