How to Avoid Being Manipulated, Bamboozled
and Seduced by Experts and Authorities
by Sharon Presley, Ph.D.
Thinking Critically: Ask Yourself Questions
The following suggestions are based on what social psychologists have
learned about social influence and obedience and resistance to authority.
Don't let others define the situation for you. Ask yourself:
· Is this person really an expert?
Advertisements often include obvious examples of "experts" who aren't
really experts ("I'm not a doctor but I play one on TV") but there are
many other examples of people who make pronouncements without
sufficient expertise. A degree in one area doesn't necessarily mean
expertise in another, for example, an M.D. who gives psychological advice.
· How truthful can you expect this person to be? Does he or she have a
vested interest? Does the authority, institution or publication have a
Moral justifications for war given by politicians often cover up
economic interests; people pushing a particular social issue aren't
always objective about the evidence; people who want you to join their
group may only tell you want you want to hear.
· Is the authority asking me to do something that troubles me, that I
have doubts about, or where there are unanswered questions??
People living in the Nevada nuclear test range area were concerned but
the authorities refused to warn them of the danger so they remained;
physicians sometimes make mistakes in medication prescriptions or in
diagnoses. You may have side effects from a drug or are unsure about a
surgical procedure but are reluctant to ask questions.
· Is the person or authority asking me to go against my own values or
Would the actions advocated be considered immoral or inappropriate in
another situation or in a private context (if a government demand)?
Will my behavior or assent result in harm to innocent people?
Sales managers often ask clerks to use deceptive sales practices;
killing goes on in war that would be considered monstrous (like the My
Lai massacre) if done by private citizens.
· Is the authority demanding unquestioning obedience or attacking
anyone who dissents?
Cult groups may tell you must trust their guru or you are not worthy;
political groups may demand "political correctness" or you will be
vilified; religious groups may tell you you're a sinner or "evil" if
you don't agree with their point of view.
· Is the person or authority using mind control tricks or
manipulation? Is he or she using emotional reasoning? Pushing an "us"
vs. "them" perspective?
Is the person or authority appealing to ugly impulses or fears that
encourage you to put others in an out-group that will suffer?
Calls for restricting immigration often take this form, with hidden
racism at their core; demands for harsh punishment against real or
imagined infractions of social rules are often cover-ups for personal
· Am I letting myself be taken in by extraneous trappings like fancy
title, clothing or setting?
Am I letting myself be swayed by a person's Ph.D. even though it may
be irrelevant or the person isn't being sensible? Do I respond
favorably (and uncritically) to a well-tailored business suit, an
impressive uniform, or a prestigious institution without looking more
closely at the message? Or am I rejecting the person just because s/he
doesn't have a fancy credential without investigating whether they
have appropriate experience or knowledge gained in other ways?
· What are my own motives for responding favorable to this authority
or person (if I am)? Am I letting him or her define the situation
because I'm too lazy or too fearful or too anxious to think for myself?
It's a lot easier to just accept the TV news at face value rather than
reading opinions in diverse publications; going against the boss might
cost my job; objecting to the illegal shenanigans of my "friends"
might make them dislike me (do I need friends like that?)
Separate the message from the characteristics of the person trying to
you. Look for discrepancies between the words and actions of the person.
· Am I responding favorably because I like them or like their looks?
Advertisers exploit the halo effect of attractive appearance. We may
be less critical of our friends than others.
· Am I responding to this person - either negatively or positively -
because of their ideology or reputation, without looking more
carefully at what they're actually advocating or saying?
Regardless of ideology, no one is necessarily right - or wrong - all
the time. Feminists may reject Rush Limbaugh but not be critical of
Gloria Steinem. Conservatives may do the opposite just as a knee-jerk
reaction. Neither may really be looking carefully at the message.
· Am I ignoring hypocrisy or troubling behavior because I like the
person or agree with them on other issues?
Politicians ignored warning signs about the authoritarian behavior of
Jim Jones and the result was the tragic mass suicide in Guyana.
Some fundamentalist evangelists profess Christianity and presumably,
the Golden Rule, but preach hatred of others who are "sinners" and
Some conservatives who profess individualism and individual rights
advocate serious infringements on personal liberties. Some liberals
who profess compassion and concern are now advocating punitive "law
and order" bills.
Don't just passively react. Be aware of the irrelevant factors in the
could unconsciously influence your behavior. Ask yourself:
· Am I being taken in by trappings and symbols that evoke emotional
responses or lull me into a false sense of complacency?
Uniforms have the power to elicit obedience, even when the request is
inappropriate or immoral. Do you look beyond the police uniform, the
priest's robe, the repairman's garb to look at the actual message?
Clothing and appearance have more impact than we realize. Would you
defer to someone in a expensive business suit because you
unconsciously assume that their presumed status means they know what
they're talking about? Do you automatically trust people who dress
like you or who have a "normal appearance" without considering whether
their request is inappropriate or even dangerous? (Rapists often have
"normal appearances"). Do you automatically reject people who look and
dress differently from you?
· Am I going along in a situation that I'm uncertain about or have
doubts about just because everyone else is? Do they really know more
than I do or are they just as uncertain?
The behavior of other people in the situation affect us in both
conscious and unconscious ways, as many social psychology experiments
have shown. Don't fall victim to the fallacy of "social proof." e.g.,
in an ambiguous situation, looking around to see what everyone else is
doing. They may not know any more than you!
· Am I passing the buck and giving responsibility for the outcome to
someone else? Am I thinking about the consequences of my actions? What
will happen to others? To me?
Lots of people say, "I don't want to get involved." Kitty Genovese was
stabbed to death outside her apartment building in Queens, NY over a
period of half a hour while 38 ordinary people who "didn't want to get
involved" watched from their windows. They all assumed someone else
was calling the police.
· Am I letting myself be pressured into a commitment or
action-decision before I'm really ready or while I'm under pressure?
High-pressure salespeople try to get people to sign on the dotted line
before they walk out the door.
· Am I letting labels imposed by the authority or another person cloud
Labels that dehumanize or put others in a category that can be viewed
as negative can evoke automatic "knee-jerk" responses (e.g., not just
obvious ones like "wetback'," "honkey," and "nigger," but "illegal
immigrant, " "airhead," "women's libber," "radical," "girl," or
· Am I getting submerged in the crowd, letting a feeling of anonymity
loosen my normal moral standards?
People will do things in a crowd or when they think no one will notice
that they would not do otherwise.
Be sensitive to initially small, trivial steps that can escalate into
Beware of ``entrapment'
Religious cults start out by asking you to just come to their meeting;
then they gradually ask you for more and more time and eventually
Don't be consistent just for the sake of consistency. Keep the larger
· Do I find myself in a situation I'm unsure or have serious doubts
about but keep on going?
We may have been taught not to be a "quitter." People in the Milgram
shock experiment on obedience to authority got caught up in this idea
of "I've gone this far, I can't quit now." They felt they had to
finish the experiment and lost sight of whether the experiment was
appropriate. Or we may feel "I don't want to lose my investment." This
was part of the rationale for staying in the Vietnam War even after it
became clear that the war was a bad idea. But if thousands have died,
would the death of thousands more make things any better? People stay
in bad relationships because of the "investment." hang-up. Maybe they
should be cutting their losses instead!
Don't react just out of habit. Be willing to question the way things
· Am I just going along with authority because I've never thought to
question it before?
Do we lack a "language of protest"? We may be so used to doing what
authority tells us that we can't even formulate the issue in terms of
a question. We may not even have the words to say to the authority:
"There's something wrong here." We need to recognize that we have the
right to protest when we think something is wrong or inappropriate or
immoral. We have the right to ask questions.
· Am I just responding the way I was taught to react to authority by
my parents, school, etc.?
"Social programming" teaches us to be "good children" who know our
place. It teaches us to be polite, cooperate, never make a scene. We
are rewarded for going along with the group.
· Am I going along with the status quo because it's easier?
Are you unwilling to make waves?
· Am I going along with others (friends, government) say just because
I'm being mentally lazy and don't want to bother to think about the
Do you vote the way your spouse or friends do because you don't want
to take the time to think about the issues yourself?
Question social roles and relationships for hidden assumptions and
about authority and power. Ask yourself:
If you answer yes to some of these questions, maybe you are in an
relationship that needs to be questioned.
If a parent, do you tell you children to obey you because "I said so"?
If you are a teacher, do you impose rigid rules that discourage
dissent and creativity?
If you are a student, do you go along rules or behavior that are
inappropriate out of passivity or fear?
· Physician-patient; Therapist-client; Lawyer-client, etc.:
If you are a professional, do you encourage your client to ask
questions? Or do you expect deference? If you are the client, do you
question advice that is unclear or troubling? Do you seek a second
opinion when you have doubts about the advice? Do you change doctors
when they treat your in a condescending way or refuse to answer your
If you are a boss, do you discourage criticism, treat employees with
disrespect, or in other ways lord it over them? If you are an
employee, do you speak up when something inappropriate is going on?
Have you thought carefully about your religious views or do you just
accept what you've been caught without question? Have you thought
about whether the principles of your religion really make sense to
you? If you are troubled by them, have you explored other
alternatives? Does your religion advocate ideas that may result in
harm or humiliation to other people simply because their views are not
the same as your religion? Does your religion claim that those who
disagree with their principles are "evil" or "sinners"? Does it claim
that it is the only "one true religion"? Does it insist on behavioral
rules that are nothing to do with being kind and compassionate to
others (the Golden Rule)? Does it insist on rules that seem to have
less to do with thoughtful reverence for life or God and more to do
with social control of your personal, private behavior?
· Political group-member:
Does your political group claim it has a corner on the truth? Does it
vilify people whose views are different? Does it have a "politically
correct" line that must be followed or else?
· Peer or social group-member:
Does your group make fun of members who deviate from their norm
whether in ideas or clothes, etc.? Does your group make fun of others
outside the group in mean and humiliating ways? Does your group engage
in behavior you disapprove of?
Do you accept traditional rules and roles (who makes certain
decisions, who does the housework, whose career is more important)
without thinking about them? Or do you work out mutually acceptable
and beneficial duties and decisions? Are housework and childcare
duties unequitably distributed (e.g., the wife does most of the
housework and childcare even though she has a job outside the home)?
Steps for Dealing Critically With Experts and Authorities
(based on You're Smarter Than They Make You Feel by Paula Caplan, Ph.D.)
1. Right to question. If you feel as though you have no right to
question the experts, as though
you need their permission to do so, ask yourself, ``Why do I feel this
way?' Do I feel that it is morally right to grant them (or for them to
have) the power to make me feel this way? Would I want them to have
such power over my friends or loved ones?
2. List of questions. Before you have an appointment with or write
your next letter to authority,
make a list of questions that you would like to have answered.
3. What questions answered. At the beginning of your conversation or
letter, tell the authority
how many questions you would like to have answered.
4. Disarming question. Try to begin by asking a question that you know
the authority may be
willing to answer and may feel good about.
5. Take notes. As the authority speaks, take very careful notes.
6. Ask to explain jargon. When experts use jargon or say anything you
do not understand,
continue to take notes and ask, ``Would you please explain that in
words I can understand?'
7. Ask for written information. Ask for brochures or articles that you
can take away with you,
so that you can think critically about the issues when you are on your
own or with friends or
8. Consult with others. Tell friends and family members what the
authorities are saying to you,
and have a brainstorming session with them aimed at identifying which
questions you need
to ask and which ones you have asked but for which you have not
9. Is bias present? When you recount your interactions with
authorities to your friends and
family, ask them if they hear signs that the authorities are biased.
10. Check for range of options. Check with your friends, other people
who have been through
the same system, and librarians about the full range of your options.
11. What has to be true? Identify a claim or a piece of advice the
authority has given you and
ask yourself, ``If I were in that authority's position, what would
have to be true for me to make
that claim or give that advice?'
12. Is this treatment unfair? If you yourself need help from the
system, always ask yourself,
``If my parent or child or best friend were being dealt with in this
way, would I consider it unfair or biased or cavalier? In what way? Is
the authority simply too rushed to give me a full explanation of what
is happening, and would I be furious if s/he treated someone I care
about in that way?
13. Watch for lies. Watch for the blatantly false statement.
14. Who else can help? If the authority with whom you are currently
dealing is not helping you
or is seriously upsetting you, think about who might be more willing
15. Inappropriate politeness. Don't worry about the authorities'
thinking you are too pushy or
impolite or simply not very nice for asking questions. If they are
treating you badly, why
should you care what they think of you?
16. Model someone else. When you are feeling too intimidated to ask
questions or push for
answers, pretend (in your own mind) that you are someone else.
Copyright © 1994, 1995, 1996 Resources for Independent Thinking