One of humanity’s best traits is the individual’s desire to become their best self. Since way before humanistic psychology labelled this self-actualization, humans have been searching for something higher, something better; their key to happiness. Whether that search was within the realms of spirituality, for a higher understanding, or capitalism, for a higher bank balance, the seekers shared a similar motivation; to become the person that they dreamed of being, their ideal self.
With such a demand, it’s unsurprising that a huge array of coaches and self-styled gurus has sprung up to meet the need. Knowledge of humanity also makes it unsurprising that among the many undoubted experts are a large number of inexpert people claiming expert status — some from lack of understanding, some undoubtedly charlatans.
I find myself increasingly speaking to people who handed over sums of money — often large sums — to a coach, only to find that, having followed instruction to the best of their ability, they don’t get the promised result. Worse, a small minority find that the guru on whom they’ve pinned their hopes, and often their life savings or the entire capacity of their credit card, has deliberately mis-sold them, with no intention of refunding.
Sadly, the reactions of those who’ve been fooled are usually focused negatively inward — self-criticism, depression, loss of confidence. The truth is that people intentionally practicing deception understand the drives of human motivation, and how to use them against you. Here are some of the processes in play, as defined by the psychologists who researched them.
Systematic Errors – Kahneman
There are two human systems of thinking — the fast, automatic system 1 that normally controls our reactions, and the slower system 2, which jumps in where processing power is required. Usually, system 1 is in charge — and system 1 is subject to systematic biases, rules of thumb that you’ve learned to respond to automatically.
The reason you overestimated the likelihood of getting the result you want is probably the availability heuristic. We judge how often things happen by how easily they come to mind; and we remember memorable stories like those of great success. System 1 brings instances to mind, and system 2 focuses on the stories to make sense of the content. Events and marketing material all provide lots of stories of success.
We’re more susceptible to availability biases when we’re in flow state, when we’re busy, happy and most especially when we’re made to feel powerful. People who feel empowered trust their intuition more. Which is just what that event environment or long sales letter are meant to do.
Principles of Influence – Cialdini
Cialdini’s focus was on the tactics that make us buy, regardless of logic and common sense. Unsurprisingly, marketing material and events contain all or most of the six principles identified. These make you sign up, keep you signed in, even influence you to join a more expensive program. Do these sound familiar?
- Reciprocity – giving something free to a potential client, so they feel obliged to give something back.
- Consistency and Commitment – the need to stick by something you’ve signed up for, even when you no longer feel comfortable.
- Social Proof – if nobody else is speaking up, you must be wrong.
- Liking – the obligation that the person’s friendliness puts you under (even when you suspect their charm may be a little bit narcissistic).
- Authority – the person has positioned as an “expert” and we’re conditioned to obey experts — even self-proclaimed ones.
- Scarcity – it’s only available to 10 people. Or today. Or at this price now. Or… well, you get the picture. Sometimes the scarcity may be genuine but often it isn’t.
Cialdini recommends becoming aware of the way that these principles work, and setting yourself a mental alert. You may not stop the reaction, but you can stop yourself acting on it automatically.
Social Identity Theory – Tajfel
Social identities are based on the groups we feel part of, and significantly affect on how we see ourselves. To claim membership of a “status” group increases self-esteem and feelings of well-being. Leaving a group can be a source of anxiety and cause self-concept challenges. It’s normal to favor your own groups (ingroup) and discriminate against other groups (outgroup).
For a coach trainer who has attracted many clients into a group program, this makes it plain sailing. Many are heavily pushing the “lifestyle” aspect, inviting you into an exclusive “club”; this has the double-edged function of making you identify with the ingroup, and creating a subconscious fear of leaving and becoming a shunned “outgroup” person. You need look no further for the reason these mentors go to such lengths to prevent dissenting voices.
The moral of this? Research thoroughly. All that glitters is not gold, especially in the coaching industry. What are their qualifications and personal experience? Why do they believe they can help you?
Above all, listen to your instinct. That’s Kahneman’s system one, giving you a warning based on experience. Then apply the judgement Cialdini advises.
But please remember that to have been taken in by someone does not make you stupid. It means only that your brain is working how it’s meant to, and that you didn’t at the time have the reference material to challenge the information. And if the worst comes to the worst, you didn’t walk away from this with nothing. You walked away with a set of alarm bells to stop it happening again.
Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York: Collins.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). “The social identity theory of intergroup behaviour”. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin. Psychology of Intergroup Relations. Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall. pp. 7–24.