Opening Minds: the secret world of undue influence, manipulation and brainwashing

Omar Khan Sharif was a bright young man with promise. Growing up in the multicultural hub of Derby, England (home of the Rolls Royce), he was described by friends as a “teddy bear,” and a “joker.” Then he started getting involved with a new group of friends, who were very serious about political matters; a passionate youth, he was attracted to the idea of doing some good in the world. Soon, his old friends started seeing him less: he withdrew from what he now called the ‘debauchery’ of first-world suburban life. He got married, had two children, and finally dropped out of school. His childhood buddies never heard from Omar again.

On April thirtieth of 2003, a bomb exploded in a popular nightclub in Tel Aviv, killing four people and wounding fifty more. One of the bomb’s victims was also the man who had carried it in to the club, supposedly of his own free will. A second bomber had been prevented from entering by a security guard; the man escaped, but his body would be found almost two weeks later, washed up on a nearby beach, the unexploded incendiary device hidden in a book. It took a further week to identify the remains.

Omar Khan Sharif had left his friends, his wife and his children, and turned his back on the world he grew up in, only to become a human explosive, willingly dying to kill others – all in the name of his faith.

Why had Omar changed? What had happened?

Donna Jean Summers, manager of a McDonald’s in Mt. Washington, Kentucky, took a phone call from a man claiming to be a police officer. By the time the evening was done, she had, at the man’s direction, strip-searched, humiliated and molested a teenage employee, even calling her fiancé in from home to participate in the assault. Ms. Summers was not alone; some seventy-four store and restaurant managers had been convinced to perpetrate similar acts, all by the same man.

How was he able to convince otherwise law-abiding people to abuse others over the phone?

A thief in Moscow was able to purloin the wallets of busy pedestrians, simply by asking them to hand it over. The man was not armed nor did he issue any threat, and yet two thirds of the people he approached complied.

How was he able to do it?

A couple years ago, I would have been as puzzled as anyone. But life is a funny old thing, and, as regular visitors to this humble blog will know, I’ve bagged the proverbial dream job and now play Dr. Watson to a Sherlock Holmes of the mind, a brilliant scholar who has committed himself to helping find a solution to a perennial human problem, and has, along with other thinkers in this emerging field, found some surprising and innovative answers.

The problem, of course, has been the matter of how easily we, as humans, can control each other, even to our own peril. Whether it’s called coercive persuasion, thought reform, unethical manipulation or even brainwashing, the same tactics are used over and over again, to assume authority and take command, and the results, as we see, can be devastating.

In his new book Opening Minds, Jon Atack takes an unflinching look at thought reform and groupthink in all its manifestations: from the American euthanasia movement of the early twentieth century to a puzzling case of mass hysteria in Chechnya, from a real estate scam that bankrupted thousands in France to a product placement blunder that lost its company millions, from a dirty game of football between Ivy League schools to the institutionalized genocide of the Third Reich. Drawing from this vast collection of knowledge, he examines the evidence using the tools of such brilliant thinkers as Leon Festinger and Margaret Singer, applying the laws of social psychology to the patterns of history in order to create a fresh perspective on the mechanisms of public persuasion.

I know that I can hardly be called an objective reviewer, but this subject is vitally important to our survival, particularly now, as news comes in from all over about violence perpetrated by extremists, leaving us all wondering just how it is that a human being can be led to do such horrible things – and how to stop it from happening again. Forget banning people from other countries, forget dropping bombs on whole populations: that hasn’t worked yet, and it will never work. In order to stop the violence, we need to look at why, and perhaps even more importantly, how.

In this important work, Jon not only exposes the levers and pulleys of social interaction, but proposes solid and thought-provoking solutions to how we might better work together to create a safer society, and how, by being responsible citizens, we can keep our public servants accountable and serving us – rather than the other way round. It’s been an honor putting it together, and I hope it will lead to even more books on the same topic; only when we work together can we draw the sting of undue influence and make our world a better place to live.

And just as a special treat for fans of this blog, here’s the original cover art Jon and I both liked, but was just a little “too busy,” and I agree – it’s more movie poster than book cover. And regulars to this blog know what I’ve done in that area.

om cover new

Perhaps we can get Benedict Cumberbatch to play Jon? No?

Ah, well. The flower is nice, too: it’s a day-lily from his garden (he’s an avid gardener). I leave you with my favorite version:


And a good night to all.

This entry was posted in Cults, Philosophizing, Spirituality and Religion, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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