Real Jedi Mind Tricks: The Psychology of Mind Control
Welcome, my young padawans, to Star Wars week. Star Wars: The Force Awakens comes out THIS Friday, and the neurds on our team decided that it was a perfect opportunity to do one of our favorite things: connect neuroscience with pop culture! First up: real-world Jedi Mind Tricks.
In Star Wars: A New Hope, the Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi explains The Force to our young hero, Luke Skywalker, as “what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” Jedi and Sith Lords alike are able to tap into this energy, enhancing their physical and mental abilities. The Force can provide its users with a plethora of powers, including super strength and agility, enhanced accuracy, telekinesis, telepathy, and levitation – just to name a few.
One of the more well-known powers experienced by users of the Force is the “Jedi Mind Trick” – the ability to influence and control others. The Jedi Mind Trick may have been useful a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, but of course nothing like that exists in the real world…or does it? Researchers might not be able to tap directly into the Force, but they have done research on the science of manipulation. As it turns out, we’re more susceptible to “mind control” than you might think. Check out the video below, and keep reading to learn more!
Probably the most famous use of Jedi mind control is during the scene
when Luke Skywalker and Old Ben Kenobi arrive at that wretched hive of scum and villainy, the Mos Eisley spaceport. The Stormtrooper begins to ask Luke about his droids and wants to see his identification. Ben Kenobi waves his hand and suddenly the Stormtrooper backs off; they don’t need his identification, after all. How does he do it?
Imagine for a moment that you’re this Stormtrooper. You’re hot, tired, and covered in dust, stuck in Mos Eisley, peering down at farmers in their
speeders all day. Why should this pair of droids to be any different than the others he’s seen today? He waves them on without a second glance, because from the moment they roll up, he’s already expecting that these aren’t the droids they’re looking for. This stems from Irving Kirsch’s response expectancy theory, which states that what you experience in a situation is partially based on what you expect to experience. Psychologists believe that response expectancy is the driving force behind the placebo effect and hypnosis. As Catie details in her post, these expectations can be extremely powerful – so powerful that they lead to real and measurable improvements in health outcomes for patients.
Power imbalance between two parties can also create the illusion of mind control. In Return of the Jedi, we see this imbalance when Luke Skywalker confronts Bib Fortuna at the door to Jabba’s lair. All it takes is a wave of Luke’s hand to convince Bib to let him in. It might seem like Bib is a coward for acquiescing so quickly, but think about his situation. Bib knows that Luke is a powerful warrior; he’s a prominent member of the Rebellion, and has Jedi training to boot. Luke definitely has the power in this interaction, and power can enable some serious manipulation.
Consider the Milgram Experiment. First conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram in the early 60’s, this study looked at individuals’ willingness to obey authority figures telling them to do things that conflicted with their personal conscience. For this experiment, the subject was instructed to give another participant electrical shocks of increasing intensity each time they gave an incorrect answer to a quiz. A researcher, acting as the authority figure, stayed in the room with the subject. The subjects didn’t know that the other participant was actually an actor, nor that they were not actually receiving shocks. As the test progressed, the actor would cry out in pain in response to the increasing voltages of the shocks, but the authority figure would encourage the subject to continue with the experiment. The responses from the other participant eventually cease, and for all the subject knew, the other participant could have been dead!
Though you might expect that most people would refuse to continue to administer the shocks when they believed they were inflicting severe pain or even death on the other participant, an astounding 65% of the subjects completed the test, all the way up to the final, 450 volt shock. The presence of the authority figure, compelling them to continue the experiment, pushed the subjects to continue obeying the instructions, though they often showed extreme discomfort and questioned the value of the test. So maybe Luke didn’t have to use the Force on Bib at all – his powerful presence was enough.
But what if a person isn’t just being pressured by a powerful authority figure? Can circumstances drive otherwise “good” people to the Dark Side? Think about Darth Vader: Annakin Skywalker turns to the Dark Side
in an attempt to save the woman he loves from death, ultimately dooming her to exactly that fate by his own actions. He was manipulated by Emperor Palpatine, who used some pretty Machiavellian tricks to win Annakin over. But once Annakin has gone over to the Dark Side, he stays there for decades, without the need for further manipulation. He was cast into the role of a Sith Lord, and performed admirably. How did he adapt so quickly to his circumstances?
This is another psychological phenomenon – people tend to fill the roles they are given. A rather disturbing example of this in action is the Stanford Prison Experiment. A researcher named Philip Zambardo recruited male college students from Stanford University to be randomly assigned as either “prisoners” or “prison guards”. The students who were assigned to be prison guards took to their assignments very quickly, and more fully than Zambardo ever expected, becoming strictly authoritarian and even subjecting “prisoners” to psychological abuse. The “prisoners”, on the other hand, quickly became submissive, and in Zambardo’s opinion, internalizing their roles as prisoners. The situation was so bad that several participants had to be removed from the study early.
This study has received some criticism, as Zimbardo himself played the role of prison superintendent, and the recruitment of participants may have itself been biased. Similar studies have shown that participants will play into their roles, but not as severely or cruelly as the participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment. Perhaps most importantly, other research has demonstrated that the way a person acts in a role depend on whether or not they self-identify as that role. This experiment is still an important part of the history of social psychology, and has led researchers to ask more questions about how leadership and social status can play into the roles we fill. And in the case of Annakin Skywalker – well, in the movie universe, he quickly adapted to his role and turned completely to the Dark Side, embracing his own cruelty to justify his actions and alleviate his own guilt.
So maybe those Jedi Knights and Sith Lords didn’t need to tap into the Force after all – or maybe they only used it to give a boost to their powers of psychological manipulation. Either way, the Jedi Mind Tricks seen in the Star Wars universe can be connected to real-world phenomena. And over here at NeuWrite, we’ll use any excuse we can come up with to write about our favorite space opera! Use your Jedi social psychology powers wisely, my friends. May the Force be with you – we’ll see you at The Force Awakens this weekend!
- Kirsch, Irving. Response Expectancy as a Determinant of Experience and Behavior. American Psychologist, Vol 40(11), Nov 1985, 1189-1202.
- Milgram, Stanley. Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol 67(4), Oct 1963, 371-378.
- Philip Zimbardo – The Stanford Prison Experiment
- Carnahan, T. & McFarland, S. Revisiting the Stanford prison experiment: could participant self-selection have led to the cruelty? Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2007 May;33(5):603-14. Epub 2007 Apr 17.