Fraudulent health gurus are master manipulators in pushing people’s buttons right where they are the most vulnerable. They all rake in millions of dollars peddling unsubstantiated claims and products all the while fearmongering and smooth talking their way right into people’s wallets and emotions. Their lies and slurs are worthy of an Oscar for Best Actor/Actress. Notice in these seven basic ways the psychological techniques used to deceive and persuade.
The Shameless Snake-Oil Health Gurus List
The Food Babe
Note: I intentionally left Doctor Oz off the list. He seems to have cleaned up his act somewhat after being brought in front of Congress to explain his extravagant claims. The last season or two has seen a notable reduction in quackery!
1) The “us-versus-them” narrative:
These gurus are highly effective communicators. Their favorite method of public-duping is to create an “us-versus-them” narrative. They know appealing to people’s emotions rarely fails and is indispensable in circumventing the intellect. The “them” is the enemy and you can’t trust anything the enemy tells you, even if sound science is provided. Either they are part of the global conspiracy against the helpless masses or they have unknowingly been duped. The leaders establish a strong “in” or “us” group identity of the enlightened and the “others” are to be shunned. This manipulation is effective in controlling followers and keeping them away from persuasive contrary views and opinions:
“It seems logical that a person’s identification with a group will be shaken when groups with countervailing views crop up, but this is not generally the case. Group identities paradoxically become stronger as people encounter those that seem opposite or somehow very different from themselves ……. An anti-vaccine group will become more strongly identified as anti-vaccine when faced with a pro-vaccine group, even when the latter offers evidence to support its opinions. This is a basic tenet of group psychology.”
2) The martyr and unsung hero ploy:
Another devious tool charlatan health gurus use is to make themselves into self-styled martyrs and unsung heroes for the common people against the evil government, corporation, or medical establishment. This is subtle but highly clever in reaching down into most people’s innate sympathy for the underdog, for the little guy versus the corporate and medical giants. One example is the discredited anti-vaxxer Andrew Wakefield. A once respected scientist, he skillfully uses the media to portray himself as a persecuted martyr, a victim of the world of science, and now a hero to those who want the “truth”. His focus is on his martyrdom. Actual facts, evidence and verification is not provided:
“A victim of the status quo, Wakefield has suffered the consequences of choosing the correct path and has lost his medical licence, his research position, his reputation, and, he says, even his country. Yet all of this, he claims, is nothing compared to the suffering of parents of children with autism and other developmental disorders. Like the true charismatic leader, he demonstrates that his overwhelming commitment to the cause is so strong that he is willing to lose not only his license but also his home.
“He further emphasizes his commitment to the cause through an elaborate process of self-effacement, in which he calls himself ‘irrelevant’, stating ‘It doesn’t matter what happens to me. It is a smokescreen.’ The real issue here is not his career or his reputation but the pure goal of saving the children. Wakefield speaks with the language of a religious zealot. He does not talk science – even he is unable to replicate his ‘findings’ in a separate experiment. Everything he says rests on 12 children, some of whom did not actually have autism and others who had it before they received the MMR vaccinations.”
3) Those who disagree are evil and treacherous conspirators:
As most health guru charlatans do, Wakefield paints his detractors as the evil enemy, as treacherous conspirators. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the public health community are just two of the connivers. He publicly called the journalist who exposed him a “hit man” who was paid a fortune by those out to destroy him. The entire medical community is a “religion” who no one can question, in spite of continuous valid challenges, new discoveries, and disproven beliefs discarded. This cleverly and deviously inflames his followers, cementing their identity as victims, captives of outrage, and leaving them absolutely no reason to thoughtfully and carefully examine the evidence.
4) Deluging readers with long lists:
There are two primary ways people generally come to conclusions: the central route and the peripheral route. When a claim or opinion is thoughtfully and meticulously scrutinized and the person is persuaded, this is through the central route. Sadly, many people hastily and rashly form their views by the peripheral route:
“For example, one powerful cue is the number of arguments the persuader uses. In one study, people who knew a lot about a particular topic were completely unpersuaded by a large quantity of weak arguments. People who did not know very much about the topic were very persuaded the more arguments there were, no matter how weak they were. In the case of whether HIV causes AIDS, vaccines cause autism, or GMOs cause cancer, most of us are not able to carefully parse an argument about these complex topics. As a result, we are more likely to be persuaded by heuristic-like cues, such as the quantity of arguments or the demeanour and authority of the speaker. Flooding the field with an abundance of so-called ‘studies’ and individual cases impresses us. It may be that all of the ‘studies’ are published in minor journals by scientists of questionable credentials and that the cases are cherry-picked rarities that do not represent the majority experience. Nevertheless, a charismatic leader can score points simply by providing a long list.”
5) Ease in forming groups thanks to the internet:
Charismatic health gurus do much of their selling and propagating over the internet. They know this is a powerful tool in amassing and influencing as many followers as possible:
“But how do individuals join groups, and what psychological process occurs as they identify increasingly with the group? Many social psychologists have noted that the simple acts of individuals categorizing themselves as group members is enough to cause group behavior and all of the psychological processes that accompany group formation. This means that it is relatively easy for a group to form – in fact, it represents one of our most natural inclinations as humans.
“In today’s world, triggers for group psychology are particularly abundant, considering how easy it is to join a group with a click of a button on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and many other forms of social media. The ability to join a ‘Green Our Vaccines’ and ‘No GMOs’ group on Facebook reduces some of the barriers that may exist in traditional group formation, such as geographical location or time commitments.”
6) Group members self-validate and corroborate the leader’s views:
Once these counterfeit health gurus have amassed their large following, keeping them in line, and in the fold, is easy. One way is to create message boards and Facebook pages where all the followers encourage each other and reinforce the leader’s beliefs among themselves with little oversight needed:
“The first step in the process of becoming identified as a group member has often been called ‘depersonalization’. The self comes to be seen in terms of membership in a group. This process leads people to behave in terms of a self-image as a psychological representative of a group rather than as an individual. Joining the group is an extremely adaptive human behavior. It allows us to make sense of a lot of worldly phenomenon that might be complex or confusing. In particular, group membership allows for social reality testing, in which we can move from an opinion such as ‘I think global warming is a serious problem’ to an affirmation that ‘Global warming is a serious problem’ by looking to the opinions of our fellow group members as a test of the idea. To some extent, we suspend the imperative to dive deeply into an issue in order to form an opinion when we join a group because we assume that the group has already done this.”
7) Leaders evoke fear, which changes the brain:
Nothing is more subtle and devious as the counterfeit health gurus’ manipulation of people’s needs, emotions and aspirations:
“From the point of view of public health measures, it is critical that any attempt to limit the influence of charismatic leaders take into considerable account the powerful effect those leaders have in making us feel safe, understood, and even loved. We have indicated that the more fear a charismatic leader is able to conjure in a potential acolyte, the more powerful is the activation of select brain circuits that will make it difficult for countervailing evidence to have an impact.
“Charismatic leaders induce brain changes that first heighten the fear centers of the brain, like the amygdala, and then suppress the decision-making areas in the PFC (prefrontal cortex). Those brain changes also contribute to an increased release of oxytocin that gives us a feeling of belonging and comfort. Dry, pedantic harangues about data will be powerless in the face of these potent effects. Rather, it is critical to make people feel that by using their minds to evaluate scientific claims they are joining a welcoming club of people who trust the scientific method and attempt to get at the truth about what is healthy.”
The clincher from The New Republic magazine:
“But in America today, it doesn’t really matter that you are wrong, just so long as you are famous—and preferably blonde. For whatever reason, as a culture we've chosen to outsource our medical advice to very good-looking people on TV. So Jenny McCarthy is able to wage her successful anti-vaccine jihad, and Somers can continue to spread her cuckoo theories, because the media and the publishing industry give them a massive platform from which to do so. Somers' books have sold millions of copies, including three #1 New York Times bestsellers, and there are more to come: She’s partway through a three-book deal with Random House. For this latest book, she’s been on CBS The Talk, Good Morning America, and a passel of local affiliates, with minimal fact-checking pushback from actual medical experts (although Katie Couric tried). Inevitably, though, TV and print media set it up as a ‘debate,’ with the blonde hottie on one side, looking amazing, and some Debbie Downer ‘expert’ (or worse, critic) on the other.”
Sara E. Gorman, PHD and Jack M. Gorman, MD, Denying To The Grave: Why We Ignore The Facts That Will Save Us, Oxford University Press, 2017
Bill Gifford, “Suzanne Somers Is a Dangerous Medical Hack” The New Republic, November 12, 2013 https://newrepublic.com/article/115574/suzanne-somers-hormone-hackery-unscientific-and-dangerous (Also included as photo credit)
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