The 1%’s Mind Games: Psychology Gone Bad

“It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.” — Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Manipulating Our Core Concerns

While millions of Americans grasp for lifelines amid the unforgiving currents of extreme inequality, multi-millionaires and billionaires comfortably ride the waves and add to their enormous wealth and power. The contrast is jarring to be sure, but it persists nonetheless because self-interested representatives of the 1% have become masters at using manipulative psychological appeals — I call them “mind games” — to defuse and misdirect our outrage. And when they succeed, we regrettably lose our bearings about what’s happening, what’s right, what’s possible, and what we must do.

Exploring this phenomenon as a psychologist, my research has led me to a focus on five concerns that are particularly influential in our daily lives: namely, issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority and helplessness. Each is associated with a basic question we routinely ask ourselves: Are we safe? Are we treated fairly? Who should we trust? Are we good enough? Can we control what happens to us?

For multiple reasons, these concerns are especially important in this context. First, singly and in combination, they’re essential lenses through which we personally interpret events, evaluate our circumstances, and decide what actions, if any, to take. Second, these five concerns extend from individuals to groups; as a result, they’re relevant in a very wide range of settings: our interpersonal relationships, family relationships, work relationships, community relationships, and political relationships in local, national, and international spheres. Third, these same concerns have the potential to undermine our capacity for careful and critical thinking because they’re frequently linked to hard-to-control emotions, including fear, anger, suspicion, contempt, and despair.

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POLITICAL MIND GAMES: My Appearance on Rob Kall’s Bottom Up Radio Show

I recently had the pleasure of appearing on the Bottom Up Radio Show hosted by Rob Kall of OpEdNews. Rob and I spent an hour in a wide-ranging discussion about my new book, POLITICAL MIND GAMES: How the 1% Manipulate Our Understanding of What’s Happening, What’s Right, and What’s Possible. I’ve posted the YouTube video below. Various options for listening to the audio only are available here.

Watch the interview:

**POLITICAL MIND GAMES is available through IndieBound, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, other online outlets, and neighborhood bookstores.**

POLITICAL MIND GAMES: How the 1% Manipulate Our Understanding of What’s Happening, What’s Right, and What’s Possible

Giant corporations are raking in record profits, while millions of Americans remain scarred by the Great Recession and a recovery that has left them behind. Mammoth defense contractors push for more of everything military, while programs for the poor are on life support. Global polluters are blocking effective responses to climate change, while the disenfranchised suffer disproportionately from environmental disasters and devastation. Influential voices ridicule those who are disadvantaged by prejudice, by discrimination, and by dwindling resources. All the while, our middle class is shrinking, imperiled, and insecure. This is not the America most of us want.

It’s really no secret that certain individuals and groups—the Koch brothers, Walmart heirs, some Wall Street CEOs, prominent politicians (many Republicans, and some Democrats too), big-business lobbyists, right-wing think tanks, Fox News—use their wealth and influence to pursue a self-serving agenda that betrays the common good. Indeed, they’ve been doing it since long before Donald J. Trump moved into the White House. But what often flies under the radar is the extent to which they rely on psychologically manipulative appeals to advance their narrow interests at the expense of the rest of us. Examples include “The dangers of global warming are overblown,” “Voter fraud is a rampant injustice,” “Workers protesting low wages are devious and dishonest,” “We’ve earned every dollar and deserve your praise, not criticism,” and “Everyone will be helpless if gun reformers have their way.”

In my new book, POLITICAL MIND GAMES: How the 1% Manipulate Our Understanding of What’s Happening, What’s Right, and What’s Possible, I explain the psychology behind the success of today’s plutocrats in marketing their false claims—and what we can do to counter them. Offering a research-based framework, I show how the 1% exploit five fundamental concerns that govern our daily lives: issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. These concerns are soft targets for manipulation because each is linked to a basic question we ask ourselves as we try to make sense of the world around us. Consider:

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The Predatory Presidency

The season premiere of BBC America’s Planet Earth II includes remarkable footage from the desolate Galapagos Islands. In one striking scene, baby marine iguanas race across the sand, desperately trying to elude dozens of snakes eager for their next meal. Although such stark life-or-death struggles are difficult to watch, it helps to remember that they reflect nature’s dynamic balance.

Far more disturbing — and unnatural — are the Trump Administration’s similarly ruthless predator-like attacks on whatever groups it chooses as its prey. Adding to their repugnance, several of these assaults over the past month — through a series of executive orders — are inherently racist, seemingly propelled by the ugly 14-word credo of white nationalists everywhere: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” Continue reading “The Predatory Presidency”

Bait and Switch: Psychology and Trump’s Voter Fraud

In recent days President Trump has, yet again, asserted that millions of people illegally voted against him last November. Lies of such magnitude and consequence from the White House certainly deserve the attention and scorn they’ve received. After all, once we move beyond the realm of “alternative facts,” the real evidence shows that a person is more likely to be struck by lightning than to impersonate someone else at the polls.

But to fully understand Trump’s complaints about “illegal voters,” we need to recognize that voter fraud and voter suppression are opposite sides of the same coin. By promoting beliefs about the former, the groundwork is laid for pursuing the latter. In this way, tales of unlawful voting have long been a pretext for obstructing the voting rights of U.S. citizens.

The mass manipulation at the heart of this strategy relies on what I call the “combating-injustice mind game.” With two steps, this psychological ploy preys upon the public’s acute and compassionate sensitivity to issues of right and wrong. First we’re bombarded with dire warnings that something terribly unjust is happening. These overwrought claims aim to spur broad outrage and demands for reform. Continue reading “Bait and Switch: Psychology and Trump’s Voter Fraud”

Resisting the Mind Games of Donald Trump and the One Percent

trumpSmooth-talking con artists are familiar figures in American folklore. The well-dressed hustler arrives in an unsuspecting town. He pitches some miracle cure or get-rich-quick scheme, door-to-door or from atop a soapbox. Then before his customers realize they’ve been duped, he steals away in search of his next mark. It’s a risky vocation, one that demands quick feet, a keen understanding of human nature, and a talent for telling stories that both arouse and reassure.

But when it comes to profiting off people’s hopes and fears, by far the most successful purveyors of lucrative lies and false promises are some of the denizens of this country’s palatial estates, corporate boardrooms, and corridors of political power. And unlike their small-time counterparts, they’re never on the run — despite the misery they leave in their wake. Enter Donald J. Trump, soon to be the 45th President of the United States.

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Imperfect Guides to Living: Our Five Core Concerns

decisionsEvery day we face decisions that help determine what tomorrow will look like — for ourselves and for others as well.

In my work as a clinical, social, and political psychologist, I’ve found that the decisions we make are powerfully influenced by five core concerns. These concerns revolve around issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Their impact is felt almost everywhere: at home, at work, in the community, in politics, and even in international relations.

Of particular importance, these five concerns shape our perceptions and actions by serving as persuasive yet imperfect guides to the world around us. In our pursuit of positive personal and social change, they can both illuminate the path forward and lead us far astray. Sadly, too often we fail to recognize the difference. Let’s briefly consider each in turn.

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Selling An Indefensible Status Quo

wallstreet3Stocks plummet on Wall Street. Home foreclosures mount across the country. Shameless finger pointing and disavowals swirl in the nation’s capital. And a recent Gallup poll finds that a record-low 9% of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the United States.

The frightening numbers and front-page headlines certainly cry out for immediate short-term solutions. But they also raise a crucial question with long-term implications: How is it that our country’s powerful and self-interested defenders of the status quo so consistently succeed at suppressing popular outrage and combating calls for broad-based, progressive social change?

In part, the answer can be found in the insidious use of psychological manipulation to build public support for status quo policies that benefit the few while creating hardship for so many. Some of today’s top peddlers have embraced a rigid ideology that seemingly blinds them to the tragic human costs of their agenda, while others are driven by a simpler unyielding pursuit of personal wealth and power. Regardless of their motivation, their persuasion strategy often depends upon exploiting specific psychological “soft targets”–namely, five core concerns that profoundly influence how we make sense of the world. These concerns, central to the daily experiences of individuals and groups alike, revolve around the issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Let’s consider the manipulation of each in turn.

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Ten Mistakes I’ll Probably Make In 2008

calendarMany of us view the calendar’s turn from 2007 to 2008 as an opportunity to start anew and to improve upon the year just past. But despite this resolve, it’s easy to predict that 2008 will be another year filled with small slips and large blunders. As a psychologist whose work focuses on five core concerns–about vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness–that are especially powerful influences in our personal and collective lives, I offer this list of ten mistakes I’ll probably make on the way to 2009.

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Sky Dwellers, Pie Eaters, and Their Political Enablers: Faithful Defenders of the Status Quo

jeffersons2In the mid-1970s the TV sitcom The Jeffersons portrayed the rags-to-riches story of a black entrepreneur living the American Dream. The pugnacious and overbearing George Jefferson (former neighbor of All in the Family’s Archie Bunker) becomes a dry cleaning magnate and leaves blue-collar Queens for swanky Manhattan. As the show’s theme song recounts:

“Well we’re moving on up,
To the east side.
To a deluxe apartment in the sky.
Moving on up,
To the east side.
We finally got a piece of the pie.”

But now fast-forward to 2007 and real world America. When it comes to those deluxe apartments in the sky, today’s exclusive penthouses sit atop much taller high-rises–but the chances of ever living in one (or even breathing its rarified air as a dinner guest) have shrunk considerably. And although the proverbial economic pie is much larger today as well, a relative handful of gluttons are gorging themselves while everyone else settles for leftovers and crumbs.

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