When most people think of a brainwashed individual, they imagine someone whose mind is completely controlled. Some evil but powerful authority is manipulating his or her will. In the most extreme cases — as when a cult leader instructs his followers to commit suicide, or when an oppressive political regime demands unquestionable obedience and adoration — this does seem to be true. Yet the human tendency to manipulate others, as well as to be manipulated, is far more common that these rare extremes would suggest.
Most of us first get acquainted with psychological manipulation at a young age. The schoolyard bully, for example, is a young master manipulator who has learned early on how to use intimidation to get what he or she wants. Researchers have found that the brains of bullies exhibit a pleasure response at the sight of other’s pain, rendering them addicted to the experience of being cruel to others, and that the brain development of their victims can be permanently stunted by the abuse.
A group of researches writing for the British Journal of Developmental Psychology theorizes that most often bullying arises in certain children who, contrary to common assumptions, have highly developed social skills. Typically, these kids tend to lack social standing — perhaps due to poor academic performance or low economic status — but have learned to cultivate social power in their own ways. They are well versed in the art of psychological manipulation, the ability to influence people by underhanded, deceptive, and abusive means. Although bullies may be less subtle than adult manipulators, they exploit one human frailty that all manipulators tend to use to their advantage — fear.
Terrorists, for example, can be seen as manipulators of mass psychology. Like bullies, they lack power to influence or destroy their enemy through politics and traditional warfare. Instead, they attempt to implant fear in the mass consciousness of the society or group they oppose. Addressing his fellow U.S. congressmen, Patrick J. Kennedy described their tactics succinctly: “Terrorism is a psychological warfare. Terrorists try to manipulate us and change our behavior by creating fear, uncertainty, and division in society.” A destructive cult leader, an icon of manipulation in the minds of most people, also uses fear to control his disciples’ minds. The end result of this manipulation sometimes seems mind boggling to those outside of the group in question, as in the 1978 case of the mass suicide of 918 people at Jonestown in Guyana, South America. In this example, the charismatic leader, Jim Jones, instructed his followers to drink cyanide-laced punch because, according to him, war and certain doom were on their way. The vast majority of followers complied; particularly disturbing were the parents who fed their children poison.
Like many cult manipulators, Jones first enticed people into the group by giving them what they wanted — the promise of a paradise free of society’s ills — and then turned the tables to create a nightmare of totalistic control. Writing for the American Psychological Association, Melissa Dittmann notes that Jones was a student of psychological theories of mind control, studying the works of psychologists and utilizing tactics presented in George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.” Not only did Jones use every means possible to control his followers personally, he urged his followers to do the same to one another through a culture of mutual spying and tattling. Fear of being shamed by and ostracized from the group led members deeper and deeper into Jones’ clutches as they surrendered their individual sense of self-determination to him.
As extreme as that situation might seem, it is not that different from certain elements of the socialization process that encourage all of us to conform. Parents, peers, and other authority figures often use manipulation to ensure that we become who they want us to be, especially as we are growing up. For instance, boys who naturally exhibit feminine characteristics are often shamed and ostracized by parents and peers until they develop more masculine behavior. Even relatively benign parenting techniques employ manipulation, such as when a parent tells a child that Santa won’t bring presents to naughty children. It’s a lie, but it works to get kids in line during the busy holiday season.
In our consumer culture, manipulative techniques are widely used to get us to buy more — far more than we require for survival. Advertising, which pervades almost every aspect of Western culture, is more likely to use manipulation to sell a product than straight facts. Most ads, whether print, TV or online, prey on our emotional and psychological needs, such as the need to fit in and feel good about ourselves. A juice commercial, for example, is more likely to suggest “Good parents buy their kids this product” than to provide concrete information about its nutritional benefits. Like other forms of manipulation, these ads are effective because of our deeply held fears, such as being a poor parent, being victimized, becoming a social outcast and being thought of as unattractive.
Interestingly, advertisers are beginning to use neuroscience to figure out how to manipulate our minds more effectively, a phenomenon known as neuromarketing. They use neuroscientific research methods in order to determine “consumers’ sensorimotor, cognitive, and affective response to marketing stimuli,” according to Mikael Bildo in the article “Manipulation and Mind Control: The Scary Side of Marketing,” from Lynchburg’s Business Magazine. By measuring the physiological responses that consumers have to brands and said advertising, marketers can be more confident that their efforts are effective.
Inevitably, manipulation is all around us, from the emotional manipulation that influences our relationships to the unspoken cultural messages that prompt us to behave in a certain manner. There may be no way to eliminate its effects from our daily lives, but awareness of how we experience it — and how we use it on others — might be the first step toward using our brains in better ways.