Nearly 35 years after The Manipulated Mind was published by Octagon Press, its author Denise Winn answers some questions we put to her:

Which psychological experiments are most interesting to you? Is their impact still relevant?

I think all the big, classic psychology experiments are still extremely interesting and relevant and I’ll again pick out, as in the book, those on conformity and obedience and on cognitive dissonance – which leads to the strengthening of unhelpful beliefs when they have been put under threat by contrary evidence. The validity of some experiments, such as Milgram’s work on obedience, has been questioned but there have been ‘replications’ in different forms, which continue to show their power. Margaret Heffernan in her brilliant book, Wilful Blindness: why we ignore the obvious at our peril,1 describes a study in which 22 nurses were individually instructed over the phone, by a doctor that they did not know, to give a patient a clearly excessive dose of an unauthorised drug. Even though the nurses were genuinely caring professionals and it is a rule that unauthorised drugs are not given, and that instructions are not taken over the phone from unfamiliar doctors, 21 of them went on to give the drug – in reality, a placebo of course. Yet, when a different group of nurses were asked what they would do in such a situation, only two said they would give the drug. In other words, what we think we would do and what we may actually do in certain situations are alarmingly different.

Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance findings from the late 1950s fit very much with what we know from more recent research about the difficulty of questioning strongly held beliefs, regardless of evidence – and its significance is especially salutary as the research I am thinking of actually involves research psychologists. Over 2,000 research psychologists working at major US universities were surveyed about 10 questionable research practices, including failing to report all of a study’s measures and conditions; deciding to collect more data because results were not yet significant; stopping collecting data earlier than planned because the desired result had already come up; rounding off statistics; selectively citing supportive studies; deciding to exclude data that didn’t support the hypothesis; and falsifying data.2 It turned out that one in 10 research psychologists admitted introducing false data, the most serious research ‘crime’. But the majority had engaged in selective reporting of studies, not reporting all relevant information, collecting more data to try to support a hypothesis and excluding data that didn’t ‘fit’ with the result they wanted, and so forth – their research thus arriving at surely highly questionable conclusions. In true cognitive dissonance style, those that admitted such practices had defences ready for their actions. Another study revealed that there is a lot more ‘spin’ in conclusions of studies into the efficacy of specific psychotherapy methods when the researchers have an allegiance to a particular method, have trained intensely in it, have trained others, etc – and thus have more to lose in career terms if ‘their’ therapy turns out to be inferior to the drug or other therapy it was being compared with.3 The implications of such findings are far from small.

How are young people ‘brainwashed’– if at all – in the era of smartphones and social media?

I can’t claim any expertise or special knowledge about this. I would say, though, that excessive use of screens, including social media, is increasingly being linked with depression,4 which is itself linked with social withdrawal and isolation – key elements in ‘brainwashing’. As was demonstrated in the Chinese prisoner of war camps in Korea, conditioning is easier to effect if it is carried out in a quiet environment with few distractions. As we know, when closed off from reality checking, anxieties and insecurities and, thus, vulnerability increase. Social media becomes the reality. Another key feature in Korea was assault on prisoners’ identity – today’s easy equivalent is being trolled. It is all highly emotionally arousing and extremes of emotion make people suggestible and vulnerable. An overwhelming need or craving for attention, particularly if it was not adequately fulfilled or abused during childhood, can reduce intelligence about where it is not okay for that attention to come from and how – i.e. from groomers online, be they paedophiles or religious fanatics.

What in your opinion would be a subject not taught at school but should be?

Children need to learn what I shall call brain wisdom. It would include basic vital knowledge, such as that high emotional arousal affects the ability to think clearly. When we are awed by someone, fearful of them or enraptured by them, or just excited in any way, we are much more suggestible. The importance of feelings tends to be over-rated. Of course they are important but they can lead us astray or mislead us in other ways. Jonathan Haidt has shown this most powerfully in his work on morality and how the moral positions we take are not governed, as we like to think, by our intellect and reason but by self-serving mental processes outside our awareness.5

All the best bits of the psychology of influence could be distilled into this curriculum, keeping it relevant and personally revelatory, if taught in an imaginative way, which it easily could be. It would be helpful if it could incorporate the scientific practice of looking for disconfirming evidence, rather than our more usual practice of accepting – and seeing – only what supports our own view or understanding of something. The crux would be about distinguishing between the emotional brain and the rational brain, and understanding which behaviours are governed by which and in what circumstances. The aim overall would be to develop the observing self, to enable young people to take a more empowering and wider perspective, which will help them stay safe and increase their intelligence.

What information helps young people evade peer pressure?

I can’t answer this question. I wish I could. It is clearly important to teach young people to celebrate difference and perhaps a ‘brain wisdom’ curriculum would go some way towards helping children develop a stronger sense of the importance of thinking for themselves. But the need to ‘fit in’ is very strong, particularly during the turbulence of adolescence, and being different in any way can draw down bullying – and cyber-bullying, which is terrifyingly relentless. So that has to be tackled too. Somehow I think it needs to become widely recognised that it is weak to be a bully, and that those that bully or who are arrogant or act superior are actually insecure, fearful and deeply doubtful about themselves. Then it could become totally uncool to be a bully or to be associated with one. But that is very easy to say and there are no simple solutions. Ideally young people can be helped to recognise that almost all young people feel uncertain and confused while navigating adolescence, whatever front may be put on it and however confident they may outwardly appear. I wonder whether knowing that their peers are also struggling with their emerging identities might help in some small way to reduce the pull of peer pressure. Then difference and thinking for oneself could perhaps be better celebrated, and not lead to being ostracised.

What is the most interesting psychological research you have recently come across?

Within the context we are talking about, it has to be psychologist Carol Dweck’s ongoing work on growth and fixed mindset.6 It liberates us from the unhelpful, inaccurate and constricting belief, most often inculcated in us in childhood, that our attributes are permanent: that we are good at something or we are not; that we are highly intelligent or we are not; that we are naturally talented at something or we are not, that we can do sports or art or solve problems well or we can’t. She has shown that, when children are praised for the effort they put into an activity rather than for a quality such as cleverness, they are far more able to persevere at learning and developing skills – more than those led to believe that they are naturally talented or clever, who may lose heart and self-belief when they come up short. The effects spiral out. For instance, one of Dweck’s studies found that female students with a growth mindset interested in pursuing maths were less affected by the common stereotype that males are better at maths, whereas females with a fixed mindset were pinned back by it and let the stereotype stop them. A growth mindset allows people to choose how to respond to different situations, instead of being floored by them or feeling helpless within them; it creates open-mindedness, which enables us to see perspective and take in other points of view. What is so valuable about this work is that it has been widely publicised and so is gradually permeating education and parental understanding, as well as business and sports milieux. If it can find its way into political thinking and diplomacy, that will be even better.

1 Heffernan, M (2011). Wilful blindness: why we ignore the obvious at our peril. Simon & Schuster.

2 John, L, Loewenstein, G and Prelec, D (2012). Measuring the prevalence of questionable research practices with incentives for truth-telling. Psychological Science, 23, 5, 524–532. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611430953

3 Lieb, K, von der Osten-Sacken, J, Stoffers-Winterling, J, Reiss, N and Barth, J (2016). Conflicts of interest and spin in reviews of psychological therapies: a systematic review. BMJ Open, 2016, 6: e010606. doi:10.1136/ bmjopen-2015-010606

4 Sigman, A (2017). Screen dependency disorders: a new challenge for child neurology. Journal of the International Child Neurology Association, http://jicna.org/index.php/journal/article/view/67

5 See Haidt, J (2012). The righteous mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion. Pantheon Books.

6 Dweck, C (2017). Mindset – updated edition: changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Robinson.