The Dark Arts

So you've been reading this site and learning many valuable tools for becoming more rational. You're beginning to become irritated at the irrational behavior of the average person. You've noticed that many people refuse to accept even highly compelling arguments, even as they drink up the doctrine of their favorite religion/political party. What are you doing wrong?

As it turns out, it's less about what you're doing wrong than about what these highly influential groups are doing right. This is a brief intro to the Dark Arts, ranging from relatively harmless or even helpful techniques to truly dangerous ones. In this set of guidelines, I have used the example of Solar Suzy, a contractor for a company that sells solar panels, and Business Owner Bob, who runs an organic food store. You will quickly notice that Solar Suzy is not very ethical. This is not an accident: these techniques can very easily be used unethically. They're called the Dark Arts for a reason, and this example will make sure that's kept in mind.

The fact that a technique can be used to do bad things, however, doesn't mean we shouldn't learn the technique. These methods can be used when you don't have time to wait for someone to slowly change their mind, fighting every step of the way. Even if you plan to never use them, it is probably a good idea to be aware of what they look like.


The Rules

Be simple.


  • Use simple words. We're lazy. We don't like having to put in effort to understand something.
  • Be brief. Try to say your idea in 30 words or less.




Bob: "I've run the numbers. It would take over 30 years for the solar panels to pay for themselves."

Suzy: "Despite the inherent economic disadvantage in the utilization of photovoltaic cells in preference to petroleum and coal, it may under particular circumstances benefit corporate entities insofar as the collective ethical standard of society values such a demonstration of conservationism."

Bob [baffled and a little annoyed]: ... Uhhhhh... Sure... I think I'm fine with what I have. Bye.


Bob: "I've run the numbers. It would take over 30 years for the solar panels to pay for themselves."

Suzy: "Solar panels don't look cost-effective compared to fossil fuels, but sometimes the extra business a company gets for being 'green' makes them worthwhile."

Bob [interested, but skeptical]: Hmm. I hadn't thought of that. Is it really significant, though?


Use positive language.


  • When possible, use agreeable words. Imagine that you have to pay for each instance of 'no' type words.
  • If you can get your partner to agree to a chain of statements, they will be more likely to agree to the next one.



Now the conversation looks more like this:

Suzy: You are interested in solar panels, right?

Bob [wary]: That's correct.

Suzy [seriously]: Of course, we'll want to make sure it's actually worth it for your business.

Bob [more firmly]: Absolutely.

Suzy [after a slight, thoughtful pause*]: Would you say that your average customer is concerned about the environment?

Bob: Yes, I think so.

Suzy [as if coming to a realization]: You could probably increase your business by advertising that you're going green.

Bob [thoughtful]: I see your point. That might well work.

Suzy [enthusiastic]: Great! Let's get you signed up.

Bob [wary again]: ...


Make sure your partner thinks you are like them.


  • Emphasize common opinions. Mock opinions you both disagree with, being careful to stay away from any ideas they might be sympathetic to. This establishes two things. First, it demonstrates that you have high enough status that you can afford to alienate others (but not them, of course). Second, it establishes a common ground.
  • Use the same sensory language as they use. If they talk about seeing patterns, incorporate the words 'look' and 'examine' in your conversation.



Create an external cognitive load on your partner.


  • Here we begin to wander into the darker arts. People can only do so much with their mind at one time. Anything you can do to add a cognitive burden will take away from their ability to reject ideas. Taking a walk will impose approximately the right amount of strain. This cognitive burden is the reason you want to keep your ideas simple. Simple ideas can still be absorbed with an external load.



Have your partner come up with the ideas whenever possible


  • A thought you come up with on your own (or feel like you came up with on your own) goes through far less filtering than an outside idea. Creating a cognitive burden can reduce this filter, but will not eliminate it entirely.



Incorporating what we know so far, Suzy's sales pitch begins to look more effective.

Suzy: Let's take a look around the area. I'd like to get a feel for the neighborhood.

Bob: Okay.

Suzy [spoken in a lower voice, as if sharing a personal secret]: Besides, formal meetings are always so uncomfortable.

Bob [laughing]: I know. There's a reason I got out of the corporate world.

[small talk]

Suzy [more seriously]: Well, I suppose we should probably get down to business. You were looking into solar panels for your business.

Bob [momentarily off-balance]: ...Yes.

Suzy: Of course, we'll need to make sure it's a good decision for you to install them.

Bob: Of course.

Suzy: Now, looking at your customers, I see a lot of signs of environmentalism.

Bob: Yes. Our customers tend to be the sort who care about our planet.

Suzy [noticing the organic food]: Wow, you really cater to their tastes.

Bob: I do my best. Many of my customers come here because we only buy from organic growers.

Suzy: So the solar panels wouldn't look out of place here.

Bob: Out of place? They would probably attract customers.

Suzy [surprised]: I suppose they would. That alone might well make them worth it.

[contract, hopefully]


"You're the sort of person who..."

This is one of the most potent and dangerous tools in your arsenal. If you say that you admire someone's open-mindedness, they will make an effort not to let you down. Your mind evaluates the truth of a statement by judging how easy it is to come up with examples of truth. If you phrase it vaguely enough and make it a compliment, you can convince anyone that they have just about any trait.

This is dangerous because the idea of what kind of person they are will stick with the target for long after your conversation is over. This is the darkest of the dark arts that I am familiar with. Use it sparingly, or if possible not at all. I have used it once that I remember, and that was in a rather extreme situation.


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Use it sparingly, or if possible not at all.

Use it on yourself.

Actually, first stop using it on yourself unwittingly.

I think we should define "Dark Arts" and "unethical" before we start labeling things as such. We've never really discussed what the term even means, and I don't think it's a good idea to start assuming that things are Dark Arts before we know what that means.

For instance, I'm not sure whether "make sure your partner thinks you are like them" should be classed as DA. Yes, it makes somebody more likely to accept your argument on non-rational grounds, but is it really more ethical to not seem like them, and thus take a non-rational penalty to your chances of having your argument believed?

Isn't "the dark arts" defined as "intentional use of modal failures of rational thought in people to achieve one's goals"?

I can't see how using "modal failures of rational thought" to cure these same failures can be a bad thing.

Exploiting other's irrationality needn't be irrational.

Tricking a bankrobber into thinking you're on his side so you can help the police capture him, for example. Using aggressive sales tactics to commit people to the idea of reading at least the "best" of the Sequences by first asking them to read all of the Sequences, for example (It's only fair, right? I mean, I'm cutting back on my wants, maybe you could do the same?) -- etc., etc..

And that's only if you're not being a dick. Nothing about rationality says you must be a good person.

The alternative isn't to not seem like them, the alternative is to not seem like anything. All of the examples are insincere, primarily because they're premeditated. To the degree that insincerity is unethical, they are also unethical.

I think people put waaaay too much weight on the idea that people have and express intrinsic properties.

Sincerity in the way that you seem to be mentioning it (avoiding intentionally changing your behavior to achieve a particular goal) does not seem to me to be a priori good.

If that's the way you're using the word, then being considerate is being insincere, since the person decides to be considerate.

I don't think insincerity is as simple as that. It involves a value-judgement in itself. A simple way to look at it is, what if you were asked to explain what you're doing? What if you take somebody for a walk to increase their cognitive load or use a particular rhetorical tactic and get called on it? Could you give a reason, without lying, that the person would find acceptable?

All of the examples are insincere, primarily because they're premeditated.

Including "be simple"?

The Dark Arts are not inherently unethical, but the way they are used often is.

The Dark Arts are not inherently unethical, but the way they are used often is.

This is not as clear as you think. Keep in mind Eliezer's objections to lying described here apply equally well to using the dark arts.


This is great! I'm glad someone is putting this together. [citation needed] on most of this stuff, but none of it seems wrong.

My citation for most of my stuff is this book (Thinking Fast and Slow) and my own experiences in sales. This should not be taken as rigorous, though if all goes according to plan (snrk) I should have a much more rigorous version of this by the end of next week.

Thinking, Fast and Slow, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student would make a potent foundation for an Introduction to the Dark Arts: A Modern Approach. Maybe I'll get around to writing it one day (but for that, I'd have to get around to reading this).


Some other books for dark artists:

  • The 48 Laws of Power, which is somewhat of a modernized The Prince. Writer Robert Greene loves anecdotes a bit too much (same in his other books), but still it's a nice, light read.
  • The Game; Neil Strauss' book on picking up women, and the various forms of manipulation used in doing so. Again, not a work of science, but a light read that some people take way too serious.
  • The Annals of Gullibility - about the many ways in which people can be duped (and how to avoid those).
  • Anything by Derren Brown is really worth checking out

In general I agree with faul_sname that it's good to recognize the tricks; sometimes it seems I meet people really took the tricks from those books...

My problem with Dark Arts is that people who try to teach them to others usually use them on others while teaching. How do you know then if you learned something useful, or you were just manipulated into believing that you learned something useful? Just because someone who is good at manipulation is explaining to me how to manipulate, it does not mean that the part I learned is the part that really works.

I have read the 48 laws of power, and my reactions were, in sequence:

  • This is so cool, how lucky I am to read this book! I hope I will remember these examples to increase my social skills.

  • Somehow the more I read the more I am confused. How is it possible that things that made sense at the beginning do not make sense now?

  • Oh, I have found it! The author is contradicting himself. For example one of the laws is that when there is a conflict around you, you should commit yourself to one side of the conflict, because the side will reward you for your loyalty (and if you stay neutral, both sides will ignore you). Then, fifty pages later, there is another law that when there is a conflict around you, you should stay neutral, because both sides will then compete for your attention (and if you commit to one of them, they already have you, so they focus on the remaining neutral people). So once again, when there is a conflict around me, which strategy do these laws suggest? And there are more such conflicting examples.

Of course, this is just my conclusion. A more humble reader could come to conclusion that the book is great, but they just somehow failed to understand all its teachings properly... and would buy another book from the same author hoping to get it right this time.

The author is contradicting himself.

Is it a contradiction to claim that both P-K4 and P-Q4 are solid strategies?

Discernment is knowing which strategy a situation calls for, and is difficult to teach through books. Greene's method of giving examples so you can try to pattern-match is a decent approach, though there is probably a better one.

Is it a contradiction to claim that both P-K4 and P-Q4 are solid strategies?

The contradiction appears when in chapter on P-K4 author suggests that not playing P-K4 is a losing strategy, while in chapter on P-Q4 suggests that not playing P-Q4 is a losing strategy. It seemed to me that this is what author did, because all chapters follow the form: "X is a law of power. Here are examples of people who did X and succeeded, and here are examples of people who didn't do X and failed."

Maybe I was reading too much into the text, but it seemed to me that the spirit of the book was "here are 48 laws: if you follow them you succeed, if you ignore them you lose" rather than "there are 48 ways you could react on a situation, and depending on circumstances, any one of them can lead to success or failure."

The end of every chapter has about a page with the heading of "Reversal," in which Greene discusses briefly when the law is counterproductive / does not apply. The chapter entitled "Do Not Commit to Anyone" has, in its reversal, "eventually you may find it worthwhile to commit to one side," with a brief explanation of how occasional commitment increases the value of coyness.

I do agree with you that the reversal section is more of a brief caveat than a full treatment of the weaknesses inherent in every strategy, but it is there (and by pointing out what a thing is not, one makes it clearer).

The Model Thinking class from Coursera has a relevant video on the difference between proverbs and models. Models make their assumptions explicit; so, e.g. you know when to use Fisher's replicator model (diversity is good) and when to use the Six Sigma model (diversity is bad). Proverbs, like "a stitch in time saves nine" vs. "haste makes waste," have implicit assumptions; which means they're generally only useful after you've used the wrong one for a particular situation.

My reading of Cialdini showed some attention paid to assumptions, but not much. He seems more on the proverb side than the model side.


Yeah, that's the thing with the 48 Laws -- often you find laws that contradict other laws. The author graduated in classical studies, and really seems to have a rich collection of anecdotes. He definitely does not seem (good for him!) the kind of person who would be an ice-cold black artist. -- see the interview that Eliezer did with him. Still, the few hours spent with this book give some food for thought, and make you a bit more aware of the games real people around you actually play.

I'm not familiar with the first two, but as I was reading this article I thought of Derren Brown. I think he's a really interesting person to watch work - it shows you how deft a person can be with your mind if they're good enough, and how big the gaps in our own second-to-second thought processes can be. I find him not only entertaining but really thought-provoking.

IMO Hogan's(sp?) Psychology of Persuasion was much better than Cialdini's.

I haven't read it, so I'll suspend judgment. I suppose I'll put it in my queue for when I am in the mood for psychology again.


So Dark Arts basically do look like social skills.

Edit: I guess wedrifit commenting in this thread in was right.

Have you read Cialdini's Influence? It's about this kind of thing. Just reading the Weapons of Influence changes how you behave, I've found.

Mock conflicting opinions, being careful to stay away from any ideas they might be sympathetic to.

I think you mean "opinions you both disagree with". Conflicting opinions means "opinions you don't share" to me. Maybe rephrase it?

No, but I will now.

Also, thanks, edited for clarity.

I think you're missing the most powerful techniques - those that distort language. Whether it's euphemism that distorts, as identified by Orwell, or intensional language as identified by Korzybski, that communicates no actual facts, but allows the listener to fill in the blanks themselves.

And I disagree with the walking bit. Like the Sundance Kid, I'm better when I move. (Obscure reference to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Never you mind.)

This podcast series (The Age of Persuasion) written by a radio advertising pro is a lighthearted and engaging introduction into the dark art of writing effective commercials.

Hmm.... Hmmm!

Regretfully, this skill will almost surely prove indispensable at some future point in my life, whether I pursue a career in social work as I'm planning to or whatever. So it'd be great to practice this with someone who shares this thought; I'm thinking of starting with a few simple roleplaying dialogues like in the OP. Message me if interested.

I am quite surprised that no one has posted a comment saying something like, "DO NOT TEACH DARK ARTS HERE". (This is not such a comment.)


I was a stock broker and after reading this I feel very bad. Even worse that I used dark arts to convince myself that I was doing good.

You will quickly notice that Solar Suzy is not very ethical.

I suddenly feel that "Suzy" is a name I could never trust :)

(now that I've finished) very effective pedagogy. I've read about all of this (Influence and Persuasion etc) but you tell a great story.

I'd add that a great way to maintain cognitive load is to keep specifically pointing out features of the thing being sold in a way that makes the mark feel a need to judge each one (most effective if it's a physical thing). At least, I find this annoying an distracting - and people (ok, I) find it hard to ask someone to slow down so I can think about the last thing (or whatever I'm weighing).


I'd add that a great way to maintain cognitive load is to keep specifically pointing out features of the thing being sold in a way that makes the mark feel a need to judge each one (most effective if it's a physical thing).

This happened to me when I was buying a bag two days ago! I did find myself wondering, after the fact, why the employee was pointing out vaguely positive but basically inconsequential facts about it. This model makes sense to me, though I doubt the guy was explicitly deploying the strategy rather than just running a pattern that he'd learned was successful. (I believe this because my prior is that people aren't often explicitly strategic).

I did buy the bag, in the end.

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(Joke seemed unimpressive.)

Yeah, i just thought it was a slightly amusing observation. Oh well.

Harmless misprediction. We'll all survive somehow :)