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20180701 – The Influential Mind



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The main idea of this book is that usual instinctive approach to communication with intent to influence people does not work and that the newest psychological research with the use of such technology as MRI provides insight into works of human brain that in turn provides new methodologies of influence, much more effective than the traditional ones. Author allocates a chapter to each specific technic of influence from the use of factual data to use of fear and tries to demonstrate how new and better technics could be used.


Prologue. A Horse-Sized Syringe

The Surprising, Baffling, Mysterious Case of Influence

Author starts with describing her work researching human ability influencing others in the lab by manipulating incentives, emotions, context, and social environment. The objective is to obtain insights in the human behavior. After that she moves to present an example of manipulation – image of horse syringe used on children. Trump used it in GOP debate discussing vaccination with Carson. Author makes an important point that while Carson was correct from scientific side, the image overwrote this and gives Trump winning points with people, even if he was wrong. After that author moves to very interesting point presenting results of brain-imaging demonstrating pleasure that was created by communicated one’s ideas and opinions to others, especially if it changes other’s behavior. At the end she stresses two important points: one is that people typically communicate based on their mindset and knowledge, while recipient always has different mindset and knowledge; the other is the huge gap between believing and acting, which is typically demonstrated by attitudes to exercise: everybody believes it is good for health, but much smaller number of people actually does it.

  1. Does Evidence Change Beliefs? (Priors)

The Power of Confirmation and the Weakness of Data

The chapter starts with example of Franco-American couple in which spouse has preference for own country and cannot convince another to switch position. Author claims that usual way of argument based on attempts to provide logical and data support for one’s opinion and argue for this is wrong. The reason is complexity and amount of data and human tendency for confirmation bias, meaning selective use of data – accepting whatever confirms one’s view and rejecting whatever denies.  Author presents a number of experiments supporting this and makes an interesting inference: more intelligent people are better capable to find data supporting whatever opinion they already have and/or twist data to support their opinion. At the end of the chapter author comes up with recommendation to find a common ground that would provide higher value than supporting one’s views and then provide alternatives. He example: parents concerned with vaccine / autism issue could be convinced by hem probabilities of other diseases preventable by this vaccine.

Key inference here: don’t reject opposite opinion without trying to find common ground that could breach difference.

  1. (Emotion) How We Were Persuaded to Reach for the Moon

The Incredible Sway of Emotion

This chapter demonstrates emotional persuasion by using example of Kennedy’s Moon speech. After that author examines impact of emotions in lab conditions when watching spaghetti westerns. The next step is a review of use of synchronized emotions for persuasion, first by discussing how to get to synchronization either via recollection of meeting spouse, then mother/ baby connection and finally by reviewing Facebook experiment on manipulation of emotions. Finally, author discusses synchronization via common experience like watching move when pattern of eyes movement common not only between people, but also with monkeys.

Key inference here: Emotions are contagious, therefore should be used cautiously.

  1. (Incentives) Should You Scare People into Action?

Moving with Pleasure and Freezing with Fear

Here author moves to the methods of controlling people. She discusses experiment with hand washing when positive feedback worked much better then threads and punishments. Author also discusses here Attraction and Avoidance using experiment with chickens on treadmill, which run after food when it is moving away, and then run away from food that is moving in their direction. Similar processes happen to people. She also discusses freezing reaction even in case of emergencies that seems to be counter the need for survives as in deer in highlights case. Author’s explanation – it is just a method of survival by pretending to be dead to merge in non-living environment. At the end of the chapter she takes on marshmallow experiment from something different point of view: not usual willpower approach, but rather unpredictability of future, meaning that forfaiting a smaller reward now for future bigger reward is actually weighted by probability of this future reward to arrive.

Key inference here: Warnings and threats work poorly, encouragement and positive immediate feedback work much better.

  1. (Agency) How You Obtain Power by Letting Go

The Joy of Agency and the Fear of Losing Control

It starts with discussion of rationality of fear and disconnect between what people fear and what it really dangerous:

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This follows by discussion of control and influence: both are being source of agency without which humans become stressed and fearful. There is an interesting point here about taxes, which are obviously very unpleasant part of live. Author suggest that by allowing people define what taxes used for greatly improves attitude – at least in lab experiment with students it led to increase in compliance from 50% to 70 %. Then author dig into the notion of control, defining it as choice common not only to people, but also to animals. The next point is that choice has price and this price paid when choice is not the best in investment and other areas of live. Author discusses a couple of experiments demonstrating that people generally do it consciously sometimes giving up agency for expected gain, but sometimes not. Finally, author makes another point that possession of control in live makes people healthier and happier. Author also added that experiments and just common knowledge show that people by far prefer and value the product of their own effort comparatively to the same product produced by others.

Key inference here: If one wants people to do something, the best way is to frame it in such way as they want to do it themselves. Agency makes people happy.

  1. (Curiosity) What Do People Really Want to Know?

The Value of information and the Burden of Knowledge

The discussion of information value starts with flight security announcement that nobody really paying attention to as example of important information missed. Then it moves to the story of individual losing important benefit due to unethical acquisition of information just to get it a bit earlier. Similarly, experiment on monkeys demonstrated that they also value information highly enough to pay for it. The next point is joy of anticipation for some good news and conscious evasion of a bad one represented by such typical occurrence as disease test avoidance. Another valid statistical example is people’s frequency of checking their investment accounts correlation with market movements. The final note is about our constant attempt to filter out unpleasant information and cherry picking of pleasant.

Key inference here: People want good news, so frame message as possibility of progress, rather than doom.

  1. (‘State) What Happens to Minds Under Threat?

The Influence of Stress and the Ability to Overcome

Author starts with examples of irrational mass panic: running people in New York, multiple girls simultaneously showing symptoms of illness without any indication of actually being sick. After providing examples of mass hysteria, author describes experiments on information processing under the stress, which demonstrated increase in acceptation of negative information under the stress. The next comes look at sport games where stress presented in very clear form, which author uses to discuss situation of playing safe vs. going out all the way when there is perception of nothing to lose.

Key inference here: Identify and prevent influence of others on your emotional state.

  1. (Others, Part I) Why Do Babies Love iPhones?

The Strength of Social Learning and the Pursuit of Uniqueness

Here author discusses tension that humans experience between strive to be unique and to be as everybody at the same time. She starts it referring to baby name selection and then moves to use of iPhone by infant to copy behavior of adults. She also provides some other examples of mass imitation such as a movie killing sales of Merlot. Another interesting example is that, despite deficiency for donated kidneys, people refuse the ones that were previously rejected. At the end she discusses theory of mind and stresses an important point: compliance with the group position that individual not really agree with drops dramatically if there is at least one person challenging the group.

Key inference here: Be mindful of (over) social learning and do not imitate choices of others.

  1. (Others, Part II) Is Unanimous as Reassuring as It Sounds?

How to Find Answers in an Unwise Crowd

This is about wisdom of crowd and cases when it works: crowd contains independent minds with divers experience; and when it does not work – crowd just a bunch of conformists. It starts with example of unanimous rejection of literary work that followed by individual acceptation of this for some idiosyncratic reasons, leading to non-conformist getting very rich like in example with Harry Porter.

Key inference here: voting should be not equal, but weighted by competence level of voter.

  1. The Future of Influence?

You Mind in My Body

This is about humans being social creatures that developed language so sophisticated that no other animals can match and then following it up with writing and now with computers. Then author describes experiment with connection between brains of two mousses, which learned to control each other actions. The experiment was then expanded to humans using non-intrusive methods and achieving successful communications. Author ends with claim that such direct connection is just imitation of our usual methods: language, mimics, and lots of other methods.


We seem to be experiencing overload of attempts to understand and influence people in all areas of live by using results of psychological research based on brain scanning. It is an interesting phenomenon because at the bottom of these attempts one can find reaction to failures of the last hundred years of collectivistic utopias. From the new Soviet or Nazi man that was supposed to be created by steely hand of totalitarian government to the soft nudging of people to do whatever elite of society believes is good for them, all these attempts hit hard into reality of human nature and go down in flames. This book is kind of combination of technics of influencing people and technics to resist such influencing. As such, both sets of technics are easily observable in mass media and political activities, providing for a nice entertainment. I, however, do not believe that these attempts could ever be successful. The reason for that is not that much complexity of human being, as complexity and fluidity of environment combined with continuing change in each individual’s mind and body while he/she is going through multiple internal age and circumstance related changes. At any given moment a multitude of people could be influenced by the same stimuli to move in different, sometime opposite directions so combined vector of movement is not possible to define. To do this would require   defining psychological and mental status of all members of this multitude, which is not possible regardless of amount of computer power available. And since external force moving people in direction they do not want to go makes people unhappy and sometimes violent, the only reasonable solution, if one wants to achieve peace, prosperity, and maximum happiness, is providing as much freedom as possible and support it with availability of resources, without which the freedom is not real.

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