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: 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:

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

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.

Continue reading “Resisting the Mind Games of Donald Trump and the One Percent”

Forewarned Is Forearmed: Bush On Iran

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLioyP69N3I]

The White House’s propaganda campaign laying the groundwork for military action against Iran dates back almost six years–to Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address in which he designated Iran as a founding member of the “axis of evil.” Since then, this drumbeat has waxed and waned as other concerns–primarily the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq–have often commanded center stage. Now, with the Bush administration approaching its final year in office, a renewed push and a shorter fuse are increasingly evident. The 3-minute video above entitled “Forewarned Is Forearmed: Bush On Iran” offers a very brief but deeply troubling chronicle of the president’s public warmongering and demonization of Iran. If you find the video worthwhile, please share it with others. As has been said before, “the hour is getting late.”

Note: The video is also available directly on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLioyP69N3I

Resisting the Drums of War: VIDEO

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRxvOBG-5DM]

The Bush administration promoted the misguided and destructive war in Iraq by targeting five core concerns that often govern our lives—concerns about vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Looking ahead, the continued occupation of Iraq—-or an attack on Iran—-will likely be sold to us in much the same way. I examine these warmongering appeals—-and how to counter them-—in the new video above, entitled Resisting the Drums of War.

Dangerous Ideas

My research, writing, and consulting focus on how five key issues—and the beliefs we hold about them—profoundly influence our personal and collective lives. I believe that concerns revolving around vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness are crucial contributors to how we experience and make sense of the world, and that they are also the key lenses through which we evaluate information and form judgments about appropriate priorities, policies, and actions. Here’s a very brief description of each domain:

Concerns over personal and collective vulnerability are central to our lives. For most of us, nothing is more immediate than the desire to protect and provide security for the people and things we care about, including ourselves.

We are strongly affected by perceptions of injustice, both in our personal lives and in our group attachments. Most of us react to perceived mistreatment with a combination of anger and resentment, and often an urge to right wrongs and punish those we hold responsible.

We tend to divide the world into those who are untrustworthy and those worthy of our trust. If our judgments are accurate, we can select our associates and allies wisely, and we can try to avoid harm from those who have hostile intent or are merely unreliable.

We frequently compare ourselves to other individuals and groups, and conclude that we’re better than they are in some important way—perhaps in our accomplishments, or our morality, or our destiny. At times we focus on what we consider worst about others, which serves to further persuade us of their inferiority.

We strive to avoid the experience of helplessness, and instead do our best to control the important events in our lives. And when we’re overcome by despair and resignation we usually fail to achieve our goals.

With this blog I hope to offer my personal observations applying this framework to current events. Please do check back again, and I look forward to your comments.