006 – Defense Against the Dark Arts II – Seduce and Destroy

In This Episode:

We look at persuasion through the eyes of seduction experts and the pickup artist community.

  • why critical thinking educators need to talk about persuasion
  • why scientific rationality is a social achievement that takes effort and vigilance to maintain
  • preparing students for life outside the dojo
  • summarizing our list of persuasion topics
  • Ross Jeffries as pioneer of the seduction community
  • NLP, hypnosis and “speed seduction”
  • Tom Cruise, Frank T.J. Mackey, and “Seduce and Destroy”
  • the seduction community’s approach to the science of persuasion
  • the difficulty of answering the question “does it work?”


“Science is a progressive social achievement, and like all such achievements, it takes social capital and collective effort to maintain. And it can be disrupted — by disaster, by war, by regressive ideologies, and by complacency and forgetfulness.”

“The last clip with the voiceover shows a table with all the products in the Seduce and Destroy system, including VHS tapes and instructional booklets and branded Seduce and Destroy water bottles, like you’re going to need to hydrate frequently with all the epic sex you’re going to have.”

References and Links

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This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 6!

This one is titled “Defense Against the Dark Arts – Part II – Seduce and Destroy”, a continuation of last week’s episode where I walk through a series of topics that I would include on a syllabus for a course on the philosophy and methods of persuasion, if someone were to ask me to teach such a course.

This is just an exercise of course, but it’s a useful exercise because it’s a way of exploring the terrain of persuasion science and persuasion practices, a way of getting familiar with what’s going on in this space.

But why do we need to talk about persuasion at all?

Because this show is all about what it means to be skilled in the art of rational persuasion, and before we can get to the rational part, we need to understand the persuasion part.

And who better to teach us about persuasion than the people and the communities that are dedicated to learning and practicing the art of persuasion, within their particular domain or niche?

Hi everyone and welcome to the Argument Ninja podcast. I’m your host, Kevin deLaplante, and I’m a philosopher and critical thinking educator, and on this show I’m trying to work out the foundations for an approach to critical thinking education that I’ve never seen implemented before.

Yes, we can teach logic and argumentation and principles of good reasoning, but how useful is this if people are naturally inclined to resist them? As human beings we’re naturally wired to use argumentation, first and foremost, as a tool of social persuasion, not as a tool for pursuing truth and wisdom. An argument doesn’t have to be good to be effective.  You can use argumentation very successfully as a tool of persuasion if you’re allowed to employ fallacies and manipulative rhetoric, and use debate strategies that are intellectually unfair and disingenuous.

Of course, our capacity for argumentation can be recruited into the pursuit of knowledge and truth and wisdom — that’s what philosophy and science, at their best, have been doing trying to do for 2500 years — but these achievements don’t just appear spontaneously. To discipline our thought, to conform our reason to standards of good logic, of good argumentation … that’s a social achievement that reflects the commitments and shared values of a community.

If the community is large enough and has enough support, logic and reason can thrive and accomplish wonders. We can explore the boundaries of our universe and unlock its fundamental laws. We can cure disease, extend life and create technological marvels. We can identify unjustifiable and irrational beliefs, and give them less weight in our evolving network of beliefs, to the benefit of everyone.

But none of this is inevitable. Science is a progressive social achievement, and like all such achievements, it takes social capital and collective effort to maintain. And it can be disrupted — by disaster, by war, by regressive ideologies, and by complacency and forgetfulness.

When I was a university teacher, I thought that by teaching logic and good reasoning in the classroom, and having students graduate and go off into the world, we were helping to disseminate these principles of good reasoning into public society at large.

But I realize now how naïve I was. I failed to appreciate how culturally and normatively specific these principles are — principles of good logic, sound argumentation, proper evaluation of evidence, and rules for managing disagreement through rational dialogue and debate.

And I failed to appreciate how different the rules are outside the classroom, and outside the institutions that actively protect and support these principles. The natural psychology of human reason and judgment is different from the idealized norms of good reasoning that we teach in the classroom. If we don’t teach our students how they’re different, in what ways they’re different, and how to engage with people in the real world on their terms, in ways that will resonate with them, I believe we’re setting our students up — and indeed all of us — for discouragement and frustration.

In episode four I argued that the rules of good argumentation are similar to the elements of a martial art that is normally practiced within the sacred space of the martial arts training hall, the dojo.

The world outside the dojo is very different, and a good martial arts instructor understands the difference. When they teach practical self-defense techniques for situations you may encounter outside the dojo, on the street, they’re not going to teach you how to split-kick two opponents at once.

No, they’re going to spend time talking about environmental and situational awareness, how to recognize signs of danger and avoid danger, how to manage stress and project confidence, how to assess the psychology of the aggressor and work with that psychology to reduce the risk of a physical confrontation, how to deescalate situations with an aggressor, and if a physical confrontation seems inevitable, how to end that confrontation in the most effective and decisive way possible.

When it comes to traditional martial arts, self-defense training is quite different from the core training of the martial art. But most schools do train for self-defense, because they know that their students are going to walk out that door and into a world that follows its own rules, and they need to be prepared to meet the world as it is, not as they would like it to be.

I feel the same way about teaching students how to reason well and argue effectively. We need to prepare them for the real world, not just the idealized world of the classroom, or the debate hall, or the academic peer review process, where you can safely assume that everyone understands the rules of the game and there’s incentive to follow the rules.

In the real world the incentives are very different, and people’s natural psychology is driven by confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, cognitive dissonance, and a host of other biases and situational factors that operate unconsciously to influence how we respond to disagreement and to efforts to persuade us.

That’s why I think it’s important that we speak more openly about these psychological realities, and make that discussion part of our training in critical thinking and argumentation.

Right now, this discussion is not happening. With very rare exceptions, it’s not happening in the standard textbooks, and it’s not happening in the classrooms.

In many of the standard, logic-oriented critical thinking textbooks used in college and university classrooms, you won’t even find the term “confirmation bias” in the glossary or the index. I just did a quick check of ten textbooks that are on my bookshelf, and only three of them had a reference to confirmation bias. And in each case, if you turn to the page reference, the term only appears on one line of one page of a textbook that has between 500 and 700 pages.

And in none of the standard standard critical thinking textbooks that I’ve looked at is there an entry for the term “cognitive bias”, or any discussion of the psychology of cognitive biases in general.

It’s important that we not just mention these psychological concepts, but actually look at them in some detail, and understand how they operate in the context of persuasion, how they actually influence what people think and feel.

These are the Dark Arts of persuasion.  An “argument ninja” has studied the Dark Arts and respects their power.

So, with that preamble out of the way, let’s continue the discussion we started last episode.

Just to catch up, my list of persuasion topics is organized around the different domains where persuasion methods are applied.

I’ll walk down the list first.

  1. people skills — how to make people like you
  2. selling and marketing skills — how to get people to say “yes” to an offer
  3. seduction skills (including “pickup artist” skills) — how to attract a romantic or sexual partner
  4. magic and mind reading skills — how stage magicians and mentalists control the mental states of audience members
  5. confidence games and the skills of the con artist — how people can be strategically manipulated, deceived and defrauded
  6. persuasion in advertising — how ad campaigns create desire and demand for a product
  7. persuasion in politics — how to influence public perception of a politician or a political issue
  8. persuasion in the internet age — how the integration of digital technologies in our lives influences what we think and believe and value
  9. power and propaganda — how larger institutions can influence social behavior and beliefs on a large scale, as a means of maintaining power and social control

Last episode I talked about the first two on this list: people skills, and selling and marketing skills.

The third on the list is seduction kills, so let’s talk about this a bit.

There’s a thing called the “seduction” community, sometimes called the “pickup artist” community”, though I think it’s more accurate to say that the pickup artist community is focused on techniques for attracting a sexual partner and actually having sex — closing the deal, as they say — within a short period of time — like, four to eight hours, or at most a weekend. There are other longer term seduction tactics, where the goal is to attract a real, long term romantic partner who genuinely loves you, but in that context no one uses the language of “pickup” tactics.

The pickup artist community emerged in the late 80s and early 90s, and the pioneering figure here is probably Ross Jeffries. Jeffries was the first to develop and market a system, what he called the “speed seduction” system, which he turned into a successful business, selling books and DVDs and workshops to men, teaching men how to improve their “game”.

Recall, last episode we talked about Neuro-Linguistic Programming and its two founders, Richard Bandler and John Grinder. NLP took off in the 1980s and it continues to be popular in the sales and business and personal development industries.

Well, in the late 80s and early 90s, Ross Jeffries trained with Richard Bandler and became a devotee of NLP and Ericksonian hypnosis. Jeffries applied this training to a specific challenge — how to teach men who are not naturally good with women, a method for successfully attracting a sexual partner.

So, in the early days at least, Jeffries’ “speed seduction” method is basically NLP and Ericksonian hypnosis applied to dating and seduction.

As he would describe it, his course taught men how to use NLP and hypnosis to lead women into the right psychological states. For example, even if you weren’t a particularly good looking guy, his techniques were designed to induce in women the same psychological states they would experience, in the present of a genuinely good looking guy.

If you were to look at the list of techniques that he teaches, you would see terms like “embedded commands”, “trance words”, “anchoring” and “deep rapport building”.  This language comes right out of the NLP and hypnosis playbooks.

Jeffries’ method was especially famous for the use of rehearsed language patterns or stories which were meant to be memorized and performed in order to elicit specific emotional responses such as intrigue, or a feeling of connection, or arousal. I think in his later years he’s dropped most of this script memorizing and focuses more on getting men to come up with their own scripts and stories that fulfill these functions, and he spends more time working on men’s inner narrative and self-confidence.  Actually I think he’s a practicing Buddhist now, and works more on self-development and transformational change than speed seduction.

Another feature of Jeffries’ early method was this persona that he cultivated, and that he performed in his workshops and public talks, as a man who is uncompromisingly frank about men and women’s sexual desires and true motivations, and who takes pleasure in manipulating women and boasting about his sexual conquests and selling this dream of sexual mastery to men.

I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie Magnolia. It’s from 1999, it’s directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood and a bunch of other really great films. In this movie, Tom Cruise plays this outrageous seduction expert named Frank T.J. Mackey, and if you’ve never seen it, you should go to YouTube and search for Magnolia and Tom Cruise, because this is a really great performance. I mention this because Ross Jeffries was the inspiration Tom Cruises’ character, who teaches a method he calls “Seduce and Destroy”.

The filmmakers produced a fake late-90s-era seduce-and-destroy infomercial, something you meet see on late night tv. It’s on YouTube, I’ll link to it in the show notes, but here’s the audio. This is Tom Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey.

The last clip with the voiceover shows a table with all the products in the Seduce and Destroy system, including VHS tapes and instructional booklets and branded Seduce and Destroy water bottles, like you’re gonna need to hydrate frequently with all the epic sex you’re going to have.

And I just checked and that URL, seduceanddestroy.com, is currently available for the low price of 3600 dollars.

Well the seduction community has changed since the 1990s. Jeffries launched internet forums for people interested in pickup artist techniques to share their stories, and he inspired a new crop of seduction gurus to set up their own programs. So within a few years there was a proliferation of figures in the industry selling their own systems and a proliferation of underground workshops and classes and bootcamps, where guys would get together in someone’s apartment or basement or cottage and talk about the methods, how many women they had approached within the last week, how they did, and what what was successful and what wasn’t.

Initially, a lot of these systems were pretty straight copycats of the NLP/hypnosis model that Jeffries had pioneered, but another interesting feature of the community is that in many cases it was a self-teaching community that wasn’t wedded to theoretical purity. The gurus were more concerned about purity because they were selling a system, but the audience … these nerdy guys were reading all the sales and marketing books and all the new stuff coming out of the social science of persuasion, like Robert Cialdini’s work, and new information on cognitive biases coming out of behavioral economics, and talking about how bits and pieces of this information could apply and help improve their game.

So, over the past ten or fifteen years, persuasion theory in the seduction community has become more pluralistic, more pragmatic, less homogenous. From a theoretical perspective, Milton Erickson and Robert Bandler and Robert Cialdini and Daniel Kahneman couldn’t be more different, but the seduction community is more focused on practical success than theoretical purity so they’re not afraid to pick and choose items that they think might work together.

But there’s still an affinity, within the community, for system-building, for working out strategies that string together techniques borrowed from a range of disciplines, into a program that can be learned and taught. It’s the sort of activity that computer programmers and nerdy gamers might naturally find attractive.

How successful these programs are, is another question. It’s been observed that men in the pickup artist community often spend more time with each other, talking about their programs than they do getting to know actual women.

It goes without saying that it’s quite difficult to test any of this. There are plenty of cases of men who became more successful with women after taking these courses and implementing their techniques, and who genuinely feel that this information has transformed their lives. But it’s hard to know what exactly is responsible for this success.  A little confidence can go a long way. Does a positive interaction with a woman mean that you’ve successfully deployed an NLP technique? Or that the positive response is due to the technique operating in the way that NLP theory says it does? Of course it doesn’t follow.

There’s also a numbers game element to this, where if you go from never approaching women to approaching ten or twenty women a week, by the odds alone your chances of having a successful encounter are higher, even if none of the methods are working the way they’re advertised.

But that said, I don’t want to dismiss these methods out of hand. I think there’s a knee-jerk reaction among people who are strongly critical of the seduction community — for the way it views and treats women, for example — to assume that everything it says about gender dynamics or the psychology of seduction must be wrong. That would be a mistake.

I also think there’s plenty of reason to think that some of these psychological methods, when deployed by someone with enough skill, are demonstrably effective. You just have to look at magicians and mentalists who specialize in methods derived from hypnosis to see that there’s a very real phenomenon here, that attention and perception and belief and emotion can be influenced in a deliberate and controlled way. There may be disagreement about why it works, what the underlying psychological mechanisms are — but there’s no question that it works in a predictable way.

This phenomenon alone is worth taking time to study more closely.

So, next episode we’re going to talk about the tools of the professional mentalist, hypnotist and mind reader, and see what we can learn about persuasion from them.

I want to thank you for listening.

You can find show notes for this episode at argumentninja.com, episode 6, with links to the references mentioned in this episode, including that great Seduce and Destroy informercial, a complete transcript of the episode.

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