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Review of Book Highly Relevant to Therapy Practitioners

Free Your Mind: The New World of Manipulation and How to Resist It by Laura Dodsworth & Patrick Fagan“Psychology is no longer just about diagnosing or fixing us, it is now about socially engineering and shaping us.  If you don’t control your mind, someone else will.”

How many of us can remember a time, not so long ago, when ‘Mindfulness’ meditation was all the rage?  Books on ‘Mindfulness’ were flying off the shelves and even companies like Google were training their staff to be ‘Mindful’.  I was first introduced to ‘Mindfulness’ meditation in a work training session.  My colleagues and I were asked to watch a video and count how many times a ball was passed between two teams.  While I was concentrating on the ball passes, I noticed someone in a gorilla costume walking casually across the screen.  I could not believe how many of my colleagues also watching this video did not notice the gorilla.  Yet this is a common occurrence.

The ‘invisible gorilla experiment’ is cited in Free Your Mind, an excellent and timely new book by Laura Dodsworth and Patrick Fagan.  They explain that human beings are “cognitive misers” with limited capacity for attention.  This makes us vulnerable to persuasion and manipulation.  From advertising agencies, and billboards, to government ‘nudge’ units, television, and social media, we are constantly bombarded by persuasive messages.  Our brains cannot possibly sift through this plethora of information and we do not have the time to ‘do battle’ with everything that comes our way.  So, we often end up making decisions on autopilot – leading to ‘Mindlessness’ rather than ‘Mindfulness’.

This is just one of many research findings cited in Free Your Mind which is a treasure trove of a book.  The authors describe it as “A field manual for surviving the information battlefield”.  Each chapter presents a basic principle, expands the idea with interviews, research, cultural references, and theories, then concludes with a practical set of rules.  The rules are designed to equip the reader with the skills to recognise and resist manipulation, by building resilience and reducing information overload.

The authors of Free Your Mind are Laura Dodsworth, well-known for her best-selling book State of Fear: How the UK Government weaponised fear during the Covid-19 pandemic, and Patrick Fagan, a behavioural scientist experienced in emotion sciences and data analytics.  Patrick knows all about ‘nudge’.  Together, they draw on a wide range of thinkers, writers, and psychologists including Jung, Fromm, Huxley, Orwell, and Arendt.  Free Your Mind features well-known psychology experiments of the 1950’s and 1960’s such as Milgram’s obedience to authority and Asch’s conformity studies.  It even lifts the veil on magic and how magicians developed the techniques of distraction and misdirection.  Edward Bernays and Edward Hunter are featured – pioneering thinkers in the field of propaganda and psychological warfare, with Hunter having coined the term ‘brainwashing’.

Each chapter deals with different aspects of ‘persuasion’ and ‘manipulation’, from ‘Big Brother’ and government ‘nudges’ to social media and soap operas, the use of powerful imagery and the dangers of conformity and crowds.  Each of the authors even conducts their own research into how they respond to ‘manipulation’.  It is such a comprehensive book that there are bound to be chapters that are of interest to all readers.  I was particularly drawn to ‘Don’t Overthink It’ which talks about the risks of ‘over-intellectualising’.  In this chapter, the authors discuss ‘motivated reasoning’ and how people are more likely to believe and accept information that is consistent with their existing worldview and reject information that is not.  It also seems that ‘smart’ people are better at deceiving themselves and coming up with justifications.  The authors refer to ‘luxury beliefs’, such as calls to ‘Defund the Police’, which are at odds with what is actually required in society.  To paraphrase Orwell: “there are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them”. 

I am pleased to say that in recent years I have learned to rely rather more on ‘gut instinct’ and believe I am less prone to persuasion as a result.  On the other hand, as the authors point out, none of us is immune to manipulation, even in everyday situations.  I have certainly fallen for the ‘forced-choice’ option when a waiter has offered me still or sparkling water at a restaurant and I have failed to reply: “No thank you, just tap water please”.

The authors point out that you are at your most vulnerable to manipulation when you are having a tough time.  That could be a life-changing event, such as bereavement, a major social upheaval, or day-to-day anxieties and tiredness.  At such times, resistance is impaired and people are more open to suggestion.  Even critical thinking can be overwhelmed when one is experiencing extreme stress or fear.  Meerloo, who wrote about mind control and brainwashing, warned that an important tactic of totalitarian regimes is to create confusion so that people cannot distinguish what is true from what is false.  Does that sound familiar?

The chapter that everyone should read is ‘Be the First to Speak Up’.  The authors quote Zimbardo, who ran the Stanford Prison Experiment: “To be a hero you have to learn to be a deviant – because you’re always going against the conformity of the group”.  Reference is also made to Asch’s conformity experiments which demonstrated the influence of group pressure on opinions.  Asch found that people were willing to ignore reality in order to conform to the rest of the group.  How relevant these findings are today.

I found Zimbardo’s idea that you have to learn to be a deviant in order to go against the conformity of the group particularly intriguing.  I often ask myself what enables some people to resist the pressure to conform in our increasingly authoritarian society where free speech is under attack.  The authors cite Dr Naomi Murphy, a senior clinical psychologist: “People who are most able to resist are more comfortable not belonging to the group and being an outsider”.  She proposes that “there are a number of characteristics that make up being suggestible, to do with emotionality, age, self-esteem, assertiveness.”  The experiences of one whistle-blower suggests that previous out-group experience may psychologically prepare individuals to take a stand.  Adverse life experiences may also help to make certain people less susceptible to manipulation.

As well as a wealth of research, Free Your Mind contains many practical suggestions.  For example, powerful imagery can affect emotions more easily than the written word, so try reading instead, to give yourself time to digest information.  Take a reality check from time-to-time.  Close your laptop, switch off the phone and go outside.  Disconnect from the symbolic world.  Don’t get swept away by someone else’s fantasy.  Identify your own values and rules for life.  Find a purpose and something creative to fill your time and soothe you.  These are just a few of the wide range of helpful ‘rules’ listed in the book.

There is a note of warning though.  The authors quote Nietzche: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.  And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you”.  While you might accept that there is a problem with propaganda and the manipulation of information, it is not possible or wise to ‘live in a permanent state of hypervigilance’.  So, it is up to each of us to develop our own sense of agency and resilience.  Rather than trying to avoid all influences, we can choose to be influenced by those things that nourish us and give us a sense of meaning and purpose such as family, religion or belonging to a small group with shared interests.

Free Your Mind is an essential and entertaining read.  It is also a valuable resource for counsellors, psychologists, and psychotherapists who can draw on its research and practical suggestions to help clients navigate an increasingly authoritarian world.

Free Your Mind: The New World of Manipulation and How to Resist It byLaura Dodsworth & Patrick Fagan is published by Harper Collins  

Reviewed by Dr Carole Sherwood  

One comment

  1. Sounds like an interesting book and especially characteristics of those not easily manipulated. The people who most need it wont be reading this book however. They’re glued to their media sources.

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