Category: Psychology

Maria Konnikova on How we Get Conned

There’s a scene in the classic Paul Newman film The Sting, where Johnny Hooker (played by a young Robert Redford) tries to get Henry Gondorf (played by Newman) to finally tell him when they’re going to pull the big con. His response tells the tale:

You gotta keep his con even after you take his money. He can’t know you took him.

It’s this same subject that our friend Maria Konnikova — whom we interviewed a few years ago upon the release of her book Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes — has mined with her new book The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For it…Every Time.

It’s a good question: Why do we fall for it every time? Confidence games (cons for short) are a wonderful arena to study The Psychology of Human Misjudgment.

In fact, you could call a good con artist — you have to love the term artist here — a master of human psychology. They are, after all, in the game of manipulating people into parting with their money. They are so good, a successful con is a lot like a magic trick:

When we step into a magic show, we come in actively wanting to be fooled. We want deception to cover our eyes and make our world a tiny bit more fantastical, more awesome than it was before. And the magician, in many ways, uses the exact same approaches as the confidence man—only without the destruction of the con’s end game. “Magic is a kind of a conscious, willing con,” Michael Shermer, a science historian and writer who has devoted many decades to debunking claims about the supernatural and the pseudoscientific, told me one December afternoon. “You’re not being foolish to fall for it. If you don’t fall for it, the magician is doing something wrong.”

Shermer, the founder of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, has thought extensively about how the desire to embrace magic so often translates into susceptibility to its less savory forms. “Take the Penn and Teller cup and balls. I can explain it to you and it still would work. It’s not just knowing the secret; it’s not a trick. It’s the whole skill and art of presentation. There’s a whole narrative—and that’s why it’s effective.” At their root, magic tricks and confidence games share the same fundamental principle: a manipulation of our beliefs. Magic operates at the most basic level of visual perception, manipulating how we see—and don’t see—and experience reality. It changes for an instant what we think possible, quite literally taking advantage of our eyes’ and brains’ foibles to create an alternative version of the world. The con does the same thing, but can go much deeper. Tricks like three-card monte are identical to a magician’s routine—except the intent is more nefarious.

Psychology and show magic have more in common than you’d think: As Shermer says, there are many magic tricks that you can explain ahead of time and they will still work, and still baffle. But…wait…how?

The link between everyday psychological manipulation and show magic is so close that the magician Harry Houdini spent a good portion of his later life trying to sniff out cons in the form of mediums, mystics, and sooth-sayers. Even he couldn’t totally shake free of the illusions:

Mysticism, [Houdini] argued, was a game as powerful as it was dangerous. “It is perfectly rational to suppose that I may be deceived once or twice by a new illusion,” he wrote, “but if my mind, which has been so keenly trained for years to invent mysterious effects, can be deceived, how much more susceptible must the ordinary observer be?

Such is the power of the illusion. The same, of course, goes for the mental tricks in our psychological make-up. A great example is the gambling casino: Leaving out the increasingly rare exceptions, who ever walks in thinking they have a mathematical edge over the house? Who would be surprised to find out the casino is deliberately manipulating them into losing money with social proof, deprival super-reaction, commitment bias, over-confidence bias, and other tricks? Most intelligent folks aren’t shocked or surprised by the concept of a house edge. And yet casinos continue to do healthy business. We participate in the magic trick. In a perverse sense, we allow ourselves to be conned.

In some ways, confidence artists like Demara have it easy. We’ve done most of the work for them; we want to believe in what they’re telling us. Their genius lies in figuring out what, precisely, it is we want, and how they can present themselves as the perfect vehicle for delivering on that desire.

The Beginning of a Con: The “Put-Up” & The “Mark”

Who makes a good mark for a con artist? Essentially, it could be anyone. Context trumps character. Konnikova wisely retracts from trying to pinpoint exactly who is easiest to con: The truth is, in the right time and place, we can all get hit by a good enough con man. In fact, con artists themselves often make great marks. This is probably linked, in part, to over-confidence. (In fact, you might call conning a con man an…Over-confidence game?)

The con artist starts by getting to know us at a deep level. Konnikova argues that con artists combine excellent judgment of character with a honed ability to show the mark exactly what he wants to see. An experienced con artist has been drowned in positive and negative feedback on what works and does not. Through practice evolution, he’s learned what works. That’s why we end up letting him in, even if we’re on guard:

A con artist looks at everyone at that fine level. When it comes to the put-up, accuracy matters—and con men don’t just want to know how someone looks to them. They want to correctly reflect how they want to be seen.

What’s more, confidence artists can use what they’re learning as they go in order to get us to give up even more. We are more trusting of people who seem more familiar and more similar to us, and we open up to them in ways we don’t to strangers. It makes a certain sense: those like us and those we know or recognize are unlikely to want to hurt us. And they’re more likely to understand us.

There are a few things at play here. The con is triggering a bias from liking/loving, which we all have in us. By getting us committed and then drawing us in slowly, they also trigger commitment bias — in fact, Konnikova explains that the term Confidence Game itself comes from a basic trust exercise: Get into a conversation with a mark, commit them to saying that they trust you, then ask them if they’ll let you hold their wallet as a show of that trust. Robert Cialdini — the psychology professor who wrote the wonderfully useful book Influence — would certainly not be surprised to see that this little con worked pretty frequently. (Maria smartly points out the connection between con artists and Cialdini’s work in the book.)

The “Play,” the “Rope,” the “Tale,” and the “Convincer”

Once the con artist decides that we’re a mark, the fun begins.

After the mark is chosen, it is time to set the actual con in motion: the play, the moment when you first hook a victim and begin to gain her trust. And that is accomplished, first and foremost, through emotion. Once our emotions have been captured, once the con artist has cased us closely enough to identify what it is we want, feeling, at least in the moment, takes over from thinking.

[…]

What visceral states do is create an intense attentional focus. We tune out everything else and tune in to the in-the-moment emotional cues. It’s similar to the feeling of overwhelming hunger or thirst—or the need to go to the bathroom—when you suddenly find yourself unable to think about anything else. In those moments, you’re less likely to deliberate, more likely to just say yes to something without fully internalizing it, and generally more prone to lapses that are outside the focus of your immediate attention.

As far as the context of a good con, emotion rules the day. People in financial straits, or who find themselves in stressful or unusual situations are the easiest to con. This is probably because these situations trigger what Danny Kahneman would call System 1 thinking: Fast, snap judgments, often very bad ones. Influenced by stress, we’re not slowing down and thinking things through. In fact, many people won’t even admit to be conned after the fact because they feel so ashamed of their lack of judgment in the critical moments. (Cult conversions use some of the same tactics.)

Now begins the “Tale”

A successful story does two things well. It relies on the narrative itself rather than any overt arguments or logical appeals to make the case on its own, and it makes us identify with its characters. We’re not expecting to be persuaded or asked to do something. We’re expecting to experience something inherently pleasant, that is, an interesting tale. And even if we’re not relating to the story as such, the mere process of absorbing it can create a bond between us and the teller—a bond the teller can then exploit.

It’s always harder to argue with a story, be it sad or joyful. I can dismiss your hard logic, but not how you feel. Give me a list of reasons, and I can argue with it. Give me a good story, and I can no longer quite put my finger on what, if anything, should raise my alarm bells. After all, nothing alarming is ever said explicitly, only implied.

This is, of course, the con artist preying on our inherent bias for narrative. It’s how we sense-make, but as Cialdini knows so well, it can be used for nefarious purposes to cause a click, whirr automatic reaction where our brain doesn’t realize it’s being tricked. Continuing the fallacy, the con artist reinforces the narrative we’ve been building in our head:

One of the key elements of the convincer, the next stage of the confidence game, is that it is, well, convincing: the convincer makes it seem like you’re winning and everything is going according to plan. You’re getting money on your investment. Your wrinkles are disappearing and your weight, dropping. That doctor really seems to know what he’s doing. That wine really is exceptional, and that painting, exquisite. You sure know how to find the elusive deal. The horse you bet on, both literal and figurative, is coming in a winner.

 The “Breakdown,” and the “Send”

And now comes the break-down. We start to lose. How far can the grifter push us before we balk? How much of a beating can we take? Things don’t completely fall apart yet—that would lose us entirely, and the game would end prematurely — but cracks begin to show. We lose some money. Something doesn’t go according to plan. One fact seems to be off. A figure is incorrectly labeled. A wine bottle is “faulty.” The crucial question: do we notice, or do we double down? High off the optimism of the convincer, certain that good fortune is ours, we often take the second route. When we should be cutting our losses, we instead recommit—and that is entirely what the breakdown is meant to accomplish.

A host of biases are being triggered at this point, turning our brains into mush. We’re starting to lose a little, but we feel if we hang in long enough, we can probably at least come out even, or ahead. (Deprival super-reaction tendency, so common at the roulette table, and sunk-cost fallacies.) We’ve already put our trust in this nice fellow, so any new problems can probably be rationalized as something we “knew could happen all along,” so no reason to worry. (Commitment & consistency, hindsight bias.) And of course, this is where the con artist really has us. It’s called The Send.

The send is that part of the con where the victim is recommitted, that is, asked to invest increasingly greater time and resources into the con artist’s scheme—and in the touch, the con finally comes to its fruition and the mark is completely, irrevocably fleeced.

The End of the Line

Of course, all things eventually come to an end.

The blow-off is often the final step of the con, the grifter’s smooth disappearance after the game has played out. Sometimes, though, the mark may not be so complacent. If that happens, there’s always one more step that can be taken: the fix, when a grifter puts off the involvement of law enforcement to prevent marks from making their complaints official.

Like the scene in The Sting, the ideal con ends without trouble for the con-man: Ideally, the mark won’t even know it was a con. But if they do, Konnikova makes an interesting point that the blow-off and the fix often end up being unnecessary, for reputational reasons. This self-preservation mechanism is one reason so many frauds never come to light, why there are few prosecutions in relation to the amount of fraud really going on:

The blow-off is the easiest part of the game, and the fix hardly ever employed. The Drake fraud persisted for decades—centuries, in fact—because people were too sheepish about coming forward after all that time. Our friend Fred Demara was, time and time again, not actually prosecuted for his transgressions. People didn’t even want to be associated with him, let alone show who they were publically by suing him. The navy had only one thing to say: go quietly—leave, don’t make a scene, and never come back.

Besides the reputational issue, there are clearly elements of Pavlovian mere association at play. Who wants to be reminded of their own stupidity? Much easier to sweep it away as soon as possible, never to be reminded again.

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Confidence Game is an enjoyable read with tales of cons and con artists throughout history – a good reminder of our own fallibility in the face of a good huckster and the power of human misjudgment.

Dan Ariely on How and Why We Cheat

We all like to think of ourselves as honest, but there are inevitably certain situations in which we’re more likely to cheat. There are many things that make us less honest, like feeling disconnected from the consequences and when our willpower is depleted. Learning why we cheat can help us avoid incentivizing it.

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Three years ago, Dan Ariely, a psychology and behavioral economics professor at Duke, put out a book called The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone–Especially Ourselves. I read the book back closer to when it was released, and I recently revisited it to see how it held up to my initial impressions.

It was even better. In fact, this is one of the most useful books I have ever come across, and my copy is now marked, flagged, and underlined. Let’s get in deep.

We’re Cheaters All

Dan is both an astute researcher and a good writer; he knows how to get to the point, and his points matter. His books, which include Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality, are not filled with fluff. We’ve mentioned his demonstrations of pluralistic ignorance here before.

In The Honest Truth, Ariely doesn’t just explore where cheating comes from but he digs into which situations make us more likely to cheat than others. Those discussions are what make the book eminently practical, and not just a meditation on cheating. It’s a how-to guide on our own dishonesty.

Ariely was led down that path because of a friend of his who had worked with Enron:

It was of course, possible that John and everyone else involved with Enron was deeply corrupt, but I began to think that there may have been a different type of dishonest at work–one that relates more to wishful blindness and is practiced by people like John, you, and me. I started wondering if the problem of dishonesty goes deeper than just a few bad apples and if this kind of wishful blindness takes place in other companies as well. I also wondered if my friends and I would have behaved similarly if we had been the ones consulting for Enron.

This is a beautiful setup that led him to a lot of interesting conclusions in his years of subsequent research. Here’s (some of) what Dan found.

  1. Cheating was standard, but only a little. Ariely and his co-researchers ran the same experiment in many different variations, and with many different topics to investigate. Nearly every time, he found evidence of a standard level of cheating. In other experiments, the outcome was the same. A little cheating was everywhere. People generally did not grab all they could, but only as much as they could justify psychologically.
  2. Increasing the cheating reward or moderately altering the risk of being caught didn’t affect the outcomes much. In Ariely’s experience, the cheating stayed steady: A little bit of stretching every time.
  3. The more abstracted from the cheating we are, the more we cheat. This was an interesting one–it turns out the less “connected” we feel to our dishonesty, the more we’re willing to do it. This ranges from being more willing to cheat to earn tokens exchangeable for real money than to earn actual money, to being more willing to “tap” a golf ball to improve its lie than actually pick it up and move it with our hands.
  4. A nudge not to cheat works better before we cheat than after. In other words, we need to strengthen our morals just before we’re tempted to cheat, not after. And even more interesting, when Ariely took his findings to the IRS and other organizations who could benefit from being cheated less, they barely let him in the door! The incentives in organizations are interesting.
  5. We think we’re more honest than everyone else. Ariely showed this pretty conclusively by studying golfers and asking them how much they thought others cheated and how much they thought they cheated themselves. It was a rout: They consistently underestimated their own dishonesty versus others’. I wasn’t surprised by this finding.
  6. We underestimate how blinded we can become to incentives. In a brilliant chapter called “Blinded by our Motivations,” Ariely discusses how incentives skew our judgment and our moral compass. He shows how pharma reps are masters of this game–and yet we allow it to continue. If we take Ariely seriously, the laws against conflicts of interest need to be stronger.
  7. Related to (6), disclosure does not seem to decrease incentive-caused bias. This reminds me of a quote by Charlie Munger in The Psychology of Human Misjudgment, “I think I’ve been in the top 5% of my age cohort all my life in understanding the power of incentives, and all my life I’ve underestimated it. Never a year passes that I don’t get some surprise that pushes my limit a little farther.” Ariely has discussed incentive-caused bias in teacher evaluation before.
  8. We cheat more when our willpower is depleted. This doesn’t come as a total surprise: Ariely found that when we’re tired and have exerted a lot of mental or physical energy, especially in resisting other temptations, we tend to increase our cheating. (Or perhaps more accurately, decrease our non-cheating.)
  9. We cheat ourselves, even if we have direct incentive not to. Ariely was able to demonstrate that even with a strong financial incentive to honestly assess our own abilities, we still think we cheat less than we do, and we hurt ourselves in the process.
  10. Related to (9), we can delude ourselves into believing we were honest all along. This goes to show the degree to which we can damage ourselves by our cheating as much as others. Ariely also discusses how good we are at pounding our own conclusions into our brain even if no one else is being persuaded, as Munger has mentioned before in The Psychology of Human Misjudgment.
  11. We cheat more when we believe the world “owes us one.” This section of the book should feel disturbingly familiar to anyone. When we feel like we’ve been cheated or wronged “over here,” we let the universe make it up to us “over there.” (By cheating, of course.) Think about the last time you got cut off in traffic, stiffed on proper change, and then unloaded on by your boss. Didn’t you feel more comfortable reaching for what wasn’t yours afterwards? Only fair, right?
  12. Unsurprisingly, cheating has a social contagion aspect. If we see someone who we identify with and whose group we feel we belong to cheating, it makes us (much) more likely to cheat. This has wide-ranging social implications.
  13. Finally, nudging helps us cheat less. If we’re made more aware of our moral compass through specific types of reminders and nudges, we can decrease our own cheating. Perhaps most important is to keep ourselves out of situations where we’ll be tempted to cheat or act dishonestly, and to take pre-emptive action if it’s unavoidable.

There’s much more in the book, and we highly recommend you read it for that as well as Dan’s general theory on cheating. The final chapter on the steps that old religions have taken to decrease dishonesty among their followers is a fascinating bonus. (Reminded me of Nassim Taleb’s retort that heavy critics of religion, like Dawkins, take it too literally and under-appreciate the social value of its rules and customs. It’s also been argued that religion has an evolutionary basis.)

Check out the book, and while you’re at up, pick up his other two: Predictably Irrational, and The Upside of Irrationality.

Meditation: Why Bother?

Meditation can seem like a lot of time and work for no obvious pay-off. Yet the benefits are dramatic. Meditation can help us truly experience life, rather than just letting it pass us by. Here’s a synopsis of why it matters.

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Via the amazing Mindfulness in Plain English, which I’d recommend pairing with this guide to meditation.

Meditation is not easy. It takes time and it takes energy. It also takes grit, determination, and discipline. It requires a host of personal qualities that we normally regard as unpleasant and like to avoid whenever possible. We can sum up all of these qualities in the American word gumption. Meditation takes gumption. It is certainly a great deal easier just to sit back and watch television.

So why bother? Why waste your time and energy when you could be doing something else. We know that it can make you 10% happier but is that enough?

Why? Simple. Because you are human. Just because of the simple fact that you are human, you find yourself heir to an inherent unsatisfactoriness in life that simply will not go away. You can suppress it from your awareness for a time; you can distract yourself for hours on end, but it always comes back, and usually when you least expect it. All of a sudden, seemingly out of the blue, you sit up, take stock, and realize your actual situation in life.”

Sometimes it hits us. We’re just barely hanging on while our life is flying by.

You manage to make ends meet somehow and look okay from the outside. But those periods of desperation, those times when you feel everything caving in on you— you keep those to yourself. You are a mess, and you know it. But you hide it beautifully. Meanwhile, way down under all of that, you just know that there has to be some other way to live, a better way to look at the world, a way to touch life more fully.

We know there is more to life. As if there is another layer that we haven’t accessed yet.

You feel that there really is a whole other realm of depth and sensitivity available in life; somehow, you are just not seeing it. You wind up feeling cut off. You feel insulated from the sweetness of experience by some sort of sensory cotton. You are not really touching life. You are not “making it” again. Then even that vague awareness fades away, and you are back to the same old reality. The world looks like the usual foul place. It is an emotional roller coaster, and you spend a lot of your time down at the bottom of the ramp, yearning for the heights.

And so we blame ourselves, forgetting that we’re human. This is the same malady that affects every human.

It is a monster inside all of us, and it has many arms: chronic tension, lack of genuine compassion for others, including the people closest to you, blocked up feelings and emotional deadness— many, many arms. None of us is entirely free from it. We may deny it. We try to suppress it. We build a whole culture around hiding from it, pretending it is not there, and distracting ourselves with goals, projects, and concerns about status. But it never goes away. It is a constant undercurrent in every thought and every perception, a little voice in the back of the mind that keeps saying, “Not good enough yet. Need to have more. Have to make it better. Have to be better.” It is a monster, a monster that manifests everywhere in subtle forms.

The same themes repeat throughout our lives: jealousy, suffering, discontent, and stress. They are in the music we listen to and the shows we watch. They are in our very nature.

If Only Syndrome

Life seems to be a perpetual struggle, an enormous effort against staggering odds. And what is our solution to all this dissatisfaction? We get stuck in the “if only” syndrome. If only I had more money, then I would be happy. If only I could find somebody who really loved me; if only I could lose twenty pounds; if only I had a color TV, a hot tub, and curly hair; and on and on forever. Where does all this junk come from, and more important, what can we do about it? It comes from the conditions of our own minds. It is a deep, subtle, and pervasive set of mental habits, a Gordian knot that we have tied bit by bit and that we can only unravel in just that same way, one piece at a time. We can tune up our awareness, dredge up each separate piece, and bring it out into the light. We can make the unconscious conscious, slowly, one piece at a time.

Human culture has taught us odd responses to the ever-changing landscape of our world. When things are positive we grasp.

We categorize experiences. We try to stick each perception, every mental change in this endless flow, into one of three mental pigeon holes: it is good, bad, or neutral. Then, according to which box we stick it in, we perceive with a set of fixed habitual mental responses. If a particular perception has been labeled “good,” then we try to freeze time right there. We grab onto that particular thought, fondle it, hold it, and we try to keep it from escaping. When that does not work, we go all-out in an effort to repeat the experience that caused the thought.

Then there is the other side of the mind where we have a box labeled “bad.” We try to push these experiences away. We ignore.

When we perceive something “bad,” we try to push it away. We try to deny it, reject it, and get rid of it any way we can. We fight against our own experience. We run from pieces of ourselves. Let us call this mental habit “rejecting.” Between these two reactions lies the “neutral” box. Here we place the experiences that are neither good nor bad. They are tepid, neutral, uninteresting. We pack experience away in the neutral box so that we can ignore it and thus return our attention to where the action is, namely, our endless round of desire and aversion. So this “neutral” category of experience gets robbed of its fair share of our attention.

What’s the result? An endless treadmill of seeking pleasure and fleeing from pain, while ignoring most of what happens. And we “wonder why life tastes so flat.”

No matter how hard you pursue pleasure and success, there are times when you fail. No matter how fast you flee, there are times when pain catches up with you. And in between those times, life is so boring you could scream. Our minds are full of opinions and criticisms. We have built walls all around ourselves and are trapped in the prison of our own likes and dislikes. We suffer.

Suffering

Suffering is a keyword in meditation. Its understanding is important.

The Pali word is dukkha, and it does not just mean the agony of the body. It means that deep, subtle sense of dissatisfaction that is a part of every mind moment and that results directly from the mental treadmill. The essence of life is suffering, said the Buddha. At first glance this statement seems exceedingly morbid and pessimistic. It even seems untrue. After all, there are plenty of times when we are happy. Aren’t there? No, there are not. It just seems that way. Take any moment when you feel really fulfilled and examine it closely. Down under the joy, you will find that subtle, all-pervasive undercurrent of tension that no matter how great this moment is, it is going to end. No matter how much you just gained, you are inevitably either going to lose some of it or spend the rest of your days guarding what you have and scheming how to get more. And in the end, you are going to die; in the end, you lose everything. It is all transitory.

That all sounds rather bleak when viewed through the lens of the treadmill that we’re on. But there is another way to look at the universe.

It is a level of functioning in which the mind does not try to freeze time, does not grasp onto our experience as it flows by, and does not try to block things out and ignore them. It is a level of experience beyond good and bad, beyond pleasure and pain. It is a lovely way to perceive the world, and it is a learnable skill. It is not easy, but it can be learned.

Happiness and peace are really the prime issues in human existence. That is what all of us are seeking. This is often a bit hard to see because we cover up those basic goals with layers of surface objectives. We want food, wealth, sex, entertainment, and respect. We even say to ourselves that the idea of “happiness” is too abstract: “Look, I am practical. Just give me enough money and I will buy all the happiness I need.” Unfortunately, this is an attitude that does not work. Examine each of these goals and you will find that they are superficial. You want food. Why? Because I am hungry. So you are hungry— so what? Well, if I eat, I won’t be hungry, and then I’ll feel good. Ah ha! “Feel good”: now there is the real item. What we really seek is not the surface goals; those are just means to an end. What we are really after is the feeling of relief that comes when the drive is satisfied.

We want to end the tension between desire and aversion.

You can learn not to want what you want, to recognize desires but not be controlled by them. This does not mean that you lie down on the road and invite everybody to walk all over you. It means that you continue to live a very normal-looking life, but live from a whole new viewpoint. You do the things that a person must do, but you are free from that obsessive, compulsive drivenness of your own desires. You want something, but you don’t need to chase after it. You fear something, but you don’t need to stand there quaking in your boots. This sort of mental cultivation is very difficult.

Have we overdeveloped the material aspects of life at the expense of the deeper emotional ones?

Meditation

Meditation is intended to purify the mind. It cleanses the thought process of what can be called psychic irritants, things like greed, hatred, and jealousy, which keep you snarled up in emotional bondage. Meditation brings the mind to a state of tranquillity and awareness, a state of concentration and insight.

In our society, we are great believers in education. We believe that knowledge makes a person civilized. Civilization, however, polishes a person only superficially. Subject our noble and sophisticated gentle person to the stresses of war or economic collapse, and see what happens. It is one thing to obey the law because you know the penalties and fear the consequences; it is something else entirely to obey the law because you have cleansed yourself from the greed that would make you steal and the hatred that would make you kill.

The more we understand the more flexible and tolerant we become. The more compassionate we can be.

Meditation is a lot like cultivating a new land. To make a field out of a forest, first you have to clear the trees and pull out the stumps. Then you till the soil and fertilize it, sow your seed, and harvest your crops. To cultivate your mind, first you have to clear out the various irritants that are in the way— pull them right out by the root so that they won’t grow back. Then you fertilize: you pump energy and discipline into the mental soil. Then you sow the seed, and harvest your crops of faith, morality, mindfulness, and wisdom.

Meditation sharpens the mind.

Meditation sharpens your concentration and your thinking power. Then, piece by piece, your own subconscious motives and mechanics become clear to you. Your intuition sharpens. The precision of your thought increases, and gradually you come to a direct knowledge of things as they really are, without prejudice and without illusion.

While these are great reasons they are only promises on paper. The only way to know if it’s worth the effort is to see for yourself.

Attentional Blink

Despite my experiments with meditation, I have difficulty focusing on my breath if I take a few days off meditating or yoga.

The world is distracting, there are texts coming in, fire trucks going by, an ache in my back, and an itch on my nose.

This, however, is the way we move forward. After a few days of regular meditation, I’m back. My ability to concentrate and focus becomes so much higher. I read with greater ease and retain more information.

This passage by Winifred Gallagher in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, talking about attentional blink, is worth flagging.

… different types of attentional training affect the brain and behavior in different ways. Practices that feature neutral, single-pointed concentration, such as mindfulness meditation, particularly improve your ability to focus as you go about your daily life. ‘Attentional blink’ experiments suggest why. If you’re shown two letters flashed a half-second apart in a series of twenty numbers, for example, you’ll almost certainly see the first letter but miss the second one. The glitch is caused by ‘sticky’ attention, which keeps you glued to the first cue, preventing your from catching it the next time. After three months of breath-centered meditation, however, you’re able to ‘let go’ of the first letter quickly and be ready to focus on the second.

No mere psych-lab curiosity, the blink research, which offers yet more proof that the world you experience is much more subjective than you assume, has important real-life implications. Even when you think you’re focused on what’s going on, these data show, you miss things that occur in quick succession, including fleeting facial and vocal cues. … ‘Sensitive attention is a key substrate of successful social interactions, and the consequences of missing that kind of information can be quite significant.’ Indeed, research done by Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of California at San Francisco, shows that slight, rapid changes in a person’s expression are highly meaningful, if unspoken, indications of what’s really on his or her mind. Most people don’t read these cues well, he finds, but attentional training can greatly improve this interpretive ability.

Because the blink phenomenon has long been regarded as relatively fixed, the fact that it can be modified helps prove that attention is indeed a trainable skill.

Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life is filled with tips and strategies on how to improve your ability to concentrate and pay attention.

Cognitive Exhaustion: Resting Your Mental Muscle

In the go-go-go world of today, we need to be sure we’re giving our mind ample opportunity to rest and relax — recognizing when we need a mental break.

I usually take a walk. Or go to a yoga class.

It turns out resting your mind has a big impact. Taking a walk isn’t enough, it depends on where you’re walking.

In Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Daniel Goleman elaborates on cognitive exhaustion:

Tightly focused attention gets fatigued—much like an overworked muscle—when we push to the point of cognitive exhaustion. The signs of mental fatigue, such as a drop in effectiveness and a rise in distractedness and irritability, signify that the mental effort needed to sustain focus has depleted the glucose that feeds neural energy.

The antidote to attention fatigue is the same as for the physical kind: take a rest. But what rests a mental muscle?

Try switching from the effort of top-down control to more passive bottom-up activities, taking a relaxing break in a restful setting. The most restful surroundings are in nature, argues Stephen Kaplan at the University of Michigan, who proposes what he calls “attention restoration theory.”

Such restoration occurs when we switch from effortful attention, where the mind needs to suppress distractions, to letting go and allowing our attention to be captured by whatever presents itself. But only certain kinds of bottom-up focus act to restore energy for focused attention. Surfing the Web, playing video games, or answering email does not.

We do well to unplug regularly; quiet time restores our focus and composure. But that disengagement is just the first step. What we do next matters, too. Taking a walk down a city street, Kaplan points out, still puts demands on attention— we’ve got to navigate through crowds, dodge cars, and ignore honking horns and the hum of street noise.

In contrast, a walk through a park or in the woods puts little such demand on attention. We can restore by spending time in nature— even a few minutes strolling in a park or any setting rich in fascinations like the muted reds of clouds at sunset or a butterfly’s flutter. This triggers bottom-up attention “modestly,” as Kaplan’s group put it, allowing circuits for top-down efforts to replenish their energy, restoring attentiveness and memory, and improving cognition.

A walk through an arboretum led to better focus on return to concentrated tasks than a stroll though downtown. Even sitting by a mural of a nature scene— particularly one with water in it— is better than the corner coffee shop.

The Nine Primary Tactics Used to Influence Others

We all face situations where we need to persuade others to change their minds. Often, we forget the need to understand the other person’s thinking before we can truly convince them. These nine tactics help effectively influence others.

Mindgym the Nine Influence Tactics

The number one thing to understand about influence is that people make decisions for their reasons, not yours.

“When you try to influence others,” Sebastian Bailey and Octavius Black write in their book Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently, “it is essential that you understand the other person’s reasons so you can use tactics that will work to persuade them, as opposed to tactics that would work on you.”

Okay, with that said, here are the nine primary tactics to influence others.

1. Reasoning

What Is It?
“There are three excellent reasons why contemporary art is a worthwhile investment. First . . .”

The tactic we call reasoning, at its best, is the process of using facts, logic, and argument to make a case.

Give Me an Example
“You should run the marathon next year. The training will make you fitter and healthier; it will give you something to focus on outside work, which you said you wanted; and you will raise money for a good cause, maybe that hospice you gave all your old clothes to for their fund-raising sale. It just makes sense.”

When Is It Useful?
This tactic is useful most of the time. Reasoning is the bread and butter of influencing. The challenge is to support your views with relevant information and a coherent argument. Although reasoning requires more effort than some of the other tactics, it is much more likely to create your desired effect.

Warning
When you present a view or position as if it is a fact (e.g., “This problem is going to take a long time to solve”) but without any evidence to back it up, then the reasoning is weak. Weak reasoning is the most common influencing tactic people use, but without the evidence to back up your view, it is far less effective.

2. Inspiring

What Is It?
“Imagine a world where …”
Almost the exact opposite of reasoning, the inspiring tactic focuses on the heart rather than the head. It appeals to emotions and suggests what could be possible, if only the other person were persuaded.

Give Me an Example
Some of the most well-known uses of the inspiring tactic can be seen in political leaders’ speeches. Great examples are Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Shakespeare’s “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” speech given by Henry V. These speeches don’t just ignore logical argument but defy it. Take this excerpt from John F. Kennedy’s speech about putting a man on the moon, with commentary from a skeptic in brackets.

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard [Yeah, like that’s a good reason for doing something ; hey, I reckon we should paint the garden fences with a toothbrush and nail varnish because it’s really hard], because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills [How so? Why wouldn’t feeding the starving in Africa or increasing world literacy do it just as well if not better?] . . .

For all the skeptic’s heckling, this speech helped mobilize a nation. The magic about inspirational appeal is that it touches our hearts by appealing to our values and our identity. Like falling in love, when the inspiring tactic works, nothing can beat it (certainly not a cynic).

When Is It Useful?
This tactic is especially useful when your rational argument is weak or unclear and you want a high level of emotional commitment. The inspiring tactic doesn’t tend to be used much in daily life, especially in the workplace, which is a shame because it’s a powerful way to persuade and excite.

Most of us have been seduced by this tactic as children (e.g., “It’ll make you big and strong when you grow up”), when watching TV (e.g., advertisements with young, sexy people having wild times drinking a particular brand of soda), or when we’re with friends who are hooked on a new craze (e.g., “You have to check out dune bashing: the surge, the speed, the heat, the views”).

Warning
It is not just what you say but also how you say it; the inspiring tactic demands conviction, energy, and passion. When deploying this tactic, a dreary demeanor will leave you floundering. Deliver inspiration like it matters more than life itself and you’ll be pretty much invincible.

3. Asking Questions

What Is It?
“Would you like to be rich?” Asking questions encourages the other person to make their own discovery of your conclusion (or something similar).

Give Me an Example
I am walking through the airport when a woman with a clipboard approaches me from in front of a large advertising board and asks, “Do you have a credit card?”

I utter a dismissive “Yes” and keep walking.

“Do you get airline miles with your card?” she persists.

“Yes, I do,” I reply, slightly irritated, and carry on walking.

“Do you use your airline miles?” The truth is I don’t, but I’m not going to get caught up in this conversation.

“A bit,” I reply, but my walking slows.

“Would you rather have cash?” I stop, turn, and look at her for the first time.

“Do you have five minutes to fill in a form to get a credit card that gives you cash?” she asks.

In five questions I have been persuaded to do something I haven’t done in over a decade: switch to a new credit card.

When Is It Useful?

This is a great tactic when it is important that the other person feels responsible for the outcome. In coaching and counseling, for example, a course of action or therapy is much more effective when the other person believes it was their idea rather than when they grudgingly give in. Asking questions is also useful when you’re trying to persuade someone who has more power than you— maybe your boss (“Do you think I’m overdoing it?” “Do you struggle with work– life balance? How do you deal with it?”) or your client (“Are you happy with the gold service? Or do you ever wish you had the platinum?”).

Warning
This is one of the hardest tactics to use because it is impossible to know how the other person will respond. If the questions are too broad, then you are likely to veer off course; if they are too narrow, the other person will spot what you are up to and may refuse to cooperate. But while most of the other tactics get weaker if they’re used too much, asking questions is a tactic that has an extended battery life— it’s effective time after time.

4. Cozying Up

What Is It?
“You’re a smart guy.”

If you feel positive toward someone, you are much more likely to agree with them, and you almost always feel positive toward someone who makes you feel good about yourself. This is the cozying up tactic.

Give Me an Example
“Hi, Sandra. You’re looking well. I heard from Mark that you did a great job on the Johnson case. Not an easy situation— well done. I have a challenging case coming up in October and am pulling together a top-level team to work on it. Would you be interested?”

When Is It Useful?
Cozying up is a particularly good tactic to use when you’re trying to influence people with less or the same level of power as you, because they are likely to value your views. Many of us use it on our partners (“Darling, you look like a million bucks”), our friends (“I know you are someone I can trust”), and our clients (“You’re the sort of person who will really appreciate this— because you’re smart”).

The danger with cozying up is that if you’re too obvious when using this tactic, you’ll have the opposite effect (“You’re only saying that because you want me to do something for you”). As a result, some people avoid it altogether. They are missing out. A less risky approach is to leave time—sometimes even several days— between making someone feel good about themselves and trying to persuade them.

Warning
Using cozying up on someone who clearly has more power than you can look like sucking up. So, unless you know what you are doing, be mindful about how much kudos you’re sending out into the world.

5. Deal Making

What Is It?
“If you pick me up from the airport, I will . . .”

Deal making is when you offer or give another person something in return for their agreement with you. It may be explicit, but it doesn’t have to be.

Give Me an Example
“I promised a friend I would walk his dog while he was on vacation. Then tonight I was offered Beyoncé tickets at the last minute. I’ll buy you dinner if you come over and watch the dog while I’m at the concert.”

When Is It Useful?
Deal making is useful when you want to increase the odds in your favor and don’t mind giving something away in return. Sometimes it is necessary to be up front (“If you help me paint the bathroom, I’ll cook dinner every night next week”). At the same time, the deal can work better when the connection is only implied (“Sure, I’ll introduce you to my sister,” and then twenty minutes later, “Can you really get me into the VIP section at the golf tournament?”). Often deal making is most effective when the connection is all but invisible, like it’s something you would have done for one another without a deal.

Warning
This tactic works by appealing to a desire for fairness. Some people can “take, take, take” without feeling any remorse or indebtedness (or they may just think you’re a generous fool). Deal making won’t work with this type of person unless you are very up front about the terms of the exchange.

6. Favor Asking

What Is It?
“Can you help me out?”

Favor asking is simply asking for something because you want or need it, but you’re not offering anything in return.

Give Me an Example
“My guest speaker has just pulled out of the event I’m organizing next week. All I can say is that I’d be eternally grateful if you’d be willing to step in and give a speech to my group.”

When Is It Useful?
This tactic works well only when the other person cares about you or their relationship with you. If used sparingly, it is hard to resist.

Warning
The person you ask for a favor might feel that you owe them one in the future. If you think they do, make sure you “pay back” the favor or you won’t get such a positive response next time.

7. Using Silent Allies

What Is It?
“Everyone who has read this book so far …”

The use of silent allies invokes other people, who are generally similar to the person you are trying to persuade, to make your case (“All professional runners train this way, so you should too”).

Give Me an Example
The advertising slogans “Nine out of ten dentists recommend …” and “America runs on Dunkin’” are classic examples of this tactic. Movie reviews and quotes from satisfied customers are also common examples . Outside of advertising and marketing, the silent allies approach is often used in the workplace, where you might hear comments like “All the best graphic designers use a Mac.” In social situations, you might hear “All the cool kids are wearing these jeans, and they’re the top-selling brand.” The best silent allies are those whom the person you are trying to persuade naturally associates with, such as professionals in their own industry or people with similar interests or beliefs.

When Is It Useful?
One of the most powerful ways to persuade teenagers to do anything is to show them that their peers, especially the cool ones, are doing it already. The silent allies tactic also works in business by, for example, referring to best practice models or a list of past clients. If the person you are trying to influence is concerned about risk (and most people are, deep down) or is anxious to fit in, then this can be your winning tactic.

Warning
Some people actually prefer to be contrary (“I only like underground bands”). Entrepreneurs, for example, are rarely dissuaded from trying something because no one has done it before. They actually see it as a potential benefit.

8. Invoking Authority

What Is It?
“It’s our policy not to refund cash.”

The invoking authority tactic is used from a position of power or by appealing to a rule or principle. It doesn’t matter whether the authority invoked is formal or implicit, so long as it is recognized by the person you are trying to influence.

Give Me an Example
“I won’t work for you unless we sign a contract” is an explicit approach to influence that not only appeals to the rules but also creates them.

“I won’t take business calls between the hours of five P.M. and seven P.M. because that is dinnertime with my family” is an approach to influence that creates boundaries based on principles.

When Is It Useful?
The advantage of invoking authority is that the tactic is quick and straightforward . The downside is that it is more likely to lead to compliance than commitment. It’s better to invoke authority as a last resort rather than use it as your opening gambit, unless you are in a rush. Authority can, however, make a positive impression on someone who abides by similar rules or lives by similar principles.

Warning
If you try to persuade using this tactic and don’t succeed, then you don’t have many other options left (mainly the forcing tactic, detailed next). You are also likely to have damaged a relationship. And like using silent allies, this tactic can have the opposite effect from the intended one. Think of Dirty Harry being told he is being pulled off a case, only to carry on his investigations anyway. Or Julia Roberts in the movie Erin Brockovich refusing to bow down. If the person you’re trying to influence doesn’t agree with your rules or principles, using authority can have a quick and extreme impact on your relationship. Be warned, this tactic is a bit like drawing a line in the sand.

9. Forcing

What Is It?
“Do it or else.”

The forcing tactic involves engaging in assertive behavior, such as threats and warnings.

Give Me an Example
“Eat your vegetables or you’ll be going straight to bed.”

“Love me or leave me.”

“The last person in your job didn’t last very long; we wouldn’t want you to make the same mistake.”

“The more time you spend arguing about it, the less time you’ll have left to do it.”

When Is It Useful?
Forcing is used when you want something done fast. Therefore, it’s ideal in emergencies.

Warning
Because forcing is relatively easy to adopt and usually delivers short-term results, like compliance, it gets used a fair bit, especially when combined with using authority. However, relationship breakdowns can often be traced back to uses of the forcing tactic. Almost like smoking cigarettes, the immediate damage appears minimal, but the long-term effects can be terminal; and even if you give up using this tactic, it could be too late, so it’s probably best not to start. Using the forcing tactic can also be quite addictive, because it gives the user a sense of power when it gets results. Only employ forcing when everything else has failed.

Remember people change their mind for their reasons not yours. If you’re not effective, it’s probably because you’re looking at things through your lens and not theirs. Continuing to give the same arguments in the same way only solidifies resistance even more. So the next time you’re trying to convince someone of something you’ve already tried to change their mind on, trying picking a different approach. Better yet, pick three or four and use them in combination. Tactics work better when employed together.

Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently is full of interesting and insightful stuff you can use every day.