Appearance (The Prince)

Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result. The Prince, Machiavelli 

Appearance is everything. If you are a good person, but others don’t see any evidence for it externally, then they will never assume the best. People have a limited attention span, they cannot afford to spend too much energy into figuring people out – they have more pressing things to worry about. They will take shortcuts, and they will assume that ‘what you see is what you get.’

Thus, how you appear to others is very important. If you are a good person deep down, but you act petulantly and distastefully when in the company of others, no one will assume you are good. If you work very hard at your job, but act humbly and are afraid to speak up, your boss won’t assume that you are secretly a wise sage.

it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. – The Prince, Machiavelli 

A testament to this rule is thinking about the concept of acting in general. What is an actress? Isn’t she a stranger who is reciting a written text, isn’t she acting in such a way so as to evoke emotions out of her audience? Does she not adjust her tone of voice, know when to pause and know how to cry convincingly?

We take it for granted that this actress is able to suspend belief if only for a couple of hours, but think of the magnitude of her achievement. She was able to convince you that she was a real person, who had a past, and cares about having a future. Acting is the art form of deception.

And now, think about life, how many times you fail to see reality for what it is. You mistake shadow for substance because too often, you see what you want to see, and not what is there.

Armed with this knowledge, you should realize that everyone shares this cognitive shortcoming. It’s not that you are fooled by appearances – everyone is fooled by appearances. How then do become better at deciphering fact from fiction?

I believe the answer is to understand the nature of fiction. This is one of the reasons I started this blog – to understand the nature of deception.

To know what is, you must know what is not. If you are only accustomed to truth, and that your information diet consists of the most factual information you can find, then you are an easy target for the swindlers of the world.

Once you understand the nature of deception and are able to wield it, you will become better at separating truth from fiction. Like martial arts, the goal is not to hurt people, it is to know how to protect yourself and others from those that do hurt people

The other thing to do is to become more in control over your appearance. If you are more mindful about how you appear to others beforehand, you can adjust your behavior when you are with them, or even what you wear. That isn’t to say that while you are with them, you should be asking yourself ‘how am I being perceived right now?’, that only results in social awkwardness. But if you look on the floor, are afraid to make eye-contact, hesitant, have crab-like body language, and dress poorly – then you’re giving others no choice but to ignore you.

If you want to influence others, you have to give them what they want. What they want is an image, and as long as you can paint that image for them, then you can get what you want. And notice that they don’t necessarily know what they want consciously – their desires can be unconscious. So, it is not a question of investigating what they explicitly make clear to you, but finding out what they implicitly desire.

The master manipulators have this power over you, they can get you to behave in ways that you don’t want, because they know how to push your secret buttons. They know what makes you tick, and will use it against you. There are countless examples of this. One story that comes to mind is about Count Lustig, the infamous swindler, told by Greene in The 48 Laws of Power. 

In 1925, five successful dealers in the French scrap-metal business were invited to a highly confidential meeting in a luxurious hotel in Paris. They were meeting with Lustig. The business men didn’t know why they were invited, but were curious.

Lustig explained to them, after they had a few drinks that there was an urgent matter that required the utmost secrecy. He told them that the French government was going to destroy the Eiffel Tower. The business men were under the impression that Lustig was a  government director and took his words very seriously.

Lustig then told them that they were allowed to make a bid for the Eiffel Tower. He gave them some junk information, and accompanied them to an area surround the tower. There, he showed his badge, and humored his friends with stories as they walked around the area. Finally, he thanked them and said he was expecting their offers within four days.

A few days later, the offers were submitted. One man, Monsieur P was told that he won. To complete the deal, he was told he had to appear with a check worth 250,000 francs in the hotel in two days. Monsieur P was excited, he arrived at the suite with the money in hand.

While he talked to Lustig, doubts about this whole operation started to creep in. He wondered if this was a scam, and Lustig’s description of how the tower was going to be scrapped in detail was not convincing him otherwise. He was about to pull out of the deal, then suddently, he noticed a shift of tone from Lustig. The latter complained to him about his horrible financial situation – his low salary and his wife’s desire for a fur coat. Monsieur P realized that Lustig was asking for a bribe and he was relieved.

The situation made more sense to him now. This high government official just wanted his palm greased just like all the other government officials he had met. Soon after, Lustig was paid. The victim of the ruse left the hotel feeling happy only to realize that it was a scam days later, when the government denied any knowledge of what he was talking about. But he couldn’t do anything, since he would ruin his own reputation if people found out about what had happened.

Notice how in this story, it wasn’t only that appearance was important, but the important role Monsieur P’s feelings played. That is the power of the unconscious. While his greedy ambitions were getting the best of him, something about his encounter with Lustig didn’t feel quite right. Lustig didn’t fit the image he had of a government official. But when Lustig told him about his financial problems, he suddenly fit the image perfectly.

In poker, appearance is everything. You have to not only watch the behavior of other people, but you have to watch your own behavior. Since you know others are watching you, knowing how to adjust your actions in a way to fit the narrative that you want your opponents to believe is key.

If you raised the pot four times in a row, then people have the impression that you are loose – reading to play any two cards, even though you may have luckily picked up some great hands in those four rounds. Now on the fifth round, if you pick up an above average holding that you would usually play aggressively, you should tone it down because it is now highly likely that someone will assume you are definitely bluffing this time, and will put you in a tight spot if you make a raise.

The only way to counter Lustig would be to pay attention to your own behavior. When you know what you are giving away, then you can control what Lustig is perceiving. So in the story, notice that Lustig changed his tone just when the businessman was going to change his mind. Lustig sensed a change of demeanor and quickly adjusted.

If Monsieur P abruptly ended the conversation by saying he had to leave and that it was an emergency, and that they would continue this later, then he could have avoided losing his money. But by making his feelings apparent to Lustig, he gave the swindler everything he needed to make his next winning move.

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