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In my blog I uncover the thinking, actions and habits it takes to get the results you want in business and life. No fluff, just facts.
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Yesterday wasn’t easy. I fired a key employee, who was a good person.
He yelled at me. He threw his credit card on the table. He threatened to come back later. He called me a coward.
Autism hasn’t always been considered a disability. In some of the most brutal and barbaric cultures, people with autism had incredible influence. In this article we will examine one of those stories.
Think of a loved one you have lost. I’m sure you remember their face, or a particularly memorable event you shared. You may remember their home, car or clothes. At some point you will probably think of an adjective that describes something about them.
“Grandma was a fabulous cook, grandpa was a kind man,” or, “uncle Allan was a bad drunk.”
But you don’t remember them as that adjective. Even if you do think of your loved one as fabulous, you most certainly don’t call them that adjective as their name. You don’t say, “I miss fabulous Grandma.”
Ivan Vasilyevich’s adjective not only describes almost the whole of his person, but it also became his name. His actions have defined him for centuries, replacing his full name with an adjective in English. That adjective is terrible.
By 1543 Ivan had witnessed the torture of countless people. Ivan’s own uncle Yuri, who challenged his birthright to the throne, was tossed in a dungeon and starved to death. His mother, Jelena Glinsky, died suddenly after ordering the execution of other family members. It was poisoning, administered by angered relatives of murdered opponents that killed her. Prince Ivan Obolensky was beaten to death by his jailers for his loyalty to Glinsky, within a week of her death.
Finally, on December 29, 1543, Ivan ordered Prince Andrew Shuisky arrested and executed. He had Shuisky thrown to a pack of starving dogs. This was the symbolic beginning of Ivan’s reign over Russia.
He was 13.
During his governance, it was nothing for Ivan to have people drawn over powder kegs and blown up. People were tortured and murdered in front of their families and boiled or skinned alive.
In one story, Ivan had a peasant stripped naked and used her as target practice. Ivan’s weapon of choice was a staff with a pointed, metal, spear tip affixed to the top. In a fit of rage he ran the same spear through the skull of his favorite son, killing him. The death was the culmination of an argument between the two. Ivan had beaten his pregnant daughter-in-law and caused the miscarriage of his own grandchild during a prior fit of rage.
At one point a peasant approached Ivan and rebuked him for not paying attention during church. So Ivan did something unthinkable.
He sat up and paid attention in church.
Remember, Ivan thought nothing of committing horrible acts to clergy, during church, in front of the congregation. He also used peasants as target practice. But when Ivan was approached by this peasant in church something different happened. The peasant did the modern equivalent of grabbing Ivan by the ear. He told Ivan to sit up straight and pay attention, and Ivan did.
In fact, not only did Ivan listen, he sent the peasant a gift, which the peasant gave away publicly!
This same pauper once engaged Ivan during Lent, in which observers, including Ivan, abstained from meat. As he approached Ivan at dinner, he dropped a large piece of bloody meat on the table in front of Ivan. Ivan explained that he did not eat meat during Lent. The peasant said, “You eat and drink the blood and flesh of those you kill and torture.” In other words, “Ivan, you are so deplorable, that eating this steak during Lent is not really going to matter when it comes to your salvation.”
How did Ivan react? By acting as a pallbearer at this mans funeral years later, when he died of natural causes. It was plainly obvious that Ivan loved, and listened to this man. In fact, it seems that this person had carte blanche when it came to speaking into Ivan’s life, more so than any other person.
If you visit Moscow today, just outside the Kremlin stands a beautiful building. It’s oversized domes and intricate paint scheme makes the building stand out as a unique, worldwide treasure. Most people have seen it in pictures because it is one of the most photographed pieces of architecture in the world.
At the age of 13, (oddly the same age as Ivan when he ordered his first execution) Basil dedicated his life to Christ and remained for over 70 years. He wore very little clothing, even during the harsh Russian winters. Basil had an incredible sense of passion, lived in the moment and opened the doors to a much deeper and higher sense of worship than those around him. He was not typical, but he fit the description of a very small group of people throughout history who acted similarly. They were called, “The Holy Fools of Russia,” and they seemed to have something that others did not.
So what did Basil have that made him so dedicated, so passionate and so influential? How could a man, with almost none of the typical makings of stature in his culture, who spoke so bluntly, become revered and beloved by the tyrant who murdered his own son?
Some historians believe Basil had an incredible brain anomaly that caused him to act the way he did. People affected by this anomaly have a surplus of synapses, or connections between brain cells. This happens when the natural pruning of these synapses which usually takes place in our brain, doesn’t occur the way it should. It has many symptoms and causes different results in the people it affects. Historically it has gone by many different names.
Today it is most simply know as autism.
John Donavan and Caren Zucker explained this rationale in their bestselling book, In a Different Key, The Story of Autism. The following is an excerpt.
-Half a millennium ago, a Russian shoemaker named Basil, born around 1469, was spotted walking about naked in winter, spouting incomprehensible utterances, while remaining inattentive to his own needs, even for food. The populace did not see this as madness. They thought, rather, that they were witnessing extreme holiness. The Russians called this “foolishness for Christ” and reared Basil’s self-abnegation as courageous, difficult, and a pious path, which Basil took in order to allow Christ to speak through him. Even the tsar-Ivan the Terrible- who was known to have waiters executed for serving the wrong drink at dinner, let Basil criticize him in public. He believed Basil could read his thoughts, and he took it to heart when the wandering shoemaker scolded him for letting his mind wander in church. It was said that Basil was the only man Ivan truly feared.
In 1974, a pair of Russian-speaking scholars at the University of Michigan suggested that something other than pure foolishness or holiness might have been at work in Basil, and in a few others with similar stories. Natalia Challis and Horace Dewey dove deeply into the available accounts of Basil’s life and some thirty-five other “Holy Fools” of bygone days, all recognized as saints by the Russian Orthodox Church. Challis’s and Dewey’s academic specialty was Russian history and culture, not autism. But Dewey had a son, born in the 1950’s who had been diagnosed with autism, and that gave him insights into the behaviors of the ancient wanderers. He came to believe that autism, not insanity or divinity, might explain the Holy Fools’ behavior.
This set of individuals were “unhampered by society’s preconceptions” and content to live in a state of social isolation. Certain of them were wedded to rituals. They noted that Basil’s tolerance of extreme cold which let him “walk barefoot on the frozen Volga” was reminiscent of how some people with autism appear indifferent to extremes of cold, heat, or pain. The Holy Fools were also observed to get by on limited sleep and food-again, similar to some people with autism.
While some remained mute, several were known to echo the words of others, and still others spoke in riddles. And legend has it that some blurted out what they were thinking into the faces of the powerful. That tendency was a major part of what endeared the Fools to the Russian public. In a culture where few dared to question authority, their impertinence was reminiscent of the great prophets of the Old Testament.-
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Was autism the secret tool Basil used to influence one of the most horrible people that lived? Could the personality of those on the autism spectrum lend itself, in some ways, to persuasion and influence? Consider a person you know with autism. If you are realizing that some of the traits they exhibit do seem persuasive, you are not wrong.
In July of 2017, verywell.com published their Top 10 Positive Traits of Autistic People. The article garnered some negative reviews because of the generalization of people on the spectrum. People with autism are referred to as being on the autism spectrum. Autism results in set of personal characteristics somewhat different from what we consider average. But not every person with autism has all of the characteristics listed on the spectrum.
For example, some of the characteristics on the spectrum are as follows:
(You can learn more at autismspectrum.org.au)
Though these are a few of the behaviors on the spectrum, not every person with autism will exhibit all of these behaviors. While Down Syndrome is quantifiable; every person it affects has an extra chromosome, autism is not, and because of that, the symptoms vary. For example a person with autism may insist on routines, but might not show repetitive body movements. Because the range of behaviors can be so varied, the term “autism spectrum” is used to describe the set of possible behaviors of a person with autism.
But the people at verywell.com believe that most people on the spectrum share a common set of endearing characteristics. They are:
These are obviously not scientific explanations or descriptions of people with autism. But I think it’s fair to say, at least anecdotally, the people on the spectrum whom I have met do live up to this high praise. Think of it. Frequently someone on the spectrum will say things that seem socially inappropriate. But it is usually inappropriate because it is awkwardly true and said passionately without judgement. Simply a momentary fact, most of us wouldn’t say. They call neurotypicals on our facades at times and in places we think awkward. This very common trait associated with autism is the embodiment of numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 9 and 10 from the list. It is hard to argue these traits and, when shown in the proper light, these traits are endearing.
Most of the items on the list are really just personality traits many of us would love to have more of. We can all play fewer head games or judge others less. At least some of these positive traits describe a personality that is not only attainable, but influential. It is the description of a person that is someone to whom I am likely to listen.
Is the personality verywell.com describes also common in influencers? Could their list be a little-known set of influential characteristics that inherently reside with those on the autism spectrum? Are those characteristics integral in ethical persuasion or principled influence?
Were these the keys to Basil’s personality that put him in such high regard in the eyes of the serial sadist, Ivan?
And just how pivotal is personality when it comes to persuasion and influence? What mattered more, who Basil was, or what he said and did?
A huge portion of potential influencers spend mountains of time finessing the message, campaign or product.But they spend less time developing the personality of the influencer or messenger. This is a huge mistake. That the message, campaign or product has to be high-quality and good for the audience should be a given. But focusing on small details around the product or message is a mistake if the messenger doesn’t resonate with the audience.
In the incredible book Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, he unequivocally proved that the personality of the messenger is not only pivotal, but actually has more to do with influence than the messages themselves. I arrived at this conclusion when Gladwell described the real reasons doctors are sued for medical malpractice. And it has much less to do with medical malpractice than we think.
Gladwell writes, “The overwhelming number of people who suffer an injury due to the negligence of a doctor never file a malpractice suit at all. Patients don’t file lawsuits because they’ve been harmed by shoddy medical care. Patients file lawsuits because they’ve been harmed by shoddy medical care – and something else happens to them.”
-Recently the medical researcher Wendy Levinson recorded hundreds of conversations between a group of physicians and their patients. Roughly half of the doctors had never been sued. The other half had been sued at least twice, and Levinson found that just on the basis of those conversations, she could find clear differences between the two groups.
The surgeons who had never been sued spent more than three minutes longer with each patient than those who had been sued did (18.3 minutes versus 15 minutes). They were more likely to make “orienting” comments, such as “First I’ll examine you, and then we will talk the problem over” or “I will leave time for your questions” – which help patients get a sense of what the visit is supposed to accomplish and when they ought to ask questions. Those were the group more likely to engage in active listening, saying things such as “Go on, tell me more about that,” and they were far more likely to laugh and be funny during the visit.”
Interestingly, there was no difference in the amount or quality of information they gave their patients; they didn’t provide more details about medication or the patient’s condition. The difference was entirely in how they talked to their patients.-
In a nutshell, the personality of the doctors determined if the patient would sue them for medical malpractice, not the quality of care. Gladwell goes on to explain situations where patients wanted to sue because they felt they were given inadequate care. But when they realized the suit would hurt the people in the office whom they liked, they chose not to continue.
This is the power of personality. It is the engine that drives influence. It is a measuring stick by which most of us gauge the degree of influence we allow someone to have in our lives. We do not accurately evaluate every decision, purchase or vote and come up with rational choices. In the context of influence, the personality of the influencer is what researchers call a heuristic. Heuristics are gauges, or rules of thumb that we have gathered to make processing information easier. Often they are very often wrong.
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In Richard Thaler’s book Misbehaving, he explains some of these mistakes in practical, real life, economical examples. He explains that a man who suffers from hay fever mows his own lawn. When asked why he doesn’t hire a kid from the neighborhood to mow the lawn for $10 the man says it isn’t worth it. In other words he would rather save $10 by mowing a lawn and suffering through the hay fever.
So, in logical, analog terms, hay fever is worth $10 to that man. When he is asked if he would mow a lawn roughly the same size for $20 the man says no. But this thinking is irrational. If hay fever is worth $10 to the man then it should definitely be worth $20.
The man is reacting to a heuristic that behavioral analysts call loss aversion. As a rule we over-value what we already have to very inaccurate results. The man with hay fever is valuing the $10 he is saving more than the $20 he would earn mowing the other lawn.
Loss aversion is an example of an irrational heuristic that influences most people. These heuristics, irrational or not, are usually the guardrails of our decisions. They offer us the ability to make decisions in multiple contexts.
But context can often change the heuristic.
Imagine I approach you in a shopping mall and ask your help with a math question. You agree to help, so I present the following problem. There are two pieces of railroad track, each one is a mile long, laid end to end. The tracks are secured at each end and touch in the middle. The railroad tracks each expand by one inch, into each other lifting the middle in the air. Also imagine they do not flex. Instead they are perfectly rigid, forming a triangle with the ground as the base. Here is the question, how high do the tracks raise?
The average guess is two inches. Each track expands an inch and there are two tracks so two inches. Most people use the information readily available as a heuristic, make a guess and move on.
Now suppose you are in a geometry class. The topic is pythagorean theorem or the measurements of right triangles. Your teacher explains that any triangle with two equal legs can be divided into two right triangles. This is done by drawing a line from the point of the triangle to the center of the hypotenuse. The newly drawn line can be measured by applying the pythagorean theory to each triangle. It works as long as you know the length of the other two legs. Then she explains the same problem a different way. The leg of a right triangle is 5280’ or one mile long. The hypotenuse of the same triangle is 5280’ 1”, one mile and one inch. She hands you a calculator and asks, “what is the length of the other leg?”
Now the context is different but the problem is the same. You have the formula and you have a calculator. In just a few seconds you arrive at the right answer, which is 29.6 ft. Notice that the average answer of two inches is way off. The heuristics or rules of thumb we use in the absence of all of the information is often extremely wrong.
The context of the mall scenario is so different than the classroom. Even people who know the pythagorean theory, and have a calculator on the phone often get the answer wrong. Most of us would need to be in the presence of the right context in order to arrive at the right choice. Even if we have access to all of the necessary information. But most of our decisions and choices are made in a context lacking complete information. Which is why the personality of the influencer usually affects the choice of the majority of consumers more than facts or data.
When we cast our vote we don’t usually do it with a full set of information. Typically our logic goes something like this, “I am a gun-owner and he supports the NRA,” or, “I have glaucoma and she supports medical marijuana.” We don’t think in actual terms like, “She supports medical marijuana, unless Congress has been overwhelmingly filled with right-wing candidates on the back of a huge growth of Christianity and she thinks the constituents are moving away from supporting legalized medical marijuana.” That is foolish. We assign people fundamental attributes and assume those attributes span every situation.
Typically we say, “Thomas is kind.” We don’t say, “Thomas is kind, unless he didn’t sleep all night, and the barista is rude and messes up his order.” This is called the fundamental attribution error. It is another heuristic or rule of thumb that we use to make decisions in multiple contexts to make our life easier. It would be impossible to go into every decision armed with all of the information about that situation. So in our day to day dealings with people, we assign fundamental attributions to them. If the messenger attracts poor fundamental attributions, it won’t matter what the message is.
Heuristics, context and fundamental attributions are why the personality of the influencer is so critical.
Book purchases are a perfect example. People do not buy books because of the information in them. If that were true then people would need to read the book before they buy it to find out if the information is worth paying for. People buy books based on their view of the author, or the personality of the friend who recommended it, or the context of their need and the answer promised by the cover. But no one purchases a book because they have read it and evaluated the information first, and then choose to buy it. Hardly any influence is made in that manner. The personality of the messenger, the context of the situation and fundamental attributions almost always hold sway over influence and persuasion.
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So when the message, product or candidate is a decent choice, the consumer uses context and the personality of the influencer to make their choices. If we spend our time polishing and honing the product or message, but we get the messenger wrong, it won’t matter. People choose influencers using heuristics, context and fundamental attributions, not spec sheets and charts.
Incredibly, history has proven some of the traits from the list to be pivotal in creating that influential messenger. Our ideas can only spread when they are offered by the right person. That person is someone whose personality of positive fundamental attributions, can build a heuristic of trust and create the context in which influence grows.
In my book SWAY, I dissect a few of the personality traits on the list of positive attributes of people on the autism spectrum. I look back at history and find people who had the opportunity at influence. In each section of the book I explore one person who used a trait from the list to exercise influence, and one person lacking the trait, who was unable to leave their mark.
Understand that when we studied someone with influence, it didn’t necessarily mean these were people who advanced society. In some cases the most influential people used a trait, or the science behind the trait, to influence humanity for the worse.
In the book, I focused on six of the traits which I found to be common in the history of influence. They are:
People with autism are passionate
Those with autism rarely judge others
People on the spectrum play fewer head games
People with autism are not tied to social expectations
Those on the autism spectrum live in the moment
People with autism open new doors for neurotypicals
I examined the story of a man who had every opportunity to save an immeasurable number of babies and their mothers. His passion and use of it had everything to do with the amount of influence he had. We explored a businessman who acted completely contrary to the world around him, and what effect it had. The book dives deep in the world of psychopaths and determines the degree of their influence and what science tells is so effective and ineffective about their persuasion.
We recount the story of one of the originators of the concept of the atom. What trait on the autism spectrum did he use and how was it received?
We look closely into the terrorist attacks on September 11th, the psychology that led up to the attack and how it could’ve been avoided.
Plus we explore how one person single-handedly caused the fall of a 230+ year old bank that, up to that point, had survived WWI, WWII, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and financed the Louisiana purchase. We explain how that person, exploiting one trait from the autism spectrum, caused the collapse of the bank that held the Queen’s money.
And that isn’t all.
History is ripe with examples of successful and failed influencers. The personality of the influencers seems to be the common denominator in the amount of persuasion each person had. What’s more, the specific parts of their personality that had the most effect on their influence seem to fit within the six characteristics from the autism spectrum that we examined.
My hope is that SWAY will do four things.
Society considers 16th century Russia a brutal and barbaric place. But were they ahead of us when it comes to their view of autism? Did they know something we have forgotten?
Find out here.
You’ve seen the ads. These shoes are x amount lighter, x times more cushiony or can spring over a goal post on a football field- buy now and save. You are automatically interested, thinking, for a minutia that you could really use lighter, cushionier and springier shoes. Then your common sense sets in. “Why in the world would I want my shoes to spring over a goal post on a football field?”
Imagine for a minute that you do the math on these claims. You want to be an informed consumer before you buy running shoes to make you faster. You determine the extra .04 ounces of weight loss in the shoes is equal to the weight of about a half a peanut!
You scream with frustration! “Argh, these stupid marketers are just playing with my mind!” Math says that if you simply cut one peanut out of your diet every day, you’ll be twice as fast as any Bozo that buys these shoes.
But math is wrong. When it comes to the science of improvement, of personal growth, there is a factor that math can’t measure.
Math can’t measure your mindset.
Math can’t measure your focus.
Math can’t measure your effort.
Math can’t measure the idea that you have in your head the morning after you buy the expensive, springy shoes that tells you just how fast and springy your run will be this morning.
Math can’t formulate how much more you will try to prove that the shoes made you faster, which will cause you to, try harder, burn more calories, lose weight and yes, eventually get faster.
The shoes don’t make you faster, but the idea of the shoes do. The idea that you must prove to your friend that these shoes were a good investment, forces you to go faster. The thought that you are a logical spender causes you to grit your teeth and push up the same hill that, yesterday you slogged up the side of.
So do lighter, cushionier, springy running shoes make you faster?
The answer is no, mathematically they don’t.
Until you buy them.
Psychopathy and autism have a very curious link. Both offer a peek into the mind of natural influencers, but there is a startling difference.
What if you thought you were guilty?
In 1985, Helen Wilson was brutally raped and murdered in Beatrice Nebraska. In 1989 Ada JoAnn Taylor confessed to the murder. Today she says that sometimes she can still feel the fabric from the throw pillow in her hands as she suffocated the life out of the sixty-eight year old grandmother.
Taylor’s life was anything but average in 1985. She was the product of years of abuse, a failed foster care system. JoAnn suffered with drug and alcohol abuse and was diagnosed by Dr. Wayne Price with borderline personality disorder. She had given up her parental rights to the daughter she had at a very young age at the request of Dr. Price. But with the help of a young, gay, pornographic film star named Joseph White, she was attempting to get her rights back.
During the same time, a hog farmer named Burdette Searcey made a promise to the daughter of Helen Wilson. He promised to solve her mothers murder. Burdette felt the need to be involved and perhaps needed a reason to get off of the pig farm. In two short years, Searcey was deputized in Gage County and took on the case full time.
1. The authorities at the time decided the murderer was a homosexual, because of the details of the rape.
2. They had also determined, from sample taken at the scene, the culprit had type B blood.
In March of 1989 Secrecy had an arrest warrant issued for Taylor and her gay friend Joseph White. The warrant was issued on the basis that White was a homosexual. Also, they had the testimony of a seventeen year old whom the Beatrice Police Department described as “a maybe retard,” who said the friends had talked about committing the murder.
White was arrested. During his interrogation he said the idea that he had committed a murder was, “pure, deep bull****.” The next day Taylor was arrested. During her interview she explained that she, “blocks a lot of bad things out,” and that, “there’s a lot in my childhood I can’t remember.”
It was at this point that her old counselor, Dr. Wayne Price was brought in. He explained to the duo that their recollection of the murder might come to them segmented, a piece here and a piece there. Or that it might occur in dreams. This shift in the conversation is subtle and was a psychological trick to turn the conversation from “did you do it” to “how did you do it.” Taylor said, “In my head and in my heart, I know I wasn’t there.”
But that didn’t persuade Dr. Price or Searecy.
Finally Taylor broke. She admitted to the murder. But there were flaws in her admission. For example, she explained how the event happened in a house. Her description of the house resembled one where she had been abused as a child. Only after it was revealed to her that the murder had taken place in an apartment did she “remember” it that way.
Unfortunately for Searcey neither Taylor nor White had type B blood. After some prodding, Taylor admitted that she thought her childhood friend, Tom Winslow may have been involved. He was also believed to be homosexual. After his arrest, questioning and some unconventional memory recollection, he admitted he may have been involved.
But Winslow had the wrong blood type as well.
Helen Wilsons niece, Debra Sheldon was brought in for questioning. She was acquainted with Taylor and White during the time of the murder. After unconventional interrogations White admitted that she also may have played a role in the murder.
Her blood wasn’t type B either.
And so the slippery slope was slid, with one person being coached into a confession. Then the evidence would not line up. So the confessor points to another possible culprit. This pattern was repeated until, all told, 6 people were implicated in the murder and rape of Helen Wilson. They were Ada JoAnn Taylor, Thomas Winslow, Joseph White, Kathy Gonzalez, James Dean and Debra Shelden. 5 of the six admitting to their involvement. Only White proclaimed his innocence throughout the ordeal.
The group was called the Beatrice six. They were sentenced to decades in prison. Joseph White was the only one to go to trial because he was the only one that wouldn’t confess. Three of the other five testified against him as part of a plea bargain to reduce their sentences.
James Dean admitted that he was there during the rape and murder. He offered testimony that was very descriptive of the event. His story was that White and Winslow committed the rape. He said that Taylor held a pillow over the face of Wilson which ultimately lead to her death. Shelden admitted she was there, but tried to intervene. In her description, White struck her and she didn’t remember much after that point. Almost all of the descriptions came from very unconventional tactics with, as James Dean said in a 1989 deposition, 70-90% of his recollection coming from dreams.
But those admissions weren’t the only problems with the case.
The jury that convicted the group was not informed that the fingerprints from the scene did not match any of the alleged participants in the crime or the victim Helen Wilson.
The jury also never learned that the DNA samples taken from the crime scene were possible matches for Gonzales and Winslow, but that one man who was a perfect match had been ruled out by Joyce Gilchrist.
Gilchrist was nicknamed “Black Magic” for her ability to make DNA connections that other forensic examiners couldn’t. She was able to make those connections because they were repeatedly wrong. Michael Blair was sentenced to death for murder based on Gilchrist’s testimony that his hair matched hair found at the scene. This turned out to be false. Curtis McCarty spent 20 years on death row after Gilchrist mishandled his evidence. He was released in 2007 but has not received any compensation. Jeffery Pierce was convicted of rape based on Gilchrist’s evidence despite having an airtight alibi. Peirce was released in 2001 after 15 years in prison when the DNA evidence was re-examined and found to be inaccurate.
If manipulating the truth at the expense of human life is a sign of psychopathy, Gilchrist fits the bill.
Her testimony or evidence led to the execution of 11 people. But in this case, she ruled out a man named Bruce Allan Smith, a name that will become extremely important.
Ultimately White was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Winslow plead no contest as part of a plea bargain and received 50 years in prison. Gonzalez, Dean and Shelden all received 10 year sentences and Taylor received 10-40 years after each plead guilty to their part in the crime.
Sheldon, Gonzales and Dean were released after four and a half years. White and Winslow appealed over and over. They were repeatedly denied until 2007. During that appeal DNA testing proved the murderer to be Bruce Allan Smith, who had been dead for 15 years at the time of the appeal. Gage County eventually was ordered to pay $28 million to the Beatrice six who had almost unanimously admitted to the crime. The group collectively spent over 70 years imprisoned for a crime in which they had no involvement, but admitted to committing.
How is it that not just one, but multiple people remember committing a murder that none of them had commited?
In 1931 a psychologist named Norman Maier may have found the answer with a very simple experiment.
Maier was interested in understanding how people solve problems. He devised a puzzle which has since become known as the “two cord puzzle”.
Maier hung two cords from the ceiling of his lab. The cords were far enough apart that people could not grab each at the same time. Then he asked people to come up with ways to tie the two ends of the cords together.
Most participants came up with solutions that involved using the items in the lab to reach one cord while holding the other. Extension cords were tied to the end of the ropes, poles were used to hook the end and pull the two cords together and other miscellaneous solutions were created. But Maier had another solution in mind. He wanted to see how long in took people to come up with his solution. So he continued asking the participants to come up with new ways to solve the puzzle, until they ran out of ideas.
The solution Maier was looking for was to swing one rope in a pendulum fashion. Then participants could grab the other rope and catch the swinging rope when it came towards them. Very few participants worked out this solution, until they were given a seemingly accidental clue.
Maier would walk around the lab during the experiment until, when people had run out of ideas, he would brush against one of the ropes and set it swinging. Within a minute of this seemingly careless clue, most people would arrive at Maiers solution.
This experiment showed how easily we can be nudged with a solution to a problem without realizing it. But that wasn’t the interesting part. The fascinating part came after the experiment ended.
Only one-third of participants in Maier’s experiment realized they’d been given a clue when Maier bumped the rope. The other two-thirds explained that they arrived at the solution themselves. They fully believed they had solved the puzzle, without help, even though their own thinking did not instigate the solution to the problem.
The majority of participants were easily persuaded to solve the puzzle Maiers way, with Maiers help. But, in the end, the whole time they thought the solution was their idea.
It happened through a psychological concept called priming.
Imagine I show you pictures of delicious food for 30 seconds. Then blindfold you and expose you to the smells of those same great dishes. Then I quickly remove the blindfold and in front of you is a whiteboard with the letters S-O-_-P. I ask you to fill in the missing letter. Instinctively you will most likely spell the word soup. In fact you probably thought that was the answer before I explained it.
But if I show you images of dishes being cleaned, brooms and clean laundry, then blindfold you and expose you to the smell of lemony cleaners and bleach, then pull off your blindfold to the same puzzle, you will probably spell soap.
It is an example of a heuristic. The context and situations we are in affects our thinking, decision making and even memory. Remeber, heuristics are shortcuts or rules of thumb that our brain uses to speed up our decision making process. They are, for the most part a good thing. But they can be very easily manipulated.
Here is another example of the priming heuristic.
Ray is an eighth grader who wants to play a joke on his little brother Tom. He tells Tom to spell the word white, which Tom does. Then he asks what color paper plates are. Tom says they are white. So far he’s two for two. Ray then tells Tom to spell the color of snow, which of course is w-h-i-t-e. Finally Rays tell Tom to spell what cows drink as fast as possible. Tom thinks he’s being tricked into spelling white again and smugly spells m-i-l-k. Ray laughs and explains to his very primed little brother that cows drink w-a-t-e-r.
I even used it in an earlier chapter of my next book. I wanted the reader to link Hindenburg the man with the Hindenburg blimp tragedy. So I wrote the following.
Hindenburg had a burning dislike for Communism, which drove many of his actions. He was chosen to lead his people often in battle and politics, and his name has gone down in history. His actions sparked a famous, worldwide event and qualified him for the second chapter of this book, but probably not for the reason you think.
Priming is a very powerful, psychological tool. It’s a tool that manipulators can use to influence their victims into thinking that poor choices were their idea. Psychopathy can cause a person to manipulate others with priming. They corrupt the mind of the innocent with thoughts that lead to the actions they are trying to illicit. In a junior high school joke it can be funny. In a book it can bring out the feelings or memories the author wants.
But when lives, prison or even money is on the line it is purely manipulation.
Ada JoAnn Taylor’s black hair is streaked with grey and cut short during her interview. She looks haggard and exhausted. It seems like she has spent years missing sleep. There is one moment during the three minute interview when she appears to twist her face into the closest representation of a smile that she can seem to muster. It happens when she uncovers a ridiculous truth about the investigation. Price, her one time mental therapist, was also a part-time sheriff’s deputy who aided in the interrogations.
The same man whom she had trusted to give her advice about her mental health years earlier was now advising her. “We know you did this,” she quotes Price, “we know you suffocated her. If you’ll just concentrate on your dreams your memories will come back. You’ve just repressed your memories.”
The cord had been set in motion.
Then the interviewer says, “but the suggestion that you may have done it was enough to get you to admit.” Right on cue, Ada JoAnn Taylor begins repeating, verbatim what the interviewer is saying, immediately after she says it. It is almost as if the interviewer is now doing the priming.
Taylor says of Price that being privy to her background and psychological state gave him access into how best to manipulate her. She says that he knew, “if we tell her something hard enough she’s going to listen to it. She’s gonna accept it.” Price helped wrongly convict 6 people of murder.
She says that Searecy would tell her the police knew she had suffocated Wilson with a pillow. It is the tormenting false memory that still runs rampant in Taylors mind. She says she can still visualize herself holding the couch pillow that choked the life from Helen Wilson.
Unfortunately that false memory is more false than we think. Wilson was not suffocated with a couch pillow. She was wrapped in a blanket that cut off the air around her. But in Taylors mind, that’s not how it happened. Because during the priming from the Gage County sheriffs department, that isn’t what they told her. They told her it was a pillow.
The video ends with Taylor saying, “Wow, they got me to say I did (it). How screwed up was I?”
Manipulating someone using priming is a sign of psychopathy. But reacting to priming isn’t screwed up. It’s normal, even when the person reacting isn’t.
Priming is just one example of a heuristic that effects our decision making. Other examples include:
This heuristic where a person responds to a situation in a way that allows them to remain consistent.
This is an approach to a situation that is very atypical and unlikely – in other words, a situation that is absurd. This particular heuristic is applied when a claim or a belief seems silly, or seems to defy common sense.
This is a heuristic that is applied to a problem based on an individual’s observation of a situation. It is a practical and prudent approach that is applied to a decision where the right and wrong answers seems relatively clear cut.
This allows a person to judge a situation on the basis of the examples of similar situations that come to mind, allowing a person to extrapolate to the situation in which they find themselves.
allows someone to approach an issue or problem based on the fact that the situation is one with which the individual is familiar, and so one should act the same way they acted in the same situation before.
This is used when a particular object becomes rare or scarce. This approach suggests that if something is scarce, then it is more desirable to obtain.
This is when an individual makes a snap judgment based on a quick impression. This heuristic views a situation quickly and decides without further research whether a thing is good or bad. Naturally, this heuristic can be both helpful and hurtful when applied in the wrong situation.
This occurs when someone believes the opinion of a person of authority on a subject just because the individual is an authority figure. People apply this heuristic often in matters such as science, politics, and education.
Perhaps the most valuable and commonly manipulated heuristic is the authority heuristic. We established earlier that psychopaths share a chemical imbalance with those on the autism spectrum. They both either lack or have rouble processing oxytocin. But the psychopaths use our own heuristics against us to get what they want. Those afflicted with psychopathy position themselves as experts to gain the trust of unwitting victims on a very regular basis.
Buridan’s ass is a philosophical paradox in which a donkey is placed the same distance between two perfectly equal bales of hay. In another version of the problem the donkey is equally hungry and thirsty and is the same distance between food and water. The donkey can’t decide what it wants more. It dies from an inability to choose, not from malnutrition.
In the world of the psychopath, we are the donkey and they control the hay. Only they do not think in the best interest of anyone but themselves. The outcome of any situation must eventually benefit them either socially, financially or by satisfying some urge they have.
It is very difficult to diagnose psychopathy without the aid of functional magnetic resonance imaging, or an FMRI. It is not realistic to perform expensive medical procedures on every criminal suspected of psychopathy. So a system was developed by a man who is now considered the leading authority on psychopathy. Dr. Bob Hare spent decades developing and teaching his now famous psychopath checklist to those who deem it valuable. It is the gold standard for determining if a person/criminal is or is not a psychopath when FMRI isn’t available. Today, authorities decipher average criminals from psychopaths using the Hare checklist. It is called the Psychopath Checklist Revised or PCL-R. The following is an overview of the characteristics from checklist.
Criminals are judged based on how many of the traits from the list they have and to what degree. The higher a person scores on the list, the more likely they suffer from psychopathy. The list can be highly subjective, because each characteristic is a spectrum, like autism. But once one registers as having a certain degree of psychopathy, they are widely regarded as unable to be rehabilitated by the vast majority of psychologist and criminal justice systems.
Unfortunately we have learned the difficulties of rehabilitating those with psychopathy the hard way. Take the case of Norman Mailer and Jack Abbott.
In 1980 Random House signed Jack Abbott to write his book, In the Belly of the Beast. It was about his time spent in federal prison for charges from robbery to the stabbing murder of a fellow inmate. The book would include excerpts of his letters to pen pal and fellow author Norman Mailer.
Mailer was the popular author of books such as The Naked and the Dead, The White Negro and The Executioners Song which is depicted from the execution of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore. Mailer was seduced by the writing of Abbott during his research into the criminal life. Abbott not only signed his publishing contract, but was also paroled and set free with Mailers help. He would burst on to the literary scene a newly freed man. His freshly released book, In the Belly of the Beast, was scheduled to launch his new, free life.
On July 19th 1981, the New York Times Book Review published a review of the book shortly after it’s release. The reviewer, Terrence Des Pres, a Colgate University professor, wrote that the book was “awesome, brilliant, perversely ingenuous; its impact is indelible, and as an articulation of penal nightmare it is completely compelling.”
The positive review of the book was fabulous press that didn’t last long. It would be usurped by another story. A story more intriguing than one of a newly released felon with a knack for writing. On the morning before the review of his book was published, Jack Abbott stabbed Richard Adan in the heart. Mr. Adan was a waiter at the restaurant Abbott and two women were visiting. The fight happened when Abbott asked to use the bathroom. Mr. Adan explained to Abbott that the restroom wasn’t available because the restaurant didn’t have accident insurance.
So Abbott murdered him.
Abbott’s positive book review ran the same day that police announced the manhunt for the murderer. Abbott personified many of the traits from the PCL-R after his capture, . He acted as his own lawyer. (grandiose sense of self-worth, lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity and irresponsibility) He berated Mr. Adan’s widow in court for crying over the loss of her husband. (lack of remorse or guilt, shallow affect, callous/lack of empathy and poor behavioral control)
In fact, the notes from he trial read like a description of exactly how to prove one’s psychopathy according to the PCL-R. Abbott even had the gaul to publish another book after the murder called My Return, for which he was promptly sued and lost $7.5 million.
But it isn’t surprising that a lifelong criminal is a psychopath. It also comes as no surprise that he was able to manipulate Mailer into assisting his release from prison and his lucrative book contract.
But was Mailer manipulated?
When we peek into Mailers life, the story, as unbelievable as it is, gets even stranger..
In The White Negro, Mailer wrote this about fictional young thugs murdering a shop owner.
“It can of course be suggested that it takes little courage for two strong 18-year-old hoodlums, let us say, to beat in the brains of a candy-store keeper, and indeed the act – even by the logic of the psychopath – is not likely to prove very therapeutic, for the victim is not an immediate equal. Still, courage of a sort is necessary, for one murders not only a weak fifty-year-old man but an institution as well, one violates property, one enters into a new relation with the police and introduces a dangerous element into one’s life. The hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown, and no matter how brutal the act, it is not altogether cowardly.”
It seems Mailer thought that if two strong young men, beat in the brains out of a weak, older candy store owner it was not cowardly, but daring. Perhaps this view of murdering the weak is what drove him to his next stunt.
On November 20th, 1960, Mailer ended an argument with his wife, Adele Morales by stabbing her in the back and chest, trying to force the two and a half inch knife into her heart, and almost succeeding.
He appeared at the hospital after the stabbing to lecture the surgeons about the dimensions of Adele’s wound. Immediately afterwards he appeared on The Mike Wallace Show to plug his mayoral candidacy. During the interview he spoke of knives and swords as symbols of manhood. Long after the event he would complain that Morales would show off her huge scar to convince people Mailer had used a much bigger knife. After his arrest he served only 17 days in Bellevue for psychiatric evaluation, then probation for the attempted murder.
Mailer lost in his race as mayor of New York City in 1969.
He has been quoted as saying of the stabbing that he only wanted to give his wife “a knick or two.” Then in his famous argument with Gore Vidal on The Dick Cavette Show he dismissed the whole thing saying, “we all know I stabbed my wife.”
Mailers silver tongue and manipulations garnered him the support of Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem for his next political campaign. Abzug and Steinem were women rights activists, supporting a man who tried to murder his wife.
When Mailer came the the rescue of Jack Abbott, helping launch his writing career and free him from prison, had he found untapped talent or just someone he understood? Were they brothers in psychopathy? It’s hard to argue against the similarities between the two, except their standings in society. It is also hard to argue the influence both men had over their collective worlds.
Bob Hare explains that typically 1% of the general population are psychopaths. 25% of prison populations are psychopaths, but 60-70% of the violence in prison is instigated by psychopaths. That is an enormous amount of influence and persuasion.
Not all psychopaths are horrible violent murderers. Psychopathy functions on a spectrum like autism. As I explain in my next book SWAY, Dr. James Fallon discovered, by accident, that he is a psychopath. He has lived a very successful life.
The defining characteristic of a psychopath is not violence and bloodshed. Dr. Fallon admits that his relationships have little emotion involved. Fortunately for those around him, his urges had more to do with advancing psychology than murder.
So in psychopathy, the person is lacking adequate oxytocin processing capabilities. Those on the spectrum also lack oxytocin processing capabilities. Both wield influence because of their chemical deficiencies. They are not dependent on social outcomes like neurotypicals. But what differentiates the two? How is one form of influence positive and the other negative?
The solution could make up the content for an entire book. But I think the simple answer is laid out in a quote from Dr. James Fallon, who said this,
“People with autism lack theory of mind but not empathy, while people with psychopathy lack empathy but not theory of mind.”
Empathy is the difference in positive influence and destructive influence.
Don't just take my word for it.
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