Recounted by psychologist Robert Cialdini:
One night at an introductory lecture given by the Transcendental Meditation (TM) program, I witnessed a nice illustration of how people will hide inside the walls of consistency to protect themselves from the troublesome consequences of thought.
The lecture itself was presided over by two earnest young men and was designed to recruit new members into the program. The program claimed it could teach a unique brand of meditation that would allow us to achieve all manner of desirable things, ranging from simple inner peace to the more spectacular abilities—to fly and pass through walls—at the program’s advanced (and more expensive) stages.
I had decided to attend the meeting to observe the kind of compliance tactics used in recruitment lectures of this sort, and had brought along an interested friend, a university professor whose areas of specialization were statistics and symbolic logic. As the meeting progressed and the lecturers explained the theory behind TM, I noticed my logician friend become increasingly restless.
Looking more and more pained and shifting about constantly in his seat, he was finally unable to resist. When the leaders called for questions at the completion of the lecture, he raised his hand and gently but surely demolished the presentation we had just heard. In less than two minutes, he pointed out precisely where and why the lecturers’ complex argument was contradictory, illogical, and unsupportable.
The effect on the discussion leaders was devastating. After a confused silence, each attempted a weak reply only to halt midway to confer with his partner, and finally to admit that my colleague’s points were good ones “requiring further study.”
A Foolish Fortress
More interesting to me, though, was the effect upon the rest of the audience. At the end of the question period, the two recruiters were faced with a crush of audience members submitting their seventy-five-dollar down payments for admission to the TM program. Nudging, shrugging, and chuckling to one another as they took in the payments, the recruiters betrayed signs of giddy bewilderment.
Outside the lecture room after the meeting, we were approached by three members of the audience, each of whom had given a down payment immediately after the lecture. They wanted to know why we had come to the session. We explained, and we asked the same question of them.
[The group spokesman] put it best: “Well, I wasn’t going to put down any money tonight because I’m really quite broke right now; I was going to wait until the next meeting. But when your buddy started talking, I knew I’d better give them my money now, or I’d go home and start thinking about what he said and NEVER sign up.”
All at once, things began to make sense. These were people with real problems; and they were somewhat desperately searching for a way to solve those problems. They were seekers who, if our discussion leaders were to be believed, had found a potential solution in Transcendental Meditation. Driven by their needs, they very much wanted to believe that TM was the answer.
Now, in the form of my colleague, intrudes the voice of reason, showing the theory underlying their newfound solution to be unsound. Panic! Something must be done at once before logic takes its toll, and leaves them without hope again. Quickly, quickly, walls against reason are needed; and it doesn’t matter that the fortress to be erected is a foolish one.
Continued in the book Influence: Science and Practice.