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Published: Wednesday January 17, 2018

Its just semantics

Words in papers, words in books,
Words on TV, words for crooks,
Words of comfort, words of peace,
Words to make the fighting cease,

This past weekend has seen an event “Magic at the barn” staged in my local area. Produced on behalf of local charities it gives amateur and professional illusionists, magicians and mentalists of various standing and ability, an audience to showcase their acts.

I am extremely interested in the concept,principles and methodology of mentalism as the techniques used exploit human nature using misdirection and deception much the same as those used by individuals involved in fraud and social engineering (sic).

For every lie there has to be deception – but deception does not necessarily involve a lie.

The proposition of Professor Albert Mehrabian (“Decoding of Inconsistent Communications”.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1967) regarding the importance of verbal and nonverbal messages known as the 7%-38%-55% rule which whilst widely misrepresented as the make-up of all intra-personal communication does highlight the link between words and actions.

Concrete words, abstract words,
Crazy words and lying words,

Whilst I agree that nonverbal communication plays a pivotal role in effective communication I don’t subscribe to the theory that words only account for around 7% of the process.Words are the primary way in which we relay our message our nonverbal behaviour assists in directing that message.

In neuro-linquistic programming the premise that we mainly operate on auto -pilot conforming to established patterns of behaviour is a fundamental principle which manifests itself in the use of embedded commands – hidden messages within a communication which speaks directly to the unconscious mind. As an NLP practitioner I am aware of how powerful these can be if used correctly – they are a staple of any salesmans pitch and can bring real benefits when used in counselling and coaching.

Whilst used correctly and ethically embedded commands are a useful tool but seeing them used alongside “conscious hypnosis” in the role of entertainment by a mentalist to me highlights how we all are open to being duped.

Today in our technology enabled lives we are bombarded with messages all our waking hours from the various media devices we own and carry with us so how easy would it be to embed messages or information that bypasses our conscious mind. The answer is it would, and is, extremely easy as evidenced by a study undertaken at Glasgow University in 2012. In this experiment participants were provided with spoken messages via headsets and were required to press a button after each message if they thought it contained the truth. The messages relayed were based on the semantic illusion theory the most famous example of which is the message;

“How many animals of each kind did Moses take into the Ark”

Obviously this is not a true statement as it was Noah not Moses but this experiment evidenced that if a statement like this is delivered in the right way and “sounds” true we will accept it.

Another example is the Barnum or Forer effect again much loved by mind readers and astrologists which refers to the tendency for people to accept generic personal feedback consisting of relatively trivial statements as being highly accurate (Tobacyk & Milford, 1988).

So,what is the relevance of this here today? It is in my view extremely relevant in fact it could cost everything – our money and our very identity.

The principle of what is now known as social engineering is to use human nature against us to the advantage of another. Organisations are very adept now at installing high tech monitoring systems to maintain the security of their data but every system has its weak point and invariably that is the human element. Emails, social media, on line dating, there are so many ways now to use words as trojan horses to influence, misdirect or deceive us. Why send 1000s of hopeful emails asking to help get money out of an African princes embargoed account when you can send one from a trusted associate asking to meet for a drink at a new venue shown on an attachment or gain an individuals confidence through manipulation of their unconscious mind.

Words are like a certain person

Who can’t say what they mean
Don’t mean what they say

Wordy Rappinghood – The Tom Tom Club

Oh and by the way without going back tell me, did I go to the “Magic at the barn” event?


Bob Pointer is a consultant  and founder of CFIL-Global providing forensic based human centric professional development programmes internationally.

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