Article of the Day: The Most Powerful Weapon Of Influence In Human History

obiPicture yourself sunk deep in red crushed velvet sipping icy cold cola with the smell of warm buttered popcorn. As bright images fade and the sonorous sounds of the last movie trailer silence, gaze deeply at fluorescent blue words scrolling upon a pitch black screen: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”…

See yourself today looking back three decades, having witnessed the spark of a booming pop cultural phenomenon known as Star Wars, made possible by a universal weapon – not the futuristic lightsaber of the Jedi Order, but rather the ancient relic of “story telling”.

Story is the essence of thought and action

When we hear a story coming, the depths of our minds open unconditionally to receive and act upon whatever message is being sent. That’s because story telling is key to how we think, decide, and behave. As the cognitive scientist Mark Turner says, “Narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend on it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining. . . . Most of experience, our knowledge, and our thinking is organized as stories.”

For many thousands of years and 99% of our evolution we sat around fires as hunter-gatherers telling stories. These narratives formed the basis from which information was shared and our cultures emerged.

There are many powerful forces of unconscious persuasion wielded by media and marketers though seven key steps:

1) Interrupt the Pattern, 2) Create Comfort, 3) Lead the Imagination, 4) Shift the Feeling, 5) Satisfy the Critical Mind, 6) Change the Associations, and 7) Take Action.

We will look at the most prominent guiding principle in the known universe for turning idea into action, i.e., Lead the Imagination.

stoneArchaeological evidence suggests that our imaginative abilities evolved about fifty thousand years ago during the Upper Paleolithic era. For the first time in human history, a remarkable set of human singularities emerged, becoming routine parts of our stone-age lives. They showed up in the forms of religion, science, art, language, fashion, music, dance, and advancements in tool use. Humans were exhibiting the skills to be imaginative in everything they encountered, and this unprecedented cognitive capacity has become a defining characteristic of modern humans ever since.

Imagination occurs at the watermark of the mind’s metaphorical iceberg, the confluence of the external world and our internal state, the blending of conscious and unconscious. Here the conscious mind is able to eavesdrop below the surface on the deeper remote associations of the mind in an effort to actualize new connections unlocking creative solutions to life’s challenges.

The most evolved form of this mental operation is called “double scope blending,” what cognitive scientist Mark Turner refers to as the “engine of human imagination.” This gives us the ability to combine two distinct conceptual worlds into one combined reality.

As Turner puts it, “These blended conceptions are put together for the important purposes such as making real choices.” We evolved to be imaginative not only to invent new things but also to improve decisions by envisioning different possible outcomes to our choices.


toolBut when someone else is leading our imagination we can fall prey to their vision rather then creating our own. Neuroscience is explaining how that happens through two inexorable cognitive truths.

  1. The brain doesn’t always clearly differentiate between something real and something imagined. Our imagination and our perception of the real world are closely linked since both functions engage similar neural circuitry. Numerous scientific studies confirm that visualization and mental imagery enhances actual physical performance, demonstrating the very real benefits of mental rehearsal. If you can get someone to imagine something vividly enough, you are well on your way to making the suggestion real.Advertising that fires up our imagination acts as an exercise in this form of mental rehearsal. The simple process of imagining makes us more likely to buy because we have gone through the motions quite literally in our own minds.For example, a Toronto Porsche dealer went around some of the Canadian city’s most affluent neighborhoods with a shiny white 911 sports car, a digital camera, and a mobile printer. Taking photographs of the brand new vehicle parked in the driveways of these upscale homes, the dealer printed out custom ads and dropped them into the mail slots. The campaign featured the provocative headline: “It’s closer than you think.” The result was an astonishing 32 percent response rate, a staggering improvement over the very low single digit response rates typically deemed successful in traditional direct mail efforts.
  2. Encouraging someone to go inside their own mind, prompts them to believe that it is their own idea. When you imagine something it transforms the message from a universal one to a uniquely personal concept, and not an attempt at external manipulation.Much in the same way that we often believe that “the book is better than the movie,” when we create our own narrative, replete with characters, scenery, and images of our creation, we identify more strongly with the story and what is being said. The more people feel and relate to the experience on a personal level, the greater their commitment to that vision.This is the essence of intrinsic motivation and the opposite of external manipulation. We do it because we want to do it, not because someone else told us, even if someone else has planted that seed!


  1. Imagine both scenarios good and bad
    When making major life decisions or feeling enticed by a seductive sales pitch, envision both potential outcomes. That is, the pros of buying that brand new car and the cons of all the other things that you will sacrifice in order to do so. Don’t just compare the facts. Move yourself beyond mere rational deliberation to include a vivid emotive projection of life’s consequences down the road for better or worse.
  2. controlBecome the author of your own story
    The start of a new year brings new hopes. Don’t just make a resolution. Craft it into a rich narrative with vivid details that fires up all your senses. Remember is not about the words but the images attached to them and most importantly the feelings triggered by those images.The best ways to reach the unconscious parts of your mind often involves embedding the message in structural devices that evoke emotion and require internal, personal interpretation. Consider motivating songs, pictures, symbols, characters, role models, and metaphors that inspire you with special significance. These are particularly ripe tools, that effectively bypass critical analysis to evoke feelings that strike at your heart and move you to action.

    If you don’t want a paper trail, produce and direct your own internal movie about your future ideal self. Replay that movie often during idle moments when your mind wanders and before you sleep as a suggestion for dreams. Also consider hiring a coach or behavior change therapist skilled in the powerful techniques of guided imagery.

  3. Live the unlived life
    People often think the answer lies elsewhere but only you truly hold the keys to your own castle. When you are very clear and specific on a meaningful goal, and when your beliefs and values and actions are in relentless alignment in pursuit of your vision, success will follow.As the writer Steven Pressfield says: “Most of us have two lives. The life we live and the unlived life within us.”

Douglas Van Praet
is the author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing.

This article appeared in on 30 December 2012


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