Science in Christian Perspective



The Manipulation of Human Behavior*
Division of Pastoral Psychology and Counseling 
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School 
Deerfield, Illinois

From: JASA 22 (March 1970): 8-13.

While attempts to manipulate human behavior are very old, it is only recently that scientists have begun to study ways in which successful manipulation occurs. Research in the control of behavior through sensory deprivation, conditioning, and psychotherapy is typical of what is being done by psychologists who are interested in behavior manipulation. In view of the research findings, scientists-especially those who are Christians-must face several pertinent questions. Can behavior really be manipulated? What are the dangers in man's ability to control and manipulate? Hate do tee prevent unethical people from using this knowledge for their own personal gain? Should we use these techniques of manipulation in the church? This paper gives some tentative answers to these questions.

Modern mail is a manipulated man. While boasting of individual freedom, his behavior and thinking is controlled-sometimes subtly-by advertisers, political candidates, government officials, military leaders, counselors, employers, preachers, news media, social norms, and economic developments in the society. Publishing houses and research funding organizations manipulate the writer and researcher in his work. Parents manipulate their children, and children soon become skilled in manipulating adults. Teachers and students are involved in similar mutual manipulation. Even husbands and wives attempt, at times, to control the behavior of each other.

The attempt of one person to control the behavior of another is very old. It began with Eve and has continued throughout history. For the most part, the early methods of behavior control were discovered by chance. Some techniques worked and were retained. Others failed to work and were discarded to be replaced by some new method which, hopefully, would he more successful.

While non-scientific attempts to control behavior are old, the scientific study of behavior manipulation is, in contrast, relatively new. In psychology, experimentalists have investigated ways in which external and internal stimulation can change human and animal behavior. Clinical and other applied psychologists have sought to understand behavior with a view to removing, modifying or retarding neurotic symptoms; promoting adjustment and personality growth; resolving internal conflicts; stimulating learning; increasing efficiency of employees; and changing behavior in numerous other ways. It is not surprising that psychology has came to be defined as a science which seeks to understand, predict, and control behavior.

But the scientific investigation of behavior manipulation has not been limited to psychology. Biologists, geneticists, pharmacologists, economists, physiologists, sociologists, communication experts, and others have studied the problem empirically and have shown that human behavior can be altered and controlled with a high degree of efficiency. Space does not permit a survey of recent research developments concerning the control of behavior by shock or other physical stimulation, surgery and electrical stimulation of the brain, manipulation of genes, drugs, group pressure, mass media, hypnosis, persuasion, education, or the arousal of fear.1

For many people, the wards "manipulation" and "control" of human behavior have a bad connotation. Popular novels such as Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, or Walden Two written by B. F. Skinner, a prominent research psychologist-have led us to fear the implications of one person having the power to control and manipulate another. In our lifetime we have seen men like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-Tung control the behavior of millions and we are concerned lest such manipulation power again get into the hands of ruthless despots. Until recently, however, most scientists have been reluctant to consider the moral implications of this knowledge. We have worked on the hopeful assumption that an issue which is ignored will eventually disappear and perhaps even solve itself. It is now time for science to face the fact that we have uncovered some powerful and potentially dangerous manipulation devices.

Following a definition of behavioral manipulation, the remainder of this paper will summarize experimental evidence from three selected areas in psychology, and discuss some of the ethical implications of man's ability to control and manipulate behavior.


Although there may be some technical differences between "control" and "manipulation", in this paper the terms will be used interchangeably. Following the lead of Ulrich and his colleagues (1966), behavior control or manipulation can be defined as the changing of environmental conditions to which an organism is exposed so as to bring about a definite behavioral result. The result may be a production of new behavior, a maintenance of existing behavior, and/or an elimination of undesirable behavior.


1. Reduced environmental stimulation (more commonly referred to as "sensory deprivation") became a topic for careful psychological study after a number of solitary explorers, shipwrecked sailors, and isolated prisoners of war had published autobiographical descriptions of their reactions to being alone. Admiral Richard Byrd (1938), far example, voluntarily spent 4132' months alone in the antarctic. He recorded his experiences in a diary and later described his reactions in a book. Originally, Byrd had hoped to "taste peace and quiet and solitude long enough to find out how good they really are." Instead, in the dark polar night, snowed in, confined to the monotonous unchanging surrounding of a small space, and with little or no sound from the outside, his life became a nightmare. He experienced absent-mindedness, hallucinations, severe depression, lass of motivation, fears, and strange ideas that he was floating like some disembodied spirit in timeless space. In his own words, he "felt the tremendous need for stimuli from the outside world and yearned for sounds, smells, voices and touch." During the Korean war psychological and physical isolation was one technique used by Communist Chinese brainwashers to control the thinking and behavior of prisoners.

We have worked on the hopeful assumption that an issue which is ignored will eventually disappear and perhaps even solve itself. It is now time for science to face the fact that we have uncovered some powerful and potentially dangerous manipulation devices.

In the early l950's a group of psychologists at McGill University conducted the first of several experimental studies to determine the influence on behavior of reduced environmental stimulation (Bexton, Heron and Scott, 1954). Undergraduate volunteers were paid $20 a day to come to the psychology department and essentially do nothing. Both the rate of pay and the job description must have sounded attractive. A number of people volunteered and were requested to lie on a comfortable bed in a semi soundproof room for as long as they wished to stay. They wore translucent goggles and long cardboard cuffs which extended beyond their finger tips. This prevented them from looking around and reduced tactile stimulation. Eating and going to the toilet were the only deviations from this inactive routine.

At first, the subjects passed the time by thinking about their studies, their friends, their personal problems, and other matters. Then most fell asleep. When they woke up the trouble began. They became bored, restless, irritable, and hostile towards the experimenters. They engaged in fantasy and appeared so eager for stimulation that they would talk to themselves, whistle, sing, or recite poetry. Some experienced auditory or visual hallucinations and when they were tested with intelligence, perceptual-motor, learning, and thinking tests, most showed a marked impairment in their functioning.

The original work at McGill gave impetus to several related studies. In one of the most dramatic of these, subjects were equipped with a breathing apparatus and then were submerged to bang suspended in a tank of water (Sburley, 1960), In this and similar studies the results of the McGill research were supported (Zubeck, 1969).

On the basis of this work, we know that human behavior can he altered by reducing the input of stimulation. Some of the practical implications are obvious! If a person is kept in solitary confinement his intellectual and perceptual functioning will he impaired, be will become more open to the suggestions of others, and his behavior will become more easily controlled and manipulated. Children who are raised in isolated environments develop at a slower rate, have more disease, and often develop psychological abnormalities -which cause them to be misfits in society (Goldfarb, 1945).

But the studies of reduced environmental stimulation also have more positive implications. One study has shown that a reduction in stimulation interferes with efficient functioning in pilots. With this knowledge, the people who are responsible for military and space programs can he aware of the need for changing environmental influences as pilots and space captains guide their vehicles on long journeys. On the ground, policemen, highway department officials, and researchers studying accident prevention, should be alert to the impact on drivers of long monotonous trips and unchanging stretches of road. Physicians are recognizing that some of the disorientation and inefficient thinking of people who are in respirators or casts, and some of the disorientation of older people who live in lonely rooms may be due to the lack of changing stimulation. In addition, we all know that if someone gives a talk which is boring (i. c., not very stimulating) the listener's mind wanders. He thinks about other things in an attempt to provide 

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duration of a person in an interview can be directly controlled by the utterances, head nods, and "Mmhmm's" of the interviewer (Matarazzo, 1965). A job seeker or distressed patient is usually anxious to please the interviewer. For this reason even a slight smile or bead nod from the man behind the desk is reinforcing to the person being interviewed and encourages him to continue the behavior or topic of discussion which was reinforced.

By administering desirable reinforcement following acceptable behavior, and withholding reinforcement following undesirable behavior, psychologists have been able to change the behavior of uncooperative children so that they cooperate; modify the behavior of mute psychotic patients so that they talk; control the actions of schizophrenics; eliminate thumbsucking, stealing, crying, tantrums, stuttering, excessive vomiting, hyperactivity, and social withdrawal in children; control overeating; eliminate phobias; train retarded children; treat neurotics; and eliminate undesirable sex behavior.2 I have even heard of studies in which the behavior of speakers has been controlled by the members of the audience-sometimes with neither the speaker nor the audience being aware of what is happening. Apparently, the research behavior of scientists is manipulated by the giving of research grant reinforcements for performances of one type of research behavior and the withholding of reinforcements for proposals to study something else. Dr. Skinner, the man who started most of this, has himself shown how teaching machines can provide reinforcement at the most desirable time and bring about more efficient learning (1968).

Of course there are critics of these conditioning procedures both within the field of psychology and without. Some have pointed out that conditioning doesn't always work. But more often it does work, and I suspect that the terms "reinforcement" and "conditioning" describe many of the manipulation techniques which we use to control the behavior of our children and of each other.
3. Psychotherapy has been defined as:

A form of treatment for problems of an emotional nature in which a trained person deliberately establishes a professional relationship with a patient with the object of removing, modifying or retarding existing symptoms, of mediating disturbed patterns of behavior, and of promoting positive personality growth and development (Wolberg, 1954, p. 3).

To me this is another way of saying that psychotherapy is a procedure wherein a professionally trained person, known as a therapist, seeks to manipulate, control, and modify the behavior of another person, known variously as a patient, client, or counselee.

Of course psychotherapy is not exclusively a function of psychologists. Psychiatrists, social workers, pastoral counselors, and many others spend their lives attempting to help distraught, confused and unhappy people to change their behavior in ways that will make their lives happier.

Psychotherapists use different techniques and have different goals, depending somewhat on the patient's problem and on the therapist's personality, abilities, and theoretical position. Some therapists attempt to change behavior by encouragement, support, and reassurance; some try to promote patient insight into problems; some try to teach new methods of behavior; some encourage patient expression and ventilation of pent-up feelings; some give advice and suggestions; some make interpretive statements about patient behavior; some work with individuals; some work with groups; and most therapists use a combination of these techniques.
It has been estimated that at least 200,000 Americans are paying anywhere from $5 to $50 an hour to get help from psychotherapists. Since people are willing to pay to have their behavior changed in this way, the implication is that psychotherapy works. At present, however, nobody has empirically demonstrated this. H. J. Eysenck (1952), a British psychologist, who has devoted considerable effort to research in the effectiveness of psychotherapy has concluded that psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, and other such treatment techniques are ineffective and valueless. Eysenck and a number of professionals who agree with him would surely applaud one critic's definition of psychotherapy as "an undefined technique applied to unspecified problems with unpredictable outcomes."

Few psychologists are willing to throw out psychotherapy, however. In the first place, it is one of the best techniques thus far devised for treating distraught behavior. Secondly, present research concerning therapeutic effectiveness or lack of effectiveness, is far from convincing. To a large extent this is because research on therapy is very difficult. The therapists (especially the insecure ones) often are reluctant to be investigated; it is important to insure that research does not interfere with a patient's treatment; it is difficult to arrive at satisfactory criteria of "improvement"; concepts like "insight," "catharsis," or "degree of rapport" are almost impossible to measure; and since it is unethical to withhold treatment from people who want it, we have difficulty getting control groups.

I do not believe that we can trick or psychologically manipulate a person into become a Christian.

Perhaps Rosen and Gregory in their text on abnormal psychology give the best answer to the problem of therapy's effectiveness. "Since no research so far performed has succeeded in the difficult, and perhaps impossible, task of controlling all the relevant patient and therapist variables while conducting a study of adequate size, there is to date no definitive proof or disproof of the effectiveness of psychotherapy" (1965, p. 219). Undoubtedly psychotherapists do control and modify behavior, although the evidence in support of this is still incomplete.


Man's increasing ability to control, manipulate, and modify the behavior of other men, raises a number of ethical issues which scientists and Christians cannot ignore. From my perspective as a psychologist it would appear that we must face at least four pertinent questions.

1. Can we control and manipulate human be havior? I am reminded of Dr. Elving Anderson's address to the A.S.A. a few years ago (1966). In discussing genetic control he suggested that it is not a question of can we or should we control-we are already doing it! In the case of psychological manipulation, some of the techniques are exceptionally subtle. Not only du we control behavior now, but as research coistinues-and I doubt that it would be possible or desirable to stop such studies-our abilities to control and manipulate behavior will be even greater.

2. What are the dangers in our ability to control and manipulate behavior? The danger is not in the research findings but in their potential misuse. A few years ago, a physicist, Dr. A. R. Oppenheimer, in addressing members of the American Psychological Association, gave a similar warning. "The psychologist can hardly do anything without realizing that for him the acquisition of knowledge opens up the most terrifying prospects of controlling what people do and how they think and bow they behave and how they feel" (1956, p. 128).

As was suggested at the beginning of this paper, sometimes we avoid using the words "control" and "manipulation" because we don't want to face the moral, ethical, and legal implications of the fact that our techniques could he used to enslave people, depersonalize them, and control them by a means so subtle that they would never realize that they were being manipulated.

When faced with this possibility we must remember two things. First, in our complex society some control of human behavior is inevitable. The government, the economy, and the mores of the culture all exert a control which is essential to our survival as a civilization. Secondly, we must realize that the techniques which can enslave people are also able to free men in order that they might be more happy and productive. The same reinforcement techniques which could make us into robots, could also change our educational procedures so that we are able to learn with greatly increased efficiency. The same sensory deprivation studies which bring about psychotic symptoms can also help us to understand old people or to prevent automobile and airplane accidents.

3. How can we prevent unethical people from using these devices to serve their own selfish ends? I suspect that the answer to this question lies in an increased awareness of ourselves and of the world in which we live. There are at least five ways by which this awareness can he increased.
a. We can conduct research into the nature of behavioral control and manipulation. The attempts to study the effectiveness of psychotherapy are steps in this direction and so are a whole series of studies designed to show how to resist persuasion.
b. We can increase communication between the general public and research investigators. If the public knows what we are doing, they are less likely to be manipulated against their will and they are less likely to be influenced by sensationalist writers. It has already been empirically demonstrated that awareness of the manipulator's goals and techniques is a good way to resist manipulation.
c. We can learn more about ourselves-our needs, our values, our emotions. We cannot be easily manipulated if we know more about ourselves than does the would-be manipulator.
d. We can learn to see each other as persons, rather than manipulable objects. According to Elton
Trueblood, we must "make a real effort to see persons as persons-and not as our servants or masters or teachers or students or steppingstones for our own progress" (1961, p. 110). We are less likely to manipulate others when we remember that each of us has feellogs, aspirations, frustrations, and hopes.
e. We must realize that if the nature of man can be changed so that he is under the control of the Holy Spirit, he will not be involved in manipulating other people for selfish motives. Such a change in nature comes only when an individual realizes his sin and need for a savior and invites Christ to be Lord of his life.
A few years ago, B. F. Skinner (1955-56) suggested that there is another way to prevent the misuse of controlling power. We must continue to work out laws and systems of government which prevent the strong man from using his power to enslave others. "Control itself must be controlled" by group pressures, and by governmental and religious measures.

4. Should we use techniques of behavior manipulation in the church? This question is of special concern to evangelical Christians. Pastors, Christian education directors, missionaries, Sunday school teachers, and other church leaders are actively involved in the work of manipulating other people's behavior. We want, for example, to bring men who are unsaved to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. We want to assist the believer to grow in his faith and to live a purposeful spiritual life. We also want to train Christians so they can study the Word of Cod on their own and spread the Cospel through effective witnessing. Since so much is known about behavior manipulation, should we he using psychological techniques in order to bring about these changes in behavior? Should we be using these manipulation techniques in world evangelism?

Difficult problems rarely have simple solutions and so I leave these questions without an answer. Let me conclude with one personal opinion, however. I do not believe that we can trick or psychologically manipulate a person into becoming a Christian. It is the Holy Spirit, and not any psychological techniques, who works in men's lives to convict them of sin and of their need for Christ. In a recent address the president of Moody Bible Institute dealt briefly with this issue:

I shall respect each man's right to his faith or even lack of it. But that does not mean that I shall not attempt to convert him. I'll oppose any attempt to coerce him, or force him by physical or other means to a decision against his will. For I believe God wants only the glad-hearted, willing surrender of a heart to Himself.3

Nevertheless, pastors, evangelists, and other Christians are currently using psychological techniquessometimes in ignorance-in an attempt to change behavior. As a result of this preaching people are sometimes "won" as "converts." But the man who is persuaded by gimmicks is not really converted. No wonder he "falls away." Psychological techniques of manipulation can be misused in the church. Whether they can or should be used as a vehicle through which the holy Spirit works, is a question which I leave for some theologian or Bible Scholar to answer.


1 There are several concise surveys of research in the field of behavior manipulation. The interested reader might check the work of Bidernian and Zimmer (1961), Brown (1963), Farber and Wilson (1961), Neuringer and Michael (t970), Sonnebnrn (1965), Uhr and Miller (1960), Cinch, Stachnik and Mabry (1966) and Zubeck (1969).
2Most of this research is described in Ulrich, R., Stachnik, T., and Mabry (1966), and in Neuringer and Michael (1970).
3From a sermon delivered during the 1967 Founders Week Conference by William Gnlbertson, Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, Illinois.


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