Some More Remarks on Suggestibility

23:15 Tue 10 Jul 2007
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After my last post on suggestibility, I wasn’t sure whether or not I was overly gullible regarding Derren Brown’s claims.

At first I thought I had been too gullible. But that’s an optimistic position, to say the least, since by believing in it I’m asserting that people are generally able to control themselves in rational ways and are not so manipulable by others. So much in the political sphere argues in precisely the other direction.

In the economic sphere, there’s also ample evidence. I don’t necessarily mean phenomena like the iPhone (but you could probably count it…), but more things like the effectiveness of advertising (it’s rather effective, even though everyone appears to think that it only influences other people). And then there’s spam, which sells enough to some tiny super-gullible segment of the population to suggest to me that lesser (but still significant) gullibility is likely to be rather widespread.

I came across a passage in the book I’m currently reading, Reminiscences of a Stock Operator, which helped push me back towards thinking that suggestibility is quite hight. The book‘s protagonist, Jesse Livermore (under a pseudonym) is a man who started trading stocks as a teenager, and who did well then, and well later, and who made and lost vast fortunes several times. While he had certain problems, apparently suffering from severe depression for a lot of his life, he was nevertheless someone who knew how to exploit the market, and particularly human nature, and who one would generally consider a hard-nosed, no-nonsense, pragmatic individual.

He had a room at a firm where he was trading, and was not supposed to be disturbed without his prior consent. He was working in the room when:

One day just after the market closed I heard somebody say, “Good afternon, Mr. Livermore.”

I turned and saw an utter stranger—a chap of about thirty or thirty-five. I could not understand how he’d got in, but there he was. I concluded his business with me had passed him. But I didn’t say anything. I just looked at him and pretty soon he said, “I came to see you about that Walter Scott,” and he was off.

He was a book agent. Now, he was not particularly pleasing of manner or skillful of speech. Neither was he especially attractive to look at. But he certainly had personality. He talked and I thought I listened. But I do not know what he said. I don’t think I ever knew, not even at the time. When he finished his monologue he handed me first his fountain pen and then a blank form, which I signed. It was a contract to take a set of Scott’s works for five hundred dollars.

The moment I signed I came to. But he had the contract safe in his pocket. I did not want the books. I had no place for them. They weren’t of any use whatever to me. I had nobody to give them to. Yet I had agreed to buy them for five hundred dollars.
—Edwin Lefèvre, Reminiscences of a Stock Operator, Chapter 12

I had to stop and re-read that passage. I don’t think there’s anything else like it in the book. It immediately made me think of Derren Brown, for isn’t that more or less the effect he seems to have on people in his shows?

The appearance of a such a character, otherwise quite out of place, in a non-fiction book where the protagonist has no motive to make himself look like an idiot, certainly suggests that some people are quite skilled at inducing suggestibility. That, in turn, suggests to me that there are techniques and methods to induce this suggestibility.

UK’s Channel 4 (via YouTube) in the 2000s; a book on stock trading published in 1923. Evidence of techniques for inducing suggestibility existing throughout the centures, or evidence that people then and people know want to believe in those techniques?

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