This is the first episode since Donald Trump won the election, so you know I’ve got to talk about Trump! In this episode I take up the question that Scott Adams has framed for us: is Donald Trump some kind of “master persuader” who uses persuasion techniques familiar to anyone trained in hypnosis? And is this the reason why he won the election?
In This Episode:
- Help me build the Argument Ninja Academy
- Scott Adams on Donald Trump: Master Persuader
- “Pacing and leading”, Milton Erickson and hypnosis
- Confusion and hypnotic suggestibility
- Confusion and self-defense
- Confusion and the “Chewbacca Defense”
- Derren Brown: how to steal with hypnosis
- Hypnosis stage acts and the spectrum of hypnotizability
- Why Scott Adams was confident that Trump would win
- Is Trump a master persuader?
- Thinking critically about persuasion schools and persuasion science
“On this interpretation, Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric is strategic, and not something he ever intended to carry out. But he needed to stake out this extreme position so that anyone who was really concerned with safety and security would see Trump as the only candidate that really gets where they’re coming from.”
“Here’s another application of confusion as a tool of persuasion. In a legal argumentation context, there’s a thing that has come to be called the “Chewbacca defense”. It’s when the aim of the argument being presented is to deliberately confuse the jury rather than actually refute the case of the other side. The name comes from an old episode of South Park called “Chef Aid” that satirized the O.J. Simpson murder trial.”
“Derren Brown used a version of this [confusion hypnosis] technique in his tv show, where he showed how he can walk into a store, pick up an item, go to the checkout, talk to the cashier or the store worker, pay for the item by handing over a blank piece of paper, the store worker takes it and puts in the cash drawer, and he just walks out of the store with the item.”
References and Links
- The Support page for the Argument Ninja podcast (where you can become a Sustaining Membe and lock-in your membership to the Argument Ninja training program).
- My Patreon support page (where you can lock-in your membership to the Argument Ninja training program).
- Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
- Joshua Greene, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them
- Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
- Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
- Robert Cialdini, Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade
- Derren Brown, Tricks of the Mind
- Scott Adams’ blog
- Video clips
- Using hypnosis to disrupt face processing: mirrored-self misidentification delusion
Subscribe to the Podcast
Play or download the mp3 file for this episode
This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 012.
Hi everyone. My name is Kevin deLaplante. I’m the host of this podcast, and the creator of the Critical Thinker Academy, which is a video training site that hosts video courses on a wide range of topics related to logic and argumentation, the psychology of human reasoning, and critical thinking and communication more broadly.
This is the first episode since Donald Trump and the Republicans won the election, and it’s taken a while to complete an episode because the election result, and the whole topic of Trump and Trump’s campaign, and the Trump movement, the media coverage of Trump versus Hillary, the role of social media and its influence on voters and public perception of the candidates … this is all just such a rich arena for talking about critical thinking, argumentation and persuasion in a public context, which of course is what this show is all about.
One of the consequences of Trump’s campaign is that the whole subject of persuasion and the limits of human rationality has become popularized, it’s become part of the media conversation in a way that I’ve never seen before. So that’s exciting, it means there’s more for someone like me to talk about; I don’t have to work as hard to convince people of the significance of these topics, that we need to be paying attention to them.
But for me, the problem is that there are five or ten different things I want to say about all this, and in my first stab at thinking things through they were all jumbled up together.
So I’ve had to take a few steps back and start teasing things apart. I realized that I had enough topics to cover several shows, and that I don’t need to say everything I want to say all at once.
For example, there’s the obvious topic that Scott Adams has helped to frame for us — is Trump some kind of master persuader, and is this the best explanation for the success of his campaign?
From there, it’s just one step to taking a critical look at Scott Adams himself and his broader philosophical worldview, since that’s played such a big role in the way Scott views Trump and the public response to the campaign.
Then there’s the issue of the increasing polarization of public perception of the candidates over the course of the campaign, and the role that the news media and social media have played in creating and reinforcing this.
And surrounding this are discussions of so-called “post-truth” politics, and the breakdown of shared notions of objectivity and neutrality and what counts as a fact, and the challenge that this might pose to civil, democratic society.
In philosophical terms, these issues occupy the space where epistemology and political philosophy overlap. Where questions about the foundations of knowledge and justified belief overlap with questions about how democratic societies should be organized if they’re to function well.
I’ve gone through a few different working titles for this episode. One of them was “Dilbert, Godzilla and Trump: Why Persuasion For Its Own Sake Will Destroy Us”. Another one was “Why Facts and Logic Still Matter”. Then I went bigger, but less catchy; “Critical Thinking in the Age of Trump”. That might be a good title for a book, but it’s too big and too general for a podcast episode.
Then I decided I would break the discussion into more manageable chunks, and just take them one at a time.
So for this episode I decided to just focus on Trump and talk about the interpretation that Scott Adams has promoted over the past year on his blog, that Trump is a master persuader who intentionally uses persuasion methods that a trained hypnotist would recognize.
I’m not going to say much in this episode about my overall position on the whole persuasion/post-truth society issue, but just so you know where I’m coming from, I think the rhetoric around statements like “facts and logic don’t matter, only feelings matter”, and “human beings are fundamentally irrational” is overblown. Even though I think it’s very important to understand the motivations for these statements, and the core of truth there is behind them, there are many obvious ways in which facts and logic do matter when it comes to explaining human behavior, and many obvious ways in which human beings can and do act rationally.
But the more important issue, for me, is what’s at stake if we, as human beings living together in a civil society, were to give up on the idea that that some reasons for belief are better than others, and that human beings are capable of acting on the basis of reasons. I believe there is a lot at stake.
I’ll certainly be talking about this in a future episode, but I’m not going to get into it here.
Argument Ninja Academy Plug
Before we move on, I want to take a little time up front to plug my latest project, and to ask for your help in making it a reality.
If you’ve been following the podcast you know that the next project that I would like to develop is an online training program, which I’m tentatively calling the Argument Ninja Academy, that will be focused on teaching the art and science of rational argumentation and persuasion.
Normally, argumentation and persuasion are treated as separate, distinct subjects. Most people with advanced training in one have either no training, or very little training, in the other.
Ask a person with a sophisticated knowledge of the psychology of persuasion how to define a valid argument, or explain the difference between a strong and a weak argument. 99 times out of 100 they won’t have a clue.
Ask a person with a sophisticated knowledge of logic and argumentation what pacing and leading is, or explain the difference between anchoring bias and availability bias. Again, 99 times out of 100 they won’t have a clue.
Treating these as separate subjects is a problem. A very serious problem, in my view.
But it’s also an opportunity.
Because when you combine them — when you bring together our knowledge of the psychology of persuasion, with our knowledge of what genuinely good reasoning looks like — then you have the tools to engage in what I call “rational persuasion”.
Rational persuasion is different from ordinary persuasion in that, while it takes advantage of our knowledge of human nature to influence and persuade, it never loses sight of the ideals of rational inquiry and critical thinking. It never loses sight of what it means to believe something for good reasons. And it never loses sight of the ethical dimensions of persuasion, of the values that are at stake when, for example, we make the decision to bypass a person’s rational faculties and, without their consent or conscious awareness, bend their will to our own.
The Argument Ninja Academy will be structured like a martial arts program. Lower ranks will focus on fundamentals, which will have to be mastered before you can progress to higher ranks. The program will offer a balance of theory, practical applications and opportunities to practice your skills, not just alone, but in groups. As you move up the ranks the program will become more demanding, and your understanding will be assessed at a higher standard.
I guarantee, anyone who completes this program will be transformed by the experience.
But I’m going to need your help to build this program. It will take time and financial resources that I don’t have yet. That’s why I’m asking for support in the form of a small monthly support pledge, while I’m developing it. For a pledge starting as low as three dollars a month, you can become a Sustaining Member of the Critical Thinker Academy and the Argument Ninja Academy.
What do you get for his, the price of a cup of coffee once a month?
One: you get immediate access to all 20 hours of the video training content currently available at the Critical Thinker Academy.
Two: you get access to all of the new courses that I will be developing for the Academy. I’m currently working on a course on the philosophy of mind and artificial intelligence, for example. If you’re a Sustaining Member you would get access to this course as it’s being developed.
And three: for as low as three dollars a month I will reserve a seat for you in the Argument Ninja Academy, when it launches, locked in at the same low monthly rate. This is a program that will fetch a hefty price for new students. Business types are going to want to take it. Lawyers, corporate executives, you name it. I can charge for it.
But if you sign up now, you can lock in your enrollment in the program for as low as three dollars a month. That’s an insane deal, and trust me, you will kick yourself for not taking advantage of this if you miss this window. And by the way, I’m only offering this deal until the end of December, after which the price for reserving a seat in the program will go up.
To sign up now, go to argumentninja.com/support, or just look for the Support link in the main navigation menu. If you’re on Patreon, you can go to patreon.com/kevindelaplante and sign up there too, you get the same deal.
Okay, that’s my plug. And just so you know, the topics I’ll be talking about on this episode would all be familiar to anyone who completed my Argument Ninja Academy program. This will all be part of the curriculum of the program. So if you find any of this interesting and want to learn more, that’s a reason to sign up and become a Sustaining Member.
Trump: Master Hypnotist?
Okay, back to the election and Trump.
As I said, there’s been a lot of media commentary on Trump and the role of persuasion in explaining public opinion and voter behavior. I think a lot of this has been driven by the popularity of Scott Adams’ blog and his writings about Trump and persuasion.
For the sake of those of you listening who may not be familiar, Scott Adams is better known as the creator of the Dilbert comic strip. But he’s also written a couple of books, and he’s maintained a blog for many years, and its on his blog that he’s kept a running commentary on Trump and the campaign.
Scott has been arguing for the past eighteen months that Donald Trump is a “master persuader”, the best persuader he’s ever seen in fact.
Scott predicted that Trump would win the Republication nomination, and he predicted that Trump would win the general election in a landslide, all on the basis of Trump’s persuasion skills, and on the basis of a worldview, which he’s been quite explicit about, that sees human beings as fundamentally irrational creatures, most of the time.
Scott believes that when it comes to politics, and most big life decisions, most of us act on the basis of emotion and feelings, which are often determined by factors outside of our conscious awareness, and which can be manipulated by a skillful persuader. We may believe that we make judgments based on reasons, but in most cases that’s an illusion. Most of the time we base our judgments on intuitive, emotional responses. We make up reasons after the fact to justify the judgment we made on emotional grounds. We’re usually not aware that this is what we’re doing, but this is what we’re doing.
This is the basis for Scott’s claim, which he has repeated from day one, that facts and reasons don’t matter because that’s not what determines the outcome of elections. What determines the outcome of elections is how people feel about the candidates, in relation to how they feel about their own lives. Whether what a candidate says is true or false doesn’t matter. Whether a candidate’s policies are reasonable or unreasonable doesn’t matter. What matters is how they make people feel. If a candidate can evoke the right feelings in a voter, that’s all that matters.
And Donald Trump, according to Scott, is a master at evoking feelings.
From my perspective, as a student of persuasion myself, what I found interesting about Scott’s perspective is how he ties it to his experience as a trained hypnotist, and the techniques of hypnosis.
His broader position, that our political views are determined largely by intuition and then rationalized after the fact, isn’t an uncommon view. The literature in cognitive and social psychology has been pushing us in this direction for thirty years. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt has been arguing for this position for over fifteen years. He has a very clear discussion of it in his 2012 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. He calls it the “social intuitionist model” of moral judgment. Joshua Greene presents a similar view in his 2013 book Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them, though he draws very different conclusions from Haidt about how we should think about moral reasoning.
However, the authors of these books generally don’t appeal to the hypnosis literature or the phenomenon of hypnosis to articulate this view of human nature. They appeal to the psychological literature on moral judgment, the cognitive biases and heuristics literature, and dual-process theories of human reasoning that now dominate the cognitive sciences. Haidt and Greene, and Daniel Kahneman, and other behavioral psychologists, like Dan Ariely, have all popularized this perspective in their books over the past ten years.
I want to point this out because it’s important to remember that there’s no such thing as THE science of persuasion. There are different schools of thinking about persuasion that come out of different scientific traditions and traditions of practice.
The persuasion ninja needs to be familiar with different approaches to persuasion, and the more the better. It’s valuable from a practical standpoint, since you’ll have more persuasion tools at your disposal, but it’s also important for critical thinking about persuasion, because the diversity of viewpoints helps to combat confirmation bias and keep us from getting too attached to any one approach.
I think the whole Trump phenomenon is an opportunity to do a little compare-and-contrast on different schools of persuasion science and persuasion practice, and learn about some practical applications of persuasion methods in the process.
In this episode of the podcast, I’m going to focus on the school of persuasion that Scott Adams knows best, and that plays the biggest role in his judgments about Trump.
“Pacing and Leading”
There’s a school of persuasion theory and technique that is loosely associated with Ericksonian hypnosis and neurolinguistic programming methods, and the way these have been applied in therapeutic contexts, like using hypnotherapy to get over fears or quit smoking; and professional contexts, like improving sales and negotiation outcomes; and personal relationship contexts — how to make a good first impression, how to get people to like and trust you, how to attract a sexual or romantic partner, and so on.
The figureheads in this school of persuasion are the hypnotherapist Milton Erickson; Richard Bandler and John Grinder, the founders of neurolinguistic programming, for whom Erickson was one of their major influences; and various figures in the pickup and seduction community, like Ross Jeffries, who have developed a variety of persuasion techniques that are inspired by these principles.
This is the school of persuasion that Scott Adams was exposed to in his training as a hypnotist.
This persuasion school uses language and methods that were developed outside of the academic and scientific mainstream, for the most part. To give an example, Scott Adams often talks about a persuasion technique that he sees Trump using that he calls “pacing and leading”.
But as far as I’m aware there’s no mention of “pacing and leading” in any of the psychology books I mentioned. It’s not part of the ordinary scientific vocabulary of behavioral economists and social psychologists who study human reasoning. I don’t even think it shows up in Robert Cialdini’s books, who has worked very closely with professional persuaders in various industries.
So where does this language of pacing and leading it come from? It’s a neurolinguistic programming term, coined by Bandler and Grinder back in the mid-70s when they were creating their model of Milton Erickson’s hypnotherapeutic techniques.
Erickson would start a session by establishing rapport between himself and the client, and he’d do this by verbalizing his client’s immediate sensory reality, what they’re feeling, seeing and hearing right now. That’s “pacing”. Erickson would do this in a slow, gentle voice that followed the rhythm of his client’s breathing, with smooth transitions between sentences.
So in a session with Erickson he might start off saying something like this: “As you see the colored wallpaper in front of you … the patterns of light on the walls … while you become aware of your breathing … the rise and fall of your chest … the comfort of the chair … the weight of your feet on the floor … and you can hear the sounds of the children playing outside … while you listen to the sound of my voice and begin to wonder … how far you have entered trance … already”.
All of that is pacing, except the last part, where he’s leading the client to the state he wants. In this case, into a state of deeper focus and relaxation.
Erickson also believed that you can use these same principles in ordinary dinner party conversation, where you establish rapport by mirroring or reflecting a person’s reality back to them.
You can pace with your energy level, the wording you use, your body posture, your attitude. And the effect is that they feel more connected to you, more in sync with you.
Then, when you’re in this state of rapport, when you make a positive suggestion, the person you’re talking to is more likely to go along with it. That’s “leading”.
So, how did Trump use pacing and leading?
This is how Scott Adams describes it.
Trump always takes the extreme position on matters of safety and security for the country, even if those positions are unconstitutional, impractical, evil, or something that the military would refuse to do. Normal people see this as a dangerous situation. Trained persuaders like me see this as something called pacing and leading. Trump “paces” the public – meaning he matches them in their emotional state, and then some. He does that with his extreme responses on immigration, fighting ISIS, stop-and-frisk, etc. Once Trump has established himself as the biggest bad-ass on the topic, he is free to “lead,” which we see him do by softening his deportation stand, limiting his stop-and-frisk comment to Chicago, reversing his first answer on penalties for abortion, and so on.
So on this interpretation, Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric is strategic, and not something he ever intended to carry out. But he needed to stake out this extreme position so that anyone who was really concerned with safety and security would see Trump as the only candidate that really gets where they’re coming from.
But in evoking this technique, of pacing and leading, Adams is also making a prediction. He’s predicting that when Trump moderates his positions on these issues, his supporters will be okay with it, because they’re being lead after being paced. They won’t feel as betrayed as they otherwise would be for not living up to his campaign promises.
Trump’s Speaking Style and the Confusion Induction
Another feature of Trump’s speaking style that always gets talked about is that, on the one hand it’s quite simple — he uses shorter words and shorter, less complicated sentences than any other candidate; and on the other hand, it seems to lack structure and precision. When he’s talking extemporaneously it seems like he can’t finish a sentence. He interrupts himself, he makes parenthetical asides, he reinforces basic statements but doesn’t provide additional reasons to support them, and so on. Trump can talk for a full minute in response to a question and not actually say anything that directly addresses the question. We’ve all seen many examples of this.
Now, some of his critics view Trump’s lack of coherence as a sign of a disorganized mind that isn’t capable of sustained, argumentative thought. Sam Harris has argued this.
However, a number of others have seen in Trump’s speech patterns a certain persuasive logic, where the short words and the repetition make it easy to process on an intuitive level, if not on a rational level.
Actually I’m a little surprised that Scott Adams hasn’t commented more on Trump’s speaking style, since from an Ericksonian hypnosis level there’s a lot more you could say.
For example, in hypnosis people use the word “induction” to describe the process of inducing a trance state in a subject. Erickson had a number of different techniques for doing this, and if you go to YouTube and search for “Erickson hypnosis induction” you’ll see pages of self-styled hypnosis experts giving demonstrations of these techniques, with names like the “hand levitation induction”, the “multiple dissociation induction”, the “rehearsal induction”, and the one that I want to talk about, the “confusion induction”.
In a therapeutic context, the value of inducing confusion is that it breaks the state that a client is currently presenting. So if a client comes to a therapy session and they’re preoccupied with their appearance, or money issues, or they have very rigid ideas about what their problems are and what solutions will and won’t work, this rigid mindset can interfere with change. So the therapist induces a state of confusion in the client as a means of breaking this mental state, and allowing the client to access a deeper, more intuitive state that taps into the therapeutic resources of their unconscious mind, but that also makes them more open to hypnotic suggestion.
Erickson used very specific kinds of language patterns to induce confusion. Trump’s speech doesn’t necessarily follow these patterns. But the lack of logical structure in his speech, the stopping and starting, the saying one thing and then immediately making an aside that uses a contradictory expression — all of this is very hard to follow, if you’re looking for coherent, focused, logical speech. And that can induce confusion, in the Ericksonian sense. For a certain segment of the audience, they may well respond by shifting into a cognitive mode that is more intuitive, more feeling-based, and more responsive to the priming effects of the keywords that he repeats over and over.
This kind of story is at least consistent with the claim that Scott Adams has made many times, that Trump’s persuasion can be viewed as a kind of induced mass hypnosis.
Anyway, that’s a little Ericksonian persuasion theory for you.
Confusion and Self-Defense
Before we move off Erickson, there are some applications of the confusion induction that are quite striking and worth talking about. This doesn’t have anything directly to do with Trump, but if you want to be a persuasion ninja you need to know about this stuff.
The first application is self-defense.
In almost every self-defense class I’ve attended, there’s a discussion about what to do when confronted by an aggressive, agitated person who looks like they’re spoiling for a fight. What’s a way of de-escalating the situation? One technique you’ll hear, because it’s standard in martial arts circles, is that saying something to the aggressor that is completely unexpected and out of context, can break their aggressive state.
Derren Brown, the British magician and mentalist, recounts a story where he used this technique. This is from his book Tricks of the Mind, which by the way is a fantastic book and a must-read on the psychology of persuasion from the perspective of a trained magician and hypnotist and skeptic.
I found myself heading towards a young couple coming in the opposite direction. They were both quite drunk and arguing loudly. By the time I realized that they were going to be troublesome it was too late the cross the road and get out of the way. As they approached me I might have caught the guy’s eye, because I was suddenly aware of the horrible words “What the fuck are you looking at?” shouted at me from suddenly very close range with the force and pent-up anger of a very aggressive Welsh drunk. Peripherally I saw the girl walk off down the road and leave us.
There’s a bit that I’ll skip, and then Brown says
Having given thought to the use of confusion techniques to disarm aggressors, I was able to put some of my theory into practice. … I made my body relax and my face friendly and warm, and I said “The wall outside my house isn’t four foot high.”
He paused for a moment. “What?!”
“The wall outside my house isn’t four foot hight. But I lived in Spain for a bit and you should see the walls there — enormous, right up here!” I gestured with my hand to clarify how high I meant.
And then he describes how this aggressive guy just stopped, and all the hostility and momentum drained out of him as he struggled to work out what he was talking about.
Confusion and the Chewbacca Defense
Here’s another application of confusion as a tool of persuasion.
In a legal argumentation context, there’s a thing that has come to be called the “Chewbacca defense”. It’s when the aim of the argument being presented is to deliberately confuse the jury rather than actually refute the case of the other side.
The name comes from an old episode of South Park called “Chef Aid” that satirized the O.J. Simpson murder trial. In the episode Chef learns that Alanis Morissette’s hit single “Stinky Britches” — fictional — is a song that he wrote many years ago. He tries to get the record company to credit him as the composer but they refuse and hire Johnnie Cochran, O.J’s lawyer, to prosecute lawsuit against Chef. And this is where Cochran employs the Chewbacca defense, resulting in a win for the record company.
Here’s the famous clip from that episode. And in this clip. Cochrane is pointing to a picture of Chewbacca up on a projection screen.
[ Play the clip]
So now, in honor of this South Park episode, the deliberate use of confusion in the courtroom is known as the Chewbacca defense.
When you start looking for it, you see confusion techniques used in lots of places.
As Derren Brown puts it,
A politician knows that if he fires a set of confusing statistics at listeners, followed by a “summing up”, they are more likely to believe their concluding statement, rather than if he had offered it without the deluge of too-much-to-take-in information first. A salesman knows sometimes to overload a client with information to enhance how open they will be to a direction that follows. In effect, we are offered relief from the confusion and we happily do what we’re told. Until our normal equilibrium returns, we are putty in our manipulator’s hands.
Confusion and Theft
You want more examples? Here’s another application of confusion. Straight-up theft.
Derren Brown used a version of this technique in his tv show, where he showed how he can walk into a store, pick up an item, go to the checkout, talk to the cashier or the store worker, pay for the item by handing over a blank piece of paper, the store worker takes it and puts in the cash drawer, and he just walks out of the store with the item.
He does it by engaging in friendly conversation with the store worker, and then he quickly changes the subject, or redirects their attention in some other way, like asking about directions, just before handing over the blank piece of paper, or while he’s handing it over. In that period where the person is trying to figure out what was just said, or transition to a new focus of attention, they experience a kind of inattention blindness, and their body sort of goes on autopilot and follows the suggestion that is implicit in the context, which in this case is to treat the paper like ordinary money. Or he includes a direct verbal suggestion, like “take it, it’s fine”, when he hands over the paper.
Here’s a clip.
Brown has other examples from his show where he goes up to people on the street, starts a conversation with them, and then at some point asks them to give him their wallet, and they do, and he just thanks them and walks off with it. And you can see the looks on their faces as they realize that something confusing has just happened, and they’re struggling to figure it out.
Now, in this case he’s not just using confusion, he’s using a combination of techniques: establishing rapport, body mirroring, getting compliance on a small thing first, priming for compliance with the suggestion to come by using the phrase “You don’t mind me asking, do you? You’re happy to give that to me”, in a different context. There’s a handshake at just the right time that doesn’t break, there’s a request to hold a bottle of water in the hand that he’s holding, and then politely asks for the wallet.
So there’s a whole bunch of techniques going on here that are familiar to stage hypnotists, stage magicians, pickpockets and con artists, and persuasion aficionados who come out of NLP or the seduction community, who are big fans of this sort of thing.
All these techniques, skillfully assembled together, puts the person into a highly suggestible state for a brief period of time.
You can’t see it but you can hear the exchange here in the clip, and I’ll link to the video in the show notes.
[Play the clip]
Now, these kinds of tricks don’t always work. For Derren Brown they work about two thirds of the time, which is certainly enough to make some good money if you’re a pickpocket or a con artist, but it’s not perfect.
And the fact that it doesn’t work on everyone, and that some people are more susceptible to these techniques than others, is important to know.
The Spectrum of Hypnotizability, and Why Scott Adams Was Confident Trump Would Win
It’s important in Scott Adams’ explanation for why he was confident that Trump would win.
If you go to a hypnosis stage act, by someone like Jim Spinnato, who is a professional entertainment hypnotist, you’ll see Jim invite a group of people up on stage and sit in chairs, and then run through some standard exercises that lets him identify the people who are most hypnotizable, most open to suggestion. And then the act really starts when he’s filtered out the less hypnotizable people and got a handful of people who are highly hypnotizable to work with. These remaining people he can get to smell things that aren’t there, act out scenarios that aren’t real, feel imaginary pains, imaginary pleasures, and so on.
I recommend you go to YouTube and search for “hypnotized Uconn Students”, it’s a video of Jim working with a group of students at the University of Connecticut. You can see this process for yourself. I’ll link to it in the show notes.
Scientific studies of hypnosis confirm this idea that in the general population some people are more susceptible to hypnotic suggestion than others. Like most traits, it falls along a spectrum. The Stanford and Harvard tests of susceptibility, which have been around for many years, let you sort people into high, medium and low susceptibility, with about 70-80% of the population in the medium category, 10-15% in the high category and 10-15% in the low category.
And within the high end there’s a smaller percentage that are extremely hypnotizable.
There’s an amazing study from a few years ago conducted by Amanda Barnier at Macquarie University in Australia, where she was able to hypnotize a group of people and put them in a state where they couldn’t recognize their own reflection in a mirror, they thought they were looking at someone else.
Interesting research has found that there are two distinct types of highly susceptible subjects, which have been termed fantasizers and dissociaters. Fantasizers score high on absorption scales, which means that they find it easy to block out real-world stimuli without hypnosis. They spend more time daydreaming, they report imaginary companions as a child, and they often grew up with parents who encouraged imaginary play.
Dissociaters, on the other hand, often have a history of childhood abuse or other trauma. They learned to escape into numbness, and to forget unpleasant events. Their association to “daydreaming” was more about going blank rather than creating vividly recalled fantasies.
Both fantasizers and dissociaters score equally high on formal scales of hypnotic susceptibility.
Interestingly, individuals with dissociative identity disorder have the highest hypnotisability of any clinical group, followed by those with post-traumatic stress disorder.
But apart from markers like these, in general it’s hard predict where someone will fall on the hypnotizability spectrum. People who view themselves as skeptics, for example, aren’t necessarily less susceptible to hypnosis, and people who you might think of as gullible aren’t necessarily more susceptible.
But I said this has something to do with Scott Adams’ prediction that Trump would win the election. Here’s how it applies.
Scott knows the basic facts about the distribution of hypnotizability in the general population.
And he knows that the vast majority of people vote along party lines, and the outcome of elections is actually determined by only a small percentage of the population in a handful of swing states.
So, if you accept that Trump is some kind of master persuader, and he’s using persuasion techniques similar to those that are used in indirect, conversational hypnosis, and you know there’s a small but significant percentage of people who are highly susceptible to these techniques, and you know that it doesn’t take a much of a percentage shift in voter alignment to win an election, then the inference is clear. The team with the most effective persuasion campaign is going to win.
And this is why Scott Adams was so confident that Trump would win.
Is Trump a Master Persuader?
Well, I think that’s enough about hypnosis and suggestion. I hope you’ll agree that these examples are really interesting, and important to know about.
I know some people want to know if I agree with Scott’s assessment of Trump. Do I think he’s a master persuader? Is this why he won the election?
Well, I think it’s true that, all other things being equal, the team with the most effective persuasion campaign is going to win.
The question is whether all things really are equal.
Trump is the most scandal-resistant figure we’ve seen in a long time, but there could easily have been more serious skeletons to disclose that would have handicapped the campaign. And the timing of the statements from James Comey about the investigation into Hillary’s emails certainly played a big role in the final days of the campaign. So there’s an element of unpredictability and luck in the whole process that it would be wrong to ignore. There’s no reason to think that Trump’s win was inevitable.
And there’s the question, for me, about whether Trump is really the master persuader that Scott imagines he is. On the one hand, he recognizes certain persuasion techniques in Trump’s speech patterns, in the way he relates to his supporters, in the way he attacks his opponents, and so on.
But there’s the question of how Trump knows how to do this. From what I can tell there’s no evidence of formal training in Trump’s past. He may have worked with Tony Robbins on some projects in the past (who is genuinely trained in the Erickson/NLP school of hypnotherapy) but there’s no evidence that he studied this kind of material.
For a long time Scott mentioned Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, as evidence that Trump had internalized a lot of persuasion theory, but the book itself actually says very little about persuasion beyond some simple truisms about aiming high, using your leverage, promoting yourself … the normal things you might infer that Trump believes just from following him around for a while. And now we know that Trump himself didn’t write it, his co-author, journalist Tony Schwartz wrote it.
For me it’s more plausible to say that Trump has good persuasion instincts; he’s a natural persuader. I think this might be closer to Scott Adams’ view too. Some people become good at something only because they’ve studied and practiced it; others just have a natural aptitude for it. It’s true for fighters, it’s true for actors, it’s true for chess players, it’s true for writers — some just have good instincts for it, others need lots of deliberate practice to get better. And it might be hard to tell which is which just from their performance.
And it’s particularly hard to infer intentions from behavior alone. Is Trump intentionally deploying a particular persuasion technique, or is he just following his instincts? It’s easy to project intent on a pattern of behavior that we recognize, but that might say as much about our own expectations as it does about the person.
I also think that Scott’s success at predicting the outcome of Trump’s campaign has just as much to do with his own affinity with the issues that motivated the Trump base. Scott has libertarian and anti-pc leanings. He sees something of himself in Trump’s narcissism and how he maintains the status of his personal brand. Scott could see how Trump was perceived by his supporters, and how different that was from how his opponents perceived him. He had his finger on the pulse of something that most in the liberal media had a harder time seeing. That’s a big part of why Scott’s reading of the situation has been as good as it has. And I say this because that goes above and beyond Trump being a good persuader.
Critical Thinking About Persuasion Schools and Persuasion Science
Before I wrap up, I want to make one last comment.
From a critical thinking standpoint, I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that this whole body of persuasion theory and persuasion techniques that we’ve been looking at in this episode, centered around concepts drawn from neurolinguistic programming and hypnosis and mentalism, is largely ignored in the psychological literature on intuition and reason and cognitive biases. Danny Kahneman, Jonathan Haidt, Joshua Greene, Keith Stanovich … none of these people mention it. Even Robert Cialdini’s books, who Adams recommends that everyone read, and who Adams affectionately code-named “Godzilla”, the king of the influencers, doesn’t directly talk about it.
Right now I’m looking at the index at the back of Cialdini’s latest book Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade. It’s 400 pages, chock full of great content. But the term “hypnosis” doesn’t even show up in the index. There’s a very oblique reference to Milton Erickson once in the book, and it has nothing to do with pacing and leading. The term “pace and lead” doesn’t show up in the index either. Neither do the terms “suggestion” or “suggestibility”.
Now, given all the cool facts we’re learned about hypnosis and suggestibility in this episode, and how relevant they are to persuasion, it follows that the standard psychological literature on persuasion probably doesn’t tell the whole story about persuasion. It’s only telling part of the story.
What part? The part of the story that is accessible to controlled experimentation, the part of the story that overlaps with important trends in psychology and cognitive science, the part of the story that can get funding by government and private funding agencies, given all of their priorities … in short, the part of the story that fits into the incentive structure of mainstream science.
We definitely should pay attention to these parts of the story that persuasion science is telling us. But we should also expect that there are parts of the story that are missing, or that are not being studied with as much interest. One of these areas is persuasion in the context of magic and mentalism, the kind of demonstrations that Derren Brown and Banachek and other performers do. We should be looking at a variety of sources for insight into how persuasion works.
And from a critical thinking standpoint, it goes the other way too. It’s important for NLP aficionados to understand why the mainstream psychological literature on persuasion shies away from talking about persuasion in the context of NLP and hypnosis.
Part of the answer, as I’ve said before on the podcast, is that NLP has a bad reputation in academic circles. It’s not viewed as scientifically rigorous. Most academic psychologists regard the core theoretical framework of NLP as something closer to a pseudoscience, and there are reasons for that, which I don’t have time to get into here.
The fact is that persuasion science within academic psychology and social science has largely developed independently of NLP. So has hypnosis research. For students of persuasion, this is worth knowing. The mainstream academic view is that whatever is valuable and accurate in NLP can be expressed and explained on a more secure scientific foundation than the one that Bandler and Grinder came up with in the 1970s. Some time in the future I’ll do an episode on this.
Personally, I’m very interested in the opinions of people who have a broad exposure to different branches of persuasion science, and who have some personal experience “in the field” as it were. Derren Brown is one of the best examples of this and why I recommend his book Tricks of the Mind so strongly.
And frankly, it’s the reason why I follow Scott Adams. I’m interested in how the world looks from his perspective. I disagree strongly with his views about the nature of science, and his broader epistemology. But I don’t need to agree with him on everything to be open to learning something from him.
Well, I think that’ll wrap up this episode of the Argument Ninja podcast. I mentioned a number of books and video clips and I’ll include links to those in the show notes for this episode.
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Thank you for listening, take care, and I’ll talk to you again soon.