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How We Get Programmed

The following excerpt is taken from the book Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme by Richard Brodie. It is published by Hay House (April 2009) and is available at all bookstores or online at: www.hayhouse.com

Chapter Eight

How We Get Programmed

“There are two kinds of people in this world: those that enter a room and turn the television set on, and those that enter a room and turn the television set off.”

- Raymond Shaw, the protagonist in the movie The Manchurian Candidate
Here’s the chapter you’ve all been waiting for. It’s all about how to manipulate people, using memes and genetic buttons, into doing exactly what you want them to do. Heh-heh.

You know what a meme is-a thought, belief, or attitude in your mind that can spread to and from other people’s minds. You know that we human beings are the medium for the evolution of memes. You understand how evolution works by natural selection-survival of the fittest. And you’ve seen how our own genetic evolution gives us buttons: tendencies to pay special attention to certain things-especially danger, food, and sex-which helped us survive and reproduce in prehistoric times.
Now comes the scary, upsetting part.

In this chapter, I’ll show how we get programmed by new memes and start to discuss what we can do to prevent being infected by unwanted programming.

Meme Infection

We get infected by new memes in three ways. I’ll introduce each of the ways now, then discuss each in more detail later.

- The first way we get infected is through conditioning, or repetition. If we hear something repeated often enough, it becomes part of our programming. Advertisers and salespeople know this well. Any good book on sales will tell you that most customers don’t buy until they have been asked five to seven times. It takes that many repetitions to implant the Buy me meme in the customer.

- The second way is through a mechanism known as cognitive dissonance. When things don’t make sense, our minds struggles to make them make sense.

Imagine, for example, that a friend is upset with you, but you don’t know why. You have two memes that conflict-that are inconsistent: friend and upset with me. You resolve the conflict, or dissonance, by creating new memes, by rearranging your memetic programming so that things make sense again. Ah, Bill’s upset because he’s paid for lunch the last three times, you might conclude. Right or wrong, you now have a new meme about Bill and lunch that will influence your future behavior.
I’ve heard it said that geniuses develop their most brilliant original thoughts through self-imposed cognitive dissonance. As you might guess, then, as a programming method it is particularly effective with intelligent people, because you actually believe that the new meme is your own idea.

- The third way new memes enter our minds is by taking advantage of our genetic buttons in the manner of the Trojan horse. As we have seen, because of our nature there are certain things we tend to pay special attention to, such as warnings of danger, cries of children, and sexual attractiveness. We are susceptible to bundles of memes that push our buttons to get our attention and then sneak in some other memes along with them.

Simply getting programmed by new memes isn’t the same as catching a full-blown mind virus, but viruses of the mind take advantage of one or all of these methods to make their initial inroads into our minds. At the end of this chapter, I’ll put it all together and show how these various ingredients combine to make viruses of the mind.


Conditioning-programming by repetition-is the easiest way to acquire memes that don’t push any of your buttons effectively. For instance, if you want to learn French, you listen to people speaking that language as you study the lexicon. At first it just sounds like people clearing their throats and moaning, but after many repetitions, you begin to be programmed with distinction-memes. Soon you can begin to distinguish French words and sentences where there was meaninglessness before.

Remember elementary school? Learning to read and write? Memorizing the multiplication table? I have two memories from first grade. One is being incredibly bored by doing arithmetic problems over and over and over again. The other is being incredibly frustrated by the teacher’s reading of the same page of “See Spot run” over and over and over again. Frustrated or bored, it didn’t matter: conditioning by repetition works.

Elementary-school programming by conditioning was not limited to reading, writing, and arithmetic. We pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America every morning. Repetition. Conditioning. And there’s one thing all native-born Americans know for sure: the United States is one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Right?

That patriotism didn’t spontaneously arise in each of us out of our spiritual nature: we were programmed! And it wasn’t presented to us as a reasoned, logical argument: we just said it and heard it enough times and-poof!-it became one of our beliefs, our values, our memes. Long-term prisoners can become “institutionalized”-they become so conditioned to the culture inside prison that they no longer want to live outside. They try to get back in once they’re released. There’s no reason to think that the long-term conditioning of a bad job or a bad marriage doesn’t have the same effect.

Children typically get programmed with religious beliefs through conditioning by repetition. Whatever the religion, children go from zero beliefs to full-fledged faith, or as “fledged” as they get, by being told about the divinity of God or Jesus or David Koresh over and over again until it becomes real-those memes become programmed.

If you listen repeatedly to religious speech, after enough repetitions you will actually begin to notice God and His works where there was just chaotic life going on before. What was formerly chance becomes a miracle. What was pain is now karma. What was human nature is now sin. And regardless of whether these religious memes are presented as Truth or as allegorical mythology, you’re conditioned just the same.

In psychology, the word conditioning often refers to implanting association-memes. Pavlov’s dog was conditioned to associate the ringing bell with yummy food. When the Coca-Cola Company pays millions of dollars to show you young people in bathing suits having a good time drinking their products, they are conditioning you to associate good feelings with their brands. The repetition of that commercial creates association-memes in your mind so that when you push your shopping cart down the soft-drink aisle, you get an irrational urge to buy Coke. It’s possible to override that urge through conscious intention or the fact that other memes are stronger, but the urge makes a difference in their bottom line* or they wouldn’t be spending the money.
*At least they think it makes a difference. They may be fooled by their own memetic programming! More on this in Chapter 9.

There’s also a term for the use of repetition to create strategy-memes: operant conditioning. Viewing commercials or listening to bells ring is passive; it involves no activity or strategy. When you behave in some way and that behavior gets rewarded, that is operant conditioning. The reward creates and reinforces strategy-memes.

The classic example of operant conditioning is teaching a rat to run a maze. At first, the rat just wanders around. But soon he discovers there is a yummy piece of cheese tucked away in one corner-a reward. Quickly, the rat learns to run directly to the cheese rather than just wandering.

We use operant conditioning on our children constantly: grading their schoolwork, praising them when they do things we like. The repetition of these rewards conditions the children to behave in a certain way. It creates and reinforces strategy-memes that, if we are good parents and teachers, will serve them as adults in their pursuit of happiness.

However, operant conditioning can be used for many other purposes besides training you to pursue happiness. Whenever you’re in a repeated situation in which a reward is available for certain behavior, you are being conditioned.

Cognitive Dissonance

Another programming technique is creating mental pressure and resolving it-cognitive dissonance. Why do high-pressure sales tactics exist even though people universally despise them? As with any “why” question in the world of memetics, the answer is: because the meme for it is good at spreading. Salespeople get infected with the high-pressure sales meme and go about acting on it, regardless of whether it’s the most effective means at their disposal. There’s no question, however, that it does work on some people some of the time.

High-pressure sales work by making you mentally uncomfortable-by creating cognitive dissonance. You enter the situation with some strategy-memes that make you resist buying: perhaps they are something like Look before you leap or Shop around before you buy. The salesperson programs you with a meme making it attractive to buy immediately: If I don’t buy now, I’ll miss a window of opportunity or even simply If I buy now, the salesperson will like me.

There are two ways to release the pressure caused by cognitive dissonance: buy in or bail out. If you bail out, it’s likely to be because you’ve resolved the dissonance by creating a meme such as The salesperson is a jerk. But some people buy, creating instead a meme like I really want to buy this. Once you create that meme, it’s yours, and a smart salesperson will reinforce it by telling you what a smart decision you’ve made and even calling a few days later and congratulating you on your purchase.

Cognitive dissonance can be used to create a meme of submission and loyalty to whatever authority is causing the dissonance. Fraternity hazings, boot camp, and some religious or spiritual disciplines put people through difficult tests and may demand demonstrations of loyalty before releasing the pressure. That creates an association-meme between the demonstration of loyalty and the good feeling caused by the release of pressure.

Prisoners of war have been programmed to submit and be loyal to their captors through this method.

One interesting result of research in operant conditioning on people is that it works better-creates stronger memes-to give the reward only occasionally than it does to give it all the time. That could be because withholding the reward adds cognitive dissonance to the operant conditioning. So a truly manipulative meme programmer will withhold the reward most of the time even if the subject performs flawlessly, knowing this will create stronger programming.

The ramifications of this research are interesting. People often say that the teachers who made the most difference in their education were the tough graders-the ones who withheld the A’s much of the time. The occasional A reinforces the Work hard meme more than the constant A because it adds cognitive dissonance. Talk shows are filled with people who stay involved in relationships they say are awful most of the time-perhaps the conditioning and dissonance of the occasional reward in a cruddy relationship reinforces the strategy-meme Stay together more than it does in a relationship that’s good most of the time!

Trojan Horses

The Trojan horse method of programming works by getting you to pay attention to one meme, then sneaking in a whole bundle of others along with it. If you’re an intelligent, educated person, you may be thinking, Wow! You must have to be pretty gullible to fall for that! Tell that to the Trojans.

There are any number of mechanisms for doing the meme bundling. For one, a Trojan horse can take advantage of your instinctive buttons, pushing them to get your attention and then sneaking in another agenda. The simplest example of a button-pushing Trojan horse is the advertising truism “Sex sells.” Why does sex sell? Because the sex pushes your button, draws your attention, and acts as a Trojan horse for other memes bundled into the advertisement. Of course, danger, food, crisis, helping children, and the other buttons all sell, too, if not quite as well as sex. Much more on this in Chapter 9.

A Trojan horse can also take advantage of the strategy-memes you’re currently programmed with having to do with learning or believing. For example, people who have the strategy-meme If I trust someone, believe what they say are susceptible to new memetic programming coming from people they trust. People who have the strategy-meme Believe things consistent with what I know; be skeptical of all else are susceptible to new memetic programming that seems consistent with what they already know. If you’re programmed to believe what X says because it is the voice of God-where X is a person, a book, or even a practice such as meditation-you’re easily programmed with any additional memes that come from X.

The simplest bundling technique, one used frequently by politicians and trial lawyers, is simply saying the memes one after the other, in decreasing order of believability. The credibility of the first statements seem to carry over to the unsupported ones. For example:

We all want freedom!We all want democracy to work for everyone!We all want every American to have the opportunity to pursue the American Dream!And we all want a national health-care system that makes that possible.

Now it’s a bit of a stretch to conclude that federal management of health care has anything to do with freedom, democracy, or the American Dream, but juxtaposing the statements like that seems to turn off people’s natural skepticism.

Bundling the statements together like that is one form of a Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) technique known as embedding, or packaging memes to make people more susceptible to them.

A related NLP technique is anchoring: taking some image, sound, or sensation and linking it to an unrelated idea. For example, a political candidate who gestures at himself when talking about a rosy future and at his opponent when preaching doom and gloom is actually anchoring good feelings to himself and bad feelings to his opponent. The repeated bundling of the gestures with the good and bad feelings creates association-memes in your mind, which will later influence the way you vote.

You can use anchoring on yourself to quickly put yourself in a good or enthusiastic mood! Close your eyes and imagine a time when you were excited and motivated. Create a vivid mental picture. Now, when you are immersed in that motivated feeling, lightly scratch the pad of your index finger with your thumbnail. You’re anchoring that state of mind to that sensation.

Open your eyes and come back to the present. Repeat this a few times over a period of days or weeks, and you’ll find that next time you want to motivate yourself quickly, a gentle scratch of the pad of your index finger with your thumbnail will get you in the right mood.

As with many of the techniques in this chapter, embedding and anchoring are used a lot by sophisticated salespeople. The whole point of sales is to influence people’s beliefs-infect them with certain memes-for direct economic gain. It’s natural that we’d see many effective meme-spreading techniques used by salespeople; for that reason, many of the examples in this chapter have to do with selling.

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12 Responses to “How We Get Programmed”

  1. Nicole says:

    So well said! Just as people in Hitlers time or the apartheid regeim were brainwashed, so are we today by sex, advertising and the likes. We at least need to start by being constantly aware.

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  2. Leila says:

    Thanks for this article. I agree that it’s important to know about specific techniques used in sales and advertising. I like the examples you give for personal use as well.

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  3. M.X. Palidan says:

    A good summary of memes which gives people the opportunity of becomming more aware of them. Once aware, this opens the door to becomming “master” of them instead of being a “mind slave” to them.

    However, taking a meta-view of these matter we discover that “memes” are just another modeling tool to view how the mind works. It’s not an absolute view, only one of many, but quite usefull.

    Certainly, the “religious/spiritual” arena can be reduced to simple slogans, dogmas, “memes”, if you will. It’s seen obviously in the untinking, unreflective actions and responses of religious fundamentalists around the world. But, so can the other side be viewed through the lenses of “memes”.

    I’m referring here to the athiestic/reductionist paradigm that the mainstream seems to take as a given “truth”. Which, in fact, words and phrases like “randomness”, “chaos”, “Life’s a throw of the dice’, “I’m at the mercy of my DNA”, “chance rules”, “life’s meaningless”, and so on, are themselves merely more memes and conditioned thinking. They too need to be examined and looked into in depth.

    From my own perceptions and insights, these don’t hold much muster at all. They only keep us playing the victim and in the passenger’s seat of life’s journey, instead of putting us in the driver’s seat.

    There’s more to discuss, but I”ll end it here. I hope the author goes on in the book to a more fair and in depth examination of this subject of “memes” and their implications, positive and negative.

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  4. Richard Iyall says:

    Reading from this one chapter of Richard Brodie’s book certainly clarifies how people do maniplulate or influlence others. I can see how this type of strategy is used by politicians, governments, salespeople, businesses, religious leaders…, you name it. It also gives an explanation for why people stay in toxic relationships. Personally, I stay away from the television set almost all of the time. I know how they are conditioning people to control them. Thank you, Richard Brodie, for the insight, explained with clarity.

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  5. Angel says:

    Thank you, Richard Brodie, for that brilliant article. You have a talent for explaining difficult concepts in a clear manner. I look forward to seeing more chapters of your book.

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  6. Lasse says:

    I was hoping there’d be a section that gave some hints at how you can de-program some of the memes that may have crept in from the time we were born till now, otherwise a great article. Thank you

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  7. The world needs people like you to change the way the world thinks and acts.

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  8. A view from street level says:

    Very good article, Kudos to you. As I look out at the world what I see is a whole programmed world that has been brainwashed by, for starters our parents, then our peers, then our teachers, the media, our governmental officials and of course the specific religious belief of your country.
    Even though we know what to look for in the form of memes and we try and change the programming, just the fact that we are changing we form new programming for better or for worse.
    No matter what we do or what we believe we are programmed. Just as any new computer out of the box we have to program it to work. Shit in shit out change the shit in and you still have programming. The computer has to work no matter what the programming, just as we have to live no matter what our programming is.
    I think the one thing that in not mentioned here is that we have to live together and the conforming our programming the less strife in the world. Now we just have to figure out what kind of programming that is that is going to benefit mankind.

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  9. Selene says:

    Now finally someone has answered how we got this man who is NOT a natural citizen because Hawaii is NoT a state as president. WAKE UP this man is trying to destroy our country! Pay close attention to what and HOW he says it. He speaks exactly like this!

    National health care that he wants to pass is freedom restricting NOT anything good for We The People. How could it not be restricting your freedoms? I do NOT want health care that is like this and because I do not want it he will fine me $1000.00 which I cannot afford. That is NOT freedom protecting or promoting it is downright stealing money form us once again. It is also stealing money from my child, which this clear fact should be explained to all parents should this “health care” mess get passed.

    Forcing me to have health care is infringing on my US Constitutional rights and freedoms to choose including medical care what I deem right and good for me and my child without any interference from any gov foreign and domestic. Forcing me to pay a fine for not going with the conformed is wrong and should be illegal. The ins groups get to line their pockets with more money and we get even worse health care than we have now. Tell your elected leaders NO on this health care!

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  10. Miles says:

    Can anyone guess when “learning” begins its decline in a human being?

    Answer: 5 years of age (when school starts – kindergarten)

    Yep the current educational system destroys our natural born learning ability by teaching us improper methods of learning.

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  11. [...] another article in the Ezine we introduced the concept of Mind Viruses – a really interesting read and an important concept – so if you aren’t familiar [...]

  12. Kelly Flack says:

    Wow. I have been ‘conditioning’ my children every morning as we drive or walk to school. You know that movie ‘Stripes’? How they march and the leader shouts out a line and the platoon repeats it?

    Well this is what my kids and I do each day. We have turns at leading but the words remain the same. If you have children in your life, you might want to play this rhyme with them. Here it is

    “I’m making me a great day (I’m making me a great day)
    No matter what others say (No matter what others say)
    I hold my head up high and smile (I hold my head up high and smile)
    ‘Cause I got class and I got style (‘Cause I got class and I….)

    I know how to respect my friends ……..
    This way our friendships never end ………
    I’m happier than any clown …………
    ‘Cause I don’t let no-one bring me down ………”

    And there they go. Off to school. Head held high. Smiling with life. And the first step of creating a great day has been laid out :) It’s fun.

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