Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

Patrick O’Reilly, Ph.D.

Originally published in BASIS




January-March 2007

I recently ran across a short article about a California clinical psychologist whose license to practice was put on probation because he persuaded two of his clients to enroll in his Amway business.

The premise of Amway is that you are your own boss and that you buy Amway products that you then sell for a profit. The Real way to make money with Amway, though, is to sign up people you personally know to sell Amway. Because you were the one who enrolled these new Amway sales people, you get a share of the profits from any Amway products they sell. You will also get profit from the sales of anybody they sign up, and anybody they sign up, and on and on. The way to riches, supposedly, is get as many people as possible in your pyramid.

Although I long ago gave up being surprised at the shenanigans perpetrated by persons in my honored profession, the idea that a psychologist would make such a grievous violation of the ethics of the profession as to enroll clients in his Amway business genuinely disturbed me.

As a young graduate student, I was tricked into attending an Amway sales meeting by an employer. The techniques he, and the speaker subsequently used, were reminiscent of cult recruitment techniques.When I returned to graduate school to earn my doctorate, I had to find a way to support myself that gave me the flexibility to attend classes and work at an internship. I found a great job working as a painter for a realty management company. The company allowed me to paint empty apartments on weekends and on rare free days, and they paid far more than I could have gotten as a temporary office worker or a job at the university. I worked primarily for only one realtor at the company, whom I will call Mr. Jones, who was a friendly, garrulous man, who would typically give me a work list in the middle of the month.

Bait and Switch

A year later, and well into graduate studies, Mr. Jones called me at home and asked if I might be willing to speak to his men’s group because one of the members of the group had just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and the members knew nothing about mental illness. Perhaps I could demystify this illness for them, he said. Of course I was flattered, and I depended on his business so I said ‘yes’ and arranged to meet Mr. Jones at his home the following Thursday evening.

Things got a little weird when I arrived at Mr. Jones’ house. I carried a small stack of several one page handouts I had written up on bipolar disorder and Mr. Jones strongly suggested that we use his car. He then told me that his wife was joining us, which was a surprise because we were, after all, going to a men’s group. I assumed, though, that she would drop us off and then pick us up when the group ended. The drive itself was confusing because Mr. Jones took surface streets for much of the drive instead of the highways and he ended up driving us to a neighboring city. It was also dark, which made trying to keep track of our route difficult. Finally, though, Mr. Jones pulled up in front of a two storey house and the sidewalks around the house were crowded with parked cars. When I entered the house, it was not at all what I had expected.

There were at least fifty people packed into the two main downstairs rooms, sitting closely together in rented metal folding chairs and all were listening carefully to a speaker, who was standing and speaking in a twangy Southwestern American accent. Initially, I refused to believe that I’d been conned and thought “how interesting ??? the men’s group brought in a guest speaker to talk to the men and their families”. My second thought was ‘I’m not prepared to speak to this many people about bipolar disorder”. After listening to the speaker for five minutes, though ??? and he spoke for two hours ??? it was clear that I had been lied to.

I initially thought it was a religious revival meeting. As it happened, though, it was not. It was a recruitment meeting for Amway. Once I figured that out, I listened with careful attention to the speaker and afterwards made notes of what had transpired. The speaker’s style was dynamic and professional and at the same time, folksy and homespun. He spoke without the benefit of a microphone, notes or slides. There was a considerable amount of audience participation, where audience members would shout out ‘Yes!’ when asked if they wanted to be rich and ‘No!’ when asked if they were always going to work for somebody else. The speaker frequently mocked traditional ways of making money and provoked laughter from the audience when, for instance, he calculated how long it would take an average American worker, with negligible tax deductions, to save enough money to pay cash for a house. After speaking for nearly two hours, he chose people seemingly at random from the audience to talk about their “dreams.” The dreams were painfully uncomplicated. One woman dreamed of owning horses. Another dreamed of having the money to send her two high school children to college. A man, a plumber, said that he dreamed of setting up his own business so that he never again had to take orders from other people. Still another man dreamed of owning a house. They were all reasonable aspirations and the speaker told these people that every one of those dreams was realizable, and that enrolling in the company he represented was the first step toward fulfilling those goals.

It became clear to me that many of the audience members were already enrolled in this business and had invited people they knew to the event to try to enlist them. The way to get rich with this company, the speaker told us, was to enroll other people into the company, and for this night and this night only, the guests were being offered the opportunity to buy an introductory sales kit for a sizeable discount. By investing in this company, and then by signing up our friends ??? and we were assured that we would be doing our friends a favor by doing this ??? one got a percentage of the profit of the sales of that person, and of the sales of anyone our friends subsequently recruited.


After the talk, all of the “new people” were approached individually by a company sales person who asked each of us to talk about our dreams. I listened to several of these stories. Two of the would-be recruits were retired and said that they hoped to find a way to supplement their social security incomes. A man in his early forties had recently lost the job he had had for over twenty years. A woman in her thirties told the recruiter that she had just gone through a devastating divorce and was working at two jobs. She desperately wanted to spend more time with her three children. Still another person said that he had recently dropped out of college after three years of mediocre grades. All of us were asked if we had a few hours a week to devote to making these dreams come true. And we were given stories of ordinary people, people like ourselves, who had become wealthy and made their dreams come true with this company. The would-be recruits in the house were also urged to talk to anybody in attendance that night to learn how incredibly easy it would be to become rich.

I spoke briefly to three people at the house who were already signed up with the company. While all three praised the company and its philosophy, none of the three would tell me exactly how much money they were making. Even Mr. Jones, who had lied to me to get me to attend, hedged about his profits. The most he would say is that “It’s a wonderful company and they don’t just sell soap. They’re linked up with other companies. I can buy just about anything ??? even a Christmas tree, from them, and sell somebody that Christmas tree for less than they’d pay at a lot. We’re like a big business family.” He then told me that while this was a special meeting, he and a few others met twice a month as a way to review their business plans and stay focused on their goals. Fifteen people bought introductory sales kits from the speaker. And they bought them because they were tricked and manipulated into doing so. The speaker and those who had brought recruits to this meeting used several tools of influence and persuasion and those poor fifteen people never saw it coming.

Betrayal of Confidence

First of all, to get me to attend the meeting, Mr. Jones used the information he had about me. He knew that I was a psychology graduate student and that I was dependent on my job with his company, and for those reasons, would be unlikely to refuse. He appealed to my vanity and willingness to help others and he tailored his message to tap into this knowledge. He told me that I had the ability to help an entire group of men by just talking to them for an evening. He made the undertaking attractive and attractiveness is a remarkably effective manipulative tool.

We tend to respond to a likable person in a positive way and the message that person transmits becomes linked with our attraction to that person. There was an interesting study carried out by a psychology professor who wanted to test the strength of social attractiveness. He divided his research assistants, all students, into two groups: those who dressed very conservatively and those who dressed in more casual, alternative lifestyle clothing. The professor then had his researchers approach students on campus and ask for change to make a phone call. The result of the study was that the students were much more likely to get money from students who looked like them. Those dressed casually got more money from students who also dressed casually than they did from students who dressed formally. Conversely, those who were dressed conservatively got more money from students dressed conservatively. By asking me to speak to a self-help men’s group, Mr. Jones was letting me know that he was concerned about mental health, too ??? that we shared this in common.

The concept of likeability is widely known and used, and is particularly employed by recruiters to cults. Multiple studies have shown that cult recruiters tailor their initial message to fit/match as closely as possible the person they are trying to recruit. So, if a would-be recruit expresses interest in social justice, the recruiter will tell him that the purpose of their group is dedicated, for example, to racial equality. If the potential recruit expresses interest in art or music, then the recruiter might well tell him the group has a rock band or has amongst its members several artists, and that the group frequently puts on art shows.


Another point worth noting is that Mr. Jones had figuratively trapped me. This is a fairly common technique in spiritual abuse and cults, by the way, where the potential recruit is removed from his or her environment and spends a weekend or week at a rural retreat. From my perspective, I was in a stranger’s house in an unfamiliar city. It’s true that I could have insisted that Mr. Jones give me the address of the house where the recruiting was taking place and then used the telephone to have a taxi return me to my car, which was parked at Mr. Jones’s home. Had I done that, though, I would almost certainly have lost my job with Mr. Jones and causing a scene would have defied a crowd of fifty people. I really was stuck and Mr. Jones knew I would be.Well, what about those fifteen people who spent a few hundred dollars on an introductory sales kit and believe that by working a few hours a week that they would become millionaires? Well, several extremely reliable tools of persuasion and manipulation had been used on them, and they are hard tools to resist.

Social Proof

Social proof means that we tend to see behavior as correct the more we see other people do it. For the most part, it’s a good survival tool. If you’re walking down a city street and see a hoard of people running towards you with terror in their eyes and constantly looking over their shoulders, you’ll probably turn around and run with them, figuring that what ever they’re running from is something you should be running from, too. If someone is in a social setting where she is not sure how to act, taking cues from those around her will probably be a big help in her acclimatizing to the environment. Although social proof can benefit us, it’s a powerful concept and is too often used by persons who want to shape our behavior.

Think of those folks at the pyramid scheme recruitment rally. Had any of them been asked earlier in the day if they had any interest in selling soap for a living or of investing in a company that they had not personally looked into, it’s likely that they all would have said no. But what happened? They were surrounded by people who swore this method would bring them wealth. They had heard a pleasant, thoroughly likeable man talk to them for two hours about how easy it was. Examples of people “just like them” had been repeatedly been given to demonstrate how easy making money with this company was. Total strangers had taken an interest in them and asked about their dreams. There was a roomful of people insisting that this method was easy and worked and would take little of their time. Logically we would think that these fifteen people should have said “No, I’m not going to make a financial and time commitment without thinking about it carefully and without checking out the company”. But there was a lot of pressure not to do that. When one isn’t sure how to act, or if one feels uneasy in a particular setting, when one feels awkward, the concept of social proof dictates that we conform to the group norm.

Social proof is an enormously powerful tool which can absolutely shape behavior and attitude. As an experiment, Dr. Solomon Asch had a group of people, ostensibly all volunteers, seated around a table. Unbeknownst to the one volunteer, all of the others at the table were colleagues of Dr. Asch. The group was shown a series of vertical lines of various lengths and each person in the group was asked individually to identify which lines were of the same length. Dr. Asch had instructed his associates to give an incorrect response and the volunteer was the second to last person to give his answer. Although the correct response was extremely obvious, 32% of the time, the volunteer gave the same incorrect response as the rest of the group members and 74% of the subjects conformed to the group answer one or more times, even though the correct answer was quite evident.


Group members are just as likely to stereotype themselves as to stereotype others. In cults, for instance, there is a pervasive pressure to conform to a “we versus them” mentality. Irving Janis pointed out in his book Victims of Groupthink that this type of thinking can and often does result in the group feeling that they are always right and that their cause is morally justified. Really, what the group members end up believing is that they are always the good guys. They may recognize that their policy (or theology or world view or business plan) can be painful to some, but the rationalization is that ultimately overall good will result in their policies.So you might think of those poor folks who signed up to sell household products as a way to reach their dreams. The chances of their actually realizing their dreams selling these soap products were remarkably slim. Only a very small percentage of Amway distributors even recoup their initial investment. And yet they committed to working for a company they really knew nothing about and their decision was based almost exclusively on the pressure exerted by the group.

Look at it from their standpoint. They were in a crowded house with dozens of people very much like themselves: working people, honest and presumably with similar moral and ethical values. Their aspirations were listened to with avid and serious attention. People they had no reason to suspect told them that their dreams were realizable and offered themselves as examples. There was no dissenting opinion. In a situation such as that, those fifteen made a decision, almost certainly a foolish one.

Law of Commitment and Consistency

Most of the people attending the recruitment meeting who had already signed up with the company were suckers, too, and they were stuck in something called the Law of Commitment and Consistency. Commitment and Consistency holds that once we have made an important decision about something ??? and it can be anything from a business decision to a stand on a political issue ??? there are enormous psychological pressures exerted on us to adhere to that stand, even when faced with information that contradicts our commitment, and even when this contrary information is compelling and logical. Culturally, consistency is seen as a valuable character trait and most people want to be perceived as being consistent in their beliefs. This trait, though, is often used to our disadvantage by people less honorable than ourselves.

Mr. Jones, for example, used deceit to persuade me to attend the meeting but since so few people that sign up with this company even recover their initial investments, it is highly unlikely that Mr. Jones had made any money from the company himself. Despite tricking me into attending the meeting, he was reluctant to lie about his success with the company. Instead, he praised the company and talked about the bi-weekly meetings he and a few other soap salesmen attended as a way to keep focused on their goals. What these meetings really did is reaffirm their commitment to the company and strengthen their resolve to not let contrary information ??? in this case, lack of actual financial success ??? deter them from their resolve that they made a wise decision to invest in this company’s business philosophy.

Pain and Authority

The authority exuded by the speaker at the soap product recruitment meeting also had an impact on the recruits. Probably the most powerful experiment on the power of authority was carried out by Dr. Stanley Millgram of Yale University. Dr. Millgram had long been disturbed by the compliance of ordinary people in the horrible atrocities carried out by the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s against innocent people they did not know. Many of these crimes had been carried out by regular, seemingly normal people, and Dr. Millgram considered that one reason for this was authority. He decided to test this by setting up an ingenious but remarkably simple test.

Dr. Millgram advertised in a local newspaper for paid volunteers to participate in a scientific study on memory. He told the paid volunteers that he was particularly interested in how punishment can increase or decrease our ability to hold onto memories. His volunteers were paid not much more than the minimum wage. The volunteers worked in pairs. Seemingly randomly, he assigned one volunteer to be the teacher and the other volunteer to be the student. The student was strapped into a chair and electrodes were attached to his body. The teacher sat behind an impressive electronic control panel. The very officious doctor-scientist in a white lab coat stood next to the teacher and supervised the experiment. When the student volunteer, who was strapped securely in his chair, was asked a question and got the answer right, nothing happened. When he answered the question wrong, the teacher was instructed to give him an electric shock, which was done by controls on the control panel. Each time the student got a question wrong, the teacher volunteer was told to raise the electrical voltage of the shock by 15 volts. As the voltage of the shocks got higher and higher, the students began to beg the teachers to stop the experiment, saying that they’d had enough. However, the doctor-scientist in the lab coat assured the teacher that this was a very important scientific experiment and had to continue???and the teacher continued to raise the voltage.

You might think about this. These teachers weren’t sadists. They were regular people. When the voltage got to 300 volts, the students strapped in the chairs screamed in agony and refused to answer questions at all. They insisted that they be unstrapped and let go. They said that they’d had enough. However, the doctor-scientist, always in his official looking white lab coat, insisted that the results of this experiment were important and that not answering a question was the same as getting the answer wrong. The teachers were instructed to continue with the shocks each time the student refused to answer a question, and the teachers did just that.Of course, the only real volunteers were the teachers. The poor students getting the electrical shocks were Dr. Millgram’s research assistants and there were no shocks administered to anyone. The point of the experiment was to see how much pain the teacher was willing to give a total stranger just because an authority figure told him to. As it happened, almost none of the 40 teacher-volunteers stopped administering the shocks, even when they were begged to do so by the students, and not even when the student strapped in the chair was screaming in agony. When the person strapped in the chair begged to be released from the chair because he had a heart condition, 65% of the teachers continued giving the shocks when instructed to do so by the doctor-scientist in the white lab coat. In fact, some of the teachers pleaded with the doctor-scientist to let them stop but when the doctor-scientist said they had to continue with the shocks, they did. It was Dr. Millgram’s conclusion that the teacher volunteers were willing to cause serious pain to another person because and authority figure told them that it was important.

In considering undue influence, one cannot minimize the importance of authority. All of us are prone to making important decisions based on the influence an authority figure exerts. The advice of a spiritual leader or political leader, for instance, or a financial or psychotherapeutic advisor, carries enormous weight in shaping most people’s behaviors.


It is worthwhile pointing out, too, that while all people are susceptible to undue influence, those who are going through a major life change are particularly vulnerable. For decades, cults have recruited on college and university campuses because the recruiters know that many of the students are lonely and emotionally vulnerable because of being away from home for the first time. Divorce, a recent death in the family, the loss of a job, the recent death of a spouse, and a move to a new environment all place a person in a more emotionally fragile state than they would otherwise be in. They have lost a major stabling influence in their lives and are struggling to recover their emotional balance. So think again of those people being recruited into Amway. One of the fifteen who had bought the introductory sales kit had recently lost the only job he had had as an adult and a single mother of three was recently divorced. Neither of the two could likely afford the cost of the sales kits they’d purchased but both bought them anyway, and without bothering to investigate the company’s claims. Why did they do that? Well, there were multiple reasons, as we have already discussed. Certainly, though, their traumatic life transition made them vulnerable.

On the face of it, the recruiting meeting seemed simple and straight forward. It was designed that way but truly it was remarkably complex and was arranged so that multiple cognitive and emotional forces were at play. The meeting was a setup for those poor recruits and very powerful forces were at play to get people to buy the introductory sales packages.

These same tools of influence and persuasion, though, are used for more nefarious purposes. Persons who end up losing several years of their lives in cults were coerced and manipulated by similar techniques. Scam artists bilk tens of thousands of victims a year using these methods. Thousands of people each year sign up for regional and national self-help programs for which there is no independent data showing that these self-help programs really work, and the recruiters for these self-help organizations absolutely know and use the tools of influence and persuasion. Unsuspecting people end up investing thousands of dollars, believing that the quick fixes promised to them will actually work. Lonely and vulnerable senior citizens continue to be victimized by unscrupulous care givers and family members, and spousal and partner abuse remains a serious and pervading problem. And how many times have all of us, at one time or another, been fooled into donating money to groups we really know nothing about? The fact is that the vast majority of us try very hard to live principled and honest lives. Because we do this, we are usually unprepared when someone uses tools of chicanery and undue influence to manipulate us into acting outside of our best interests. It is certainly worth knowing how to protect ourselves from them.

Further Reading

Influence: Science and Practice by Robert Cialdini. Longman Higher Education. 1988.

Victims of Groupthink by Irving Janis. Houghton, Mifflin. 1972

The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man by David W. Maurer. Anchor Books, Paper, (reprinted from the 1940 Bobs-Merrill Co. edition)

Cults in our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace by Margaret Thaler Singer and Janja Lalich, 2nd Edition, (Jossey-Bass: A Wiley Imprint: 1995, 2003)

About Dick DeVos, the son of the founder of Amway, his brush with the Federal Trade Commission, and his run for governor of Michigan in 2006 (he lost):

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