One of the best scenes in the original Star Wars films was when Obi Wan Kenobi used his mind control trick on the guards to let him pass. Since then the scene has been parodied countless times and it’s safe to say that most of us have at some point wished we had the same abilities.
Unfortunately ‘mind control’ as it’s exhibited in this classic scene doesn’t quite exist to that extent, but that’s not to say that you can’t play at being Obi Wan in other ways and that there aren’t some practical uses to trying to subtly influence someone’s thoughts. Here we will look at some real life psychological mind tricks that can use yourself to amaze your friends or perhaps by-pass security on an alien world, and we’ll discuss how and why they work.
Interestingly you are being tricked and duped all the time and many people are probably exploring ‘flaws’ in your thinking without your even being aware of it (it’s nothing personal). This happens in advertizing, in entertainment, in sales and more – and that’s where we’re going to be getting our examples from…
Mind Tricks in Magic Acts
When you watch a magicians magic act it may seem as though he is exhibiting extraordinary powers over time and space. That of course is what he wants you to think, but unfortunately no such powers exist. That’s not to say what the magicians do isn’t smart though – in fact in some ways it’s even more impressive when you think that the magicians are getting you to believe they have magic powers through the use of their clever mind tricks. Reportedly in one amazing incident David Copperfield managed to trick muggers into believing that all his pockets were empty and so got away with his wallet, keys, passport and phone.
Different magic tricks work in different ways, and many of them are unique to the magicians who invented them. However most will use a very similar set of techniques and these are things that we can learn from. Here is one of the biggest tricks used in magic…
Firstly there’s good old fashioned misdirection – in the simplest form of misdirection you simply get the person to look the wrong way by distracting them while you do something else that looks more important. You can achieve this for instance by waving one hand around and saying ‘focus on the hand’ while your other hand does other things more subtly. You’d be surprised at what you can get away with once you’ve distracted someone’s attention and got them looking the wrong way.
Another form of misdirection is more complicated and psychological. Here magicians will use misdirection in order to fool someone into thinking a different part of the magic is the important part and that’s what makes the trick seem incredible. For instance you might be able to identify the card from behind right away due to a mark you’ve placed on the back of it. However if you just point out the card they’re holding right away then they’ll know that you’ve pulled a fast one and won’t be impressed. What the clever magician would then do is to create some kind of rigmarole where they lay out the cards across the table in a funny order and then get you to nod to three at random or something like that – this then distracts you from the real trick and leaves them wondering how you did it – and it means it won’t even occur to them that you had marked the card because otherwise what was all that other stuff about?
Misdirection can be used outside of magic acts too, for instance in strategizing and war misdirection can be used – you might send a fleet of tanks in one direction to attract the enemy away from the precious cargo you’re sending in a VW Beetle the other way. In story telling misdirection can be used even in order to make certain story beats hit harder.
Try this at home: Wear a horrendously garish pink shirt with an offensive image on it, and then go and talk to someone. Go and get changed then come back and ask them what color shoes you had on – your shoes will likely be almost invisible. Some thieves use this strategy in order to distract attention away from their faces.
Another place in which psychological tricks are very cleverly used is in fortune telling and clairvoyant readings and many studies have demonstrated the way these things work in order to trick us into reading something mysterious into a series of random guesses. There are two major techniques used to achieve this effect.
Ambiguous statements include such things as ‘recently you’ve lost someone very close to you, is that right?’. If you ‘want’ to believe in the powers of this mind reader then most of us can think of either a death or a breakup that we’ve had in the last five years and we can choose to interpret the word ‘recently’ as we like. They can then hazard another guess by saying ‘I’m getting the letter… A? A or E?’ and it’s then again up to you to fill in the blanks and believing what you want to believe – A and E are two very popular letters and there’s a good chance that either their first name, middle name or surname would have featured one of these letters.
Try this at home: If you want to pull your first psychological trick on someone then try this out. Set up a magic trick so that you know which card is your participants but they don’t know you know (and they no longer know which one it is having placed it back in the deck). Now lay the cards out on the table face down in a grid – about 10 will do so long as their card is in the pile. Now just ask them to select five cards at random. When they pick those five you simply assess whether their card was in the pile or not and then either take those five away, or take the other five away. Then do this again asking them to select three of the remaining cards – either take the three or remove the three. And finally ask them to choose the last one which you either remove or tell them to turn over. They won’t notice what you’ve done and they will believe that they somehow magically knew which one was theirs. This is using ambiguous statements and then letting them fill in the blanks themselves. Try it!
In readings and other such events, sometimes the ambiguous question will be patently wrong, or the individual will be a skeptic and won’t play along. In this case the deviant teller will simply deflect the blame away from their act and onto the participant ‘you need to think harder if you want to contact the dead!’. At the same time they will use a subtle element of misdirection themselves by talking quickly and moving speedily onto the next point if they got it wrong. Chances are that those who believe in fortune telling will latch on to the questions they got write and ignore the information they get wrong.
This is one example of a cognitive bias – and one that many industries and acts exploit. We have many cognitive biases but in this case our desire to be proven right is what’s exploited. If you already wanted to believe the fortune teller then you will be biased in how you remember the information.
Lawyers have the hard task of convincing a jury and judge to agree with them on highly crucial matters. They’re sly dogs though and they’re not above using a few little psychological strategies themselves…
One such example is to use leading questions. Here you can suggest the correct answer to a question in the way you structure the question. For instance if a criminal lawyer was acting as a defendant in a car accident case then they might ask a witness to describe how fast a car was going when it bumped into the one in front. However if they were the prosecutor asking the same question then they might ask the witness how fast the car was going when it smashed into the car in front. It’s a very subtle difference, but it’s enough to throw most people off and has been proven in many psychological studies. You can use this yourself in day-to-day life by simply thinking about how you phrase your questions.
Of course psychology also uses psychological tricks in order to further study how the brain works and by looking at how you can trick the brain it’s possible to ascertain what’s causing it to function that way in the first place.
Scotomas are ‘mental blind spots’ which occur when you miss the obvious. The easiest example of this is when you’re looking for something you’ve lost – the more you look for it the harder it can be to find it. Someone else then comes along and finds it in an instant and the reason for that is that you’ve developed a scotoma as you’ve convinced yourself it’s missing. This is an ego defense mechanism designed to help you prove yourself right – that it is indeed lost. This is just another example of cognitive bias.
Optical illusions all work by unveiling faults in the way our brain processes visual information. The problem is not our eyes, but our interpretation of what we’re seeing and often this is because our brain tries to ‘fill in the blanks’. For an example type Escher into Google and look at some of his art – the impossible 3D shapes are so jarring because the brain wants to fill in the information. This is particularly the case when it comes to faces and our brain is designed to recognize faces in particular meaning that we can spot characters in the most mundane of objects. It’s also why a picture of a face with the mouth upside down doesn’t register as odd – because our brain fills in the gaps and creates a normal mouth.
Long before Machiavelli and Sun Tzu were using psychological games to win wars and rule over nations, parents were using psychological tricks to control their children and many of these are highly effective even with adults.
The oldest trick in the book is reverse psychology which relies on the argumentative nature of children in order to manipulate their beliefs. For example if you want a child to want to eat their broccoli all you have to do is to tell them that they’ve had enough broccoli and they can’t have any more. They will probably cry and not be sure why…
Salesmen and women use hundreds of different strategies to try and get people to want what they have to sell (or even to buy it without wanting it in some cases). Often these strategies are very effective when they aren’t completely transparent. Here we will look at some of those crafty techniques…
Priming means getting you in a good mood or a bad mood in order to affect your eventual decision. If they want you to buy something for instance, then they will often make sure that you’re feeling warm and fuzzy first, or give you a free gift, and will then hit you with the option to buy. If you’re in a good mood then you’re more likely to say yes! For proof of this it’s worth noting the statistic that all salesmen and women are more successful around Christmas. To try this yourself simply time carefully when you ask for the things you want and wait until they’re in a good mood.
Salesmen often tap into the naturally competitive nature of buyers by encouraging them to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. Often they will invent made up people ‘the man with the big dog down the road’ and claim that they made a purchase which can sometimes be successful in convincing others to make a purchase too.
Sales people around the world like to make people feel obligated by giving them a small favor. We don’t like being in debt and so we will try to rectify the problem by doing something back – and often what we do in return will be a much bigger gesture. So if you go shopping in a Turkish market you’ll get given a small measure of alcohol or some green tea and as a result you’ll often feel compelled to splash out on the handbag they so desperately want you to buy.
NLP, or ‘neuro-linguistic programming’, is all about psychological mind tricks. It’s taught to salesmen and women because it’s highly effective and it is responsible for a lot of people buying a lot of things they don’t really work. There are several principles involved in NLP but the one most loved by salespeople the world over is ‘building a rapport’. Here the salesperson will mimic the body language of the person they want to sell to and use similar gestures and expressions. Over time this will switch around and they will start to copy you. You are then leading the conversation and can start making suggestions that will make them more likely to want to buy from you.
Try this at home: You can try this one yourself by just practice building rapport with people you encounter in your day to day life. Be subtle and gently mimic them until you feel you are able to take the lead.
This is a strategy used in sales and elsewhere and simply states that if you say yes three times you’ll find that you are very much more tempted to say yes a fourth time. You can obviously use this to get someone to agree with you. Nice weather today isn’t it? Is that your dog? Have you heard of Sky? Would you like to BUY sky?
Hypnotism is essentially one huge mind trick, but it essentially involves bypassing the conscious mind and planting ideas into people’s heads much like subliminal advertizing. They do this by weaving certain things into their conversation that you don’t notice going in and which direct your thought process. These are called ‘suggestions’ and these suggestions are very powerful and versatile.
Ever heard of the pink elephant? Someone dares you not to think of a pink elephant and then that’s the only thing you can think of. It’s almost like the opposite of a scotoma and it actually affects us in many areas of our day to day lives (for instance the reason that many insomniacs can’t get to sleep is because they so badly want to). A hypnotist can use this by saying something like ‘your legs will begin to feel numb’ and suddenly you’ll focus on your legs and it’s all you’ll be able to think about – and your arm begins to feel heavy as a result. That’s one form of suggestion.
Finally advertizing is the last bastion of psychological mind tricks and accomplishes them en-mass and around the world. We are constantly being manipulated by pictures, images and more and we don’t even realize it.
Subliminal messages are basically a form of suggestion used by adverts to get things past our conscious defenses and this might be small text or quite sounds or images that are flashed very briefly up on the screen.
As Pavlov demonstrated in his classic study using dogs, it’s possible for us to build associations between seemingly unrelated items and events. In other words if every time you see a picture of a cat someone slaps you in the face, then you grow to not like cats. Likewise you can build positive associations too though, and this is what a lot of advertizing relies on – showing you very positive and happy images of attractive people laughing in the sun and then suddenly showing you the brand name. Eventually you come to associate the brand name with those positive emotions and the next time you see it in a store you’ll feel good and you’ll want to buy.