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  • Writer's pictureJohn Shrawder

Examples of Bad Decisions that Hurt People Physically

We normally think of violent crimes like murder, rape, assault and robbery as crimes of passion or attempts at coercion. We can think of perpetrators of violence as having some evil nature or evil intent that they were born with and they will always have.

This is the myth of pure evil and it is not necessarily true. The following examples suggest that persuaders can induce average people like ourselves to commit violent actions. Psychologists have trying to understand why this happens.


Reserve Police Battalion 101. On September 1, 1939 Germany invaded Poland beginning the European phase of World War 2. Poland quickly surrendered and ended hostilities. Germany would use older middle aged men to patrol the peaceful areas of Poland.

Between July 1942 and November 1943, 500 of these middle aged men from Reserve Police Battalion 101 entered various small towns In Western Poland and shot over 38,000 Jewish captives to death. The captives included men, women and even babies. Another 45,000 people were loaded onto trains to be taken to death camps. Author Christopher Browning investigated the court records for these men for his 1992 book “Ordinary Men, Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.

The men showed no inclination of violence before the war nor after the war. Yet during the war, all the men were given the option of not participating but fewer than 12 refused.

The Manson Family. In 1967, Charles Manson left prison and moved to San Francisco. He would gain a following of many young people who saw him as a guru. In two years, Manson persuaded men and women age 17 to 25 to conduct 4 raids in Los Angeles and murder 9 people. Most did not have criminal records before this. After the murders his followers continued to support him by disrupting his trials, intimidating witnesses, and attempting to steal weapons to get him out of prison. Years later some of his supporters attempted to kill a US President and several business leaders. Until his death in 2017, Manson would get mail from supporters.

Unlike many other of these examples, much is known about some of Manson’s followers and why they found him persuasive. Many have been in prison for nearly 50 years and have been interviewed extensively.

The People’s Temple – Jim Jones founded the People’s Temple in Indiana in 1955. It began as a religious group that did generous work like feeding the poor and fighting for civil rights. Members had no history of violence. The group would gain support of political figures in California in the 1970s.

On November 18, 1978 Jones persuaded his followers to commit mass suicide by drinking Cyanide laced drinks in Jonestown, Guyana. Over 900 persons died. Jones persuaded parents and other adults to poison over 300 children. Many of the members of the People’s Temple are alive today and have been interviewed extensively. In 2017 Jeff Guinn wrote The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and The People’s Temple


Smallpox Vaccine and Science Denial – Smallpox is one of the most deadly diseases throughout history. It would often kill large parts of cities. In 1798 a process called vaccination was developed in England that created resistance to the disease by infecting a person with a less harmful disease. The success of vaccination was confirmed repeatedly by others. Nevertheless the scientific findings did not persuade people. There was resistance to vaccination after 1798. During the 19th and early 20th century, many persons refused vaccination for themselves and their children. Between 1900 and 1980, over 500 million people worldwide died from this preventable disease—many were young children. By 1980 Smallpox was finally eradicated because of a worldwide campaign.

Vaccinations have been created for other diseases and is one of the major advances in improved human health. An example is the polio vaccine in 1955. Nevertheless, rejection of vaccines continues and the World Health Organization considers resistance to vaccinations to be one of the major health problems in the world today.

Committee for Public Information. On April 2 1917, US President Woodrow Wilson proposed a declaration of War with Germany. On April 4 Senator Robert La Follette spoke in Congress for four hours on why he opposed the war. Among his comments:

“I have received some 15,000 letters and telegrams. They have come from forty-four states in the Union. They have been assorted according to whether they speak in criticism or commendation of my course in opposing war. Assorting the 15,000 letters and telegrams by states in that way, 9 out of 10 are an unqualified endorsement of my course in opposing war with Germany.”

The United States entered the war despite La Follette’s objection. Given the lack of support for the war, The US government created the Committee for Public Information to persuade Americans to support the war. It put in place the following actions eight days after La Follette’s speech.

  • Passed laws that made it a crime to criticize the war or the government.

  • Channeled news stories through mail and telegraphy 24 hours a day

  • Published its own newspaper targeted to public officials and other newspapers and published materials in multiple languages to recruit foreign language Americans.

  • Recruited everybody working in the advertising industry to support the war

  • Created a division to use artists and cartoonists to create images

  • Used the brand new motion picture industry to create patriotic films

  • Used radio transmitters to send American information into 30 countries

  • Four Minute Men. Created a network of 75,000 community leaders was recruited to speak at every community function. Materials and scripts were given to each. Each speaker was reviewed. A junior group was recruited to speak in schools. Listeners were encouraged to report opponents of the war to law enforcement.

These mass persuasion programs were highly successful. Within one year, militia groups formed to attack German Americans and critics of the war throughout the country. More than 2,000 persons were legally prosecuted and imprisoned for opposing the war. Many joined the war effort where more than 116,000 Americans died and 320,000 were wounded during the war. The 2-year campaign was so successful at creating Anti-German sentiment that the American public would oppose a peace treaty in 1919.

The success of this campaign led to the creation of industries dedicated to persuading massive numbers of people in the United States and foreign countries. It was the first effort to use the new technology of the motion picture. Persuaders would soon learn to use other technologies like the microphone, radio, television, internet, and social media to manipulate and control public opinion. The pioneers of the modern Advertising, Public Relations, and Marketing Industries began with the Committee for Public Information. These industries are much larger today.

More material on the Committee for Public Information is available from George Creel, head of the CPI, who wrote “How I Sold the War” in 1920 and in the 1996 book “PR! A Social History of Spin” by Stuart Ewen.

The following is a summary of the ways in which persuaders led people to make decisions that caused misery.

These are individual examples that highlight the need for critical thinking. Bad decisions can be quite costly and we are bombarded with persuasive communications today. However, it would be wrong to assume that all communications or even all efforts at persuasion are likely be deceptive and result in harmful decisions.

Trust is part of our interpersonal relationships. Like Income, and health, interpersonal trust is another factor in explaining happiness between nations in the United Nations World Happiness Report. Low perceived corruption is important in determining the happiness of a nation.

“If we are endlessly skeptical, endlessly miserly with our trust, endlessly unwilling to accept the possibilities of the world, we despair. To live a good life we must, almost by definition be open to belief of one form or another. -Maria Konnikova, “The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It...Every Time” p 321

“the simple truth is that most people aren’t out to get you. We are so bad at spotting deception because it’s better for us to be more trusting….People are trusting by nature…Higher so-called generalized trust, studies show comes with better physical health and greater emotional happiness…The smarter you are, the more you are likely to trust…and in some sense this excess optimism in other’s basic decency is a good thing, at least most of the time. Steven Pinker, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” p 41

In the next posting, I will look at coercion and decision making.

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