The Manipulative Power of Reciprocity Reply

By Chris Simmons

One of the many tools of persuasion is reciprocity. This simple technique works because when someone does a favor for us, it triggers a psychological need to “return the favor.”

It is why organizations send gifts in their fundraising appeals. Even though you didn’t ask for the item, you now own it and feel indebted to the other party. And remember, the favor received need not be a physical object. Anything provided by another, such as their time, information, or service, is enough to create a sense of obligation. To not reciprocate actually makes many people feel uncomfortable.

The psychological pressure of reciprocity is real. For example, I regularly take road trips with family members. When we stop for gas, many of my relatives that go into the Mini-Mart to use the rest room will buy something on their way out of the convenience store. In their experience, the fact that I just bought gas from the vendor is irrelevant. They made eye contact and/or spoke to the clerk on the way to the rest room and in doing so, became personally obligated to him/her because that’s the person who has to clean the bathroom. Their small purchase – an act of reciprocity – cancels their debt.

NBC News: Afternoons Turn us Into Lying, Cheating, Lazy Jerks Reply

By Melissa Dahl, NBC News

Mornings are optimistic. The day is new, untouched. No one’s ruined anything yet. You head out the door, hopeful about what this day will bring, and what you’ll accomplish.

And then morning fades into afternoon. Nothing has gone the way you planned it. You get snappy, grumpy. Maybe you accidentally abandon the Excel spreadsheet you should be working on and wander over to

Mornings really are when we’re our most virtuous — and by the afternoon, exhausted by our earlier attempts at being angelic, we’re more likely to lie, cheat, or indulge in lazy behavior, new psychology research suggests.

“From the moment people wake up in the morning, daily life requires the exertion of self-control,” write the study authors, Maryan Kouchaki and Isaac Smith of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. “In deciding what to eat for breakfast, where to go and why, or even what to say and to whom, people regulate and control their desires and impulses.

“Normal, unremarkable experiences associated with everyday living can deplete one’s capacity to resist moral temptations,” they write. “In other words, people are more likely to act ethically and to overcome temptation in the morning than later in the day.”

This new study, published this week in the journal Psychological Science, builds onto research that has suggested self-control is a finite resource. And by the afternoon, we’ve run out of it, the authors suggest.

To prove this, the researchers rounded up 62 undergrads, who signed up for either a morning session (between 8 a.m. and noon) or an afternoon session (between noon and 6 p.m.). The experiment design is a little weird, so stay with me: They showed the volunteers 100 squares that had been cut in half into two triangles. Each triangle was marked with a smattering of little dots. The participants were told to hit one button if there were more dots on the right side, and another button if there were more dots on the left. The catch: They were told they’d be paid more for hitting the button that signified there were more dots on the right side – even if they hadn’t answered honestly. And a third of the squares clearly had more dots on the left side, so it would be clear if people were cheating.

And people did cheat – especially in the afternoon session. Participants in the afternoon indicated more frequently that dots appeared on the right side than those in the morning sessions.

In another experiment, people were given the choice to read some brain food (The New York Review of Books) – or some lighter fare (People magazine). Nearly 60 percent of the volunteers in the afternoon sessions chose the People magazine – in the morning, just 40 percent of them chose People.

Translated into real life, the study suggests that we should realize this human weakness and organize our days accordingly. Difficult tasks that involve some sort of moral component should be done in the morning; leave the less complicated busy work for the afternoon, if possible, the authors suggest.

“Our message is simple yet important,” the authors write. “The morning morality effect has notable implications for individuals and organizations, and it suggests that morally relevant tasks should be deliberately ordered throughout the day.”

Wired For Sound: The Secrets of Auditory Eye Movements & Behaviors 1

By Chris Simmons

Recalling a sound-centric event triggers one of two involuntary behavioral cues known as auditory eye movements. If the individual’s eyes go down and to their left, they are remembering what they heard. If, however, they are trying to remember what they said to someone or thought (i.e., an “internal sound”), their eyes will remain level as they look to their left.

The “Communication Paradox:” How Little You Know About Life’s Most Important Skill noted how the five senses are rooted in our everyday vocabulary. For example, someone might say: “How would it sound if I told you we need to send you to Miami for two weeks? Would that be music to your ears?” He/she is clearly speaking from an auditory perspective. Thus, when asking someone for an auditory recollection, use hearing-associated words to enhance the speed and effectiveness of their memory. This also keeps you on the same “verbal highway,” reducing the risk of miscommunication.

In contrast, auditory construction (i.e., lying) is revealed when an individual’s eyes move to their right in response to an asked or anticipated question. Remember, deceptive cues manifest in a series of “behavioral tells,” so be prepared for other common signs of deceit such as changes in their narrative’s level of detail, the introduction of qualifying phrases or hedges, etc.

Additionally, a deceptive person with an auditory speech preference will often refer to previous conversations in their responses (e.g., “As I’ve told you before…”). This is a psychological form of stress relief, emotional distancing and feigned cooperation because even if he/she lied during the cited conversation, their current statement is – in fact – true. As a result, the liar is calmer and may exhibit few (if any) signs of deception because their focus is the fact that the referenced conversation occurred, not the event in question.

Kelly McGonigal: How to Make Stress Your Friend Reply

Stress. It makes your heart pound, your breathing quicken and your forehead sweat. But while stress has been made into a public health enemy, new research suggests that stress may only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal urges us to see stress as a positive, and introduces us to an unsung mechanism for stress reduction: reaching out to others.

The Family That Fights Together Reply

New Thinking for Parents Since the Days of ‘Not in Front of the Children’

By Andrea Petersen, Wall Street Journal

It is a quandary every couple with children eventually faces: Should we fight in front of the kids?

The answer is complicated. Child psychologists who study the issue tend to say yes—if parents can manage to argue in a healthy way. That means disagreeing respectfully and avoiding name-calling, insults, dredging up past infractions or storming off in anger, for starters.

“Kids are going to have disagreements with their friends, their peers, co-workers,” says Patrick Davies, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. “If they don’t witness disagreements and how they are handled in constructive ways, they are not well-equipped to go out into the world and address inevitable conflict.”

Dr. Davies and fellow researchers found that “constructive” marital conflict was associated with an increase in children’s emotional security, in their study of 235 families with children ages 5 to 7 published in 2009 in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Other studies have linked constructive marital conflict with the healthy development of children’s problem-solving and coping skills and even happiness.

A growing awareness of how and where to fight with a spouse when kids are involved is being spurred in part by a proliferation of research linking children’s exposure to a lot of unhealthy marital conflict—characterized by hostility, threats and insults—with a greater risk of anxiety disorders, depression and behavior problems. Also, a generation of young parents who grew up as kids of divorce in the 1970s and 1980s are now scrutinizing how their parents fought. Some vow to do things differently with their own progeny.

Even infants can be affected by angry disagreements—even when they’re asleep. A study published in May in the journal Psychological Science took 24 babies from 6- to 12-months-old and exposed them to various tones of voice (very angry, mildly angry, happy and neutral) while they were lying asleep in an fMRI scanner. Those infants in families with higher levels of conflict between spouses had elevated responses in parts of the brain associated with reactions to stress and emotion regulation when exposed to the very angry voices during the study. Babies “are still sensitive to things even when they’re asleep,” says Alice Graham, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Oregon and lead author of the study. “The idea of it being a time to let loose when infants are asleep is probably not accurate.”

Still, beyond universal agreement against physical confrontation, opinions vary on the right approach. Some experts say parents should keep arguments away from children because it’s just too hard to fight well. “If [parents] are going to have disagreements, they should do that in private as much as possible,” says Thomas McInerny, president of the AmericanAcademy of Pediatrics. “It is the rare instance when [couples] can keep it rational and keep it calm.”

How to keep things from getting too heated for little eyes and ears? Child psychologist Kirsten Cullen Sharma suggests that parents agree in advance on an anger cutoff point for arguments. On an anger scale of one to 10, she asks individuals to define the number when they feel they start to yell, curse or generally lose control. (For one person, it could be a five. For another, it could be a seven.) During a disagreement, when Mom or Dad hits the cutoff number, the couple tables the argument to a time when the kids are asleep or aren’t around. Either party can say when the other person has reached that limit.

“One of the great skills parents can offer their children is conflict resolution. That helps [kids] in their future relationships,” says Dr. Cullen Sharma, co-director of the early childhood clinical service at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Caroline Rheinfrank and Chopper Bernet have an unofficial five-minute time limit for disagreements in front of their three children, ages 15, 14 and 11. “Now that they are older, they comprehend more,” says Ms. Rheinfrank, a stay-at-home mother in Los Angeles. Or as Mr. Bernet, an actor, explains, “Parents need timeouts, too.” The couple also tries to prevent potential blowups by cutting each other extra slack during times with high bicker potential, including while in the car and just before dinner.

Parents should use their kids’ reaction during a fight as a guide, experts say. A crying child is an obvious sign to end an argument. But there are more subtle cues that a kid is distressed, Dr. Davies says. “When they start freezing, they are stuck still for a few seconds, that is a really negative sign that they feel like they are in extreme danger,” he says. Other kids tend to “slump over, lethargic, and look like they are sort of depressed.”

Some kids misbehave to try to distract parents from the conflict. Other children attempt to insert themselves and try to mediate or take sides. All of these are signs that an argument needs to be put on hold, Dr. Davies says.

It is not OK to drag kids into a parental fight or encourage them to take sides, Dr. Cullen Sharma says. And don’t be fooled if a teen appears nonchalant about his parents’ below-the-belt fighting: “They roll their eyes, but that does not make it less painful,” says Alan E. Kazdin, director of the YaleParentingCenter and a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University.

Making sure kids see some kind of resolution to the argument is crucial, Dr. Kazdin says. “Is there a nice makeup period and mundane chatter? Routine kind of banter will greatly alleviate the child’s anxiety,” he says. This doesn’t mean that the conflict has to be solved. You may just decide to settle it later or agree to disagree. And even more critical, Dr. Kazdin says, is what goes on in the marital relationship during non-conflict times. “The proportion of fighting to affectionate talk is the issue,” he says.

Georgi and Rick Silverman have decided not to hide arguments—often about the division of household labor or Mr. Silverman’s weekend sports viewing—from their kids, ages 9 and 3. But they also make sure the children see them make up. “We’ll hold hands and he’ll hug me and we’ll say we love each other,” says Ms. Silverman, a stay-at-home mother in Houston. “Even if I’m a little upset, I want the kids to know, ‘I still love your Mom and I’m not going anywhere,’ ” says Mr. Silverman, the chief financial officer of a facilities-maintenance business, whose parents divorced when he was 13.

Bottling up anger and giving a spouse the cold shoulder when the kids are around can end up making things worse. The silent treatment is actually more distressing for kids than a healthy argument, Dr. Davies says. “Kids pick up on that. But they don’t know what is going on,” he says, adding that children may think the fight—and its potential consequences—are much worse than they actually are.

And some topics should be totally off-limits in front of the kids, experts say. Intimate, high-stakes relationship discussions should wait until the kids are out of earshot. So should disagreements about parenting practices like discipline or bedtimes. “Parents should come up with a unified decision and present a united front to the child,” Dr. McInerny says.

Write to Andrea Petersen at

Leslie Morgan Steiner: Why Domestic Violence Victims Don’t Leave 4

Leslie Morgan Steiner was in “crazy love” — that is, madly in love with a man who routinely abused her and threatened her life. Steiner tells the dark story of her relationship, correcting misconceptions many people hold about victims of domestic violence, and explaining how we can all help break the silence.


He Almost Got Away With It… Reply

By Chris Simmons

A few years ago, I had the privilege of attending a “Statement Analysis” course taught by Don Rabon, the (then) Deputy Director of the North Carolina JusticeAcademy. Don is so gifted in the field of verbal forensics that his books on interviewing and interrogation are considered “must reads” by many within the law enforcement and intelligence communities.

In his lectures, Don convincingly argued that not only did every word have meaning, but its placement within a sentence told a story. He built upon his assertion by informing us the location of every sentence within a paragraph was relevant as well. We spent several days using his techniques to examine court testimony and other written or recorded statements and identify the truthful and dishonest segments.

During this class, one of his teaching points struck a chord as it beautifully demonstrated the impact of a single word. His tale, based on the recent investigation of a car fire, is reconstructed below:

Police Officer:  “Sir, can you tell us what happened?

Car Owner:  “Well, I’d been relaxing at home drinking beer and watching football — there are some really great games on today. By the time all the one o’clock games were over, I was pretty much out of beer. So I figured I’d run up to the convenience store and get some more before the four o’clock games got well underway.”

“Since I’d been drinking, I wasn’t about to get behind the wheel of a car, so I walked to the store. I bought my beer and headed home. When I got here, my car was already burned up. That’s when I called the fire department.”

Police Officer:  “Sir, turn around and place your hands behind your back. You are under arrest for arson….”

While the subject’s overall statement is built to deceive, one word stood out. Which utterance was it?

The word was “already,” which revealed the subject’s foreknowledge of the event. More specifically, this word indicated NOT that the subject was surprised by the fire, but simply by how fast his car had been incinerated.

Other indicators of deception abound. Note how little of the subject’s statement answered the police officer’s question. The officer did not ask him what he’d been doing that day, he simply asked about the fire. To this simple question, the subject provided a 105-word response, of which only ten words concerned the actual fire (less than 10%).

Notice also that not only is his reference to the fire buried near the end of his narrative, but that it is sandwiched between two positive affirmations, i.e., that he didn’t drink & drive and that he is the one who called the fire department.

Contrast the subject’s declaration with what an innocent person would likely have said.

Police Officer:  “Sir, can you tell us what happened?

Car Owner:  “I have no idea. I’d been home all day. I went to the store for a few minutes and when I got back; my car was a smoldering heap. Unbelievable.”

In this scenario, the distraught owner led off by directly answering the police officer’s question:  he/she didn’t know what caused the fire. The subject then provided some context before again addressing the fire by declaring exactly what he/she witnessed. They then closed with a statement of disbelief. (Note:  The statement of an innocent person will often be significantly shorter than someone trying to conceal misconduct.  Additionally, an innocent party will frequently make repeated references to a crime, whereas a guilty person will minimize the event. Here, the innocent person made a very concise 30-word statement of which 10 words (33%) addressed the fire).

In this true-crime story, the arrested man pled guilty to arson and attempted insurance fraud.

How to Motivate People to do What YOU Want 4

By Chris Simmons

As the Collections Chief for NATO’s intelligence battalion, I ran the alliance’s “Human Intelligence” efforts, gathering information from people throughout Bosnia and Croatia. It was a target-rich environment and on a daily basis, we received information on local obstruction of the Dayton Peace Accords, refugee issues, war criminals, and terrorists.

“Bosnia” actually consisted of three distinct governments: a weak state-level institution (i.e., Bosnia) with two highly autonomous parts, the Croat-Bosniak Federation and the Serb-majority Republika Srpska (RS). Each entity had its own government, parliament and presidency. The redundancies were mind-numbing and hardliners made a game of finding new and creative ways to subvert the 1995 peace treaty which ended the three and a half-year war.

In one area, the local power company was led by Bosnian-Croat militants. These hardliners decided to upgrade the power to their faction’s neighborhoods and install power grids into newly-established Croat communities. Not surprisingly, this action was undertaken to the detriment of the local Serb and Bosniak enclaves.

Clearly, the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) had to respond or risk having hardliners from all three factions mimic this new form of obstruction. We could have used our authority to simply order the offending power company to cease and desist, but opted against it. The likelihood of success was low and would have required lots of manpower and daily supervision. Instead, we came up with our own highly-creative countermeasure.

Local support for the power company’s misconduct was minimal. The Bosnian-Croats wanted to move forward with the peace process, as did the other ethnic groups. We also knew that getting the local citizenry involved in ending the bad behavior would be more effective than any unilateral action SFOR could take. As such, we can up with a plan which would teach all three factions an important lesson.

We understood far too well the truth of the old adage, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men do nothing.” Local support wasn’t sufficient – we needed the citizenry to take action on the beliefs they held so strongly. So we offered an incentive. As co-authors Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner would later point out in their best-selling book Freakonomics, there are three forms of incentives:

–        Moral: People don’t want to do something they believe to be wrong;

–        Social: People don’t want to be seen doing something wrong;

–        Economic:  People want to avoid financial and property penalties.

We also knew the most successful behavior modification campaigns often involved all three incentive styles. As such, we went to the remaining local utility companies, which were run by the other factions, and had them suspend service to the Bosnian-Croat communities. We then spread the word throughout the area, encouraging everyone (not just the Bosnian-Croats) to contact the power company and its employees and ask them to comply with the peace accord. The overlapping incentives achieved immediate results. Additionally, as word spread throughout the country about our new community-based tactic, its success dissuaded all three ethnic groups from ever again attempting to use utilities as a weapon against one another.

Influencing people to do what you want is easier than one might imagine. This is especially true in scenarios like the one above, where the belief system of the targeted audience already overlapped with the message sender, i.e., SFOR. When starting from a point of shared interest, modest incentives are often sufficient to achieve the desired results.

The Challenges of “Imagined History” – Part II Reply

By Chris Simmons

Recently, I introduced my loyal readers to the concept of “Imagined History.” We now need to revisit this issue so I may add additional depth and context to this important subject.

“Imagined History” does not occur for singular strategic issues like the American Revolutionary War. Quite the opposite, it occurs simultaneously on as many as four distinct levels: societal, regional, special interests, and personal. Over time, these overlapping narratives weave real events together with perceptions, assumptions, personal preferences, misinformation, and disinformation. The result is a distorted world view with significant consequences.

Perhaps the penultimate case study in “Imagined History” is the very fractured worldview held by Cuban Master spy, Ana Belen Montes. The highest-ranking Cuban agent ever caught and imprisoned by the United States, I led the Defense Department’s months’ long interrogation that followed her arrest. Never before had I witnessed an individual so completely able to rationalize and (mentally) segment events. In some arenas, she even held beliefs and values that contradicted one another. I believe it was this imagined history that enabled her to thrive in a world of massive self denial.

I observed many other spies, as well as innumerable Al-Qaeda terrorists, display similar patterns of anti-social behavior paired with belief systems derived from a multi-tiered integration of imagined histories.

In more “everyday” situations, the dangers of this phenomenon arise from the impairment of personal interactions. The filters and biases created and sustained by these imagined realties guarantee the misinterpretation of others’ actions and intentions. In some scenarios, the intensity of these filters and biases render one unable to anticipate the future behavior of others. This can eventually constrict one’s choices so severely that you are left simply reacting to circumstances created by everyone else.

Evaluate the means, motives, opportunities, and demonstrated behavior of others and their intentions will reveal themselves. However, one must be free from filters, biases, and imagined histories to succeed in such behavioral analysis.

Author’s Note: Disinformation is false or inaccurate information deliberately spread with the goal of making legitimate information useless. It is inherently different from misinformation, which is spreading information that is unintentionally false.

Neuroscience Reveals The Deep Power of Human Empathy Reply


An old philosophical question asks: is there any such thing as a selfless act?

Cynics answer no, because any apparently selfless act is always tacitly showing off what ‘good’ people we are.

Even if no one else knows about the act, the good feeling you get yourself from helping someone else means a selfless act is never really entirely selfless.

But perhaps cynics will be impressed by recent neuroscientific studies which demonstrate in the living mind the enormous human capacity for empathy.

Holding hands

In a brand new experiment, participants were first put in an fMRI machine and shown a series of ‘X’s and ‘O’s on a screen (Beckes et al., 2013).

The ‘X’s indicated there was a 17% chance they would get a mild electric shock through the ankle, while the ‘O’s indicated they were safe (for the moment).

The scans of participants’ brains showed that when there was a chance they were about to receive a shock, the parts of the brain that are involved in threat response became more active. This was as expected.

The twist was that sometimes participants held hands with a close friend, and it was their friend that received the shock, and not themselves.

What the researchers then saw was that the activity in people’s brains was almost identical when their friend was about to receive the shock as when they themselves were about to receive it.

In comparison, there was relatively little activity in the threat response regions when they held a stranger’s hand.

One of the study’s authors, James Coan explained:  “The correlation between self and friend was remarkably similar. The finding shows the brain’s remarkable capacity to model self to others; that people close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it’s very real. Literally we are under threat when a friend is under threat. But not so when a stranger is under threat.”

Mere presence

So the brain scanner could ‘see’ people empathising with their friends, but can it see whether this empathy does any good?

That’s what was examined in a previous study with a similar procedure—except this time participants were husband and wife (Coan et al., 2006).

The question was: would it make any difference to the brains of people who were about to receive an electric shock whether or not they were holding their spouse’s hand?

Indeed it did. When people held their spouse’s hand, as opposed to that of a stranger, the threat response regions of the brain were significantly less active than otherwise.

And, the better the marital relationship, the greater the positive effect of holding hands with their partners.

Subsequent studies showed that the other person only needs to be in the room for the threat response regions to quieten.(sic)

Connected minds

We all know from personal experience how gut-wrenching it is to watch the suffering of someone we love. And we all know that, when we are suffering ourselves, it’s better to have someone around that we love.

But it’s fascinating to see these fundamental aspects of what makes us human occurring right there, deep in the living mind.