Jun 19, 2022

opening our minds chapter one and introduction with Alan Scheflin


before we begin

Human predators roam among us. Although there aren’t many of them, they have a tremendous influence. To them, the rest of us are prey. Predators manipulate their prey using well-tried tricks. Once you know these tricks, it is much easier to avoid them or to stop them in their tracks.

Every bad relationship, every destructive group, every dangerous government has a human predator at its heart. 

Predators rely upon persuasion. In honest persuasion, we have access to all of the facts – and different opinions about those facts – and enough time and privacy to consider these facts and opinions.

But then there is the type of persuasion used by predators, which is simply manipulation. To manipulate means to manage or influence skillfully, especially in an unfair manner. Facts are hidden or distorted, and we are rushed into decisions that take away our own authority and harm our interests.

Predators cause upset, conflict, corruption and devastation. By seeing through their methods, we can take power away from human predators and have a much greater chance to overcome the problems they cause in our personal and group relationships.

Here is a quick description of the human predator:

Human predators:

  • are mean.

  • are utterly selfish.

  • pretend friendship and love but feel absolutely nothing for others.

  • are charming and good at flattery, but don’t mean a single word of it.

  • brag and boast and make up outrageous lies. When challenged, they blame others.

  • don’t feel anxiety or fear - or are deeply anxious and cowardly.

  • are impulsive and easily bored. They demand thrills and take dangerous risks. They enjoy pushing others into taking dangerous risks, too.

  • are bullies with explosive tempers.

  • are cunning and manipulative.

  • enjoy humiliating people.

  • weaken people with insults and putdowns.

  • hate it if anyone else has power or is praised. For the predator, life is a competition and they want to WIN.

  • lie easily and think nothing of breaking a promise.

  • are without conscience: they do not feel remorse or guilt.

  • often boast about the harm they’ve done other people.

  • are parasites and lazy, living off others, giving as little as possible in return.

  • are control freaks, stopping others from taking control of anything if they can.

  • force petty rules on others – rules that are impossible to follow.

  • boast about tricking other people and breaking the law.

This book will show you how to deal with predators and how to make society safe from their tricks and traps.


The most precious and personal part of every person is his or her own mind. No one else ever sees it, or knows exactly what it is thinking or feeling. It is our most sacred possession because it houses our innermost identity. It defines for us precisely who we are, and who we are not. We can hide the truth from others, but not from ourselves. Or so we think.

But our mind, like our body, needs nourishment. Other people feed our mind with thoughts, suggestions, comments and ideas. We choose which ones to accept and which ones to reject. And we feel confident that we are good at doing so. But are we?

To be good at protecting our minds we must be familiar with the tactics and strategies that may be used by others to outmaneuver our natural protections and defenses. You can see a punch coming, but not a carefully crafted lie or manipulation strategy, unless you are trained to look.

The greatest threat to the autonomy of our mind is from people who seek to influence it for their own best interests, but present themselves as our friends and helpers. Every one of us has great confidence in our ability to protect ourselves from other people acting in ways that would harm our own best interests. We have faith that we have a strong mind, have good “crap detectors” and are not easily influenced.  I call this “The Myth of the Unmalleable Mind.” As kids are fond of saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” But they can. 

For the last 60 years I have studied how people can be fooled, seduced, altered and injured by con artists with exquisite expertise in mental manipulation. I have journeyed through Soviet, Chinese, Korean and American government programs to mentally enslave citizens and enemies, and private cultic groups around the world that have millions of devout followers. I have studied the tactics of advertisers and marketing specialists, the techniques of police interrogators, the dark literature of the antisocial uses of hypnosis, and the exquisite artistry of rhetoric and persuasion.

During this journey I encountered Jon Atack and found a fellow traveler, and a friend. My journey has been as a research scholar; Jon's journey began by being a victim. After he freed himself from the clutches of a cultic group, he chose to make saving others his life's work. There are very few "warriors of the mind." Jon is one of the best. 

In this book, Jon has written a handbook for mental integrity. A botanist studies what insects and pests can harm plants and flowers. Jon has provided us with a handbook for protecting the mind from often invisible forces seeking surreptitiously to undermine freedom of thought. 

One of the fastest growing areas of law is the expansion of protection for victims of mental assault. British and American law for over 500 years has recognized that it is a violation to act towards another person with undue influence. The cases, however, usually involved older people conned out of their life savings by dishonest caretakers. These cases involve financial harm. Within the last twenty years, however, courts and legislatures have recognized that undue influence can also include mental harm. New laws now widen the protections available for people injured by mind manipulators. The need for such laws demonstrates how serious the problem has become.

Lord Thomas Robert Dewar once observed that “minds are like parachutes; they only function when open.” This book is a manual for keeping your mind open. If you want to make your body stronger, go to a gym. If you want to make your mind stronger, pay close attention to what this book tells you. Not only will you learn how to spot and avoid threats to your mental integrity, you will also have the pleasure of reading a very fine book.

~Alan Scheflin, professor emeritus of law

Alan Scheflin holds a BA in philosophy (with high honors), a JD in law (with honors), an LLM in law, and an MA in counseling psychology. He is the co-author of The Mind Manipulators (1978) and Trance on Trial (1989) and many others. He has also published over 70 articles, and is the recipient of 18 awards from various professional organizations including the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis. He has been a consultant in, or appeared as an expert witness in, dozens of legal cases.

the web of influence

“When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer.” ~ Stevie Wonder, Superstition.

It doesn’t matter how smart you are. Anyone can be taken in by a human predator. Even an expert on influence.

you are not a gentleman

I was barely awake when the phone rang. The urgent voice at the other end of the line claimed that Microsoft had found a serious problem with my computer. The caller insisted that I log in, immediately: otherwise, the malware would destroy my machine and everything on it. He sounded deeply concerned.

I tapped in the letters as he dictated them. A list of over a thousand errors and warnings scrolled down the screen. Yes, I had noticed that the computer had been slowing down. Yes, so many error messages were indeed worrying. “You see,” he said, “your computer is about to die.” I was having a little difficulty making out his accent; I was concentrating on understanding, rather than on the significance of the call itself.

But I was beginning to wake up. “Did you say you’re with Microsoft?” I asked.

“No, we’re partners. We’re Microsoft certified. Look on your screen.”

Sure enough, there was a window with “Microsoft Gold Certified” right there, on the screen. Again, he insisted that my computer would die, today, if I did not let him install software to quarantine the many infections. A new window flashed on the screen. For £149 (about $200), he would save my computer, and the protection would last for a year, but for another hundred pounds, if I bought the software immediately – today – he would extend the protection to five years.

“How do I know that you’re Microsoft certified?” I asked, stifling a yawn.

“Look at your screen,” he responded.

“Yes, but you can put whatever you want on the screen. Who can I contact at Microsoft, in the UK?”

The address for Microsoft in London flashed on the screen. “But the London office won’t know who we are,” he said.

“How did you get my number?” I asked.

“If you don’t do this right now, your computer will die. What difference does it make to me? I’m paid my salary whether you take my advice or not. I don’t work for a commission. You’ll lose everything on your computer. It’s no skin off my nose.”

“How did you get my number?” I asked again.

“You are not a gentleman!” he said. “I’m trying to help you.” He sounded genuinely frustrated.

“Hang on a minute,” I said. “I won’t let you call me names just because I want to be sure your offer is genuine.”

“It’s no skin off my nose,” he repeated.

“I want to talk to your supervisor,” I said. 

The supervisor came on the line and apologized for the slur. He then repeated the assertion that my computer would die, and I would lose everything on it, if I didn’t act immediately. “Listen. We’ll do the work for free. If you’re happy, you can pay us. If not, you can simply walk away without paying a penny.”

I put the phone down as my computer went through various changes before my eyes. I called my brother Jim. “Switch your machine off, immediately,” he urged. “It’s a scam. Several of my friends have been caught by it. They leave ransom-ware on the machine, so every few months, you have to buy new add-ons to repair it.”

I had already pulled the plug. The phone rang again. It was the supervisor. “You’ve dropped your Internet connection. You are not a gentleman!”

“I am a gentleman and you are a scam artist. A criminal.” He wanted to argue the point. I hung up. 

Luckily, my son Ben is a computer expert and later that day he cleaned the machine thoroughly. “Watch out for any pop-ups,” he recommended.

I have spent a lifetime studying tricks and scams. I can recite the litany of names used by experts to describe these manipulative methods. And yet, I almost fell for this rather obvious confidence trick. There are even web pages warning about this particular company.

I didn’t buy the fake fix, and no ransomware was left in my computer. I’ve never sent money to a Nigerian offering to share his inheritance with me if I just give him a few dollars so he can collect. I have never sent a “registration fee” to collect my winnings from the Dutch lottery. When a gorgeous Malaysian girl claimed to lust after my aging body, I did realize it was a scam (though only after exchanging emails for a couple of hours). 

It is not just the Internet that is rife with scams. Trickery is an aspect of human nature, and it reaches back long before the advent of the worldwide web. Indeed, some students of animal behavior say that lying is the first stage in the evolution of intelligence. Californian jays have been observed pretending to bury food, and then quickly concealing their actual stash, while their rivals scrabble about in the false hiding place.

Pride does indeed come before a fall. If there is one lesson that we should all learn, and relearn, as often as necessary, it is that no one is invulnerable to persuasion. Not even those of us who make it our life’s work. Indeed, it is confidence in our invulnerability that makes us so vulnerable. Despite decades of immersion in the world of tricksters, I, too, can still be charmed, cajoled, and led like a lamb to the slaughter.

Years ago, I finished my interview with a teenager who had escaped from a notorious authoritarian group only weeks before. He grinned and said, “The great thing is, Jon, that we’ll never be conned again.”

I shook my head, “No, the great thing is that I realize I’m gullible. And that’s my only defense. Whenever I’m brimming over with enthusiasm and ready to reach for my wallet, I try to stop myself and analyze the evidence. Sometimes that saves me money and embarrassment.”

A few years ago, when Amazon contacted me to say I’d won a thousand pounds in their Wishlist lottery, I didn’t believe it. And the disbelief did me no harm; it actually made it sweeter when the credit appeared in my account.

the fraudster’s sales kit 

The phone fraudster – and his colleagues in a boiler room somewhere in Kolkata or Delhi – went through a tried-and-tested script that exploited normal feelings and responses. First, he created fear: your machine will die. Emotional pressure always reduces the capacity to reason. Language can be crafted to direct us away from thinking: psychologists have found that certain words and phrases can by-pass our reasoning processes altogether – “buy now”, “new and improved”, “for a limited time only” and “every penny counts”, for instance.

Next, he created a sense of urgency: he wanted me to act immediately, so that I would have no time to think. This is the “buy now” mechanism, which slips past reasoning. When we are buying anything – from computer software or a second-hand car, to a business training program, to a new religion – it is important to take our time. This mechanism is recognized legally in some countries, where there is a “cooling off” period in which you can cancel a contract to fit double-glazing or anything else you have been pressured into buying. If you must “buy now,” don’t buy at all.

A good scam artist creates rapport. Here the phone scammer failed. He was too urgent, and he was rude. Often as not, when challenged, tricksters protest too much. How could I doubt his word? This is actually a way of generating rapport in reverse. He was suggesting that we had made a connection and that I had violated it by distrusting him. Whenever I hear the phrase: “You can trust me,” a voice in my mind whispers: “You can trust me; I’m a con artist.”

a fraudster’s sales kit

  • inertia – keep them going in the right direction

  • emotional pressure – turn on the heat!

  • urgency – don’t give them time to think

  • rapport – act like a friend and they’ll trust you

  • consistency – if you can get ‘em once…

  • flocking – “everybody’s doing it!”

  • scarcity – “supplies are limited!”

  • reciprocity – “let me give you something in return”

Rapport is an essential aspect of sales and recruitment. We are far more likely to buy from someone who has become a friend. Instant friendship is almost always a trap. Real friendship takes more than one meeting, just as love at first sight is often simply a matter of psychological projection. We find what we are searching for in the other person, whether it is there or not, because expectation conditions experience.

From rapport comes authority. We believe our friends, but we also believe people who agree with us, and share our view of the world. Flattery usually works very well at creating rapport, and when someone has shown us that they have the discernment to appreciate our superior qualities, we are open to their opinions about other matters, too.

Once we have sent the first few dollars to the Nigerian heir, the Dutch lottery official or the gorgeous young Malaysian woman, the next tranche of cash comes more easily. Against the protests of her family, one seventy-year-old squandered her every last cent – some $300,000 – on a telephone scammer. She lost her home and ended her days on welfare, after alienating her whole family. The power of persuasion is far greater than we like to admit.

Once we have committed to a course of action, we tend to continue. It is the inertia of “throwing good money after bad,” which is also known as the sunk cost fallacy. Once we’ve decided on a course of action, we tend to keep following it down the slippery slope. Psychologist Robert Cialdini calls this consistency or commitment. Scammers attack the most generous part of our nature. They are like vultures looking out for the kindest people. Somehow by continuing to fund the Nigerian’s lifestyle, we believe that everything will work out. History is littered with such scams.

fraudsters in history 

In the early eighteenth century, the Mississippi Company, owned by the French Royal Bank, offered investors the chance to make enormous rewards by buying shares in the new Louisiana Territories in America. The currency of France came to depend on the illusory trade of this company. Many French people lost everything they owned to the fraudulent Mississippi Company, and the French currency collapsed. At the same time, British investors were gulled into buying shares in the South Sea Bubble. The Panama Canal scam bankrupted investors in the Victorian era. Clever, wealthy and accomplished people lost everything. 

Dishonest dealings also featured in the Wall Street Crash that precipitated the Great Depression in the 1930s. Share prices were inflated in an ever-increasing spiral. With the Crash, the banks, which had poured investors’ money into this illusion, were forced to foreclose on mortgages; property prices collapsed. Later on, the same trickery happened on a grand scale with the banking crash of 2008. Bankers really believed that they could package up “sub-prime” debts and so give them value. So, property mortgages were offered to people who had no chance of making the payments. A picture containing text, book

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Two economists were awarded Nobel prizes for “proving” that the economy would never collapse again. Trillions of dollars leached out of the economy because of this fanciful belief. Once the mind is convinced, it continues in the same direction – inertia, the commitment of consistency, bedevils human belief.

This highlights another innate problem of such scams: if other people flock to invest, we will be tempted to follow suit. This pattern of jumping on the bandwagon is sometimes called social proof or flocking.

Any examination of history shows that people can be brought to believe almost anything. At the extreme, this flocking behavior led Germans and Austrians to vote away the right to vote and put all power in the hands of a skinny, average-height, dark-haired Austrian, who proclaimed the era of the muscled, tall, blond, Aryan superman. Fifty million people died in the aftermath of this group delusion. Hitler refused to end the war, costing another million lives, because he believed that his followers deserved to die, because they had failed him. There is no safety in numbers when it comes to belief, and joining the crowd quite often leads to catastrophe.

scarcity and reciprocity

Throughout history, scarcity is another often-used aspect of confidence trickery. This can be the insistence that we “buy now” (or the computer will die) or the precious rarity of a “limited edition” of 10,000 coins, postage stamps or porcelain mice.

We also tend to feel obliged to give something in return. Charities will send a free ballpoint pen, a couple of cardboard table coasters, or some nametags along with a request for donations. This is the reciprocity principle. The supervisor who almost managed to scam me said he would fix my computer for free, and I should only pay if I was satisfied. The truth is that many people will pay up, after this seemingly friendly gesture, which is simply another way of building rapport. Then your computer will crash, and you’ll be forced to buy the “add-ons”.

Now we turn to the methods used by scammers, recruiters, radicalizers and pick-up artists to slide past our defenses and sell us anything from a time-share to a belief system.

recommended reading:

Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Pratkanis and Shadel, Weapons of Frau

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