The Illusion of Free Choice


“The Conjuror,” by Hieronymus Bosch, dated between 1496 and 1516

One of the University of Oregon undergraduate classes WC took that had the most impact on WC was the late Prof. Dom LaRusso‘s course on Nonverbal Communication. It wasn’t just that LaRusso was a superb teacher; it was the approach he took to teaching us. LaRusso was a scholar of nonverbal communication, and much of the course focused on the use of nonverbal communication in persuasion.

Early in the class, maybe the second week, LaRusso brought a professional con artist named David Jasperson to class. This was a guy who had multiple convictions for fraud rimes, and Jasperson was introduced to us as “a convicted con artist.” WC has no idea how LaRusso knew Jasperson, or why Jasperson agreed to come to the class. Jasperson was short and pudgy, and had a charming smile. He seemed meek and unassuming, the opposite of the flamboyant con men of movies and literature.

What Jasperson did was present a series of five students with five blocks of woods, asking us to choose one. He asked each student three seemingly irrelevant and unrelated questions beforehand, then turned away from us to arrange (or appear to arrange) the blocks of wood on a tray and then seemingly left each of the five students completely free to choose one of the five blocks. One block, and only one block – we checked multiple times – was marked on the down side with an “X.” WC emphasizes: there was no apparent way to identify the marked wood block. All five times, the student chose the marked block. WC was the fifth of the five. Obviously, our “free choice” wasn’t free at all. Jasperson was directing us away from the unmarked blocks by nonverbal cues, and we were unconsciously following those nonverbal cues.

To pass the class, at the end of the quarter, we had to describe five of the nonverbal techniques that Jasperson had used to influence our choices, based on things we had learned over the course of that quarter. As a sometime teacher himself, WC remains deeply envious of the educational framework LaRusso used.

Marketing techniques have only gotten more sophisticated in the 50-plus years since. WC is as skeptical and cynical as anyone you are likely to find, and can still be made misty-eyed by some television advertisements, even as he recognizes he is being emotionally manipulated.

Which takes WC to the point of this blog post. All too many politicians are like David Jasperson. They use opinion polls instead of Jasperson’s set up questions, but then present voters with a suite of apparent choices. But the game is rigged, the voter is manipulated, and in all too many cases, there is no choice at all.

That makes both the events and the long term impact of the Trump presidency almost predictable. And Bosch’s 500-year old painting eerily prophetic, with Donald Trump distracting the voters while his allies pick our pockets.

(Re-reading this post, it makes it sound like doing the right thing, the independent thing, the thinking thing, is hopeless. That’s not true. It’s just harder work than you may think. Every con artist is trying to take advantage of humans’ innate tendency to be lazy and credulous.)

3 thoughts on “The Illusion of Free Choice

  1. Penn and Teller talk about such forced choice scenarios with respect to magic. I wish that true critical thinking by members of society wasn’t as rare as contestants winning a “Fool Us” trophy from P&T.

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