There’s a lot going on around the world in terms of manipulation these days. An election is gearing up here at home, Wall Street protests are going global, banks are inventing new and interesting fees… What to cover, what to cover…

Since I’ve talked about governments manipulating citizens, companies manipulating consumers, and media players manipulating everyone, I thought we’d switch things around a little and see how you are being manipulated – by you!

It's very Zen.

It turns out that you are surprisingly good at manipulating yourself. In some cases, that’s very good. In others, it’s a lot less good. Let’s talk about both, shall we?

On the good side, for example, let’s talk about the placebo. If you’ve ever done work in the health field, you’re aware of the Placebo Effect (also, if you’re a mom, dad, teacher, or anyone who’s had to deal with sick kids). The Placebo Effect is pretty simple: give a sick person sugary water but tell them that it’s a powerful medicine, and they’ll often get better. No one knows why or how, but it works surprisingly often (up to around 30% of patients in some situations). Even back in the 1700s it was known by whatever passed for doctors at the time (in fact, placebo means “I will please” in Latin).

What’s interesting about the placebo effect is that it’s largely self-manipulation: the patient believes that he ‘should’ get better, so he does – he subconsciously manipulates himself into, essentially, feeling better. But it turns out that your brain is surprisingly discriminate about how it manipulates itself.

For example, the more complex the placebo, the better it works. One sugar pill can make patients feel better if they believe it’s a medicine, but two sugar pills will work better. A sugar syringe will work better than a pill, because it ‘seems’ like a stronger, more powerful medicine. Telling the patient that a placebo costs $1,000 will make it work better than a placebo that costs $100. Here, watch this video by Daniel Keogh, ABC reporter in Australia – he does a better job than I ever could to describe the sheer range of weird and wonderful twists that a placebo can take:

Video here, for Ipads and the like.

What’s fascinating about all this is that this is not a minor, fringe effect – it permeates a fair bit of medicine, and can make it very hard to distinguish real medicine from fake. For example, look at this gizmo:

It’s a Q-ray bracelet. They were all the rage a few years ago, when people all over were buying them because, through ‘ionization’, they could help relieve pain, arthritis, and back problems. Of course, it was complete garbage, as the FCC found when they ruled against the company in 2006 and forced it to return $86M. What’s interesting here is not that the bracelets didn’t work – even today, you can find people adamant about the fact that the bracelets help them (and you can still buy them here). What is fascinating is that the court eventually had to rule that the bracelets did work, they just worked as a placebo (and just as well as a placebo). And they worked well enough for that company to accumulate millions in sales!

This is what makes discussing things like Q-ray, homeopathy and other schemes difficult – those who have tried them, and truly believed in them, often got better! They essentially manipulated themselves into getting better.

So this is good, right? Let’s embrace self-manipulation, if it means that we can get better with sugary water! And it doesn’t just work for pain, by the way – you can have a placebo work just as well as surgery for knee surgery, for example, which is truly mind-blowing if you’ve ever seen the complexity of knee surgery.

Unfortunately, the same suggestibility that allows Placebos to work can work against you. And not in a cute, funny, ‘your nose itches’ type of way, but more in the ‘you’re going to jail or the hospital’ way.

If you’ve seen any police drama, for example, you’ve seen this dramatic scene:

This is when the police finally gets the perp to confess, just before the final scene when some moral is imparted.

Confessions are an important part of many police procedures, partly because they represent an end point – when someone confesses, the investigation moves from prospective (“who did it?”) to documentary (“make sure that you file the right paperwork to put him away”). The problem is that the same forces that make Placebo work also make people remarkably open to manipulation in contexts like police interrogation.

I’m not talking about intimidating a suspect, or coercing him or her into a confession (although that often happens). I’m talking simply about telling someone that they did something that they didn’t do. If you do that convincingly enough, it turns out that many, many people eventually agree.

The Economist recently reported a study by two researchers in the New York basically set up students to take an exam, and then accused them of cheating and told them that the cheating had been caught on camera. It was a bluff, of course – not only was there no camera, but the students had not cheated. And yet, when pressed and threatened with the camera ‘evidence’, half the students confessed to cheating.

Why do people confess to things that they never did? Some of it is plainly a way to end a tough interrogation – spend 10 hours being interrogated by police officers, and even if they’re not hitting you with phone books, you eventually just want it to end, and some people eventually just admit to end the unpleasantness. But a surprising number of people come to believe that they did it (whatever the ‘it’ is).

How can someone believe that they shot someone, you ask?It turns out that your mind is very subject to your own manipulation. You can be made to believe that you shot that man, for example. Or that Obama is best friends with Iranian President Ahmadinejad.

What’s that? You remember that handshake too? The scandal that followed it? The press and the accusations?

If so, you’re one in 4. That’s what Slate found when they showed thousands of respondents three pictures of real events and one made up (including the one above – President Obama never shook hands with Ahmadinejad). One quarter of people who saw the fake events (no matter what it was) remembered it, and could give details about it. 40% of people who saw the picture remembered it, and half of those remembered seeing the event itself on television (remember, this NEVER happened!!). And even when told that one of the pictures was fake, most of the viewers didn’t pick out the fake picture that they clearly remembered. Some of them refused to believe that it was a fake even after the experiment was revealed, in fact, which is consistent with other experiments about the power of self-manipulation.

But it gets worse.

What if I told you that you can actually manipulate yourself to believe something more outlandish than a made-up world event. What if you could make yourself believe that… Well, look, let’s just meed Jodie:

Jodie, above, is a nice, normal girl. But she’s desperate for a baby, and, one day, it finally happens! She is ecstatic, even though pregnancy is not that much fun. Her period stops, she gets morning sickness, her breasts grow and become tender, and, of course, as the pregnancy progresses, her belly grows large with child, complete with stretch marks and occasional baby kicks.

Actually, everything is right except the last two words above. Jodie isn’t pregnant, she has just managed to convince herself that she was. And she did it well enough to fool 20% of the health professionals that would see her. It used to be called hysterical pregnancy, and is now called Pseudocyesis, but it is the same thing – a woman can subconsciously manipulate her body to display all the signs of pregnancy, including a pregnancy belly, without actually having a baby. We still don’t fully understand how this is done, by the way – our best guess is that the brain somehow controls the abdominal muscles to contract in such a way as to simulate a pregnancy (if you give the woman anesthetics, for example, the pregnant tummy returns to normal). Freud was so fascinated by this that he made it a cornerstone of his studies.

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People occasionally hear about the placebo effect, agree that it’s cool, and then move on, never stopping  to consider what it truly means. The fact that the placebo effect works at all is profoundly meaningful to anyone that is interested in manipulation, because it basically points to how easily and profoundly the mind can manipulate itself, for both good and bad.  Getting someone to buy more soap, or to vote Republican, seems a lot easier in context when you realize that, on their own, they can cure weak knees or fall pregnant solely by the power of their own beliefs.