Book Review-Influence Without Authority

“Nobody has ever had enough authority – they never have and they never will.” It’s the first highlight in Influence Without Authority, and it is the defining statement for why we need to learn how to influence others without authority. Coercive influence is corrosive to relationships. It must be used sparingly when it is available, and it’s often not available. The fundamental message on how to influence through authority is through the law of reciprocity.

The Law of Reciprocity

In some circles, it’s known as tit-for-tat. (See The Evolution of Cooperation for more on tit-for-tat.) Fundamentally, it’s an awareness that when you do something good for someone else, they often feel a psychic debt to repay your kindness, generosity, trust, or material gifts. (For more on how trust is reciprocal, see Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited.) The power of reciprocity is so great that it’s worked its way into campaign and public service laws as well as the guidelines for many organizations. In its Latin form, quid pro quo is an ethical challenge and something that politicians and business leaders want to steer clear of.

In its smallest forms, the law of reciprocity may hardly be noticeable. You’re more inclined to hold a door for someone if you’ve had a door held open for you. Whether you hold the door for the person who held it for you or not, a single random act of kindness can set off a natural chain reaction of kindness that sends ripples in all directions for a long time.

The Model in Six Steps

The model for influencing with authority is six simple steps:

  1. Assume all are potential allies – Fundamental attribution error will drive us towards thinking the worst of other people, but we must fight the tendency. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow and How We Know What Isn’t So for more on fundamental attribution error.)
  2. Clarify Your Goals and Priorities – Get absolutely clear on what you want. We often confuse the means that we’re striving for with the ends that we really want. (See Who Am I? for more.)
  3. Diagnose the World of the Other Person – This is one part getting into the other person’s head – mind-reading – and one part finding their perspective. See Mindreading for more on getting inside the other person’s head. See Incognito and The Ethnographic Interview to understand perspectives and for tools for learning about the other person’s world, respectively.
  4. Identify Relevant Currencies: Theirs and Yours – “Currencies” here means motivators, things you can give them that they desire and vice-versa. Here, the work of Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind and Steven Reiss in Who Am I? have illustrative of models for evaluating the other person.
  5. Dealing with Relationships – Here, the key is to relate to the other person. That takes a degree of emotional intelligence. (See Emotional Intelligence for more.) It also requires skills to carefully navigate difficult conversations. (See Crucial Conversations for more.)
  6. Influence through Give and Take – Here, the key is to give the other party what they want – and ask for the things that you want.

Being Heard

One of the most frequent causes of conflict and the reason that people resist influence is that they don’t believe they’ve been heard. They confront you with some concern that you quickly dismiss, and they feel as if you’ve not given it proper attention. It can be that it’s not applicable, but the summary dismissal makes the other person feel unheard, and that can create problems.

Helping other people be heard and understood – without necessarily agreeing – is a difficult art. It’s one that Miller and Rollnick discuss at length in Motivational Interviewing. They work with addicted individuals and convince them that their addiction is bad. Despite this, they must first develop a therapeutic alliance – a relationship through which they can say difficult things. (See The Heart and Soul of Change for more on therapeutic alliance.)

Our ability to communicate and read others’ minds may be the difference between us and other animals, but it also comes with an expectation. We’ve developed an expectation and need to be heard and understood. It’s something that we call need. (See The Righteous Mind and Mindreading for our ability to read others’ minds – and the evolutionary impacts.)

Hearing Objections

It’s too easy to dismiss objections and, when that doesn’t work, allow fundamental attribution error to kick in and think the worst of them instead of focusing on how their perspective or values are different. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on fundamental attribution error.) It’s a starting point to acknowledge and learn more about the other person’s objectives. It’s advanced work to recognize that others aren’t bad people even if you struggle to understand their perspective.

With curiosity, you can begin to see objections and irritants as clues to the perspectives and values of the other person and thereby create a pathway to asking more questions and learning more.


Too often in our attempts to influence others, they bring their own version of reality that is difficult for us to hear. They see aspects of reality that we’d prefer to ignore. However, denying reality doesn’t make it less so. In fact, to deny reality makes it more dangerous for us, since we’re unable to respond wholly to the world around us.

Perhaps the best way to take a step towards the reality that we need to learn more about and get accomplished what you want through others is to read Influence Without Authority.

Book Review-Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity

I think everyone wants the easy life. We’d love for things to be effortless. We’d all love to be powerful. These things are at the heart of Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity. Though we all want to get to effortless and powerful, no one seems to have cracked the magic formula.

Wu-Wei (“OOO-WAY”) and De (“DUH”)

To set the context, we need understand two Chinese words. The first is wu-wei, which is pronounced “ooo-way”. This word is literally “no trying” or “no doing” but is about effortless and unconscious. The second word is de, pronounced “duh.” It is virtue, power, or charismatic power. It’s the thing that others see and can’t put their finger on but know they want. When we’re doing wu-wei, then de naturally follows. The more we can be in an effortless state, the more de we radiate.

System 1 and System 2

The concept of things being effortless doesn’t mean that things are being done. It’s more accurate to say that things are getting done automatically from what Daniel Kahneman calls System 1. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more.) It’s the hot cognition that happens seemingly without thought. It’s automatic.

The need to consider, ponder, and evaluate slows things down and feels unnatural. The effortlessness embodied in wu-wei is the kind of automatic processing that Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool describe in Peak. It’s when there has been so much purposeful practice that everything has been converted into something that happens effortlessly – without conscious thought.

Steven Kotler speaks of the same thing in The Rise of Superman when he explains that athletes need to get into flow – and stay there – if they’re going to accomplish the amazing and seemingly superhuman things that they do. Kotler bases his work on the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Flow.

Going with the Flow

Slingerland is careful to draw some distinction between wu-wei and flow. He explains that the focus on the relative degree of challenge between skill and challenge has become a preoccupation with Csikszentmihalyi’s work, and how this challenge isn’t conducive to effortlessness. Here, Slingerland has a point that Csikszentmihalyi’s initial data didn’t always reflect folks who were in challenging situations when he did his initial research. Sometimes, folks who reported the conditions associated with flow were doing rather mundane things.

J. Keith Miller commented in A Hunger for Healing about a Zen saying, “After enlightenment, draw water, chop wood.” Mark Epstein in Advice Not Given says, “After the ecstasy, it is said, comes the laundry.” Thupten Jinpa in A Fearless Heart explains that what we call walking meditation is a part of “post-sitting practices” – the idea being that monks bring full awareness to their everyday activities not just when they’re sitting meditating. In short, our attainment of enlightenment doesn’t free us from the simple work of life; we need to continue to find peace, joy, and effortlessness in all we do.

Kathleen Norris in Acedia & Me comments that she regains herself by doing ordinary things. She drains away the challenges of acedia – which is roughly equivalent to burnout in today’s language – by doing things in an effortless and accepting way. (You can learn much more about burnout at

While Slingerland takes issue with Csikszentmihalyi’s focus on challenge, he does so in the context of ancient Chinese thinkers, who struggled to find the way to effortless action. When we think about this instead as enlightenment or bliss, we can distance ourselves from the specific concern of challenge and turn the question on its head. The answer as to whether the path to wu-wei is paved with effort, without effort, or with only some kinds of effort seems unclear. What is clear is that the destination seems to have been found by several who took different roads.

Indirect Acquisition

Some states are only reachable through indirect means. Consider happiness. Those who pursue it are often miserable. They believe that somehow they need to be happier than they are. Many books have been written more or less explicitly about how to find happiness, including Stumbling on Happiness, which explains that most of the time what we believe will make us happy doesn’t – or doesn’t for long. Happiness looks at happiness from the perspective of a skill rather than an end-state and narrowly avoids the trap that you’re never in the state “enough,” because you can always become more skillful at something.

The trick it seems with wu-wei is that you can’t pursue it directly. This reminds me of the story of the two Hindu goddesses – wealth and knowledge – and only by pursuing knowledge will wealth come to you. (See The Heretic’s Guide to Management and A Philosopher’s Notes for more.)

Two Selves

One of my favorite models of all time is Jonathan Haidt’s Elephant-Rider-Path model from The Happiness Hypothesis. The rational rider (System 2) sits on top of the emotional elephant (System 1), and they’re in a constant battle for control. The elephant allows the rider to feel like they’re in control until the elephant starts to care deeply about something.

The key to wu-wei is to build a relationship between our elephant and our rider such that both trust the other rather than distrusting the other. By integrating these two aspects of our psyche with respect, we spend less time battling internally and have more energy to share with the world.

In Service of Other

To get to wu-wei, we’re encouraged to do things in service of bigger things, like improving others’ lives or moving forward humanity. This sentiment seems to be wired into our being based on the game theory attempts of Axelrod in The Evolution of Cooperation. Folks like Robert Greenleaf urge us to pursue Servant Leadership. Many have written about the power of doing things for others and how this makes us feel better.

Even twelve-step groups are clear about the power of service to harmonize people and make them return to a state of being more whole.


It’s not that any of us always have pure thoughts or thoughts about others. Even the work of the Jesuits wasn’t successful in eliminating these selfish tendencies. (See Heroic Leadership.) However, the more that we seek to channel our passions in ways that are positive, the more domesticated our passions become and the less energy we must spend trying to consciously control them.

Returning our energies to other things, we can accept the occasional selfish thought while recognizing a generally other-focused perspective on life.

Step-by-Step Guide

Perhaps the greatest challenge to wu-wei or any form of enlightenment is that there is no one who can show off the path to achieve it. There’s no 3, 6, 8, or even 12-step guides to becoming enlightened. Instead, there are a variety of thoughts and approaches and a seemingly endless array of folks who have made it there but are unable to articulate their path.

For the few who are able to articulate a path of enlightenment, they seem focused on very high bars of self-sacrifice. These high bars are not the kind that most people can make – and as a result, they can’t follow the recipe. Perhaps this is intentional, or perhaps it’s a rare person who is able to reach enlightenment or moral goodness. However, perhaps it’s that the shallow slope needed by most people to reach this elusive state isn’t a prescriptive path that leads to predictable results. Perhaps the path is the result of the person themselves and what they need most.

Compensation for Virtuous Acts

Some people do virtuous acts. Whether it’s work, a connection, money, or whatever to help someone else out, these virtuous acts help drive our interconnectedness as a society – until we learn that there’s a catch. They’re not really being virtuous. They’re doing something for us with the expectation of something in return. More than just karma, they expect that they’ll get some sort of tangible benefit from it.

We’ve learned to distrust even the virtuous act for fear that people want something from it.


In Inside Jokes, there is the suggestion that we may connect with others who share comedy with us, because, at their very, core your response to jokes is unfakeable. Paul Ekman coined the Duchenne smile as a genuine one. (See Emotional Awareness, Trust Me, and Social Engineering for more.) This unfakeable nature makes them ideal for detection. If someone is able to display the Duchenne smile, then they must really like it.

Similarly, it’s thought that wu-wei shows a naturalness that cannot be faked. A peacock’s feathers are an extravagance that serves no material purpose except to show peahens that the peacock has something going on – otherwise he couldn’t afford to spend such effort to make such lavish feathers. With wu-wei, you cannot fake the naturalness, because to do so would require conscious control, which would break the whole flow of the moment. In The Rise of Superman, Kotler shares the stories of high-performance, extreme athletes who are killed by their sports, presumably because they tried overthinking their situation and couldn’t make the right moves at the right time.

Trying Not to Try is a paradox. It’s something that must be accepted. That being said, it seems like if you’re going to try not to try, you’ll have to read Trying Not to Try first.

Book Review-Principles of Topological Psychology

On the surface, it would seem like math would have very little to do with psychology. However, when looking at Kurt Lewin’s work in Principles of Topological Psychology, it’s clear to see how mathematical models influenced his thinking on psychology and how to motivate people.

Context and Math

Most folks know Kurt Lewin’s work because of his famous equation that behavior is a function of both person and environment. Some are aware that he proposed a model for change that involves unfreezing behavior, changing behavior, and freezing it again. Those aware of his concepts regarding force fields and their application in accomplishing change will recognize how Lewin was influenced by science and electromagnetism. (See A Dynamic Theory of Personality for more.)

Here, Lewin’s thoughts about psychology and motivation use set-based language from advanced math. He speaks about the things that are inclusive to a state, the boundary conditions, and other concepts that are borrowed directly from advanced mathematics.

I was surprised about the relationship, even though I had read John Gottman’s work in The Science of Trust. Gottman’s particular interest in game theory comes from advanced mathematics and mathematical simulation as well. If you want to know more about game theory and its application, see The Evolution of Cooperation.

States and Motion

While force field analysis was concerned with the motivators for moving someone in one direction or another, topological psychology is concerned with your current state and the places that are accessible from that state. It’s about creating a map from where someone is at any given moment to their desired state. The transition from today to the future can be a single step across a single border or it can be a multi-step process with various borders.

The motive force is provided by force fields pushing or pulling on the psyche of the individual, but the application of that force is most interesting in topological psychology. What path will be chosen to move towards the goal – and why?


One of the key points is that it’s more than the force that’s applied to a person. It’s the relationship between the person and their environment – or the mental maps of their environment – that really matter. Relationships have multiple meanings when addressing psychology. Here, the relationships are most concerned about the interaction of the person with the environment. The environment pulls on the person, and the person pulls on the environment.

While it’s helpful to think of one force that drives someone and one set of conceptions of the environment that drive the behavior in one direction or another, it’s more accurate to say that there are many forces and understandings of the environment that shape the way the person will behave.

Regions and Boundaries

Regions are the collection of mental states that are qualitatively like one another – and other regions are qualitatively different. Boundaries are the places between these two dissimilar spaces. There are two implications from math that are useful but not infinitely true.

First, regions can be subdivided. Just because the region contains a set of mental states that are similar doesn’t meant that, when evaluated from another dimension, the region might not split into two regions. Mathematically, a closed set should allow for infinite subdivision. While this is unlikely the case with mental states, it’s possible to provide a great deal of division, thereby separating thoughts and perspectives based on numerous criteria.

Second, boundaries are really regions as well. While it’s easy to conceptualize a boundary as a crisp line, such a crisp distinction doesn’t always exist. Consider the regions for the colors red, blue, and green. In which group does the color blue-green belong? This classic information architecture problem leads to an awareness that even boundaries can be expanded to more detail when appropriate.

Person and Environment are not Independent Variables

Going back to Lewin’s equation that behavior is a function of both person and environment, it’s important to recognize that the person and the environment are not independent variables. That is, person impacts environment and environment impacts person. While we can recognize the distinct agency of the person, we should acknowledge that a person is – at least partially – a product of their environment. (See No Two Alike for more.)

If you’re wondering how people move from one perspective to another – and how that impacts behavior – maybe it’s time to look at the Principles of Topological Psychology.

Book Review-A Dynamic Theory of Personality (Selected Papers of Kurt Lewin)

It’s hard to work in learning and motivation, or even remotely care about how people work, without stumbling into Kurt Lewin’s work. Most of the time, people quote the high level and don’t go back to read his writing directly. They think about force fields and behavior functions and stop there. However, I was recently intrigued by a subtle difference between the way some authors referred to his behavior equation and decided the only way to get to the bottom of the mystery was to read his work directly. That’s what led me to A Dynamic Theory of Personality and therein some of Lewin’s writings.

Behavior is a Function of Person and Environment

It’s a simple formula – B = f(P,E). However, it is profound. It says that both person and environment influence behavior but that their interactions are opaque. We don’t know precisely how they interact – and the implication is that we may not be able to know. The mystery that started the journey was that some people wrote the function with the word “situation” instead of “environment.” Indeed, most of the places surrounding the actual equation use situation instead of environment. However, what is most likely happening is an artifact of the translation process, since the original work was written in German.

Whether the text was using the word situation or environment, the intent was the same. The things around us, from cultural norms to the kind of lighting and how warm or cold it is, influence our behaviors in subtle – and sometimes not subtle – ways. The situation we find ourselves in influences our behavior. If we’re in a stressful situation (or environment), we’ll behave differently.

What started out as a question about whether the original intent was situation or environment led to another fascinating observation about Lewin’s research.

Mentally Retarded Children

What I realized that much of Lewin’s work was with mentally retarded children – his words are “feeble-minded” and “moron.” (Perhaps I’m showing my own bias by not using the NIH preferred terms, but I prefer to think of these children as held back or limited instead of disabled.) His studies included comparing the behavior patterns of these children to those who were more normal and investigating the differences in their behavior patterns, particularly their persistence. This reminded me of The Marshmallow Test and Grit – how persistence and patience pay off. However, the data was interesting because it showed that mentally retarded children seemed to have a greater degree of persistence – and a lower distractibility. This is also interesting from the perspective that the task put in front of the mentally retarded children might have put them in the challenge-skills ratio to support them entering flow. (See The Rise of Superman, Flow, and Finding Flow for more on the psychological state of flow.)

It also reminded me of Einstein and his self-admission that he wasn’t the brightest student – but that he was more persistent. (See Raise Your Line for one mention of this.) It’s also been claimed that Thomas Edison was removed from school and educated by his mother, because he wasn’t a good student. Whether this is true or is simply a myth, it’s interesting to me that Lewin’s research showed a tendency for mentally retarded people to work on something for longer. We know from Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset and Anders Ericcson’s work on Peak that people can radically change their capacity if they’re willing to work on it.

The First Force Fields

Science fiction has become enamored with force fields. It’s a chosen device for protecting the good guys from the bad guys – and vice versa. In their science fiction form, they’re impenetrable fields that can protect against projectiles, lasers, and anything else the opponent might come up with. Lewin’s force fields are more akin to physical science than science fiction. The force lines that magnets generate and the vector equations of physics are more like the force fields that Lewin used to understand and describe the behavior he was seeing.

It’s not like it’s impossible to push through Lewin’s force fields. It just takes some effort. There are a set of normal forces that hold things in their relative state. Even if the state is oscillating, there is some relative balance that things fall into. The planets orbit the Sun and the Moon orbits the Earth in a relative stable environment, where the forces of gravity are balanced with the centrifugal force exerted as the heavenly bodies try to continue along their straight paths. However, a force can be exerted that will knock things completely out of balance – and can snap one or more of the force fields being applied to something.

That’s why when we teach change managers about implementing change, we recommend that they look for opportunities to change the forces that are present rather than directly exerting force against them. If you ever find yourself trapped near a black hole, accelerating your orbit around the black hole will be much more effective than trying to directly pull against it. (See how we teach change management in our Confident Change Management course.)

Quenching and Satiating

There’s another way that we teach to shut down the forces that are holding you back. It’s quenching. Forces are exerted only when the need or drive is active. When you satiate the need, you quench it. The key, then, becomes what does satiating mean, and how do you satiate to the point where the force being generated is quenched?

It may be easiest to think in terms of hunger. A very hungry person will do almost anything to get food. The forces that propel them are very powerful. However, after a big meal, there is almost no force to get food – there might even be a small push against food if their belly is already stuffed, like after a feast.

If someone has a drive for position, it can be that their drive is quenched – at least temporarily if not permanently – by a promotion to the next level. Sometimes, this means giving in on smaller and less important issues to neutralize the disproportionally high forces they exert on people. In my experience, many people are happy to do the same or more work with a simple change of title – even if it doesn’t change their responsibilities or authority.

The Choice of Punishment

Perhaps the most interesting observation was the observation that sometimes-threatened punishments are considered as choices rather than being considered as unacceptable alternatives. When presented as “You do X, or I’ll punish you with Y,” some children decide that Y is better than X, so they specifically state that they’d like that alternative.

The problem is we rarely enumerate all the consequences of failing to do the desired behavior. Thus, the equation that is being evaluated is incomplete. The expectation is still that the child completes the requested activity – even with the punishment.

Observations like these make it important to dig into Kurt Lewin’s work, and one good place to start is A Dynamic Theory of Personality.

Book Review-The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

The relationship between our mind and our body is an ever-evolving story. We continue to learn how our mind and our bodies are inextricably linked. In The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk walks through the research on how our physiology is changed by the traumas that we experience.

The Relationship

I’m not entirely sold that trauma becomes embodied. There isn’t a compelling case that your pinky – or any other body part – becomes the place that trauma dwells. However, it really doesn’t matter whether the trauma becomes embodied or whether the relationship between our brains and our bodies is so intertwined that the changing neural patterns changes our physiology.

It is clear that our brains are changed by trauma. We literally see the world differently and react differently. Trauma that we can’t fully process can become stuck and make it difficult for us to process any experiences – good or bad. In the attempt to make sense of the trauma, people reapply it to everything they encounter. It colors their perceptions, feelings, and everyday thoughts. While flashbacks are conscious reminders of the trauma, they often live the trauma daily as they may overreact to simple things.


If there’s something stuck in your head that you don’t have the cognitive resources to process, you might try to avoid it. The weapon of choice to blunt the unarticulated pain may be alcohol, drugs, or sex – but these are the solutions, not the problems they’re often portrayed as. Addicts to these things or anything else are often trying to blunt the pain of a trauma they can’t fully understand. The tool of choice allows them to stop feeling for a while – and it is therefore the solution.

Please don’t misunderstand: it’s not a good solution. It’s not a healthy solution. However, addicts use their chosen substance or behavior as a solution, and treating it as the problem may create conflict. This is one of the reasons why Motivational Interviewing can be so useful. It allows us to reframe our perceptions around the perceptions of the person we’re working with.

To move past and heal from trauma, it’s necessary to acknowledge, experience, and bear the weight of the trauma. While this isn’t easy, it is possible. The key is creating safe spaces where people can reprocess the trauma slowly and safely. A lesser form of the kind of processing that needs to be done to escape the kind of boxes we put ourselves in when we’re disingenuous to ourselves as was discussed in The Anatomy of Peace.

Auto Homing

The tragedy that befalls some children is the automatic instinct to return home. Somewhere deep within our psyche, we expect that homes are safe places. We expect that the people who are our parents should care for us and work to keep us safe. Even when it is our caretakers who are harming us, we’ll still seek to come back home. It’s a powerful pull that few can escape.

This makes helping people who are being harmed by the very people who are supposed to be protecting them very difficult. They may find creative ways to disassociate the caretaker’s abuse from their normal expectations of home. You can be scared of daddy – and still welcome him home after his long day at work. Both are incompatible but are held in different compartments within the mind, because it’s the only way to endure the trauma.

Prediction Engines Need Data

Humans are fundamentally prediction engines. It’s what we do, and those prediction engines need data they can process. When a trauma comes, it interrupts the normal flow of processing data and thereby gums up the works for all experiences, both good and bad. Neurologically, our brains cope with an overwhelming trauma by taking parts of the brain offline – to manage how we consume the glucose. However, those areas are the very same areas that we need to be able to make sense of the trauma and convert it into the story that our prediction engine brains need.

The Rise of Superman explains how our brains have a fixed capacity for consumption of energy. To reach flow, some areas are switched offline. In trauma, different areas are switched offline, including Broca’s area – the one that’s responsible for the syntax of language. The result is we have problems explaining the trauma because the parts of our neurology that do this are quite literally unavailable to use.

Tragically, because the trauma isn’t processed, it gets stuck. When it’s run back through the processing the next time, if the variables for fear aren’t constrained, the trauma fails to be processed again, and it’s in the queue for the next day. This process can continue endlessly until the trauma can be processed either naturally or with the help of someone.

Desensitization and Safety

Albert Bandura popularized the use of desensitization as a tool for treating phobias. The idea is that you gradually expose people to situations that more closely resemble their fears. This gradual escalation allows people to come to terms with their fears and feel safer. (See more of his work in Moral Disengagement.) The problem is that for those who have experienced trauma it may not be possible to gradually move people closer to their fears. They all too quickly trigger and thereby overwhelm them.

As a result, strategies to deal with trauma are more frequently focused on revisiting the trauma in their mind – without reintroducing the specific circumstances. More importantly, the strategies that are most effective focus on pushing people into their trauma but only to the extent that they can continue to feel safe.

An opposite response to hyper activation is disassociation. That is, the trauma victim completely disconnects from their emotional selves and thereby avoids the pain of needing to deal with emotion. Unfortunately, disassociation is a rather blunt instrument, and as such, it’s not just the emotions surrounding the trauma that are deadened but all emotions to everything. In short, while people who disassociate with the trauma may lead otherwise productive lives, they bear an unimaginable weight themselves in their inability to connect with others and sustain the life-giving relationships we all need.


Those who have suffered trauma often overreact to the things that happen naturally in day-to-day life. A smell or sound may trigger a flashback to the trauma – an instant state of fear and confusion – and as a result may cause them to react in powerful ways that are unexpected and unpredictable to those around them. The key is to create self-awareness to the degree that people know they’re triggered and give them tools to work through the effects of the triggering.

The truth is that the key to responding to being triggered is a quick awareness and response. The natural tendency when triggered is the shutdown of higher-order reasoning – but this takes a few seconds. If the neocortex – more specifically, the medial prefrontal cortex – can downregulate the triggering enough, then it can prevent the person from becoming totally flooded and losing their ability for rational thought.

Emotional Stuffing

The goal in responding to triggering isn’t to prevent emotions or deny they exist. It’s better to think of this from the perspective of accepting the emotions for what they are and trying to place them in a broader context. Stuffing the emotions or denying them has negative consequences to the body and the long-term mental health of the person.

One can accept emotions – without allowing them to overwhelm oneself.

The Elephant and the Horse

I’ve stated repeatedly that my favorite mental metaphor is Jonathan Haidt’s Elephant-Rider-Path model. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch.) However, what I learned here is that this is really more derivative than I might have first expected. Paul MacLean – the same guy that developed the three part description of the brain (where others, like Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, use two parts) – apparently first described the rational brain as a rider and the emotional brain as a horse.

Since horses are much more common in the US – and particularly in the Midwest, where I live – I always tell a story of my father riding a horse through a fence to explain why the elephant is really in charge. While I love the alliteration of the emotional elephant, it’s much more practical to think in terms of a rider on top of a horse, since I’ve myself seen that – and I’ve also ridden horses.


Desensitization is only one route to the true goal. The true goal is to integrate experiences, integrate the feelings with the rational thought. Connecting experiences into a story-like narrative that makes things make sense. While desensitization works for most people, it’s not the solution for everyone. Even cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which is widely regarded as the most effective psychological technique, doesn’t appear to work with PTSD patients.

CBT is designed to reshape thinking patterns, but its roots in desensitization leaves it susceptible to the limits of preventing the patient from becoming emotionally triggered or flooded which, is particularly challenging when working with people who have a history including trauma – which is, unfortunately, many of us. As a result, there needs to be great care taken to create and recreate safe spaces. It’s necessary to have constant vigilance around feelings of fear and be willing to step back as many times as necessary until the process of reexperiencing the trauma is safe enough to be processed and integrated into our thinking.

Writing It Down

In Opening Up, we learned of the therapeutic effects of writing and how writing conveys positive health benefits. The question might rightly come whether it’s the expression of the trauma that results in improvement or if there’s something magical about writing it down that leads to results. The answer seems to be that there’s something about the writing process that conveys the benefits.

Breaking this down a bit, there doesn’t seem to be controlled study of interventions related to verbally communicating a solution versus not. As a result, it’s hard to say whether writing or talking about a traumatic experience would be better; however, Opening Up explains the paradoxical relationship where people were more likely to be open when they were being recorded when compared to being face-to-face with someone. If we step aside from the conversation of whether it must be written or can be spoken, we can look at the broader question of whether it’s the conversion into language that is important.

As it turns out, it seems that dance, painting, and other artistic forms don’t seem to convey the same results as writing does. As a result, we can say that writing it down matters – without forgoing the possibility that talking about it may be just as valuable. This is particularly true of folks who may find it difficult to write because they become overwhelmed and there’s no one there to help them downregulate when their self-regulation capacities are overwhelmed.

Helping Your Younger Self

It’s been reported by many that one of the ways that recovering people seem to relieve the trauma is by visualizing their current self reentering the trauma and protecting the younger version of themselves from the trauma. While this cannot be a literal representation of the truth, conceptually, it’s powerful.

Bandura was also known for his work on self-efficacy. Martin Seligman and Steven Maier worked on learned helplessness – and the importance of the belief of some degree of control or influence over circumstances. (See The Hope Circuit for more.) Ultimately, the consensus seems to be that one’s belief in their ability to influence their environment is important to mental health. The idea of protecting oneself bends the arc of influence back on itself.

By recognizing their power today and using it as a tool to support their image of their younger self, they’re leveraging their own power to heal the old wounds that were inflicted upon them. Psychically speaking, that young boy or girl is still inside the adult versions of ourselves. That child version can either feel safe or they can feel fear. If they feel fear, it will continue to express itself in terms of our health. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more.)


The other way that you can avoid feeling helpless is through the benevolence of others. You can avoid being stuck if someone or something will bail you out. Many religious beliefs have an all-powerful being who is capable of rescuing believers from any situation. The result of believing in religion has been well studied and has a confirmed positive effect – even if there has been some difficulty separating the effect due to the religion itself and the effect caused by having a cohesive group of relationships.

We are, and always have been, social creatures. We need others to survive, and when we feel isolated from others, we’re the most susceptible to depression and suicide. The isolation need not be physical – it’s more frequently the result of feelings of social isolation.

One of the challenges with traumatized people is that they trauma they face was most frequently inflicted by others. Whether the trauma is war, physical abuse, or sexual abuse, trauma is most often caused by others – and as a result, it can reorient our perspectives on relationships and trust. We can find that we feel as if we can’t trust anyone, so we isolate ourselves. (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited for more.)

Abuse inflicts not only the initial trauma, but it also robs them of the ability to develop and maintain the kind of intimate relationships that will improve their long-term health and allow them to be more mentally stable. Learning to trust is a long road, particularly when you’ve been betrayed.

Hurting People Hurt People

One of the truths that you’ll hear in recovery circles is that hurting people hurt people. That is, those who are hurting you are likely hurt themselves. Whether you hurt them or they were hurt by others before you arrived, the results are the same. People who are hurting tend to lash out at others and harm them. Unfortunately, when this happens, The Body Keeps the Score, and they go on hurting others. Perhaps you can break the chain and stop the cycle.

Book Review-Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions

I’ve made no secret that reading on paper has become harder. Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions is only available in paper format, but at some point, there’s such a critical mass of people referring to James W. Pennebaker’s work that you’ve got to break down and read it. I’m glad I did, because it gave me a way to reconcile the differences around Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) (also called Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM)) between those that believe it should always be used and those who are critical of its benefits (see Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology). It also helped me to organize my thinking around post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Some people, when confronted with something they can’t process, become caught in the trauma and are unable to escape the feelings of fear and dread. They end up stuck in a state of hyper vigilance either continuously or when provoked into reliving the trauma in the form of a flashback. Tragically, many of those who suffer from PTSD have served their country in war or their community as first responders. However, that doesn’t minimize the PTSD of other people who discover horror arrived at their doorstep through their hands or the hands of another.

The key revelation to Pennebaker’s work is the discovery that the problem with PTSD is that the trauma never gets processed. It’s captured. Our ability to recall things when stressed is heightened, however, they are so overwhelming that the brain can’t integrate them into a coherent story. Because the brain hasn’t integrated them into a coherent story, the fragments keep coming back in the form of flashbacks.

Martin Seligman in his book, Flourish, explains how it is possible to see post-traumatic growth (PTG) – instead of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He explained that some characteristics, assessed before the trauma occurred, could predict who would suffer PTSD and who would benefit from PTG. In the context of Nassim Taleb’s work in Antifragile, this makes sense. We grow when the break occurs in the right interval and at the right level for our skill. Seligman was effectively identifying those who had greater capacities for dealing with the horrors they’d experience.

Pennebaker’s work centers around the release of emotions through writing, but that writing is more than a release. It’s a framework for creating a story – a narrative of what happened – and in doing so, it can release people from the trauma’s grips.


The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study is a landmark study that pointed us to the downstream impacts of childhood trauma and the lifelong impact that is has (see How Children Succeed for more). Never before had we known the outcomes that childhood trauma brought upon our society, and never before had we realized the degree to which children had been abused. However, Pennebaker’s work kept tripping over it. He saw that those study participants who were able to open up about past abuse were substantially more healthy than those in the control group who wrote about nothing much at all.

Pennebaker hadn’t believed that people would write down their deepest, darkest secrets, but that’s what they did. Many of them wrote of their abuse – abuse they claim they had never revealed to anyone else.


Pennebaker unintentionally created a nearly ideal situation for the expression of these pent up emotions. The study involved a novel environment where the participant had no preconceived ideas. There was no one watching the participants work, and they were told they could keep or destroy their writing if they would like to.

The result is a new environment with no judgement. It was an environment where they could get things out on paper without worry about what others would think of them. As it turned out, that was important.

Story Telling

When you have a trauma that you can’t get over, you can’t tell the story, because you don’t experience the trauma as a story. It’s experienced as an overwhelming wave of senses and feelings that can’t be separated from the present. These memories intrude on the present like an unwanted guest – and they’re just as difficult to get to leave.

By writing down their traumas, they were momentarily less happy, but in the long term, their self-assessment of their mental state and the objective measure of their health status went up. Despite the initial depression about having revealed the event, the long-term impacts were good.

Therapeutic Benefits

The therapeutic benefits seemed to be broadly based, including a lower instance of visits to the health center on campus (most of Pennebaker’s participants were students). For the most part, these benefits seemed to last about four months and not longer, as the participants returned to their baseline rate of visiting the health center roughly four months after their writing exercise.


Our ego is an amazing thing. In Change or Die, we learned how well defended our ego is. It will insist that we have control of a situation when we clearly do not. The truth is that we live in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. However, this truth is carefully hidden from our egos and consciousness. Studies have shown that we believe we have more control than we really have – often by a wide margin.

Sometimes, the trauma we experience is the intrusion of the volatility into the perception of our safe world. For instance, when my brother died in a plane crash, I was instantly and undeniably reminded of the fragility of life and, ultimately, how bad outcomes can happen even when you do everything right. I was forced to confront the world that we live in – rather than the world that I wanted to live in.

For some, these losses are irrecoverable. The idea that the world can change at any time is too much for them to handle. However, for others, it’s a loss that they can learn and grow from – and move on.

Social Isolation

The worst problem of losing someone is that people don’t know how to deal with their own pain and emotions, so they pull back from you. The result can be a social isolation that results in a double loss event. It’s been widely reported and validated that social relationships – deep social relationships – are a good insulator from the damages associated with trauma. However, Pennebaker points out that this insulation only happens when people are willing to open up and talk with these close connections – that isn’t always the case.

Sometimes, particularly in the case of sexual abuse, the family relationships closest to a person aren’t able to accept that it happened, because accepting that it has happened would mean that they’ve in some way allowed it to happen. The net result is that the person is doubly harmed. First by the act and then second by the attempts to bury it.

The Only Thoughts to Fear are Those You Deny

It’s not the odd, taboo thoughts that you must worry about. It’s the fact that you’re unwilling or unable to accept their existence. The research shows that parents who are more open with their children about sex have lower incidence of teen pregnancies (see Dialogue). In twelve-step groups, they say that you’re only as sick as your secrets. (See Why and How 12-Step Groups Work for more on the way that the groups function.)

When people are taught meditation, they’re taught that their thoughts will wander. They’ll stray from their focused task. That’s normal. The trick is to gently accept the thought and then return to the place thinking about the focal point. This gentle acceptance of the thought and moving on doesn’t trigger shame or reinforce the thought. It’s just a thought, and it will pass. (See Happiness for more.) This perspective doesn’t give power to the thought as is done when it’s banished. This fits into David Richo’s concept of acceptance from How to Be an Adult in Relationships. We accept the thought and move on.

Ultimately, if you deny your feelings – like your thoughts – you’ll create a great deal of damage to your psyche as well as your body, as I summarized in my post, I’ll Have Some Emotional Stuffing With That.

Of Two Minds

In addition to the benefits of creating a story or narrative from trauma, writing may have another powerful mechanism in its ability to help synchronize the thinking between our emotions and our rational thought. Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking, Fast and Slow, explains a two-system model of the brain, and Jonathan Haidt explains his model for how our thinking works in The Happiness Hypothesis with the Elephant-Rider-Path model. Emotion and Adaptation and How Emotions Are Made both explain how emotions are created – and how they’re separate from rational thought. When you pull this work together, it becomes clear that we are of two minds – our rational mind and our emotional mind – and we work best when the two are in harmony.

Writing happens from Broca’s area and others in the brain that are a part of the logical or rational processing. Broca’s area is specifically used for syntax construction of speech – both written and verbal. (See The Tell-Tale Brain for more on the various areas of the brain and their known functions.) Those with PTSD – and those who are struggling to move past traumatic events – are often unable to coordinate the activity between their emotional responses and their rational riders. Writing, it seems, brings these two together and causes them to reach more harmonious states.

Having harmony in your brain’s functioning has rather obvious positive impact on affect (or feelings) even if the explanation of it borders on tautology. In simple terms, even though the rational rider is sometimes capable of commanding the elephant, the elephant sometimes has to show the rider who the real boss is.

Ziegarnik Effect and Trauma

In simple terms, the Ziegarnik effect says that you’ll remember something that is incomplete more clearly than something that is complete. It seems that there’s some sort of a boost to memory that happens for the incomplete that is removed when it’s completed. Trauma is one place where you don’t want to have anything incomplete – like incomplete processing of it.

By writing it out, bringing the parts of the brain in harmony, and converting it from individual fragments into a coherent story, we “complete” the event and we are able to move on – instead of being stuck in the endless cycle.

The Physiological Impacts of Psychology

Many people would prefer to say that our thinking doesn’t impact our physiology, but it clearly does in a statistical sense. Consider the city of Dallas, where John F. Kennedy was shot – a city that felt some collective shame from the event. If psychology has no impact on our physiology, then I beg you to explain why overall heart attacks dropped 3% over the five years following Kennedy’s assassination – except for Dallas, where they rose by 4%. Memphis, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, saw a similar condition of a 3% rise of heart attacks while the rest of the country – including Dallas – saw a 4% drop.

In short, our individual psychology – and our collective psychology – has an impact on our health. As such, we must consider how we take care of our minds as much as how we take care of our bodies.


Safety isn’t an absolute thing. It’s a perception. We’ll confess our secrets into a recorder with greater ease than telling one other person even if we don’t know what will happen with the recording. Objectively telling one person without a recorder is safer – but it doesn’t feel safe.

When it comes to using writing to overcome trauma, you have to create enough safety that the person trying to process their memories can remain feeling relatively safe – so that they can get through the process of processing them. If you can’t create a safe feeling in the present, you have no business potentially opening old wounds in the past.

Writing as a tool for helping people learn how to process their trauma is powerful – but only when it’s used in a way that leaves the person feeling safe. This is the heart of the challenge with CISD/CISM.

Forced Conversations

If you don’t have family members who are first responders, then you don’t know how unwilling to talk they are in general – and more specifically about their work. Separating HIPAA laws and professional ethics, they’ll likely not talk about the things that don’t even approach these boundaries. They know they see things that other people can’t understand and can’t process, so they’ve stopped talking about it – consciously or unconsciously.

The problem with CISD/CISM done incorrectly is that it tries to force people to speak in situations where they don’t feel safe. They believe what they say will end up on a fitness evaluation and can prevent them from returning to work. The result is that they feel less safe in the room talking to someone than they may have felt in a shooting or other objectively more dangerous situation.

This is the core problem. CISD/CISM isn’t inherently bad. It’s not that creating a safe space for people to be able to talk about a trauma. Similarly, initiating the creation of the space isn’t bad. It’s good to create a safe space for the conversation – the critical piece is creating the safe space.

It occurs to me that, without this safe space, you can do more damage than good. The self-reinforcing delusions will kick in. Like, “I knew that counselor had it in for me,” when they report back that the person wasn’t forthcoming in sharing their perspectives on the situation.

They may not accept that some people will really roll with the punches and be okay while others may clam up, suppress their emotions, and fail to feel. There’s nothing inherently wrong with taking a pause from overwhelming emotions – however, those emotions shouldn’t be bottled up forever. They’ll do too much damage.

So, I remain skeptical of the CISD/CISM in so much as I’m unsure that proper emphasis is placed on creating a safe space and therapeutic alliance. (See The Heart of Change for more about how to make psychotherapy work better.)

I am, however, sure you’ll find that Opening Up is a great way to live a more healthy psychological life.

Book Review-The Hidden Persuaders

I can remember as a child sending off a letter about an idea that I thought was powerful. It came from a story I ran across about a movie theatre that ran subliminal advertising for their concession stand. The idea was that the advertising was conveyed in a single frame. It was too short to be perceived by the audience consciously but apparently was quite effective at selling popcorn. I found a reference to this movie theatre popcorn situation in The Hidden Persuaders. Though Vance Packard, the author, treats the recollection with skepticism, I wondered as a child how this could be used for good – rather than commerce.

I don’t remember who the letter was sent to, but, being a kid, I assume I wrote the President of the United States. The idea was to leverage subliminal messaging in prisons to attempt to adjust criminal behavior. An answer came back, I think from the Department of Corrections, that the FCC had issued a rule banning the use of subliminal advertising, and that was that for me.

However, after picking up Influence and Pre-Suasion, I wanted to go back and dig into the stories about how advertisers in the 1950s and 1960s started paying attention to psychology and how they could manipulate people in ways that weren’t expected. What I found in The Hidden Persuaders was strangely familiar and foreign at the same time.

What We’re Sold

We are, in many ways, a consumerism-based society in the United States. We as a people follow fashions, replace our cars every few years, and practice retail therapy when we’re feeling down. (Retail therapy is buying something to feel better.)

The overwhelming array of choices we face has transformed, from awe at what is available to us now that only royalty would have been able to afford a few centuries ago to a sense of entitlement that we must have all these things. However, at the heart of this isn’t the item itself: it’s how it makes us feel. We feel like “I deserve this” or “I’ve earned this.” The “this” we’re referring to is the feeling of beauty, freedom, status, or any of the other desirables that we want to believe we are – but don’t always feel like we are.

An interesting dynamic to this is that we buy things expecting they’ll make us feel better about ourselves; however, they don’t. We expect that a new car will refresh our vitality, but it doesn’t. We want to impress others by wearing a status symbol and are disappointed when our friends and peers purchased the same thing. How are we supposed to demonstrate our superiority if we’re constantly being copied – and are copying others?

Saying and Doing

We are willing to go to remarkable lengths to do what we say we’re going to do and maintain our public image. When people are looking, we will bend our preferences to support the identity that we believe other people expect of us, as we learned in Pre-Suasion. However, we feel no compunction to behave consistently with our answers if we don’t expect that people are looking.

Marketers have long known that people will answer one way and then behave in a totally different way. You ask them to commit to a course of action, but if they don’t feel they’re being watched when it comes time to take that action, their previous answer will likely not have much impact on their behavior. We want to be seen as rational, reliable, intelligent, and consistent people, when that’s rarely the way we are. We store up our reliability for those times when we believe we’re being watched. Even then, we often behave in ways that aren’t objectively rational.

I’m the Most Important Topic to Me

Nothing appeals more to someone than themselves. It’s not exactly new news – it wasn’t even new news when The Hidden Persuaders was first published – but it is profound. We spend time trying to get people to be interested in something else – or someone else like ourselves – but we fail to recognize that, at the end of the day, what everyone is most interested in is themselves. While this news may seem like bad news to those who want to motivate us, nothing could be further from the truth.

Knowing that everyone cares about themselves, including how they feel about themselves and how they’re perceived, there’s a lot of room to help people feel good about themselves. Makeup can make you look beautiful. It’s not creating a beautiful appearance, it’s changing the person’s perception of themselves as more beautiful. A powerful car can make a man feel more vitality.

While when stated directly, it may seem far-fetched for someone to believe that a product can make them stronger or more beautiful in an intrinsic sort of way. But this is exactly the way we’re sold to every day. Having the latest phone doesn’t appreciably change the features for most folks, but it sends a signal about the kind of person you are – and if you’re that kind of person, you deserve a phone.

Avenues for Expression

We use the things we own as proxies for who we are. Are we dog owners? Are we townhome kinds of folks? The things we have shape how others perceive us – or, perhaps more accurately, how we project what we want others to see. Once an object has been imbued with meaning, the meaning tends to stick. This is how brands work. They associate a characteristic or a feeling to a product, and then the product is sold based on the characteristic.

Nowhere is this truer than in the American love affair with cars. There are truck people, SUV people, minivan people, sports car people, sedan people, and other variants too numerous to mention. When you hear about the kind of car they own, most people begin to form images in their heads of the kinds of people we’re talking about. Truck people are rough and tumble. Minivan people have a lot of kids to be transported to soccer games – too many to fit in an SUV. Sports car people are wild and adventurous; sedan people are refined and reserved.

The truth is that the automobile industry reinforces these images. It tries to convince us that, if we just bought their car, we’d regain some aspect of our lives that we’ve lost (or never had). The innovation of the hard top is one of those success stories.

The Wife and the Mistress

Dr. Dichter, one of the key players in the act of peering into our minds to sell us merchandise, says that men settle down with a practical, down-to-earth, and safe person. The wife, in his analogy, is a sedan. He continues, however, that in his perspective, a man never forgets his desire for youthful passion. Convertibles were this image of vitality, excitement, and passion. He considered the convertible the mistress. Convertibles were, at the time, canvas, because of the need to fold.

The introduction of the hard top, he argued, would be like the best of both worlds: the perceived safety and stability of a sedan and the excitement and toplessness of the convertible. Thus, a single car could help a consumer fulfill two aspects they have of themselves. They wouldn’t need to deny a part of themselves when they’re buying a car – or in their lives.


Masters of the marketing game find ways to leverage these different aspects of products in a way that allows a product to be seen differently by different audiences. Younger adults see smoking as a way for them to look older, while older adults seek it to regain their youth. Both groups see the same set of products, but they see different facets of the products in ways that drive their interest.

The different perspectives for different audiences may be difficult to master and ever-changing, but, done well, it can be a powerful way to drive demand for your product.

Bad Looks

Of course, where there is a positive side, there is also the potential for a negative side. When you attempt to introduce an aspect of a product, it can conflict with core messaging or reason why people buy your product, as Jell-O found out. Jell-O is a convenient, inexpensive desert. It’s the kind of thing that you can do and not worry about it too much.

When Jell-O started running ads with these impressive, multi-color, molded creations, sales dropped. It turns out that people didn’t want to compete with what they were seeing in the ads. They wanted to be able to do something simple, and the beautiful creations interfered with that.

When we’re motivating people with features, we must expect that we may accidentally trigger a response we don’t want.

Higher Prices and More Sales

Traditional thinking is that higher prices result in less sales; however, the reverse is often true. As Predictably Irrational exposes, people use price as a signal for quality. If it’s low-priced, it must be junk. Thus, if the prices are high, it must be good. Whether it’s black pearls, turquoise, or anything else that people don’t know about, they’ll use price as a proxy for goodness.

Related to this is the awareness that people make decisions about how well they’re going to treat themselves, particularly with things that have no fixed price, like art or jewelry. The result is they go looking for something that matches the range they have set out to spend on themselves. Then they buy something in that range – or generally slightly above it.

Price should be about the exchange of money and should be logical, but it’s not. It operates in a different world of feelings and perspectives.

Frozen Panic

Another, unfortunate, thing that can be triggered in us irrational humans is being overwhelmed by panic. There is a state we can enter where we don’t feel like we know what to do. We’re overwhelmed, and we can’t process anything. It can be that we’ve got sensory overload (see The Signal and the Noise for more). It may also be that, in our quick assessment of whatever is going on, we’ve decided there’s nothing we can do. (See Emotion and Adaptation.) Said differently, we may have rapidly lost hope that there’s a way out of the situation. (See The Psychology of Hope.) Irrespective of the cause, the result is the same. The result is that we’ll do nothing. That’s why it’s important when communicating with the market that you don’t create panic, because the result is generally a lack of action.

Hopefully, you’ll decide that it’s time to look behind the curtain and find out more about The Hidden Persuaders.

Book Review-Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain

I think, therefore I am. Reason never had a stronger advocate than Descartes. However, Descartes encapsulated all that is human into our rational thought, and in doing so separated the inseparable connection between reason and emotion – at least, that’s Antonio Damasio’s argument in Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Damasio’s in good company. How Emotions Are Made and The Tell-Tale Brain both agree that the relationship between emotions and reason is complex. Daniel Kahneman expresses a similar sentiment in Thinking, Fast and Slow when he explains that our automatic processing (System 1) can mislead our rational thinking brain (System 2).

Friends or Foes

At the heart of Damasio’s argument is the belief that emotions can be helpful to rational behavior – that without the capacity for emotions, rational thought is robbed of its power and drive. Through the study of patients with neurological trauma in various regions of their brain and using neural imaging (mostly fMRI), his research led him to a hypothesis of somatic markers that inform the reasoning process.

The reasoning is basically that the primary emotions we feel shape the way we reason our way through problems.

Mind and Body

There’s a reasonable case to be made that what we attribute to our brains occurs more broadly in our bodies. Our hearts and our digestive systems both have substantial neurons. There’s direct imaging to couple patterns of activation in our brains to various emotional states and thinking patterns. However, that imaging doesn’t preclude activation in other parts of our body.

Given the electrochemical nature of the signaling the brain uses – and the apparent ability for the heart to reject that signaling – it’s not hard to believe that sometimes our bodies have a mind of their own.

Similarly, learning from the experience with those suffering from phantom limb syndrome and the treatments that rely on creating a visualization of the amputated arm, it’s a reasonable hypothesis that our brains rely on the constant signaling from our bodies to shape their processing. When robbed of this data, they sometimes end up in altered states. It seems like the body is our ground state – our frame of reference – for our thinking, and without it, we’re not in our right minds.

Hardware and Software

One of the tragedies of our modern society is that we vilify those with psychological issues. Those people for whom we cannot find biological defect are considered diabolical. Those with observable physical issues due to disease or trauma are somehow not considered accountable for their actions like those with mental illnesses are.

It seems as if we’ve developed the attitude that hardware (physical) issues are not the responsibility of the person but somehow software (psychological) issues are their responsibility. While this makes little sense, the prejudice exists and creates guilt and shame for those who are suffering.

Tabulae Rasae

The truth is that we’re not a blank slate when we’re born, nor are we fully written. (See The Blank Slate and No Two Alike for more on this line of thinking.) We’re born with enough preprogrammed in so that we can survive and a set of genetic factors that move us towards some ways of growth, but we’re substantially formed by the environment that we’re raised in. Adverse childhood experiences have a substantial impact on our adult lives. (See How Children Succeed for more.) Our adult diseases can even come from fetal origins. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more.)

If Damasio is correct, then the pages are rewritten as our body changes, and our emotions are formed from the signals our bodies are sending us. If he’s right, then that is truly Descartes’ Error.

Book Review-Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade

What can you do to make people more likely to accept your proposals? That’s the key question Robert Cialdini answers in Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade. He’s the same author who wrote the classic book Influence. His point is that the most successful sales professionals aren’t persuading in their actual ask. They’re preparing the person to be more receptive before they make the ask.


Influence has very little to say about trust. Pre-Suasion acknowledges the power of trust to shape the receptivity of someone – both positively and negatively. If you’re interested in trust, see my post Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited. If I have one criticism of Cialdini’s work, it’s the limited weight he assigns to the role of trust in a situation – and the ability that we can signal others to trust us.

The homage he did pay to the topic was in the form of a story: a sales professional asked a couple if he could be allowed to let himself out, get something from his car, and let himself back in. This fairly innocuous request – they were, after all, home and had met him – subtly changed him to be the kind of person they’d let walk into their home. This was a nudge that made the difference in at least some people, as his sales performance demonstrated.

Closing Windows

Cialdini believes that many of the tactics he describes in Pre-Suasion have a limited lifespan. The techniques open a limited time when a person can expect a biased response. Contrast this with Influence, where he explains six factors that have a much longer lifespan of usefulness. The impact of being allowed to walk in their home may last for the current visit – when he walked in unescorted – but sometime later, that effect may have been completely wiped out.

As a result, it’s not just the fact that you were able to execute a move to shift someone’s perception but that these were timed so they could be effective at the time of the ask.

The Future Vision

The actions we’re asking for won’t happen unless we can create a compelling vision for the end state. We can’t expect we’re going to get anyone to move if they don’t know where the destination is – and how we intend to help them get there. Few people would start down the road without knowing where they’re going, yet when we try to persuade people, we often fail to help them see the vision we have and why it’s desirable for them.

Hope, as C.R. Snyder says in The Psychology of Hope, is made up of willpower and waypower. Willpower is the desire to see the vision of the future come to fruition. Waypower is learning what steps can be used to help us get there. In casting our vision for people and asking them to join us on the journey, we must ensure that we share both the destination and we must help them understand how they’re going to get there.

Identifying with the Change

If you really want someone to take action, make some aspect of your ask seem like it’s the kind of thing that people like them say yes to – even if you had to ask for smaller commitments to get them to focus on this aspect of their identity. If they’re civic-minded – due to identifying as that after an earlier, smaller ask – they’re more likely to respond when asked to do something civic-minded, if the ask is framed in a civic framework rather than a more generic framework.

Sometimes all it takes to create the connection is a question. You can ask someone if they believe they are some desirable trait – for instance, adventurous. Most people, when asked if they’re likely to have a desirable trait, will say yes. Once they have identified with the desirable trait, they’ll feel compelled to behave in a way that’s consistent with their newfound identity in the trait. If you ask someone if they’re adventurous, they’re likely to say yes, and if they do, they’re more likely to be willing to take a risk to fill out a survey, participate in an interview, and so on.

Desirable Difficulty

In training and development circles, there’s an awareness that the difficulty level for effective learning is a narrow band. It needs to be significantly challenging enough that people feel they’ve conquered the learning but not too challenging. It can’t be too easy, because people will feel as if it’s beneath them. The same is true of people and their ability to engage in the information. Dr. Erikson used to wait for times when a truck was struggling to climb the hill outside his office and would then lower his voice. This forced the person in his office to lean in and listen a bit more intently, subconsciously cueing them that they should pay more attention to what is being said.

When we cause people to listen a bit more intently, they’re naturally inclined to pay more attention to what they’ve heard.

Unconscious Awareness

Numerous studies have affirmed our ability to be influenced by things – without us being consciously aware of them. We can be influenced by a word or an image even when we don’t believe we are. The study of judges’ responses to parole hearings – where they would grant more releases in the morning and right after lunch rather than either late in the morning (before lunch) or at the end of the day – proves that we can be influenced by things (like hunger) even when we’re not conscious of it.

Sometimes, the ads we see are shaped to fly under our conscious radar but leave a sticky residue on our subconscious to pull us back to a website that we visited. The ads may seem repetitive to the trained observer and the creator of the ad; however, it may fly under the radar to the point where it creates an affinity, even if it’s not conscious.

One-Way Bias

Another way that marketers bias our opinions is by asking about our opinion of their products – and only their products. The detailed evaluation of a product – without considering competitive offerings – tends to improve our perception of the product and not the rest of the market. Perhaps in our need to be heard and understood, we value those people – and, by extension, products – that are interested in what we have to say.

The Face of Blame

We tend to assign accountability to people – and more specifically to the people we see. If we see people, we assume that they’re causal to whatever is happening. The president is assumed to have the impact on the economy, but most economists agree that the factors that lead to economic stability, growth, or decline take place well before the current president is elected. If you’re going to be interviewed as a witness to any sort of crime, you may want to think about positioning of the video recorder. When we see people speaking about something, we believe them to be causal to the situation, so a friendly chat as a witness may move you into the suspect category if you’re being filmed and others are going to watch it. In that case, you want to make sure that you’re not the only one on camera – looking straight or nearly straight into it.

In fact, if you happen to be convinced or coerced into signing a confession – even if you renounce the confession later – you’ve got an 81% likelihood of being convicted, even if the confession is false (that is, if you’re really innocent).

Message Timing

It’s believed that sex sells – and it’s certainly true that sometimes it does – but not always. If someone was in the market for a relationship, they spent more time looking at images of attractive people. However, for those who weren’t in the market for a relationship, they spent no additional time looking at the images of the attractive people. The message is that maybe that wandering eye is a sign that they’re trying to keep their options open or they’re looking to “upgrade.”

There’s more to it than that. Sometimes you want to sell being a part of a crowd. It’s about belonging and being a part of something. Other times, you want to sell to the message that you’ll be able to distance yourself from the crowd. It turns out that, when you’re watching something frightening, advertisements about belonging work better than those that have you stepping out from the crowd. Conversely, if you’re watching something that’s romantic, messages of separating yourself from the pack work better. (This is perhaps to give you that added edge in your own romantic endeavors.)


Have you ever found yourself in a conversation with someone and realized that you were drifting your language towards theirs? Maybe it was the words they were using or just the inflection of their voice. Perhaps it was the southern drawl when you’re down south. This natural tendency to mimic other humans is built in – and it’s powerful. Waitresses who more closely matched the speaking style of the diners got larger tips. Even Larry King and his guests would align to each other’s messages. If the person was higher in stature than Larry, he’d adapt his speaking. If they were lower, they’d often adapt their speaking to match his.

Mimicry works throughout the animal kingdom. The more we feel like we belong, the more that we feel comfortable. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more.)

Blurring of Identities

There’s a fallacy about ourselves. We believe that we’ve always been the way we are today. We accept changes begrudgingly. We look back at our previous pictures and recordings of ourselves and wonder how that person could be us. There’s a sort of tension between the acknowledgement that the picture was us and the simultaneous belief that we’ve always been the way we are now. We believe our identities are fixed points instead of the relatively fluid and floating things that they are. Kurt Lewin described behavior as a function of environment and person. While he didn’t note that the person is constantly changing, he did acknowledge that our behavior is not completely dependent upon ourselves. Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

The fluidity of our identity can be exploited to create the illusion of greater capabilities and a deeper connection. When we work closely with someone, there’s a temporary merging or comingling of identities. We tend to attribute more than 100% of the benefits to ourselves and the other person, because, at some level, we’re not completely distinct any longer.

Distracting Environment

If I wanted you to accept my assertions here without question, I’d deliver this to you while you’re distracted. I’d put you on a bus. I’d have you in a noisy environment where concentration is required. The cognitive capacity to question what your hearing is a secondary step – not a primary one. In distracted situations, people will often accept what they’re hearing as fact, even if it is absurd on its face. That’s the trick sometimes used by marketers who are trying to get you to make a quick decision – and by social engineers hoping to get one past you.

If you want to figure out how to avoid the traps that are laid out for you, maybe you should do a bit of pre-reading of Pre-Suasion.

Book Review-Influence: Science and Practice

What makes us do something? Why do we decide to buy (and use) toothpaste A vs. toothpaste B? These questions start us down the path of wondering how we might get others to choose the choice we would like rather than the choice they’d make naturally. Whether we have a product to sell or a mission to help humanity, we want to know how to get more people to choose the way we believe they should. It all comes down to Influence: Science and Practice. It comes down to how we can use our influence effectively.

Weapons of Mass Influence

Robert Cialdini explains the weapons of influence one by one through the book. Each chapter takes on a different aspect of our psychology, which influencers leverage to achieve their goals. The list is:

  • Reciprocation – If you do something for me, I’ll do something for you.
  • Commitment Consistency – Once I’ve made a small commitment, I’m likely to remain consistent.
  • Social Proof – If someone else says it’s OK, I’ll likely take their word for it – even if I don’t know them.
  • Liking – I’m more likely to do something if I like you.
  • Authority – I’ll likely defer if I think that you have authority.
  • Scarcity – I’m more apt to want something if I feel like it has limited availability.

Foundations of Influence

Before exploring the factors of influence, it’s important to recognize a truth about why they work. We’ll buy an item that’s more expensive – because it’s more expensive – and that clearly makes no sense. We’ll take the word of a stranger about which products are better even if we might walk to the other side of the street if they were walking towards us. Why would we take the word of someone we don’t know? The answer is we have to.

I don’t mean that we “have to” in the sense that someone is holding a gun to our heads and making us. I mean it in the sense that we’ve got a limited amount of coping skills to deal with the onslaught of information and decisions we each face every day, and we must find some shortcuts to deal with it. The Organized Mind explains how we’re overwhelmed by the information we’re getting today and how it is orders of magnitude more than the amount of information our grandparents needed to take in.

The problem is that we’re trying to optimize, use heuristics (shortcuts), and generally operate in a world that is beyond our evolutionary capacity. The result is a set of systemic errors. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for some of them.) We’re not operating rationally all the time, because we can’t afford to. It’s too slow, too glucose-intensive, and too taxing in general.

Occasionally, the heuristics we’ve devised for dealing with the world fail us. Sometimes, those failures are engineered by the influencers.

Choices and Changes

This isn’t my first foray into reading about influencing and changing. Change or Die, Influencer, The Paradox of Choice, Nudge, Switch, Redirect, Split-Second Persuasion,
Change Anything, and other books have addressed how we change behaviors. The fundamental premises in each of these works are the same. We’re faced with too many choices. We can make small changes that make a big difference – but those small changes need to be converted into systems and habits to be effective in the long term.

Influence is primarily concerned with the immediate change and how to get the ball rolling more than how to sustain that change. (In addition to some of the above books, The Power of Habit speaks to sustaining change.)


One of the challenges with these aspects of influence is that once you know them you’ll still be susceptible to them. There are many examples of how, though professionals believed they wouldn’t be influenced by the factors listed here, their records consistently reflected a pattern of influence they weren’t aware of. These influencing factors have a pull on all of us – whether we’re aware of them or not. Cialdini admits that he himself is still susceptible to them despite dedicating so much of his time on the study of the factors.


You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours. Quid pro quo. The rule of reciprocity is so woven into culture that there are dozens of sayings that reflect the fundamental meaning. Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind that our willingness to support one another has led to our biological success. Robert Axelrod’s modeling supports The Evolution of Cooperation – with reciprocation at its base. So, conceptually, the idea may not need much support, but the degree to which it can drive people is often underestimated.

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, and one of the key supporters after the disaster was the Netherlands, who felt they were repaying a debt they owed. In 1953, New Orleans had sent help to rebuild the Dutch water management system that was devastated during a driving storm. They couldn’t help but find a way to support the city that had come to their aid decades before the tragedy.

The power of reciprocation is held in the nature of our society and our desire to avoid being perceived as a moocher, ingrate, or freeloader. Despite the concerns of psychologists who have observed social loafing – letting others carry the load, if they don’t think that they’ll get caught – most of the time people feel indebted to their societies. (See The Blank Slate, Group Genius, and Collaborative Intelligence for more.)

One of the ways that reciprocation is used as a tool for influence has to do with the fact that our brains don’t make the distinction between the actions we’ve asked for and those that are volunteered. If someone gives us a gift, we feel obliged to respond in kind – even if we didn’t feel any desire to give them a gift. Because we don’t want to stay in a state of obligation, we’ll often quickly respond to whatever was given to us.

One of the other odd – but powerful – aspects of reciprocation is in the introduction of a concession or a retreat. If you ask someone for a big favor, you’re quite likely to be turned down. If you ask them for a second, smaller favor, you’re more likely to get a yes – after you’ve been turned down for the big ask. The smaller ask seems like a concession on your part, and the other party feels obligated to make a concession as well.

In our political history, the Watergate scandal makes little sense. Bugging the Democratic party headquarters wasn’t necessary, legal, or even sensible. However, to the president and his advisors, the author of the plan had already asked for and been denied two much larger – and more ludicrous – options. The remaining option of bugging the offices seemed reasonable by comparison.

Commitment Consistency

Our self-identity is fiercely guarded by our egos. Our egos have a wide array of resources that they can deploy to protect themselves. (See Change or Die for more.) Our egos equally capable of deploying resources to ensure that we behave in ways that appear internally consistent. The mental mechanisms at work are remarkably resilient and powerful.

Make a small commitment, and you’re more likely to make a larger commitment. If you agree to put a small sign of your civic-mindedness in your window, and then someone comes weeks later and asks you to put a huge sign in your yard – you’re more likely to agree. It seems you’ve decided that you’re the kind of person who is civic-minded and once that is done larger requests to do your civic duty don’t meet with much resistance. It’s as if the brain says, we’ve already decided this so there is no need to do any deep thinking about it. (See What Got You Here Won’t Get You There for 99% is a bitch, 100% is a breeze.)

The labeling effect is well known. If you accept a label as a kind of person, your behaviors will become consistent with the way you expect those labeled that way to behave. There are good sides to this in terms of labeling people as honorable and reasonable people and negative sides in terms of labeling people as delinquents.

The behavior can become somewhat odd, however, when it feels like, in the future, we’ll see an argument against what we want to identify ourselves as. Let’s say you attend a sales session for a product that is thoroughly debunked while you’re sitting there. One might rationally expect that no one would sign up given the idea was debunked. However, sales might increase, because the people present wish to stay consistent with their previous commitment – to listen to the pitch – and the awareness that, if they didn’t make the commitment now, they might never. This scenario also involved a deep desire to solve a problem that the solution promised but for which there were no other ready answers – but the possibility that someone would sign up for something that they intellectually knew wouldn’t work is spooky. (It speaks to the power of emotions – see The Happiness Hypothesis for a model of the relationship between emotions and rationality.)

Speaking of spooky impacts is the degree to which the person has sacrificed – submitted to difficulty or pain – is the degree they’ll defend their decisions and commitments. College fraternity hazing has a long history of condemnation, but those who have gone through it – the current members – hold on to it as a rite of passage. It’s a part of why they feel so strongly that their group is THE group.

Influencers engineer small commitments to lead to slightly larger commitments to even larger commitments. They create progressively more pain and therefore more commitment with sometimes disastrous consequences. Consider The People’s Temple and Jim Jones’ instruction to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. At the outset, this seems like an impossible thing. However, through progressively more costly commitments, Jones managed to develop a degree of influence that amounted to control. Jim Jones moved the group to Guyana, which isolated the group to any influence except Jones’ and simultaneously required a higher degree of commitment.

Social Proof

Being your own person is exhausting. You have so many decisions to make. It’s so much easier to take other people’s lead. It’s easier to see that others are successful than imitate them. You don’t have to worry about failure – after all, if it doesn’t work, you can blame them. A very small percentage of the world are innovators. (Everett Rogers in Diffusion of Innovations pegs it at about 3.5%.) Why would you want to do the hard work of being an innovator if you can take other people’s word for it?

Our world today is filled with obvious – and obscured – social proof. When you’re deciding between products on an online store, you’ll use the reviews of people you don’t know to help you narrow down your decisions and make better choices about which book to read or which product to buy. More obscurely, the motivational speakers you believe are successful are standing next to mansions, expensive cars, fancy boats, or other indicators that they can splurge, because they have the wealth that indicates they’re successful. Few people can look beyond these tricks to see the substance of what the person is selling. It’s too easy to use the background to determine if they’re successful or not.

As a humorous aside, with the video studio we have here, I can make it appear like we’re anywhere on the planet. I can make it look like I’ve got a garage filled with exotic cars, and we’re off sailing the Caribbean or the Mediterranean every week. What we see as social proof is often an illusion. Several speakers and motivational figures have been shown to rent the cars and boats as props for their work – the work of influencing us.


Our ability to like someone either because of their purported affinity for us or because of their apparent similarity to us is a powerful draw. We’ll often do things for people we like that we wouldn’t do for others. Liking is reciprocal. We tend to like people who like us. Further, we tend to like people who we believe “belong” to a group we belong to. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more.)

Influencers will subtly indicate that they like you – and that they’re like you – to try to get you to like them and accept their influence.


Perhaps the most powerful example of the power of authority – or perceived authority – to influence us is Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments on obedience to authority, in which he asked volunteers to issue what they believed to be potentially fatal electric shocks to other volunteers. (There were no real shocks, and the person who they believed they were shocking was an accomplice/colleague of Milgram’s.) The result was that most people would issue the shocks if asked by someone of perceived authority. (See The Lucifer Effect and Moral Disengagement for more on this and obedience to authority in general.)

The interesting aspect of Milgram’s experiment that isn’t often reported is that, when it was run a second time in an office building instead of on Yale’s prestigious campus, the element of authority was weakened, and so were the results.

Influencers try to surround themselves with markers that make them seem more authoritative than they are.


Throughout most of human history, scarcity was the reality of the world. There was rarely enough to go around, so when something was available to you, you tried to grab it. Even if you didn’t need it yourself, you could use it to trade for the things you needed later. Scarcity conveys power and status. It’s the challenge of luxury brands. They sell on their exclusive nature and that not everyone can have what they’re offering. This necessarily limits their options for expanding their markets. If the market is expanded too far, it’s no longer exclusive, and the core market is no longer interested.

Since the industrial age and the continued greater prosperity of the human race, the degree to which things are truly exclusive is shrinking, but that doesn’t stop people by being impacted by scarcity in subtle ways.

Consider the winery that declared, due to a fixed production capacity, they couldn’t sell more than six bottles of wine to a single customer. Instead of selling an average of less than two bottles per customer, their sales jumped to almost four bottles of wine per customer. The perception of scarcity was enough to drive greater purchasing power without any change in the product or packaging.

Offers are “limited time.” Products are “limited edition.” Sometimes, the limited time is the time that the promotion will be effective, and limited edition is for as long as people keep buying it. At some level, everything is a limited edition – nothing lasts forever.

In an odd turn, though people will report a product more desirable if it’s scarce, they will not rate it as objectively better. They want it more – but they don’t like it more.

Influencers try to create scarcity in the mind of the consumer by these “limited” offers and through concerns about the demand being overwhelming. How many times have you seen an advertisement with “only a few seats left” – only to realize that they’ve only got 49 out of the 50 seats in the room available?

The Limits of Influence

On the one hand, the power of influence is limited. You can’t always get someone to do what you want. On the other hand, the power of influence is unlimited. Skillfully conducted, you can achieve powerful control of people. Most of the time people, don’t realize that they’re being influenced, and that’s the way that the influencers want it. Though it doesn’t completely ruin influence when you see it, the effect is much less powerful. But that’s Influence: Science and Practice… influencing people without them realizing.