What You See Is Not Always What You Get
Since I finished writing All in the Mind (some of which is based on the academic research of others, though all have been justly credited) I keep stumbling on more examples of how suggestion influences our daily lives without us having the slightest idea that it’s happening.
In the late 1970’s the famous Master Hypnotist Robert Halpern used to begin his spectacular stage show at the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow by telling his audience “we all respond to thousands of suggestions every single day of our lives without realising it.” When I first saw him in 1978, I thought that this opening statement was more to do with showing the audience how clever he was rather than making a salient point! But I was wrong and as I embarked upon my own voyage of discovery into psychology and hypnosis, his words became more and more relevant.
Halpern, tottering about the stage, every bit the nutty professor, dressed in black dinner suit with black velvet lapels and pockets, replete with medallions (very much in vogue in the sixties and seventies, and not just with stage hypnotists!) he would spend the next four hours proving the point, over and over again!
What Halpern lacked in content, he more than made up for in length. Habitually late for performances, more often than not appearing on stage an hour and a half after the official start time, his shows seldom finished before midnight: four hours was not unusual and I formed the impression that he was in some kind of secret competition with Ken Dodd, whose shows started at 7.30 and finished around half past one in the morning. Halpern was a fan of the brilliant comedian Frankie Howerd and I saw some of Howerd’s camp persona apparent in Halpern’s own personality, both on and off stage.
Watching Robert was certainly part of my hypnosis education and in the days when I was playing for the Max Jaffa Orchestra in Scarborough, I would sometimes take afternoon tea with him. Decades later, his words still echo down the years and rattle around in my head as I become increasingly aware of how simple, subtle suggestions can drastically alter our perception of reality.
I am also ever more aware, not to say occasionally frustrated, when I can’t help notice how much suggestion influences others around me. “No no no no no!” I cry “Can’t you see what they’re doing? Can’t you see what’s happening?” Alas, all to no avail. Life seems to plod on as the larger organism of humanity gets carried along on a tide of disinformation and manipulation.
I turned up this example in the New York Times dated Saturday 4th April 2009 on a long and otherwise uneventful flight from Dubai to my home in Cape Town. These things are handed out for free if you fly Emirates – the best airline in the world at the time of writing. Come to think of it, a lot of my background reading has been done at 36,000 feet.
Anyway, the article was written by someone I had never heard of and probably will never hear of again – one Nicholas D. Kristof, a self-styled expert on something or other, and his article was entitled Beware of Experts so it immediately caught my attention – that and the fact that it was accompanied by a nice picture of some sheep.
The gist of Mr. Kristof’s argument is that experts talk as much humbug as the inexpert and he went on to prove this by citing some exciting research which I am going to briefly regurgitate here. It has become known as ‘The Dr. Fox Effect.’
Dr. Myron L. Fox does not exist in any real sense, he yet is feted as an expert on nothing in particular. Dr. Myron L. Fox is in fact an actor, employed on the occasion in question to give a vacuous speech on fuck all to an audience of professional educators. Billed as an expert on the application of mathematics to human behaviour, Dr. Fox’s speech was full of meaningless facts and figures interspersed with some good jokes, as is the tradition on these occasions, but otherwise utterly devoid of any substance whatsoever. After the speech, the attendees were asked to comment. Most were very impressed although one protested that it was “too intellectual a presentation.” This just goes to show that when presented with an expert, even the sharpest minds can become numb with adulation.
A related study, carried out by Professor Philip Tetlock at the University of California, Berkeley, monitored 82,000 predictions by 284 experts over a period of 20 years. He found that the expert’s predictions were only a tiny bit more accurate than random guesses and quotes, the accuracy of their prognostications being no more accurate than a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board.
The worrying thing about Professor Tetlock’s findings is that he also found these same experts were (on average) able to move public opinion by three percentage points. Even more worrying is that this overall trend was not affected in the slightest by such factors as how many years experience the experts had in their chosen fields, how many letters they had after their names, or whether their expertise lay in politics or economics or erotic pottery – they were on the telly, and that was enough. Experts who shouted and waved their arms about a lot got booked more often than those who didn’t shout or wave their arms about a lot, as did the experts with an ‘image’ such as those who wore unusual clothes (Larry King Live on CNN used to be full of them.) Professor Tetlock’s book Expert political Judgement (2005) is now on the list of books I must read.
The book I have just finished, Predicatbly Irrational – the Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions by MIT Professor Dan Ariely, is also a revelation for the uninitiated. I’m not going to spoil it for you by quoting any of Dr. Ariely’s research here, but it is well worth a read. It is, in my humble opinion, one of the best books on human behaviour as influenced by suggestion ever written (even though he rarely uses the word ‘suggestion.’) Both these books are much more succinct and to the point than any of those waffling and rambling tomes on NLP and the like. Grab yourself a copy and read it – you won’t be sorry.
We now live in an age where we are bombarded with new ideas more than at any other time in human history. It seems there is no limit to humanity’s appetite for fad diets (no pun intended) cures, therapies, and so forth. First they tell you eating potatoes is bad for you because of all the starch, then they tell you eating potatoes is good for you because you need the starch and before long they’ll be telling us that smoking is good for your lungs! Who the fuck really knows anymore?
Doubtless all the advice doled out to us by government agencies has been properly and scientifically researched, which is how they got round to telling us that ideally, men should not consume more than 21 units of alcohol per week. Sounds sensible enough, and we all swallowed it (oops! another unintended pun.) Except that the so-called ‘expert’ who came up with the figure recently admitted it was just a number he pulled out of the air. In truth, he had no idea what constituted a safe limit – the government wanted a number and that was the one he gave them, quite possibly after a few drinks.
A lot of the information we are fed is scientifically untestable. Don’t forget your five a day! The idea that you should consume at least five fruit and veg a day was originally put about by Sainsbury’s, a major supermarket chain in the UK, as part of an advertising campaign designed to encourage people to buy more fruit and veg. And it worked, possibly because the campaign was assisted by images of healthy young children chomping their way through a selection of delicious carrots and mangos, and also because other supermarkets quickly spotted an opportunity and jumped on the ‘five a day’ band wagon.
The thing is, it could all be bollocks and there’s no real way of finding out because there’s no way of scientifically testing it… unless of course you were able to carry out a mass experiment on a significant number of twins (this would have to be in the hundreds at least.) The experiment would work like this – one twin would be force-fed their five a day while the other would be deprived of God’s earthly bounty and would be fed only junk food, without the aforementioned fruit of veg, except maybe at Christmas and birthdays. This experiment would have to continue for their whole lives before an unarguable conclusion was reached. Try getting that past the ethics committee!
Being able to test and confirm a hypothesis is vital to finding out the truth. We already know that at least 70% of the population are susceptible to the placebo effect, even when they are told the pill they’re taking is a placebo. The placebo is the secret of why therapies such as Reiki and Homeopathy (one of the more nonsensical snake oil products of the modern era) work so well. And this neatly brings me to my next target – Acupuncture.
Researchers from the Centre for Complimentary Medicine Research at the Technical University of Munich, led by Dr. Klaus Linde have affirmed what we all deep down suspected might be the case anyway – fake acupuncture treatment works just as well as the real thing! So the placebo effect seems to be the real cause, even though it’s one of the most popular treatments for a range of issues from migraine to high or low blood pressure to, you name it, we got it.
An analysis of studies involving over 7,000 patients proved acupuncture to be more effective in treating migraines than drugs. What is not clear is whether the patients involved in the study were particularly suggestible, but then a study of such magnitude is bound to include a good cross-section of high and low suggestibles. Nor is there any evidence pointing to whether the acupuncturists were properly trained or a bunch of amateurs having a laugh – that would have been a lot more revealing and a lot more fun, in my view.
The bottom line though is that it did not matter one jot whether the needles were inserted in the correct places (along the so called ‘meridians’ or ‘energy points,’ or at random. The research also shows that acupuncture does nothing to improve fertility (one of it’s big claims) something that should come as no big surprise.
And that brings us neatly to the new fad of ‘Brain Training,’ the new and exciting buzzword for the pseudo intelligentsia. Jostling for position in the already packed marketplace, these new machines, resembling hand-held Nintendo games and heavily publicised by Star Trek Captain Patrick Stewart (no doubt for a hefty fee) have allegedly sold over 100 million galaxy-wide.
But is brain training just a gimmick, or is there some real value in it? Answer: yes, it’s just a gimmick, and no, it doesn’t train your brain any more than any other stimulating mental activity such as Scrabble or Sudoku.
Again, we turn to the serious scientific studies for proof. Professor Alain Lieury at the University of Rennes, France put the testers to the test. by giving the consoles to a group of 10-year-old children. The researchers found that normal run-of-the-mill activities such as doing their homework, watching documentaries, reading and playing games were not only just as effective but were more fun into the bargain.
Professor Lieury’s particular bugbear was the claim that brain trainers improved memory, a dubious contention not actually backed up by proper scientific research, was false. In Professor Lieury’s tests, those who were not exposed to the delights of the brain trainer, relying instead on more traditional paper and pencil exercises, fared much better after a six week trial. Their memories improved by a remarkable 33% whereas the group whose brains had allegedly been trained by the infernal machines showed a significant decrease of 17% in performance.
If nothing else, it shows that if you want to remember something, write it down! That is why generations of schoolchildren and students are encouraged to make notes, or is that too obvious? When it came to more complex mathematical exercises, both groups fared reasonably well; both the scribblers and the brain trained improved by 19% while those with no extra training whatsoever also improved by 18%.
Makes you think doesn’t it? Or was that the point of the exercise anyway? Either way, there’s far too much charlatanism being peddled these days – this is just another example. Mr. Spock could have told you the whole thing was illogical.
UPDATE to this article: June 2016.
According to a statement released by the Stanford University Center on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development, and supported by 70 of the world’s leading cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists, there is no solid scientific evidence to support the claims of brain training programmes. Their conclusions are also backed-up by 23 other studies.
The American Federal Trade Commission has fined one brain training company, Luminosity, $2 million for making false claims about the benefits of their games. Luminosity claimed their game ‘maximized your abilities and staved off the effects of dementia and memory loss.’ In future the company is forbidden to make any claims that are not substantiated by reliable scientific evidence.
There is a difference between Fluid Intelligence, which is hard to change or improve, and Crystallized Intelligence, that is, a person’s knowledge and skills, which is not. For example, simply learning new things how to play the piano or cook a new dish, can increased your crystallized intelligence.
If you really want to increase your intelligence, there is some good news – University of Illinois psychologist Arthur Kramer has convincingly demonstrated that aerobic exercise improves cognitive functioning.