Charismatic, glib, grandiose, magnetic, energetic — sociopaths are typically described in these terms. No matter what they actually do and say, these men and women have style.
And, according to a classic experiment in education research, style is all that is needed to be respected and believed.
Back in 1970, Dr. Donald H. Naftulin, director of Continuing Education in Psychiatry at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, and colleagues, conducted an experiment to test the hypothesis that student ratings of educators depend largely on personality variables and not on educational content.
The experiment was ingenious, and in my opinion, the results go a long way towards explaining why sociopaths get away with portraying themselves as experts on topics about which they know absolutely nothing.
This was the experiment: Eleven psychiatrists, psychologists and social worker educators, who were attending an educational conference, were invited to a lecture on, “Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education.” The speaker was Dr. Myron L. Fox, who was introduced as an accomplished expert on game theory.
In reality, “Dr. Fox” was an actor hired to play the part of a expert, and he knew nothing at all about game theory.
Even worse, he was instructed to talk in circles. According to the scientific paper about the experiment, The Doctor Fox Lecture: A Paradigm of Educational Seduction, published by the Journal of Medical Education in 1973:
One of the authors, on two separate occasions, coached the lecturer to present his topic and conduct his question and answer period with an excessive use of double talk, neologisms, non sequiturs, and contradictory statements. All this was to be interspersed with parenthetical humor and meaningless references to unrelated topics.
That’s exactly what the actor did. As you can see from the video, “Dr. Fox” began his lecture with:
It was not long before they realized that game theory was not primarily concerned with disclosing the optimum strategy, what it really is concentrating on is concerned with the logic of conflict, that is, with the theory of strategy.
Now, in this way, interestingly enough, here in the gambling state of Nevada, the question could be asked, “Does game theory differ from gambler’s choice?” where there is a conflict of interest between the two parties, out of which one is to emerge victorious and one is to be defeated.
It sounds good, but on closer inspection, “Dr. Fox” said absolutely nothing. The actor kept it up for an hour, and then took questions for a half-hour. Throughout his entire presentation, he didn’t say anything that made sense, but no one in the audience of professional educators figured out that the lecture was a sham.
In fact, they loved him. An eight-question evaluation after the presentation was overwhelmingly positive. One person commented,
Excellent presentation, enjoyed listening. Has warm manner. Good flow, seems enthusiastic. What about the two types of games, zero-sum and non-zero sum? Too intellectual a presentation. My orientation is more pragmatic.
Dr. Fox’s presentation was videotaped and shown to two more groups. The second group was 11 more psychiatrists, psychologists and psychiatric social workers, who were all identified as mental health educators. The third group comprised 33 educators and administrators enrolled in a graduate level university educational philosophy course.
The results: When the second two groups filled out their evaluations, they, too, were overwhelmingly positive about Dr. Fox.
The authors of the study described the results as “educational seduction.” They wrote:
The notion that students, even if they are professional educators, can be effectively “seduced” into an illusion of having learned if the lecturer simulates a style of authority and wit is certainly not new. In a terse but appropriate statement on educators, Postman and Weingartner emphasized that “it is the sign of a competent crap detector that he is not completely captivated by the arbitrary abstractions of the community in which he happened to grow up.” The three groups of learners in this study, all of whom had grown up in the academic community and were experienced educators, obviously failed as “competent crap detectors” and were seduced by the style of Dr. Fox’s presentation. Considering the educational sophistication of the subjects, it is striking that none of them detected the lecture for what it was.
This phenomenon of “educational seduction” — that a student’s perception of learning was significantly affected by the instructor’s presentation style, not the content of the lecture, is called the “Dr. Fox effect.”
According to an article published last year on Psychology Today.com called The Return of Dr. Fox, the original study has been repeatedly replicated. A recent version concluded that students were aware that they didn’t actually learn anything, even though they continued to rate the speaker highly.
A controversial conclusion of this research was that student evaluations of teachers couldn’t be trusted. Other people argue that educational seduction does not exist.
To me, the more important point is that people, including professional mental health educators, are likely to regard a person and his or her message positively based solely on style. Someone who speaks with authority, energy and warmth will be respected and believed, even if the content of the communication is total nonsense.
Unfortunately, the human tendency to respond to style over substance plays right into the hands of sociopaths. All they have to do is speak with confidence and turn on the charm, and we believe them. It’s a human failing that makes us all susceptible to deception and manipulation.