The Illusion of Invulnerability: Does Persuasion Only Work on Idiots?

This part of an ongoing look at persuasion techniques used by Donald Trump. You might want to check out the previous post – How I Became Obsessed with Donald Trump for context. This blog is not about Trump’s policies or whether they are good or bad, but an analysis of his linguistic skills as a persuader.

Before we start, let’s try an experiment. Name what comes to mind when you think of the following.

  1. Tony the Tiger
  2. Just Do It
  3. The Golden Arches
  4. Probably the Best Lager in the World
  5. Colonel Sanders

We’ll come back to that later.

When I told people about the Donald Trump Mind Control Theory during the election the typical response from anti-Trumpers was ‘that sounds like nonsense, he’s gonna lose.’ Now that he’s President the response of many has shifted to ‘yeah that sounds plausible. However that kind of stuff only works on stupid people. It didn’t work on me because I am smart.’

If you share this opinion, don’t take this blog post as an attack. Almost everyone thinks this way in some capacity, albeit in many different areas outside of politics.

Many of you in days gone by will have visited a seaside town or holiday resort and stumbled across a magic shop. Inside, the shop assistant invites you to watch him perform a trick. Although you’re initially skeptical by the end you’re amazed and have to know the secret. You pay him and leave, eager to get home and become the next David Blaine. Upon opening the box and reading the instructions however, the following thought immediately rushes through your mind:

“That’s the secret? This piece of crap wouldn’t fool anyone!”

The methods behind many magic tricks are often remarkably simple. Some would even say dull. You consider it money wasted and the trick ends up in the bin or that drawer every house has filled with junk you’ll never use again.

A small minority however, will realize the emotional power that can be created using the simple, dull little magic trick.

I often work performing magic at student nightclubs and formals. A surprisingly common phrase I hear from some audience members when about to begin is, “This stuff won’t work on me. I’m an engineering student.”

Never a business, history, art or any other type of student. Always engineering. Not every engineering student says it, but everyone who says it is an engineering student.

I then pull out a coin, make it vanish then pull it out from behind their ear. Literally the simplest trick imaginable. I wish I could show you a photo of their faces at that point. It’s strange mix of delight at the entertainment value, but distress at such a sudden undermining of their sense of identity.

This is not an attack on engineering students, or a brag about my trickery. By the end of the interaction the student is always fascinated and happy to have learned a valuable lesson:

Those who believe they are invulnerable are often the easiest to fool.

Psychology professor Robert Levine calls the phenomena ‘The Illusion of Invulnerability‘ and details it in his excellent book The Power of Persuasion: How We’re Bought and Sold

Consider advertising, perhaps the most straightforward domain of persuasion [..] Does advertising work? Barely at all, say most consumers in surveys, of which there have been many. Advertising, people maintain, is such an obvious form of manipulation that it’s ridiculous to think it has the intended affect on us.

If you believe you’re immune, think back to the experiment at the beginning of this post. If you thought of Frosties, Nike, McDonald’s, Carlsberg or KFC then congratulations – you’ve been influenced using the same principles Trump used to win the election. I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump learned a lot of them from the marketers he had working for his company over the decades.

In addition to thinking we’re invulnerable to others attempts to persuade us, we often also believe that we have a better ability to determine when others have been influenced. Social psychologists, according to Levine, call this the fundamental attribution error:

When asked to explain other people’s problems, we have an uncanny tendency to assign blame to inner qualities; to their personality traits, emotional states and the like. If I hear you’ve been suckered by a salesman, I conclude it’s because your easily deceived. When it comes to ourselves, however, we usually blame it on features of the situation. If I get suckered, it’s because the salesmen rushed me or conned me or I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The tools of influence have been used to build almost every aspect of our society. Have you noticed in some airports when you get to your gate the floor changes from hard tiles/concrete to carpet? This is by design, to influence you to switch from a movement to stationary mindset. Is it a coincidence that many supermarkets have fresh vegetables near the entrance, and place some sugary treats near the checkout? Can you think why this might be?

Only by acknowledging our own susceptibility can we come a little bit closer to the impossible task understanding our own minds, and spotting forces attempting to influence us.

If you want to learn more about The Illusion of Invulnerability, I highly recommend Levine’s The Power of Persuasion which has a whole chapter on it.

If you enjoyed this and think it might be useful to your group or business, you should think about booking my Trump Speaking Show. It’s politically neutral and focuses on persuasion techniques that are applicable to all.

If you want a coin pulled out of your ear and more, get in touch about some close-up magic.