Book review: The art of 'flipnosis'

The persuasion tricks of the greatest politicians, salesmen and psychopaths.

It’s an apocryphal story, but if it isn’t true, it should be. Muhammed Ali, one of the greatest boxers of all time, and an even better talker, loads his larger-than-life personality onto a plane. As the cabin crew prepares for takeoff, a flight attendant asks Ali to fasten his seat belt. “I’m Superman,” Ali crows. “Superman don’t need no seat belt!” The flight attendant doesn’t miss a beat. “Superman don’t need no aeroplane,” she fires back, and Ali, extraordinarily, is at a loss for words. He puts on his seat belt.

“I doubt Muhammed Ali ever took a cleaner shot in his life,” writes Kevin Dutton. A research fellow at the Faraday Institute of Science and Religion at the University of Cambridge’s St. Edmund’s College, Dutton has spent most of his career studying the science of social influence. He relates the anecdote to illustrate more than a snappy comeback; in an instant, the flight attendant changed Ali’s mind and persuaded him to follow a different course of action.

Dutton calls this effect “flipnosis,” which is also the U.K. title of this book. In North American bookstores, it’s called Split-Second Persuasion: The Ancient Art and New Science of Changing Minds (Doubleday Canada). As he points out, we’re subjected to other people’s efforts to persuade us an estimated 400 times a day, from the panhandler asking for change to the police officer directing traffic, from the advertising pitches that surround us to the sales pitches we hear in our workplaces. Dutton’s premise is simply that “with persuasion, just as with everything else, there exists a spectrum of talent along which each of us has our place.” A good deal of persuasion depends on establishing trust over time, but the kind that takes place in an instant — defusing a tense situation, or changing somebody’s mind — is particularly powerful. Is there “a secret art,” Dutton wonders, that each of us could learn?

His answer is a qualified “yes.” Becoming a “flipnotist” isn’t as easy as learning a few rote behaviours that you can incorporate around the office, as when some salespeople lean slightly toward their clients to signal both an emotional connection and subservience. The concept, as Dutton describes it, depends on incongruity, or the element of surprise — one of the five factors he crams into the acronym SPICE: simplicity, perceived self-interest, incongruity, confidence and empathy.

That’s as close to bullet points as Split-Second Persuasion gets. Dutton’s book rambles through the annals of neuroscience as he interviews lawyers, con men and expert interrogators, and brings his own expertise to bear in mapping the brain’s pressure points and the locations of people’s psychological blind spots. “The brain’s security isn’t exactly tight,” he writes, “and if you know what you’re doing you can be in and out in seconds.”

He considers, for example, our brain’s tendency to think it’s smarter than it actually is. To illustrate how our mind can putter along on autopilot, he includes several paragraphs in which the letters of the words are jumbled. “The huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe,” he points out. As stage magicians and confidence men know, our brains have a tendency to “make up their minds before we do” — see things as we think they should be, rather than as they are. That can be exploited most effectively when combined with the principle of “cognitive load,” which holds that “the more operations our brain has to perform at any one time, the greater the drain on available resources.” This is why cons will work in teams; one distracts you with conversation as the other grabs your wallet. Intriguingly, a simple way to greatly increase somebody’s cognitive load is to compliment them. “Basking in sweet talk doesn’t come cheap,” Dutton notes, requiring far more brain effort than “its opposite number: reality checking.” Thus are some of the world’s greatest con men also the greatest charmers.

One of Dutton’s interview subjects is an exceptionally successful cold-calling telesaleman for a home renovation company who’s mastered the persuasion technique. “I begin by making them laugh,” the agent explains. “‘Are you superstitious?’ is one of the things I ask. If someone rang you up out of the blue and asked you that, you’d be curious, right?” Having thrown his target off balance, he follows up with a punchline — “Well, will you give me ?’13.13?” “And then I’m in,” he says. “But I don’t try to sell them anything.” Instead, he leverages the instant connection he’s forged to ask his target if they know anybody who needs work done on their house. “Because I’ve made them laugh, and because they also think I’ve done them a favour by letting them off the hard sell, they usually give me a couple of names,” he says. One act of persuasion leads to another. The straightforward, simple method means this telemarketer drives a BMW.

Gaining that mastery is the hardest part, of course. An elite persuader like this has an almost preternatural ability to sway minds, and Dutton isn’t sure whether that can be taught. Indeed, he wonders whether this salesman should be included in the section he devotes to psychopaths. Extremely charismatic and poised under pressure, as well as self-centred and dishonest, psychopaths are generally expert persuaders. But there is no clear dichotomy between the psychopath and the non-psychopath. While extreme cases of the Hannibal Lecter variety exist, Dutton says that degrees of psychopathy are scattered across the general population — and may account for the intense charisma, persuasiveness and confidence shown by some of our most talented politicians, surgeons and business leaders. Their innate coolness under pressure comes from a dysfunctional amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotion. Less impeded by fear and feelings, they take chances and see outcomes instantly that others may not.

Dutton’s not sure that persuasion at this elite level can be learned. And perhaps, all things considered, that’s for the best.

Executive summaries

All The Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis (Portfolio Penguin)
Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera

Yes, another one; but the distinction here lies in the quality of the writers — Vanity Fair contributor McLean co-authored the classic Enron book The Smartest Guys in the Room, while Nocera is a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for the paper’s magazine — and in the frame they choose for their history. Rather than concentrating on the immediate prologue to the crisis and its day-to-day dramas, they go back 30 years to Salomon Bros.’ Lewis Ranieri, BlackRock founder Larry Fink, Fannie Mae exec David Maxwell and the invention of mortgage-backed securities.

More than some of their peers, the authors rely on secondary sources. That’s fine; it helps contextualize everything that’s befallen the American economy in recent years. And much of the fresh insight on offer comes from the attention they pay to institutions beyond the usual investment banking suspects, to the likes of Fannie and Freddy Mac, and to the power of the idea of homeownership in America. “It suggests upward mobility, opportunity, a stake in something that matters.” In a way that isn’t true in most other countries, homeownership “has also been a statement of values,” synonymous with the American Dream. The power of that myth may have made the crisis inevitable.

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (Knopf)
Tim Wu

“When we look carefully at the twentieth century,” Columbia University professor Wu writes, “we soon find that the Internet wasn’t the first information technology supposed to have changed everything forever.” Instead, beginning with the rise of the Bell Co. and AT&T, he traces a history of “optimistic and open media” — the telephone, moving pictures, FM radio, and cable television among them — that over time became “closed and controlled” industries.

Wu’s impetus for the book is a concern about the future of the Internet, a medium that remains open and which, by dint of its openness, has become “the fabric of our lives.” And while it’s a cliche to say that we’re now part of an information-based economy and society, “our future … is almost certain to be an intensification of our present reality: greater and greater information dependence in every matter of life and work,” all relying on an open Internet. The Master Switch defines the historical context in which information industries oscillate between open and closed, how and why it happens, and what can be done to arrest the cycle. Wu sees the Internet as a medium whose openness is uniquely important, but already eroding. If it does, he argues, “we are sooner or later in for a very jarring turn of history’s wheel.”

Undercover Boss: Inside the TV Phenomenon That Is Changing Bosses and Employees Everywhere (Jossey-Bass)
Stephen Lambert and Eli Holzman with Mark Levine

Calling CBS’s Undercover Boss one of reality television’s better offerings may seem like damning with faint praise, but in its first season, the show managed to be surprisingly entertaining and even thoughtful, rarely descending into the kind of freak-show antics that prop up most other reality series. Among the nine bosses who posed as entry-level workers in their corporations were the heads of 7-Eleven and Roto Rooter, and this hard-cover companion to the TV series tries to distil the lessons the executives learned.

The TV show’s strength comes from the frontline workers with whom the head honchos are paired. Inevitably, the well-paid execs are exposed to the menial tasks their employees do and the stories about why they do them — families to support, disabled children, hope for a change in fortune. At each episode’s end comes the big reveal, where the grunts realize that their hapless trainees were actually the heads of the companies, and tear up as the bosses announce some new policy to transform their workplace. It’s all a little pat, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some relevant lessons to be gleaned from the executives’ experiences. Responding to the small concerns of frontline workers sometimes has transformative effects across a company.