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Book Reviews   |    
The Power of Persuasion: How We're Bought and Sold
Reviewed by Ellen B. Tabor, M.D.
Psychiatric Services 2005; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.56.5.614
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by Robert Levine; Hoboken, New Jersey, John Wiley & Sons, 2003, 278 pages, $24.95

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Can I persuade you to read this book? Well, if you haven't read it, then probably. After all, I'm a psychiatrist, which makes me an expert of some sort. You like "expert." If you're a psychiatrist, you may be thinking that because I'm a psychiatrist too, I probably know what you would like. But am I honest? Well, you probably think I am. After all, I was asked by the book review editor to review this book. Because he's the editor of this column, he must know something and therefore be a bigger expert than I. He must think I'm honest, at least honest enough to write a book review. So if you think I'm honest, then you must trust what I say, right?

But I'm not done yet, because the third in the triad of irresistibility is whether you like me. Because if you think I'm a likable, honest expert, then I will be able to sell you this book. In fact you'd beg me to sell you my one and only copy, the one I got for free because I agreed to review it. Whoops … I let the cat out of the bag. See, as I said above, I am a hired reviewer, but it's probably too late. True, I'm not a real salesperson, because I'm working for the journal (and on a volunteer basis, too), but never mind all that. You've made up your mind you will no longer let new information change it. That would be embarrassing, would make you feel shame and possibly even guilt, create cognitive dissonance and so on. So I know: you will read this book.

Unless I give it a bad review. But here's what I'm going to do: I'll let you decide. Is this book worth reading? Don't answer yet, just read on a little. This won't take long, and besides, I want you to use your excellent judgment.

And that's what this book is about. Robert Levine is a social psychologist who studied how we are persuaded, how salespeople sell, how people are brought into cults, how children resist—or don't resist—peer pressure, and some of the cultural differences in learning to resist invisible forces of persuasion. To that end, Levine learned how to sell cars himself, attended Tupperware parties, and met with former cult members, in each instance laying out clearly how our sense of ourselves as independent thinkers is an illusion, that we can be subtly and gradually manipulated, leaving us prey to the blandishments of people who, purporting to care for us, truly care only for themselves. But by creating the lethal combination of (apparent) expertise, honesty, and likeability, these individuals draw us into their nets.

Our only escape is given at the end of the book: reeducation in the art of resistance, including inoculating ourselves by learning from past mistakes, practicing critical thinking, and rehearsing scripts of difficult situations, such as teaching children how to avoid going with strangers or smoking cigarettes. The most chilling discussion is a painstaking and painful review of the events leading to the Jonestown massacre and how reasonable people could have been taken in by the ruthless, controlling, and ultimately murderous Jim Jones. Other cults are discussed as part of the analysis of various kinds of sales techniques.

Although the book is structured in small chapters and subchapters (one of the techniques the author describes sales people as using), it seems that the subchapters are not entirely coherent and logical. Nevertheless, the author makes his points, time and again: forewarned is forearmed; caveat emptor.

I found more than the usual number of errors in the book, and not just spelling mistakes. When I see mistakes of a careless type, I wonder about the accuracy of material that I don't know much about. So the author's honesty … well, you be the judge. The writing style is bland at times, although some of the examples and author's asides were quite humorous.

Who is this book for? On the positive side, it's for all of us in this helping profession who want to make alliances with our patients, help them with compliance, and so on. Of course, I might recommend it for anyone who wants to be better at resisting the blandishments of salespeople (and people selling who may not make it obvious that they are selling, such as fundraisers). So next time you get invited on a free trip to Florida to check out a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime real estate opportunity, consider just how "free" that trip will really be. On the less savory side, if you read this book, you'll be privy to the tactics of those who wish to part you from your money, your freedom, your time. How you use this knowledge is up to you.

So—what do you think? Have you made up your mind? Or have I made it up for you? Would you be able to tell the difference?

Dr. Tabor is medical director of adult inpatient psychiatry at Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn, New York, and assistant professor in psychiatry at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn.

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