Inception for Dummies

Aug 06 2010

(Please note, this article contains plot spoilers!)

Inception is based on the notion of “exploring the idea of people sharing a dream space — entering a dream space and sharing a dream.  That gives you the ability to access somebody’s unconscious mind.  What would that be used and abused for?”

The film centres on Dom Cobb, an “extractor”, who enters the dreams of others to obtain information that is otherwise inaccessible.  His abilities have cost him his family, but he is promised a chance to regain his old life in exchange for planting an idea in a corporate target’s mind.  This process of planting an idea, known as “inception”, is less familiar and far more difficult than Cobb’s usual job of “extraction”.

Is inception science fiction though? On November 18, 1978 914 members of Reverend Jim Jones’s People’s Temple in Guyana committed mass suicide. Jones had ordered his followers to drink from a tub of fruit punch laced with cyanide and sedatives.  Adult members induced their children to drink first and then drank the mixture themselves.

It’s common for the media to talk vaguely about ‘brainwashing’ but psychology has now identified many of the tactics that are used in persuasion or “inception”, all the way from selling you breakfast cereal to joining a religious sect.

In 1957, Leon Festinger, a social psychologist, infiltrated a group of people who believed that the World would end and that Aliens would arrive at midnight to beam them to safety.  When none of this transpired the individuals went to great lengths to distort, denying that they were wrong.  No matter how irrationally we behave we attempt to appear reasonable to others and ourselves.  Albert Camus, once said “humans are creatures who spend our entire lives in an attempt to convince ourselves that our lives are not absurd”.

It is human weaknesses like these that make us vulnerable to unscrupulous persuasion, propaganda, or even ‘inception’. Let’s look at the keys to inception:

  1. Creating the context
  2. Leveraging emotions
  3. Establishing source credibility
  4. Delivering the message

1. Create the context

Context ‘creates the game board for our thinking’ at any point in time.  In Inception the role of the architect is to create a dreamscape that can be operated as a closed system over which the extractor has full control.

People who start cults often isolate the cult headquarters from the rest of the world. Jones was in the jungle in Guyana. If physical isolation is not possible, then some kind of psychological censorship is used, for example label everyone else as the ‘devils children’.

Many persuasion techniques alter the context of our thinking and affect our perceptions and judgments.  A simple sales technique is to vary the choices shown to a potential buyer.  I recall first looking for a flat when I came to Hong Kong.  The estate agent was showing me some cruddy flats first of all to try and offload an average one on me later.  I got a different estate agent and a better flat in the end.

Creating rumours or releasing hard to prove ‘factoids’ of information is another way to alter the prevailing context.  Jones convinced followers that the CIA were coming to kill them.  Joseph Goebbels repeatedly said things like, ”The German people are the master race, Europe is menaced by a Jewish conspiracy”.  As Mark Twain once put it, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”.

Politicians know that how you talk about issues, i.e. the language you use, sets the scene for persuasion.  Moreover, metaphors can expand the power of words by evoking strong images in our minds.  Note the way proponents for or against the Iraq war have used either the metaphors of Nazi Germany (a morale crusade) or the Vietnam War (a costly mistake) to persuade people whether or not the US should engage in that war.  If you talk in a certain way it starts to have a self-fulfilling effect.  Experiments have shown that if you label kids as smart at mathematics, then their scores improve.

As any good salesman or preacher knows question asking can be a subtle form of pre-persuasion.  Questions direct our thoughts about the issues and implicitly specify the range of answers.  “Do you support the constitutional right to bear arms?” directs our thoughts to the constitutionality of the issue rather than other safety concerns.  In selling this is known as ‘developing a yes set’.

2. Leverage emotions

To persuade the mind we need to touch the heart. There are many different emotions, which are commonly leveraged in changing people’s behavior. In Inception they used Fischer’s low self-esteem, which was associated with a negative relationship with his successful and “disappointed” father.

In cult terms, the creation of a ‘granfalloon’ is one of the most common.  A Granfalloon was a term coined by psychologists for ‘a proud and meaningless association of human beings’.  People need to feel they are in a group to reassure them of their sense of self-esteem and pride.  The modern masters of the granfalloon are televangelists, who create an identity for viewers complete with political attitudes, shared feelings, goals, enemies, rituals and symbols.  The newcomer can be “love-bombed” (showered with attention, approval and support).  The reverse side of course is to create out-group hate, usually by leveraging long held prejudices.

Negative emotions are extremely powerful. Fire and brimstone preachers and Nazis are not the only ones who arouse fear in order to motivate.  Life insurance agents play on anxieties to induce purchase of a policy.  Research shows that use of fear works when you also offer a credible and do-able solution to alleviate that fear.

In an annual Girl Scout sales drive, thirteen-year-old Elizabeth Brinton sold 11,200 boxes of cookies.  When asked how she did it, she replied, “You look people I the eye and make them feel guilty”.  Our tendency to feel sympathy, to want to compensate for a wrongdoing or repair our own self-image can also be powerful motivators.  It can also have pro social uses.  Martin Luther King’s campaign of non-violence imparted guilt on many white southerners when nonviolent actions were met with clubs, fire hoses and attack dogs.

I recall visiting the US with my parents as a child and being told to avoid the Hare Krishna monks who were everywhere in the airports at that time (before they were banned from them).  Krishnas gained donations by first giving ‘a target’ the gift of a flower, usually pinned to the lapel of your jacket before you had a chance to find the exit sign of taxis.  If you attempted to give it back, they would say “its our gift to you”.  Only then was a request made for a donation.  The gift of the flower established a feeling of obligation or indebtedness.  Many sales techniques use the so-called ‘norm of reciprocity’ with free offers or trials.

In cult terms it often starts with some simple requests. Jim Jones used to start by asking people for a small donation of money in response to his message of peace and universal brotherhood. Next he would start to ask his members to perform loyalty tests, such as signing a blank confession of their “sins”. He used to tell members, “if you were really committed, you would be willing to do anything for the church.”

Car dealers also leverage commitment with a technique called lowballing. You enter the store and get offered a cheap price for the car; you are ready to sign the cheque!  The salesman returns from his office, apologizes and says he has made a mistake, the price is actually higher. It seems once we have taken a step towards making the purchase we start think, ‘oh what the hell, I may as well buy it’.

The principle of cognitive dissonance means that once we move towards a certain position we are reluctant to contradict ourselves or to be seen as a hypocrite.  You go to a local health spa, and they ask you to fill out a lifestyle questionnaire, with questions such as, “Do you think your health is important?  Do you think it is important to exercise regularly?”  Naturally you answer ‘yes!’  Later the answers are used to make you feel like a hypocrite if you balk at the hard-sell sales pitch.

3. Establish source credibility

Human beings use the credibility of the communicator to guide them in their acceptance or rejection of a message.  This is of course one reason why advertisers use famous celebrities as spokespeople for brands.

There are both real and manufactured sources of communicator credibility. Most cults have leader myths – stories or legends passed from member to member concerning the life and times of the cult leader. Cults often require members to engage in extreme behavior. Extreme requests are less likely to arouse dissonance, when it is done for a person believed to be “the son of God”.

What makes for the most persuasive media models?

Roger Ailes, PR advisor to Ronald Reagan, said a great speaker has one major characteristic: “If you could master one element of personal communication that is more powerful than anything it is the quality of being likable.  I call it the magic bullet because if your audience likes you they’ll forgive just about everything else you do wrong”.

Research shows they are most effective when he or she is high in prestige, power, status, is personally attractive and competent in solving life’s problems.  We tend to listen to experts and people in positions of power.  Many brands have for years of course used the testimonial of dentists, doctors, breeders, and vets in their commercials.

Of course, in many situations we have to manufacture their credibility.  President Nixon was famous for manufacturing his credibility through pseudo-staged events.  We look at what others are doing when we are not sure ourselves.  Politicians use the so-called bandwagon effect – the impression that everyone is for the candidate.  It is hard not to be impressed by TV pictures of a multitude of fervent supports.

Robert Shapiro, the trial lawyer for OJ Simpson, had this advice for managing the public image of his clients: develop a relationship with reporters, make sure your client looks good on TV, choose the setting for your interviews, and limit your comments about the trial to a few select sound bites that promote your clients cause.

One way to gain credibility is to be seen to act or argue against your own self interest.  The ex-con who argues for stiffer sentences then people sit up and take notice.  When Patrick Reynolds the heir of the Reynolds tobacco fortune denounced smoking people took more notice.

In Inception, Eames originally impersonates Peter Browning, Fischer’s godfather, to extract information from Fischer to facilitate the inception. When leveraging this credible family friend proves ineffective they have to change their plans on the hoof.  Cobb pretends he is one of Fischer’s own extraction defense projections to gain his confidence.

4. Delivering the Message

An important part of persuasion is reinforcing the relevance of the message to the target.  “Conversion” can come from ensuring members are engaged in “self-sell” or “self- generated persuasion”.   For example, when cult members give testimonials to other cult members they are reinforcing the benefits to themselves (which is one of the reasons they are asked to do it).

A salesman often tries to engage and empathize with a potential customer, “How do you feel in the car sir?”  Empathy is vital in the doctor-patient relationship, in which physicians have to convince patients that the care about them and that they have their best interests at heart.  A study has shown that dominant, hostile, less empathic conversational style doctors are more likely to be sued when things go wrong.

In Inception, the planted idea to break up his father’s company has to be ‘sold’ to Fischer in a way that he believes it is in his own interest.  An altered reality is created in which Fischer interacts with his father one more time and discovers his father is actually disappointed that his son tried to emulate his life.  Fischer begins to think that by breaking his inheritance up, he will be his own man and please his the memory of his father.

In Inception the drama of the movie shows that the moment for planting the idea is a fine one.  With the amount of information the average human being deals with on a daily basis we use heuristics, or simple rules to make day-to-day judgments.   The basic message needs to be simple.  Easy to follow, easy to swallow, is a good rule for how the brain is designed to work.  This is one reason that the World’s great orators have always spoken in sound bites of three: Julius Caesar’s “veni, vedi, veci” for example.

When sharing Fischer’s dream, the Inception team have to work hard not to do anything to alert the defense mechanisms of his mind.  When Cobb’s own personal issues start to intrude into the dream state it places the whole mission in danger.  The team must retain an air of confidence and employ distractions to maintain their subterfuge.

Confidence is key to persuasion.  The more self assured and confident the communicator appears the more likely we will accept what is said.  Research on trial testimony in law has shown that juries are more likely to believe testimony when it is give by a witness who exudes confidence.  Nonverbal behaviour that suggests confidence in the message is important, such as low rate of speech errors, authoritative tone of voice, and a steady body posture.

Much advertising works to first distract the audience, by providing entertainment.  Humour or jokes work in persuasion because we don’t see them coming and they violate our expectations.  Our brains have to do a double take.  And in that fraction of a second, while our defenses are lowered, we are open to suggestion.

Wake up signals

There are two totems in Inception.  Ariadne, the architect, uses a chess piece, and Cobb uses the totem above, allowing him to separate dreams from reality.   In real life, the totem would stop spinning.

If you wish to determine whether you are being shown reality or a distortion of the truth (propaganda) by media, advertising, sales people or religious leaders we advise you to consider the following “totems”:

  1. Be suspicious of idle rumors without substantiated facts.  Think rationally about the issue, what are the arguments for or against.  Avoid being dependent on one source of information.  Ask, what are the arguments for the other side?
  2. Monitor your emotions, and ask why you are having an emotional response.  If everyone is doing something, ask critically why.  If you feel guilty or compelled to do something stop and ask why.
  3. Question the credibility of the communicator.  Turn the sound off and watch out for give away body language.  Seek out their credentials for talking on an issue and review their motivations.

Don’t be a dummy for inception.


Inception by Christopher Nolan (2010)

The Power to Persuade in Scientific American Mind, March 2010

The Age of Propaganda by Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson (2001)

One response so far

  1. Neil,
    A very interesting article.

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