External Influences and the Mind

Q: This question is regarding your article, “The Biggest Mistake People Make” about changing people (see The Daily Dose of Reason 3/25/11). While the choice of action and thought will always remain with the individual, are we not affected by environmental factors beyond our control, advertising for example? In addition, what role does the concept of influence play in “leading” people to a certain belief in order to direct their actions?


The subconscious responds to ideas and language before we even bring the said concept into cognitive view. By using language in a certain manner,

I can influence you and make an impact. Countless books have been written on how to generate better sales, or manage employees, improve teamwork; I think these all fall under influence, but doesn’t that amount to changing behaviors in others?

I can yell, scream and threaten a friend, lover, or family member or I can use targeted language, nonverbal communication, appeal to logic and emotion just as well. Both are tactics, that  will influence, but the latter will serve as a stronger influence if done properly.

In summary. Can’t we attempt  to change others through influence, education and logic? Ultimately we all make our own choices, but aren’t we subject to many external influences?

Dr. Hurd replies:

Yes, we are all potentially subject to external influences. But the degree and nature of those influences will vary. One person will respond to an ad for an expensive automobile. “Wow, that car looks nice!” If he can afford the automobile, he might even purchase it. Did the ad make him do it? Of course not. The ad merely tapped into a value he already held. He likes nice cars for whatever personal reasons he likes them. Those reasons were already present in his subconscious — because he consciously values them. The ad came along and helped remind him of what he subconsciously values. This is neither control nor undue influence. Undue influence would consist of lying, deception or misrepresentation. That’s a whole separate matter.

A different man will see the ad and be indifferent. This is because he’s content with his average-priced car, and so long as the car gets him where he wants to go, he’s fine. Another man will react to the ad with contempt. “I can’t believe people spend money on those cars! That money should be sent to poor people for health care.” Another person will experience envy. “I hate people who can afford those cars. I wish I could.”

You will see a whole range of emotions to a single ad based on the different values, beliefs and ideas different people hold. You mention that the subconscious responds to ideas before the said concept comes into cognitive view. I’m not sure what this means, but the subconscious merely stores values, ideas and beliefs that were originally present in the conscious mind at one time. An external influence merely brings that subconsciously stored value to the surface — or onto the mind’s main “computer screen.”

You’re right that there are different tactics that will have different degrees or kinds of influence. But this will depend partly on the person. Some people respond primarily or only to reason. They withdraw or become disgusted if you try emotional intimidation or yelling/shouting. Others are the opposite, and respond only to the threat of force. They use force or intimidation themselves, and they laugh at reason. If you threaten force against one person, he’ll respond back more forcefully; if you threaten force with another, he’ll become afraid and try to appease you, or simply run.

Albert Ellis, a famous cognitive psychotherapist, correctly pointed out that emotions have three parts, A-B-C. First, there is the activating event (A). Second, there is the belief the person holds (B). This could also be called the premise, the thought or the idea(s) the person holds. Third, there is the emotional consequence (C). People are determined not by what others say or do but about the beliefs they hold. There are many different kinds of emotional responses to the same influence, as I just pointed out. The reason for this is that people hold different beliefs. Beliefs can be erroneous, correct, rational, irrational, valid, half-truths, a matter of debate, or a lot of different things — but it’s the beliefs or ideas a person holds that are all-determining.

This is why you cannot control other people. Their own minds already control them. You mention that it’s possible to influence people though education and logic. Yes, that’s true — IF a person holds the belief that it’s worthwhile to change one’s mind. Try telling a radical Islamic terrorist that he should listen to reason. You won’t get anywhere, because that person believes that faith supercedes all reason and it’s actually immoral to listen to reason by some “infidel.” It’s similar with cults. Some members of cults literally or figuratively drink the Kool Aid, while others eventually leave. This is because some people hold viewpoints that forbid questioning, while others retain the willingness to question and think even when embroiled in a cult.

In sum, thinking trumps influence. You can influence all you want — but in the end, it’s a person’s ideas and willingness to think that will determine the outcome.