I recently read about a wedding scam in which thieves dressed as delivery men stole wedding presents from the hotel room they were stored in. In order to get past the hotel receptionist, an accomplice telephoned the receptionist with a complex request, at the same time as the “delivery men” arrived. Distracted by the phone call, the receptionist waved the seemingly genuine delivery men through reception,allowing them to steal the wedding gifts.
This story parallels a common ploy in persuasion – distract the target with a lot of information and you might be able to slip dodgy information past them. In psychological terms, this inundation of information increases the targets cognitive load, reducing his/her ability to filter and assess vital information. In skeptic circles a version of distraction is referred to as the “Gish gallop” after Duane Gish, an outspoken creationist who during debates with evolutionists would deliver up a fast paced litany of half-truths, strawmen and outright lies overwhelming all but the most experienced opponent.
And what is the most effective way to boost someone’s cognitive load? Paying them a compliment. This uses up valuable mental resources moving them away from our rational analysis of any situation. Is it little wonder that most professional con men are described as charming by their victims?
Compliments also make use of reciprocity. If someone compliments you it is a verbal “gift” and for many people it can create a subconscious sense of obligation.
With distraction, an understanding of the techniques goes a long way to countering them. If someone is trying to sell you something and starts with a compliment be a little wary. Think carefully about everything they say and ask questions. And if a situation becomes overwhelming, remove yourself from it if possible to gather your thoughts.
My father was an amateur magician and use to amaze my siblings and me with many tricks based on distraction. Indeed, professional magicians such as James Randi are valued members of the skeptical community as they know how distraction works and can penetrate the tricks of psychics and other practitioners of pseudoscience.
With regards to debates, the only way to avoid the “Gish gallop” seems to be to set down strict ground rules about what is allowable within a debate.