Happy Halloween

Want to send a group of people running away from you, screaming in terror? Sneeze. With everyone wearing masks and frightened out of their wits, it seems like Halloween’s come early – but without the fun, parties and candy, and the only thing being handed out at the door is a liberal dollop of hand sanitizer.

They are correct in calling this virus “novel,” but the response certainly isn’t – nor is how the media and politicians are playing it out, using it to further their agendas, dividing the population into an “Us vs. Them” over something as stupid as wearing a mask, making it a political statement. Human behavior is ridiculously predictable, with history repeating itself over and over again. We ARE emotional beings, acting on irrational feelings.

As a marketer who’s studied psychological manipulation, I see the same financial, political, miracle weight loss and “get rich quick” cons that worked at the turn of the century being pulled off today with the same results. Ignorant of the past, people don’t see the con playing out right before their eyes, falling for the same crass manipulations based in fear, anger, greed, guilt and ego. The problem is, these cons are now fueled by social media and spread faster than ever, roping in more people who refuse to read much less fact check anything they see or read.

Most of the phishing and cyber security cons are pulled off in the same way. We’re conditioned to respond to curiosity and e-mails made to look like something we need to pay attention to, to click. There’s a famously funny Bloom County cartoon by Berke Breathed that shows one of the characters walking past a GIANT sign warning against snorting the dandelions, citing multiple dangers, with over-the-top pictures of a skeleton holding a dandelion, statistics on people who have died, a celebrity warning from Woody Allen, etc. – in the end, he turns around and snorts a dandelion on the ground behind him, curiosity overwhelming his good sense. Cialdini called this a “trigger feature” that generates a “click- whirr” response. What’s scary is how vulnerable we all are, and how easy it is to be trapped. In fact, there’s a good chance you clicked on that link, didn’t you? Why? Curiosity, my friend. Click-whirr…   

If you watch the media through the lens of WHAT they are doing, not just what they are saying, you’ll see they’re constantly triggering anger and fear – the two most powerful emotions that fuel action, along with a giant dose of curiosity. The recipe is always the same: show big, bold, scary headline clips designed to startle and alarm you, reported in serious tones, with bright, bold colors to catch your attention in the event you weren’t directly watching the TV, and ensure the volume increases. Then drop “teaser copy” clips that compel you to stay tuned in to the entire show to get the answer. Curiosity is a powerful psychological manipulation that’s hard to resist. Watch the opening of Good Morning America on any given morning and you’re watching the SAME psychological manipulation trick being played out again and again. Click-whirr…

Many know that’s exactly what’s happening, yet they choose to tune in every morning and hook their brain up to the manipulation machine. They are NOT ignorant, but choose to act as if they are. To a more important point, this describes how most people act: unmoored from clear, definitive intentions, allowing someone else or their environment to manipulate their state of mind and control their focus. REacting, not responding, randomly. If you want to succeed in business, you have to be more intentional about your daily activity, resisting the temptation to jump on social media and participate in senseless arguments and grandstanding that keeps you glued to your device, distracted from more productive, meaningful activities. Senseless bullying and shaming by grown adults on social media is FAR WORSE and more vicious than anything I’ve seen kids do to each other on the playground – and yet people can’t get enough of it.

Some have totally surrendered their attention and their lives to such manipulation to the point of being addicted, unable to focus for more than a short period of time before they’re back online, checking their feeds, seeing who commented. Social media is, without a doubt, DESIGNED INTENTIONALLY to be addictive, employing the same psychological manipulations used by the slot machines and Vegas. You don’t have to look hard to see it – but the bigger question is, are you allowing it to control you, to rob you of your time and attention, to put you in a horrible, unproductive state of mind? Many know but don’t care.

By the way, there is GOOD psychological manipulation too. When you enroll in an exercise class of fit people, you’re using peer pressure in a productive way to manipulate yourself to work hard – far harder than you would if left to your own devices. That’s a healthy, productive way to get psychological manipulation to work for you. Another is listening to encouraging, instructive videos and podcasts, or putting yourself in a room with high achievers to network with them. The guilt you feel from not doing the work, not achieving a goal, puts GOOD pressure on you to put more focus and effort into your results. Being with others who are succeeding at a meaningful goal and getting an outcome you want to get IS a means of good psychological manipulation. Reading actual books instead of your Instagram feed. Attending seminars on marketing, sales, leadership, instead of attending movies and concerts to provide a means for escape from the responsibilities of life.

Whatever psychological manipulation you surrender yourself to, I hope it’s NOT done unwittingly, and you go forth understanding the full measure of how it’s controlling you, good AND bad.