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Robert Levine: The Power of Persuasion:
how we’re bought and sold
(Wiley: 2003)


“The psychology of persuasion emanates from three directions: the characteristics of the source, the mind-set of the target person, and the psychological context within which the communication takes place.... All or any of the three can tilt the power balance either toward or against you...[but] psychological disarmament is what often sets the stage for persuasion, [as] one of life’s crueler ironies is that we’re most vulnerable at those very moments when we feel in least danger. Unfortunately, the illusion of invulnerability pretty well defines our resting state [as,] even when there is no manipulative outsider pulling our strings, most of us have a tendency to view our futures with unrealistic optimism.... [However,] I’m not saying that our illusion of invulnerability is cast in stone. Hardly. Studies show, for example, that when someone close to us is victimized, we often flip 180 degrees, now becoming unrealistically pessimistic.... This is especially true when the victim seems at all similar to ourselves.... [Moreover,] depressives, it seems, must forgo the comfort of self-enhancing, selective blindness. Nor does the illusion of personal invulnerability seem to be hard-wired at birth. It is telling that there are cultural differences, [and] downplaying one’s own vulnerability doesn’t sit very well, for example, in group-focused cultures like those throughout much of Asia, where your personal well-being is less important than the prosperity of the larger collective.... In the West, however, the illusion of invulnerability is the prevailing norm.... [But,] how do otherwise intelligent people convince themselves, in defiance of all odds, that they’re more competent than everyone else? Social psychologists call the process the fundamental attribution error. When asked to explain other people’s problems, we have an uncanny tendency to assign blame to inner qualities: to their personality traits, emotional states, and the like. If I hear you were suckered by a salesman, I conclude it’s because you’re easily deceived. When it comes to ourselves, however, we usually blame it on features of the situation. If I get suckered, it’s because the salesman rushed me or conned me, or I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. In part, the fundamental attribution error results from the information we have to work with. I know I don’t usually let myself get taken advantage of, so it must be something unique to the situation that made a difference. But the error is driven by more than just rational information processing. It’s a self-deluding, psychological comfort blanket.”
(Levine, pp.7-14)

When we think about psychology - whatever we may think of it - the focus is always inward. In consequence, it’s not surprising that social psychology remains a relatively low-profile discipline. And, nor is this condition helped by its relatively amorphous subject matter. However, over the last few decades, the discipline has re-oriented itself around the central question of persuasion - driven (and informed) by the increasing omnipresence of professional persuaders in all walks of life - a development which has immeasurably improved both the quality and usefulness of research work in this area.

Whilst Robert Cialdini’s textbook Influence remains the standard work I, as regular readers will know, retain a strong bias against textbooks, however clear & well-informed. Moreover, in broadening discussion to take in basic socialization (as well as the depths of mind-control), Levine’s work admirably extends the scope of this approach...and, not coincidentally, also helps make clear how it dovetails with bordering disciplines. And there are many such. For besides functioning as the veritable ground upon which rhetoric builds, the psychology of persuasion forms the social annex of cognitive psychology’s most impressive department - the heuristics and biases school - as well as supplying a foundational plank of the social sciences proper. For, without such a psychology, it should be self-evident that all such - anthropology, sociology, and economics - would be ill-founded, indeed...

For all of these reasons - not to mention some pointed lessons on not being a sucker - this book is essential reading. Most of the lessons - in general - are, in fact, familiar...albeit all too easily forgotten. However, when marshalled in toto, and arrayed in systematic order, it becomes startlingly clear just how many ways we are vulnerable as social animals...and how mindful we must be, if we truly wish to think...for ourselves.


“My research has led me to three broad conclusions. First, we’re more susceptible to persuasion than we think. People tend to have a curious illusion of personal invulnerability to manipulation - a belief that we’re not as vulnerable as others around us...[which] is a comforting notion for moving forward in an unpredictable and dangerous world. Unfortunately, however, the more immune we feel, the less likely we are to take precautions and, as a result, the more susceptible than ever we become. Second, the most effective persuaders are the least obvious. Almost everyone is savvy enough to put his or her guard up against the fast-talkers - pushy salespeople, aggressive con artists, and egotistical leaders. The people who get through to us, however, are more subtle. They seem likeable, honest, and trustworthy. As Abraham Lincoln once observed, ‘There’s nothing stronger than gentleness.’ ...Third, the rules of persuasion aren’t all that different, no matter what the source...[as] I’ve come to agree with the words of advertising commentator Sid Bernstein: ‘Of course you sell candidates for political office the same way you sell soap or sealing wax, or whatever; because, when you get right down to it, that’s the only way anything is sold.’ The effectiveness of virtually all these experts’ strategies may be explained by a finite number of principles. The content of the come-on may differ dramatically, but not the form.... It’s important to recognize, however, that persuasion isn’t an inherently exploitive force [as] it’s not so much a crystallized weapon as it is a process; no less, in fact, than the process underlying virtually all meaningful social communication.... [Therefore,] if we accept that humans are social animals, then the psychology of persuasion - knowing both how to use it and how to resist it - should be viewed as an essential life skill, [and] questions of the morality of persuasion are best reserved for how and for what purposes the process is used, not whether it is used.”
(Levine, pp.3-4)

“For many years, the guiding mission of the field of psychology was to ‘describe, explain, and predict’ people’s behavior. But after dedicating almost a century of research to developing personality assessment instruments...psychometricians have learned, in no uncertain terms, that traits are nothing more than probability statements.... In fact, the demands of the situation - the particulars of the time, the place, and the social context - are often better predictors of how people will act, than is the type of person they are, [and] the power of the situation is the driving force in effective persuasion.”
(Levine, p.17)

This is - undoubtedly - both the most important lesson in social psychology...and, invariably, the hardest to keep in mind. So wedded are humans - in all cultures, mind you - to their sense that character is the key factor in explaining behaviour...that such (deeply discomforting) knowledge merely flows like water off a duck’s back. We, simply, cannot learn this lesson so that it sticks...

And yet, the evidence is far, far too strong to counter - especially when it comes to the limit cases of role behavior explored by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo...such as torture and systematic domination/humiliation where, we would most hope, character would set genuine limits to the over-riding importance of role & context. Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, no such effect exists:


“Stanley Milgram’s studies of obedience to authority...[were developed] to understand perhaps the most pathological episode of human destruction the world has known, the systematic murder of millions during the holocaust.... When cooperation exists on such a sweeping scale, no matter how evil the endeavour, the search for causes can almost always be found in elements of the situation, [and] Milgram suspected that, in this case, the toxic feature of the situation was obedience to authority. His initial experiment, conducted at Yale University, was designed as a pilot study...but the frightening results he obtained with subjects in the United States - 65 percent total obedience - made the overseas trip unnecessary..... But Milgram’s research demonstrates more than simple obedience. It’s an illustration of the power of slowly escalating commitments. No one would electrocute a stranger if a psychologist came up and outright ordered them to. The real question is whether you’d accept an invitation to earn money for participating in an interesting experiment at a university. Because the moment you set foot in my laboratory, you’ve generated a forward momentum I can use to suit my purposes...[and] your initial commitment makes it extremely difficult to reverse course.”
(Levine, pp.182-4)

“The most profound lesson of Milgram’s experiments is a paradox: what little disobedience there was [mostly] took place before the shocks became most dangerous. Most of those who quit - eight of the fifteen - did so between 135 and 180 volts, when the learner was just beginning to complain about his heart. No one walked out during the next six shock levels, even though the screams and complaints were escalating. A few (five) subjects quit between 285 and 315 volts, when the screams became hysterical, and the learner announced that he was no longer part of the experiment. But what happened when the eerie quiet descended at 345 volts, when the learner seemed to have passed out, or died? How many of the remaining twenty seven subjects refused to continue with this by now obviously sadistic and even felonious experiment? A grand total of two. [But,] it isn’t that the subjects were unconcerned with their actions. In fact, Milgram reported that virtually every obedient subject appeared to be in torment while administering the shocks.... [However,] as Milgram observed, ‘People become integrated into a situation that carries its own momentum. The subject’s problem...is how to become disengaged from a situation which is moving in an altogether ugly direction.’ It’s a problem that most people are clearly unable to resolve.”
(Levine, pp.184-5)

“In Milgram’s obedience experiment, each time you obey a request it becomes less likely you’ll disobey the next one, [and] at some point, you accept that you’re part of the program. Now the dissonance cycle sets in, driving you to believe that you’ve made the right choice. The greater the level of the commitment, the more likely you’ll acquiesce to the next commitment, and so the greater the pressure to rationalize.”
(Levine, p.218)

Whilst Levine’s book is full of extensive discussions of key examples from a wide range of persuasion professionals - from Moonies & mentalists to the most stunningly self-conscious manipulator of them all...a car salesman whose analysis genuinely must be read to be believed - it is the limit cases, those involving torture and suicide, which do the most to drive home this lesson we are so constitutionally incapable of learning...that is, that context usually counts for more than character.

This also helps explain the other deeply counter-intuitive finding of this area - that there is no genuinely pathological psychology underlying such. Merely the extreme deployment of the same psychology of persuasion which is so central to our lives as social animals. And, it is to that, now, that we turn...


“Research shows that three characteristics are related to persuasiveness: perceived authority, honesty, and likeability. When someone has any or all of these characteristics, we’re not only more willing to agree to that person’s request, [but we’re] willing to do so without carefully considering the facts. We assume that we’re on safe ground, and are happy to shortcut the tedious process of informed decision making.... From earliest childhood, we learn to rely on authority figures for sound decision making, because their authority signifies status and power, as well as expertise. These facets often work together. Authorities such as parents and teachers are not only our primary sources of wisdom while we grow up, but they control us and our access to the things we want. In addition, we’ve been taught to believe - mostly from these same parents and teachers - that respect for authority is a moral virtue...[and] usually we’re correct, so that our willingness to defer to authorities becomes a convenient shortcut to sound decision making. It’s so effective, in fact, that we often embrace the further shortcut of assuming that people who simply display the symbols of authority should be listened to...[so that] looking like the real thing may have more impact than actually being it.... [Still,] even when the symbols are legitimate, there’s no assurance the person behind them is a font of wise counsel...[and] we have the ridiculous tendency to confuse expertise in one domain with expertise in general.”
(Levine, pp.31-7)

“Authority generates respect, but another type of trustworthiness is even more compelling: that resulting from character. The honesty, integrity, and morality of a persuasion professional are particularly important when objective issues are vague.... [Furthermore,] we tend to assess morality in other people on a digital scale. A person can be trusted, or can’t, with perhaps one or two ‘I’m not too sure about that guy’ gradations in between. This is very different from expertise and authority, which we gauge in small increments.... Also, when it comes to gauging the trustworthiness of other people we tend to envision morality as a stable and consistent personality predisposition, one that varies little across time or situations. In fact, honesty and trustworthiness, like all personality traits, are highly dependent on the situation.... Nonetheless, because moral trustworthiness is perceived as relatively unwavering...once a reputation is established, it grows legs of its own.... [And] good reputations are difficult to acquire, but easy to lose, [whereas] bad reputations are easy to acquire and difficult to lose [so that] it’s no surprise that persuasion experts dedicate exorbitant resources to developing and maintaining an image of trustworthiness. A trusted store or brand name is priceless.”
(Levine, pp.43-4)

“An effective testimonial not only loads the context with credibility, but also applies the principle of social proof. In the absence of further information, we tend to look to how others behave to decide what’s correct.... All things equal, we follow the crowd. Clothes, habits, tastes - nearly every human social behavior - are susceptible to the principle. [Moreover,] social proof is especially effective when it comes from people we identify with, or want to emulate.... And, more than any single quality, we trust people we like. Roger Ailes, a public relations advisor to Presidents Reagan and the elder Bush, observed: ‘If you could master one element of personal communication that is more powerful than anything...it is the quality of being likeable. I call it the magic bullet because, if your audience likes you, they’ll forgive just about everything else you do wrong. If they don’t like you, you can hit every rule right on target, and it doesn’t matter.’ Likeability drives persuasion from many directions. To begin with, we strive to identify with these people. This is much of the appeal of celebrities. We’re also much more likely to respect and trust people we like. These are also the people whose approval we value most, so we do our best to please them - by conforming to their expectations, and obeying their requests. Finally, it’s convenient to be susceptible to people we like. When we need advice, or a reality check, they’re the ones it’s often the easiest for us to approach.”
(Levine, pp.46-57)

Whilst the preceding factors are centred upon the source - to return to Levine’s initial tripartite division - the context (as I’ve noted earlier) is definitely the most insidious of influences, due to our general blindness as to its importance. And it is here that the psychology of persuasion meets heuristics and biases:


“In perception, context is everything. Colors and shapes are elastic creatures that change with their surroundings...[as] the human brain is wired to see relationships, not detached elements.... The creation of context is also the art form of persuasion professionals...[and] the most fundamental of context effects is the principle of contrast. The principle relies on the fact that human minds magnify differences...[and] when we move to the level of social experience, the contrast effect is even more pervasive, [as] the human brain finds it extremely difficult to comprehend social cues outside of a context.... In persuasion, contrast gets exploited in at least two ways. One is to convince you that what a company is selling is a better deal than what the competition has to offer. The second is to alter your expectations, or what’s known as your ‘anchor point’.... [And] because anchor points are so readily manipulable, they’re often easier to change than the product itself.... We’re especially vulnerable when our initial baselines are weak. This is often the case when entering a novel situation, or a suddenly threatening one, [as] when unsure of our bearings, we look to others for clues. Sometimes we get good information, but other times we don’t. One thing’s for sure: you’ll find no shortage of manipulators, happy to set your expectations for you.... [And,] if you don’t begin with an accurate base rate, the contrast effect will just lead you further astray.”
(Levine, pp.91-103)

“We like to think of ourselves - not necessarily other people, but ourselves - as rational decision makers. It’s comforting to believe that we reach our conclusions through an objective calculation of costs and value, logically concluding what will be in our best interests. But we don’t. Not even close. By accepted business standards, we’re awful mental accountants.... Persuasion artists understand that, in the buyer’s mind, the value of an absolute number is arbitrary, ambiguous and malleable and that, as a result...effective salespeople know how to frame the sale so that it will seem like a gain, rather than a loss; or, even better, so that not buying will itself be a loss, an opportunity foregone.... One of the most robust idiosyncrasies of mental arithmetic is that people experience more pain from a loss than they do pleasure from an equal gain.... From an evolutionary viewpoint, a bias toward the negative makes perfect sense...[as] potential danger signals action needs to be taken. The only action positive events usually call for is celebration, and nobody’s ever died from forgetting to plan a party.... [Therefore,] when it comes to gain, we tend to be conservative. People usually prefer a small certain gain over a less secure larger one - your basic bird in the hand over two in the bush principle.... When it comes to losses, however, we’re more willing to gamble. Because even moderate losses are so painful, we go to extraordinary lengths to avoid or reverse them...[which] can lead to distorted decision making.”
(Levine, pp.115-21)

“There’s an old joke about a young priest who asks his bishop, ‘May I smoke while praying?’ The bishop answers emphatically that he may not. Later, the young priest encounters an older priest, puffing on a cigarette while praying. The younger priest scolds him: ‘You shouldn’t be smoking while praying! I asked the bishop, and he said I couldn’t.’ ‘That’s strange,’ the older priest answers. “I asked the bishop if I could pray while I’m smoking, and he told me that it was okay to pray at any time.’”
(Levine, p.235)

“The quirks of mental accounting are deeply ingrained, mindless, and highly susceptible to manipulation. But, once you recognize your habits, there are ways to minimize losses. First, remember that a dollar is a dollar...[and] watch out when anyone frames a dollar to look like anything but what it is. Second, you should always consider financial matters in the context of your total needs and resources. What is the absolute value of a dollar to you? Recognize when the sales pitch is appealing to your psychological needs, rather than your fiscal sensibility.... [And] to define your own criteria of fiscal sensibility, I suggest a two-question self-test. Question 1: Is it good value NOW? Not compared with the price it was yesterday, or what your friend paid for it. Not whether it concedes a loss on your investment. The question is whether the entity you’re considering is worth the asking price. Period.... Question 2: Is it worth the cost to YOU?”
(Levine, pp.133-4)

Already, we can see how the simplest perceptual context factors shade into the social. And, when our most basic scripts of human interaction are brought into play, the range of context effects can quickly become incalculable. For human interaction is what we are set up to do, not necessarily to think about.


“It often seems like people are the greediest of animals, that we’re happiest when we get as much as we can, while giving up as little as possible. It’s not so. Research shows that most of us are usually driven by a sense of equity and fairness. When someone does something for us...the favor may create any of several feelings: gratitude, a sense of decency and moral responsibility, or simple feelings of guilt. No matter which, it activates one of the most powerful of social norms, the reciprocity rule.... Reciprocity is one of the oldest and most fundamental guides for human social interaction, [which] lays the basis for virtually every type of social relationship.... [And,] given the evolutionary value of trade - between individuals, businesses, and governments - it’s no wonder the law of reciprocity has become so strongly ingrained. It’s been called the moral memory of mankind...[for] reciprocity can be a dictatorial force, and it can come in many shapes and sizes.”
(Levine, pp.65-7)

“The principle of slowly escalating commitments can be thought of as the grammar of effective persuasion. It’s the temporal dimension.... [In addition,] some techniques bring a paradoxical approach to the escalation sequence, by pushing a request to or beyond its acceptable limit, and then backing off. The two most common of these are the ‘door-in-the-face’ [or ‘reject-then-compromise’] and ‘that’s-not-all’ appeals...The door in the face works for several reasons. First it activates the contrast effect...[and] second, and even more important, a well-executed door in the face sets up norms of reciprocity...[as] customers are manipulated into abiding by rules of fairness, in a game they never agreed to play....The ‘that’s-not-all’ technique...is a variation on the door in the face...[which] gains its influence by putting the customer on the fence, allowing her to waver, and then offering her a comfortable way off.”
(Levine, pp.163-79)

“One of the most common manipulations is to get the consumer to accept an unsolicited free gift.... [However,] all the gift-giving competition on the market makes for a cynical group of consumers...[and so,] for it to be effective, marketers need to stay one step ahead of the target’s suspicions.... One of the most subtle but effective manipulations of the reciprocity norm involves gifts of time...[for] when time is a commodity, it becomes fair game for the reciprocity rule.... Gifts of time are less transparent and, so, more readily accepted than tangible commodities.... Another gift that may slip under the radar is kindness...[and] we’ve already seen how people let their guards down for people they like. But, even more so, we’re susceptible to people who like us...[and] when persuasion experts employ the liking principle, the best of them aim the arrow both ways.... Some of the most effective exploiters of the reciprocity of liking rule are cults. When I began investigating cults, I shared the common stereotype that most joiners were psychological misfits, or religious fanatics...but I found that, if there’s any generalization you can make about why people join these organizations, it’s the attraction of what appears to be a loving community, an extended family.... The religious ideology is almost always reserved for later, [and] although extreme mind control may be the end result, emotional acceptance is the beginning.... You didn’t sign up for a cult. You went along because these were fine people. And, usually they were. One of the ironies of cults, in fact, is that the craziest groups are often composed of the most caring people.”
(Levine, pp.70-83)

“[Finally,] when it comes to exploiting reciprocity, there’s a certain personality type to especially watch out for. These are individuals who thrive on having others indebted to them. Much of their lives are spent on the twin tasks of assembling indebtedness from others, and avoiding being in debt themselves, [as] they’re addicted to the power advantage indebted people give to them.... ‘A creditor is worse than a slave-owner,’ Victor Hugo once wrote. ‘For the master only owns your person, but a creditor owns your dignity, and can command it.’ If you hang around hucksters, swindlers, and con men too long - as I have in writing this book - it’s easy to begin seeing everyone who offers you a gift or a kindness as some kind of creditor or control freak.... It’s important to remember, however, that...the reciprocity norm has become a universal driving force because it...not only allows trade and transactions to proceed in good faith; it lays the foundation for cooperative, prosocial, unselfish human relationships. It reminds us to balance giving and receiving, to share...[for,] more often than not an act of kindness is simply an act of kindness.”
(Levine, pp.87-9)

As should be evident by now, the range of things we’re susceptible to is vast, and so - once we factor in the combinations - it’s no surprise that persuasion is more of an art than a science. However, this also means our defenses against unwarranted persuasion need to be similarly complex & nuanced...an even more difficult challenge. Still, there are counter-heuristics we can utilize - to correct for the mistakes inbuilt in our heuristics and biases - and Levine provides us with these. Still, as he insists, these need to be applied w/a good deal of care, for our biases are inbuilt for a reason...and, the reason is that (most of the time) we actually need them:


“Engineers refer to a condition called system overload, that occurs when a structure is burdened by more demands than it’s built to handle...[and] Stanley Milgram observed that humans face a parallel problem: there are more inputs than we’re capable of processing...[so,] to adapt to the predicament, we simplify.... The late clinical psychologist George Kelly put it well: ‘Man looks at his world through transparent patterns or templates, which he creates and then attempts to fit over the realities of which the world is composed. The fit is not always very good. Yet without such patterns, the world appears to be such an undifferentiated homogeneity that man is unable to make any sense out of it. Even a poor fit is more helpful to him than nothing at all.”

(Levine, pp.137-8)

“To simplify is to narrow one’s field of vision. Sometimes, in fact, we react to just a single, isolated piece of information. In persuasion, this can be a very dangerous shortcut, [as] it exposes what’s known in sales vernacular as the hot button.... The process mirrors a phenomenon known in animal behavior as fixed-action patterns (FAPs)...[which] are the heart of what we like to call social instincts. They’re preprogrammed, unlearned, and untouched by reason...[and] ready to be played when a situation calls for it.... A notable characteristic of fixed-action patterns is...that the on-off switch may actually be controlled by a specific, minute detail.... These are the hot buttons of the biological world.... [Our] hot buttons have a large cultural element...[albeit] these cultural scripts appear so automatically that it’s easy to confuse them with the instinctual FAPs of the animal world...[for] any time a behavior is dictated by cultural norms, there is a heightened vulnerability to manipulation. The danger is twofold. For one thing, cultural norms are extremely powerful. They govern through formidable psychological forces - shame, guilt, and rejection. As a result, defying these norms is reserved for the extraordinary. Second...it’s not very interesting to talk or think about something everybody does. As a result, our cultural reactions become unconscious, and automatic. Advertisers love hot buttons. They understand our minds are filled with scripts, and their job is to trigger the right one.... [But,] unlike other animals, we have the ability to decide which mental shortcuts are in our best interest, and which are not, and to choose when and where shortcuts are best suited. Realizing these choices, however, requires both considerable self-awareness and a willingness to rise above deeply ingrained reactions that often feel as natural and normal as the air we breathe. You need to be on the lookout for the hot buttons that set you off, the heuristics and fixed-action patterns that you’re likely to respond with, and the techniques a clever professional may use to exploit the process. Sometimes it’s best, as Rube Goldberg once said, to ‘do it the hard way.’”
(Levine, pp.146-58)

“There are certain situations that encourage lazy thinking in all of us...[and] we’re particularly susceptible to persuasion at these times. The following are six situations to watch out for: Situation One: When you believe the consequences of your actions aren’t important.... Situation Two: When you’re pressed to act urgently.... Urgency activates what Robert Cialdini calls the rule of scarcity...the psychological component of the law of supply and demand If we can be persuaded that a product or service is difficult to obtain, we want it more.... Situation Three: When there’s too much information to process. The more information there is, the greater our need for shortcuts. [Therefore,] all things being equal, people are more likely to mindlessly trust the competence of long messages over short ones. This is true whether the message contains a good argument or a poor one, or even if we don’t read the content of the message at all.... Situation Four: When you trust the person making the request.... Situation Five: When you’re surrounded by social proof. If everybody’s doing it, it must be right. This principle derives from two extremely powerful social forces: social comparison and conformity.... [And] as P.T. Barnum once said, ‘Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd.’  Situation Six: When you’re uncertain and confused. In the first five situations, our willingness to take lazy shortcuts derives from an illusion of invulnerability. But there is a very different type of situation, in which we feel so vulnerable that we actively, even frantically, search for simple answers to get us through, [and] one of the most common...is when we’re confused, and unsure how to act.”
(Levine, pp.139-44)

“Asking disconfirming questions is especially important when it comes to group decisions...[as] the conjoint intelligence of  a group tends to be less than the sum of its parts; too often, in fact, it regresses to the lowest common denominator.... Groupthink may be caused by implicit self-censorship...[which] creates a self-perpetuating cycle...[or] there may be overt pressure not to buck the majority opinion.... Making matters worse, once an apparent consensus is achieved, the group focuses almost solely on information that confirms the majority opinion...[and,] paradoxically, the more capable the individuals in a group, the more likely they are to trust each other and, so, the more prone the group is to the illusion of invulnerability - and, eventual groupthink.”
(Levine, pp.237-8)

And finally, we return to the limit cases, where persuasion shades into something much more. And, here, Levine is at his most compelling, as he spells out the deep continuities between the most effective of brainwashings, and the techniques of persuasion we encounter every day. What differs, mainly, is the aim and extent of the process - not the techniques. And this should give us all cause for concern...


“Much of this book has been about overt compliance...[and] many times, that’s all the persuader cares about.... There are some situations, however, in which mere compliance isn’t enough.... It’s the same issue faced by any organization that thrives on group commitment...[but] cults epitomize the problem.... Cults don’t thrive on people who simply show up. They’re in the market for true believers...[and] winning hearts and minds carries the principle of escalating commitments to the hilt.... The process requires a long, patient sequence of demands...[and] necessitates the demands be framed in particular ways.... [Overall, however] it’s really rather simple: move gradually, apply the least necessary force, remain invisible, and create the illusion of choice. The mind of the subject will take over from there. As the sign over the rostrum in Jonestown warned, ‘Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
(Levine, pp.187-226)

“The most effective mind control is channelled through peers...not bosses. A smart leader suppresses his ego, and remains quietly in the background, like an invisible umpire...[for] we resent being controlled. When a person seems too pushy, we get suspicious, annoyed, and often angry, and yearn to retain our freedom of choice, more than before.... The most effective way to circumvent psychological reactance is to begin the demands so gradually, that there’s seemingly nothing to react against. Steven Hassan recalls how, in the Moonies...if a recruit started getting angry because he was learning too much about us, the person working on him would back off and let another member move in, to spoonfeed some pabulum. The magician and persuasion artist Gregory Wilson calls this reach and withdrawal: ‘When I reach, you withdraw. I withdraw, you reach.’ ...The key, as always is to apply the least necessary force every step of the way - just enough to kindle the conversion process, without dousing it with external justification...as persuasion that is exercised invisibly and with minimal force creates an illusion of choice...[and] the least force rule also holds true when it comes to positive rewards. Too much is not only ineffective at winning hearts and minds; it can also undo enthusiasm that already exists...mostly when the reinforcers are too obviously coercive.”
(Levine, pp.189-95)

“The most direct route to internalization is through that formidable regulating agency we refer to as our conscience...[and,] what makes the conscience so powerful is that it’s not only judge and jury, but also has the means - guilt and shame - for enforcing it’s decisions... Shame and guilt are like having little policemen living inside your mind. They never go away.... [Furthermore,] when our beliefs are inconsistent with our actions, it creates an unpleasant state of mind - one that we feel compelled to reduce, in the same way we want to eat when we’re hungry, or get warm when we’re cold. Psychologists refer to this tension as cognitive dissonance. Say, for example, you smoke.... Here’s the crux of the problem: the less you change your behavior, the more you rationalize; and the more you rationalize, the less likely you’ll quit smoking....[And] dissonance thrives on the illusion of choice. To arouse my dissonance [any manipulator needs] to stay in the background, so I’ll see no one to blame but myself.... Cognitive dissonance is the mind controller’s best friend. If dissonance can be created between what you think and what you do, you’ll do your best to change one or the other. And changing your thoughts is usually the easier way out. Once the wheels of self-justification begin to spin, the persuader sits back, and watches you do his work for him.... As social psychologist David Myers observes, ‘If social psychology has taught us anything during the last 25 years, it is that we are likely not only to think ourselves into a way of acting, but also to act ourselves into a way of thinking.’ ...We’re compelled to justify our commitments. If there’s no justification in sight - the invisible umpire, again - you’ll look to your own motives for an explanation. There lies the biggest problem of all: once the process begins, it becomes self-perpetuating. If I did it, I must believe it. And, if I believe it, I’m more likely to do it again, and more so...”
(Levine, pp.196-207)

Robert Levine’s The Power of Persuasion is a fine introduction to the core territory of modern social psychology, an area of study whose public profile seems to be in inverse proportion to its fundamental importance in modern life. Not only do we neglect it to our peril, but it also forms an integral - if neglected - part of any genuinely humanistic understanding...knitting together rhetoric, psychology & the social sciences in a fundamental way. Moreover, although neglected in this review - as it does not excerpt effectively - this book would be essential even if it only included the direct testimony of Michael Gasio...master persuasion artist/car salesman...

No matter how much insight you have, by this stage, into the persuasion process, Gasio - in a mere ten pages - trumps you effortlessly... Whatever side of the process you habitually find yourself on, this is required reading - taking all the techniques analyzed by Levine, and weaving them together into a seamlessly seductive web. And, whilst we’ll never perfect defenses against such art...but, we might just learn to be a little less self-congratulatory about our failings.


“As [Leslie] Savan observes, in her classic book The Sponsored Life, ‘as a defense against the power of advertising, irony is a leaky condom - in fact, it’s the same old condom that advertising brings over every night.... The cool commercials...flatter us by saying we’re too cool to fall for commercial values and, therefore, cool enough to want their product.’ ...Consumers may be getting wiser, but the professionals are, too. It’s like an evolving war between viruses and antibiotics...[and] the problem is that because its a full-time job for the professionals, they’re like the viruses - always a step ahead of you. This book is intended as consumer anthropology, too, but from the opposite perspective...[and] under the assumption that the more we understand about the psychology of the persuasion process - what we’re liable to encounter, and how most people will react - the better we shift the balance of control to our side.”
(Levine, pp.24-8)


John Henry Calvinist