Sometimes The Best Way To Change People's Minds Is Outright Tyranny

Illustration for article titled Sometimes The Best Way To Change People's Minds Is Outright Tyranny

You don't always have to be a subtly master manipulator in order to change people's minds and make them your obedient puppets. Sometimes, brute force can be just as persuasive in making people change their own minds for you.


Be. Mean.

So you want people to believe what you believe, but you lack the Machiavellian finesse to spin them in a fine web of deceit and bring them around to your point of view. No problem! The concept behind this is called "forced compliance," and it was investigated by Philip Zimbardo, of Stanford Prison Experiment fame. In 1965, Zimbardo did an interesting little experiment that involved getting people to eat fried grasshoppers. Being a psychologist, he realized that he could get students to torture their fellows, and to submit to being tortured, but not to eat gross things, so he picked army reservists for subjects. The experiment was framed, in a message given to the subjects, as a way to test the average person's reaction to the kind of foods that a soldier might have to eat in the field. For half the subjects, the message was delivered by a friendly man who treated those around him with courtesy and respect. The other half received the explanation by way of a man who treated his own assistant with obvious contempt. (The assistant helped him out in this by "accidentally" bringing eels the first time around, instead of grasshoppers.) Sometimes, the soldiers were offered 50 cents a bug, and sometimes they were asked to eat bugs for free.

Zimbardo had a feeling that the subjects would not be warmed by the friendly tone of a man telling them to eat bugs. Their opinion would also not be brightened by flinging two quarters at them for every exoskeleton they crunched through. He was right. People preferred grasshoppers when they were pressured to eat them for no money by a rude man.

Illustration for article titled Sometimes The Best Way To Change People's Minds Is Outright Tyranny

Make Everything as Public as Possible

People, it seems, will allow injuries to their independence of mind more readily than they'll allow injuries to their dignity. The less chance they get at receiving any kind of redemptive value from an activity, the more they'll make their mind up that what they just had to do wasn't that bad. If a subject ate a bug for 50 cents, they could use that 50 cents to buy their sweetheart a malted at a soda fountain, or whatever people did in the 1960s. If a friendly guy persuaded them to eat a bug, well, they did a nice person a favor. But if a mean man subtly intimidated them into eating a grasshopper, the experience had no value for them unless the grasshopper tasted good.


The goal, then, is to take away any possible bright side — any way for a person to claim that they did anything other than knuckle under to pressure. We see this in another experiment, conducted three years later. People were asked to espouse views that ran counter to their actual values. They weren't marched through a public square to do this; the subjects had to do nothing more than make a short speech. After they made it, they were re-asked about their views on the subject. A few people's attitudes did change.

What changed those attitudes most? Exposure. Some people were asked to make the statement on an audiotape, but without their name attached. Some people were asked to make their audio-recorded statement with their name attached. Some made the statement on video, without their name. Some made the statement on video, with their name. As the amount of exposure increased, the subject's attitude changed to reflect the attitude they had been forced to claim. The less they could deny, the more they changed their mind.

Illustration for article titled Sometimes The Best Way To Change People's Minds Is Outright Tyranny

Make It Last

There is one final way to get people to come around to your way of thinking: Force them to say that they will. Yet another experiment, forcing people to admit to views that they did not actually espouse, ended by making people sign a statement swearing that they would continue to advocate for those views after they ended the experiment. They did.


Obviously, the signed statement wasn't enforceable, and the subjects knew that. This was made more evident by the fact that there were two groups who signed the statement; some signed publicly, some privately. The private ones felt free to disregard their statement, but the people who signed publicly, without the cover of anonymity, went ahead and changed their views to the views that they had been forced to take.

Clearly, subtlety isn't always the best option. Sometimes, the way to change people's minds is to leave them no other way of reconciling what they've been forced to say. Get people to repeat things that they know aren't true. Get them to do it publicly, and under their own name. Get them to say they'll always believe it. A good portion of the time, they'll come around.


[Via On Eating Fried Grasshoppers, Forced Compliance, Studies in Force Compliance]



Clearly, subtlety isn't always the best option.