You Can’t Change Others, But Can You Influence Them?

A reader sent me a comment about one of my columns where I suggested that the biggest mistake people make is to try to change others. She agrees that the choice of what to think and do will always be that of the individual. But then she makes an interesting point: Can people can be changed or otherwise affected by factors beyond their control, like advertising, education and other outside influences? Can these factors lead people to a particular belief and perhaps direct their actions?

Our subconscious mind responds to ideas, language and physical cues before we form a fully conscious concept. Countless books have been written about how to generate sales, manage employees, sway voters, improve teamwork, etc. All of these fall under “influence” as defined above, and can indeed change behaviors – under certain conditions that vary with the individual.

For example, one person will respond to an ad for an expensive automobile by thinking, “Wow, that car looks nice!” He might even buy it. Did the ad make him do it? Of course not. The ad merely tapped into a value he already held. The fact that he likes nice cars was already present in his subconscious. The ad came along and reminded him of what he subconsciously values. This is neither control, deception, nor undue influence.

A different person will see the ad and not care. He’s content with his average car. Another man might react to the ad with anger. “I can’t believe people spend that kind of money on cars! That money should be given to poor people for health care.” Another might experience envy. “I hate people who can afford those cars. They don’t deserve them.”

The commercial generated an array of emotions based on the values and beliefs of each viewer. When the subconscious responds to ideas, it’s actually responding to stored values that were previously perceived and then internalized by the conscious mind. The ad brought that subconsciously stored value to the surface where we may, or may not, act on it.

Of course, different tactics will generate varying degrees of influence, depending on the person. Some people respond primarily to reason and are disgusted by intimidation or shouting. Others may respond only to the threat of force. Most of these types use force and intimidation themselves, with no concern for reason.

The famous cognitive psychotherapist Albert Ellis correctly pointed out that emotions have three parts. He dubbed them “A-B-C.” First, there is “A,” the activating event (the car ad, for example). Second, there is “B,” the belief the person holds (this could also be called the premise). Third, “C,” is the emotional consequence (did he like the ad?).

People do what they do because of the beliefs and values they hold, and there can be a multitude of emotional responses to the same influence. Some beliefs can be erroneous, some correct, some irrational or half-truths, and some might be a matter of debate.

This is why you can’t control other people. Their minds already control them. They can be influenced though education and logic, but they will only change if they believe that it’s worthwhile to do so.

Try telling an Islamic terrorist that he should listen to reason. You won’t get anywhere, because he’s firmly convinced that faith supersedes reason — in fact, it’s immoral to even listen to reason from an “infidel.” The same thing applies to cults. Some members will figuratively (or literally) drink the Kool-Aid, while others will eventually leave. Again: Some people hold viewpoints that forbid questioning, while others retain the willingness to question and think – even in the face of undue influence.

Thinking trumps influence. You can try to influence all you want, but in the end, it’s ideas and the willingness to think that determine the actions a person will ultimately take.



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