Suppose you were a skilled hypnotist, and so charismatic that you knew you could change the opinion of an average person simply by your choice of words. Would it be ethical to be that persuasive?

To make it interesting, let's say you believe in the rightness of your own views, and you are talking to someone who firmly believes the opposite. You both have the same information at your disposal, so it is simply a case of different opinions. If you knew you could sway that person with your words, without adding any new information to the mix, would it be ethical to do so?

I encountered this dilemma after learning hypnosis. You can extend the methods of hypnosis into normal conversation, the way a trial lawyer, politician, or top salesperson would. You can't turn anyone into a zombie slave, but obviously a skilled salesperson can close more deals than an unskilled one. Your choice of words has a huge impact on how other people form their so-called opinions. Where do you draw the line between a normal exchange of views and an outright manipulation of another person's brain?

Long time readers of this blog know that I view humans as moist robots who have no free will, and therefore morality is an irrational concept. But most of you disagree with that view, so for you this is a fair question.

Allow me to put it into concrete terms. Suppose I knew that I could use my powers of hypnotic persuasion, in the form of common words in this blog, to cause some portion of you to change your vote in the upcoming election. And suppose I believed I was helping the country by doing so. Would it be ethical to change people's opinions without adding any data to the process?
Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +9
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
Nov 16, 2008
I find it interesting that the word change appears four times in your text (change X3, exchange X1). Not only that, but there are lines that seem peculiar such as the fact that, on my pc at least, the words 'a different' and 'mix' end up on top of each other. If you were planning on using this post to persuade some towards Obama it probably worked.

I don't have a solid answer to your ethics question. It's the one class I got a D in during college.

Oct 28, 2008
In the sense that hypnosis is just another form of persuasion, it could be argued you have an ethical RESPONSIBILITY to change people's minds.

It could be argued that it's unethical if you believed that most voters have deeply held beliefs based on a rational and thorough investigation of how they weight various issues and come to a personal conclusion. That, of course, is laughably wrong...

The majority of voters hold their beliefs on a whim or through previous unconsidered bias, and a large portion of voters vote against their own self-interests as well as the interests of their loved ones.
Oct 27, 2008
When I first started reading this, I thought you were talking about Obama. Either way, I do think that it's unethical, but I also think it's a problem that people are so easily swayed.
Oct 27, 2008
It's very difficult to measure the difference between manipulating someone and simply being very good at making people see both sides of the coin. I believe that if you can make the other person see your side of the issue, and convince this person that the benefits of your point of view outweigh the downsides to a greater degree than those of the other person, that would be ethical. If, however, you use subliminal cues and other NLP and hypnosis tricks to make the other person believe something he/she normally wouldn't believe - then that would be unethical.

Humans do have free will - but there's no doubt it can be bound, if only for a relatively short while.
Oct 27, 2008
I left the advertising industry (copywriter) in 1983 because I realised that my ability with words was influencing people to want and buy things that were at best unnecessary and at worst, evil. Sweets, colddrinks, alcohol, cigarettes, bigger cars, weirder clothes, miracle cures and magic skin creams, hair shampoo made from Natural Spring Water and Daffodils... it was all complete nonsense and at 23 I loved making it all up. Anyone that dumb deserved to be bankrupt.

I don't know why, but the last straw was a double headed toothbrush - I tried it. It didn't work at all. When I told the marketing client that actually it was impossible to use without getting bleeding gums and bruising, he said what did that have to do with selling it. The marketing message was "twice as effective as a single brush" - and the fact that it was an outright lie didn't bother him, because legally the word "effective" isn't considered scientific enough for dispute.

I went into industrial publishing where I was just informing people, mostly qualified engineers, about what products are on the market.

I don't consider myself much of a moral person, but I saw it as an unfair competition between my skill and experience with words that push buttons, and the unsuspecting consumer who really does WANT to believe there is a miracle cure for his/her problems.

Advertising, politics and society in general are driven by the consumers desire to believe in magic - that they too can be rich, famous, thin, educated, popular and respected without putting in any time or effort. A strong work ethic linked to some basic education immunises you to the effects of "hypnotism".
Oct 25, 2008
I believe that your opinion can only be swayed if it is confronted by enough reason to contradict it. If you are unsure of your opinion, and someone with charisma comes your way, he may be able to sway you to his side if you are unsure of your own opinion. However, if one is sure of his opinion, the only way that opinion can be swayed is with enough evidence to contradict the reasoning the other person is currently using to support his position, and not merely suave wording.
Oct 24, 2008
Morality is not a issue here. What you describe is no different from advertising and spin-doctoring and euphemism and politically correct speech: all are attempts at manipulating the listening/reading mind so that it will accept the information as you would like them to accept it, i.e., with your bias attached instead of someone else's.

And after reading Jonathan M Gitlin's "Does ideology trump facts? Studies say it often does"


I'd say that unless one could turn a listener/reader into an order-taking and directions-following moist robot, there is no point wasting time trying to persuade anyone to change their opinions. Opinions are based upon emotions, not logic or reason or fact. I knew that before reading Gitlin's article, but he expresses it more convincingly than I have ever been able to.

I'd also like to know, Scott, why you think that there is a difference between what you call "a normal exchange of views and an outright manipulation of another person's brain". In America, only the latter exists. On the Internet in chat rooms and Usenet news and Google Groups, only the latter exists. If you disagree with me, you're an idiot; if you agree with me, you're a genius too.

Humans are emotional beings. Only Vulcans (Mr Spock) are logical beings. Feelings always trump logic. Therefore, it is irrelevant to worry about morality. The moralistic don't worry about when they commit crimes. Why should anyone else?

If I "could change the opinion of an average person simply by [my] choice of words", I would buy television time, newspaper space, and billboard space everywhere and do it (and then convince all my readers and listeners to send me money to reimburse me for the cost of the advertising). I would make movies and have all the actors do it in their dialogs. I would make speeches everywhere in every language, or have others do it for me. Then I would be able to control the world, and, much like Wiley's little Danae, would believe that the world would be much better off not only thinking that I am always right about everything, but also when they do what I tell them to do rather than doing what they feel they must do because some non-existent source of moral guidance tells them to do something totally different.

Someone once said something on the order of "Come, let us reason together" -- I just checked it and it's "Isaiah 1:18 'Come now, and let us reason together,' Says the LORD," -- but whoever it was, he was merely mocking the inability of human beings to use reason in any reasonable way except to manipulate the minds of others.

Finally, babies are the best manipulators, and they don't usually speak for the first year or so after they are born. Manipulation is the best way to survive. It's probably much safer than killing all your enemies.
Oct 24, 2008
Unethical and immoral.
Oct 24, 2008
I think it would be ethical. At least for me. Because I wouldn't trust the rest of you with anything more dangerous than a spoon.
Oct 24, 2008
I think it would be ethical. At least for me. Because I wouldn't trust the rest of you with anything more dangerous than a spoon.
Oct 24, 2008
If this is unethical, then ABC, CBS and NBC are unethical.
Oct 24, 2008
This first became a HUGE issue in the 50's, when marketing became a science (Oglvy and the like). Many thought it was immoral to trick folks into buying things with catchy jingles and tested words. Science has been far ahead of humanity ever since. Food science can trick your body into liking food that it has no business desiring, marketers can greatly increase sales of items even when no actual information is transferred (rock music, flashy lights, ooooh, get me THAT car...).

You asked a moral question though. If you think you're doing right, then it's moral to YOU and all morality is personal first. The more interesting question is "should society approve of it" and we clearly do. We allow it all the time and accept it as part of the dialog. So persuade away!

BTW, I think we have a general belief that if we get tricked into something bad, then it's not our fault, but if we get tricked into changing our mind and it turned out to be a good idea (or one we can convince ourselves is good), then we take the credit.

Ethically, I think persuading morality is due to the expected expertise of the folks in the conversation. Two doctors trying to persuade each other that their treatment is best is fine, but a doctor trying to persuade a sick person that they need a new test they don't need is not fine. (Banks giving loans to folks who can't afford them is another example, the ethical problem there is on the banker who is supposed to be the trusted expert).
Oct 24, 2008
answer: yes.
you could use the skill to convince a candidate to Nuke Pakistan.
Oct 24, 2008
Couldn't you perhaps manage to hypnotize a certain candidate to quack like a duck every time he hears the word Maverick? That would be awesome.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 24, 2008
The topic under discussion is exactly what Obama is doing.

As is the case in every election, both sides are trying to manipulate those that can be manipulated ... but Obama is doing a much much better job of it. McCain is at the disadvantage due to his affiliation to the existing party being blamed for all the bad things happening. This too is normal, but things are looking exceptionally bad/unpredictable so the blame is worse than normal.

Obama likely cannot deliver on most of the things he is promising. But he is very smart and just by convincing the majority of people that he is confident and that he will fix everything, he appears to be a leader. Is it ethical to convince people that you can fix things that you know you can't fix? If you are smart and you make the appearance of trying to initiate actions that are either unpractical or that you know will fail then you can blame the other side for not doing their part.

This is not just an Obama thing or a democrat thing, but at the moment he is the best at it.

Do I believe McCain is better than Obama? I'm not sure. Intellectually I think McCain is probably better. Emotionally, I'm somewhat willing to give Obama the opportunity to walk the walk.

Do I believe McCain is more ethical and would tend to promise things he knows he can deliver versus promising things that sound good? Yes.

Is it ethical to convince the convince-able? Debatable.

Does convincing the convince-able make a lawyer, car salesman, or politician good at their job? Definitely.

I sure wish we had completely different candidates than the ones we have on both sides.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 24, 2008
Nice try. I'm still voting for Oba...McCain. Oooh...I see what you did there. Good try, but i caught myself.
Oct 24, 2008
Given all the tactics used by members of the Republican party as per Karl Rove, I can't really see this as being particularly unethical. As long as only correct information is used and misrepresentation is kept to a minimum I can't really see it as a big issue, really.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 24, 2008
Your feeble efforts amuse me. You can not penetrate my invisible force field of ultraviolet uncertainty.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 24, 2008
You would be exploiting the gullability of the people so yes, that's immoral. Having said that, so does almost everyone else.
In my opinion it is equally immoral in the case where one party has more information at his disposal and uses that to his advantage.

Oct 24, 2008
I think it's possible that you place too much importance on the power of 'hypnotic' suggestion, not hard to do.. most people remember their successes more frequently than their failures when it comes to applying techniques like that, and there's also the possibility that some subjects' "successes" were really reactions to peer pressure or the desire to please rather than any kind of mysterious neurolinguistic programming-style persuasion.

(that said, I read Gods Debris and had the exact reaction you later said you were looking for, which was food for thought for me...)

Now, as a moist robot who is also an amateur evolution junkie, I'll say that if you do attempt it, or have already done so, then it was probably just some part of a complicated survival strategy on behalf of [some of] the genetic material your body protects and replicates.

It's not wrong -- it's natural!

There are many areas where the ability to be super-persuasive can help the survival of your DNA -- competitive mate selection (the big dating scene we have now, the pool of available mates is growing ever-larger, and being able to beat up your competitors isn't really enough any more..), getting out of dangerous or fatal situations through persuasive language, poetically seducing as many lovers as possible to be assured of many children...

The more I think about it, the more the last one is speaking to me...

Or I could be full of ****.

Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog