So far, on Who Is America?, Sacha Baron Cohen has convinced a member of the Georgia House of Representatives to pull down his pants and try to touch people with his butt, yelling, “I’ll make you a homosexual!” and “USA! USA!”
He’s gotten a reality show star to say she saved 6,000 people in Africa from a violent warlord. And he’s even managed to convince a former senator to make a full video teaching three-year-olds how to fire a gun, complete with a musical number that teaches kids: “Aim at the head, shoulders, not the toes, not the toes.”
It’s baffling trying to imagine how anyone could be duped into doing such obviously humiliating things on TV, but there are some very real psychological reasons that people fall for Baron Cohen’s jokes. Behind the scenes, he’s using well-established psychological tricks to manipulate his guests—and they might be harder to resist than you’d like to think.
Former US congressman Joe Walsh is shown on an episode of Who Is America singing the praises of a “Kindgerguardian” program that would introduce semiautomatics and mortars to four-year-olds.
“In less than a month—less than a month!” Walsh excitedly told the camera, “a first grader can become a first grenader.”
His excuse, when the clip came out, was that he was just trying to be culturally understanding. He admitted it seemed “kind of crazy” to him but said that he’d made the video because Baron Cohen was pretending to be Israeli, and Walsh thought: “It is Israel and Israel is strong on defense.”
As weird as his excuse sounds, it actually fits the psychological principle of “social reframing.” According to Erving Goffman, when a social interaction starts to fracture, most people will assume it’s because of a misunderstanding on their own part. The human mind will automatically try to reframe what’s happening from another perspective, coming up with justifications to make the other person’s strange behavior make sense within their own minds.
This is exactly what Walsh did. He heard something shocking, assumed he was being inconsiderate, and subconsciously reframed his view of what was happening so that his interaction with Baron Cohen would feel more comfortable. It wouldn’t work on everybody, but Walsh prides himself on his social skills, and that makes him more desperate to feel that everyone likes him.
Sacha Baron Cohen knows it works. He’s said that one of his first epiphanies in creating his Ali G character was “the patience of some of these members of the upper class, who were so keen to appear polite.” He’s figured out that the more socially refined you are, the more willing you are to do crazy things just to keep feeling like you’re a social success.
Walsh was extra easy to manipulate because Sacha Baron Cohen had buttered him up beforehand. Baron Cohen didn’t tell him he was going to be on a comedy show; he told him he was winning an award as a “Friend of Israel.”
Walsh was flattered—not just because he was getting an award but because Sacha Baron Cohen was directly appealing to the idealized idea he had of himself. Walsh takes pride in being a supporter of Israel; for him, being recognized by the state of Israel itself validated the way he wanted to see himself.
But in our subconscious, there’s what psychologists call a subconscious social transaction constantly tallying up debts. When someone appeals to your ideal concept of yourself, you have an unconscious desire to give them an emotional favor in return so that you can even the score. Often, that’ll come out as something harmless like a compliment—but a skillful manipulator can use that goodwill to make you do pretty well anything they say.
“One look into the eyes of a child soldier when he gets a new launcher and you instantly know its all worthwhile,” reality star Corinne Olympios said on Baron Cohen’s show. “When you launch a grenade, you launch a dream.”
Promoting arming child soldiers was just one of countless ridiculous things Olympios was duped into saying. But as hilarious as Olympios’s speech might be on-screen, her version of what was happening behind the scenes reads like a horror story.
“I just want[ed] to get out of there,” she says. “So I just did it.”
Olympios came to the studio with her manager, but as soon as she arrived, Baron Cohen’s crew pulled him into another room to sign papers. Then, to make sure Olympios was isolated and easier to manipulate, they lied to her manager and informed him that she’d told him to go home.
There was a crew of 20 people filming, but every person except Sacha Baron Cohen pretended they couldn’t speak English. And so, when Olympios started to feel unnerved by what was happening, she had nothing but blank faces to talk to.
When she panicked, the crew pretended they were going to get her manager for her, even though they knew he was long gone. Then they came back and pretended he was busy with a phone call and just wanted her to finish up the interview on her own.
The crew let her go when she started having a panic attack. Throughout the whole thing, though, she was so frightened that she says she doesn’t remember full parts of the show.
One little detail behind the scenes of Borat is that a lot of the people who were duped were paid to be in the movie. Most got somewhere between $150 and $400, although a village of impoverished Romanians were paid no more than $5.50 each to let Sacha Baron Cohen plant live animals inside their homes.
It might not seem like a big deal, but paying his stars in advance has a psychological effect. When somebody offers you money, you start subconsciously seeing them as in control. And studies show that people are far more likely to break social norms and go along with madness when they think the other person controls the outcome.
Baron Cohen told those Romanian villagers he was making a film about their poverty, but because they thought he was there to help, they looked the other way when he awkwardly kissed them or hooked horses up to a broken car.
And the same effect was probably part of the reason Corinne Olympios was so willing to say anything Baron Cohen asked. He was paying her, he was giving her a chance to be on TV, and he was making her feel like she was trapped. He had complete control of an outcome that was very important to her—and that made her a lot easier to manipulate.
There’s another, even darker detail to that Corinne Olympios story. In truth, she wasn’t completely isolated: She had one friend there. Every now and then, when she was really starting to panic, they would send in a producer from The Bachelor, the show that started her career.
In Olympios’s words:
He kept coming over, being like, “Corinne you’re doing great.” And I’m like, “Jordan, I know I’m doing great! I’m great! You guys are the problem here! What the actual f—?” He kept disappearing so I couldn’t keep talking to him.
Baron Cohen used one of Olympios’s friends to make her feel like she was the weird one for being uncomfortable. He played off of her desire to conform—which is the core of what Baron Cohen does. It’s practically his thesis; he’s said in the past that Borat is meant to be a “dramatic demonstration on how racism feeds on dumb conformity.”
It works on almost everybody. Study after study has shown that most people tend to conform to whatever appears to be the most popular idea or interpretation, even when it seems completely absurd.
It’s easy to wonder how Sacha Baron Cohen gets these people into the studio in the first place. One PR rep, in fact, took to the Internet to write a whole article boasting: “I’d like to think that no client of mine would even be interviewed by a disguised Sacha Baron Cohen.”
He had methods, he insisted. He would have talked to Baron Cohen’s producer, checked his claims online, and verified everything through databases. All of that sounds great on paper—except in practice, none of it would have worked.
Sacha Baron Cohen is very, very careful to make sure his shows seem legitimate. Former presidential advisor Pat Buchanan has explained that, when he was invited onto Da Ali G Show, he was told that he was going to be on a documentary called The Making of Modern America.
Buchanan made sure it was legitimate—but Baron Cohen was ready for him. When he looked it up, he found a website for the fictitious documentary. He even found out that the fake production company in the letter had been officially registered with the government.
That’s how Baron Cohen gets past vetting—he makes sure that his fake companies are legally registered. And that affects how people behave when they get on the show. When someone has the “appearance of legitimacy,” everything he tries to get you to do is going to be that much more effective.
When former Assistant Secretary of State Alan Keyes met Sacha Baron Cohen’s character Borat, he got a gift: the rib of a Jew.
Keyes, with a smile on his face, accepted the gift of a Jewish man’s severed rib with nothing more than a polite: “Thank you very much.” He stood there holding it and grinning for a few seconds before it finally dawned on him what he’d just done—and Keyes freaked out, tearing off his microphone and storming out of the room.
It’s part of Sacha Baron Cohen’s technique. He will often spend a good 15 minutes warming his guests up with normal questions before dropping the crazy ones—when their guard is down and they’re unable to think.
Time to think makes a huge difference. In one study, psychologists found that people are twice as likely to give up subway seats if they didn’t expect anyone to ask. If they know the question’s coming, they have time to prepare their thoughts, and they’re far more likely to turn them down.
Nobody sees Baron Cohen’s craziness coming. As Linda Stein put it, describing her experience getting duped: “He was very, very clever in the way he warmed up to his outrageous behavior. At no point did I feel that there was an actor in the room.”
Social Psychologist Harry T. Reis has argued that Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy is really a psychological study—just one that’s done without any controls or ethics.
He argues that Baron Cohen has demonstrated what he calls the “power of the situation”—or, in other words, how the things going on around you can change the way you behave. The reason people will do such ridiculous things on Baron Cohen’s shows, according to Reis, is tied to our evolution. Reis says: “The mind consists of a set of adaptations, designed to solve the longstanding adaptive problems humans encountered as hunter-gatherers.”
We’ve learned to survive with the help of others, through interdependence on other human beings. And so, when they behave strangely, we try to adjust ourselves to be as supportive as possible, simply because it helps us survive.
Getting duped by Baron Cohen, Reis believes, isn’t anything to be ashamed of. “Any of us, more or less, would behave similarly in this situation.”
One of Sacha Baron Cohen’s best-known successes was when he got a whole bar in Tucson, Arizona, to sing together: “Throw the Jew down the well!”
It might seem like Baron Cohen managed to prove that an entire bar of people were closeted racists—but even he isn’t convinced. Instead, he chalks this phenomenon up to something different—indifference. He’s said:
Did it reveal that they were anti-Semitic? Perhaps. But maybe it just revealed that they were indifferent to anti-Semitism. [ . . . ] I think it’s an interesting idea that not everyone in Germany had to be a raving anti-Semite. They just had to be apathetic.
Apathy, Sacha Baron Cohen believes, is the real reason he can get people to say such offensive things—not because they’re necessarily racist, but just because they don’t really care about the issue.
He’s in good company on that theory. Philosopher Richard Rorty has expressed a similar sentiment, arguing that human beings instinctively dehumanize people they don’t interact with. If you live in an affluent country and only interact with people from your country, you won’t see ideas to connect to genocide abroad as anything much worse than the death of an animal.
Philip Van Cleave claims he only went along with Sacha Baron Cohen’s act because he knew it was a trap.
“I decided that I would play along with the scheme,” Van Cleave claims. “I figured if I was right about this being a set-up, I could blow the whistle and get a warning out to the gun-rights community.” Baron Cohen, he insists, didn’t outwit him. “In the end, we played each other.”
As sympathetic as we’ve been to some of Baron Cohen’s other guests, there’s only one reasonable way to interpret Van Cleave’s excuse: He’s lying.
Van Cleave spent three full hours making an instructional gun video for four-year-olds. In the process, he admitted that he’d pushed a program to get guns to seventh-graders in the past and even contributed his own suggestion that kids are better killers because they haven’t developed consciences.
Philip Van Cleave really does think we should arm students. In fact, he’d argued for it before meeting Sacha Baron Cohen, though he didn’t suggest arming kids quite as young as four. But Sacha Baron Cohen didn’t trick him into saying anything he didn’t believe. He just tricked him into revealing the opinions he usually keeps secret.
The comedy act works as something called a breaching experiment—an experiment to reveal how people react to someone breaking a social norm. When Sacha Baron Cohen expresses an over-the-top opinion, people feel more comfortable expressing their own crazy views, which seem moderate compared to his.
They can say things they’ve been afraid to ever say out loud because, for once, their craziest thoughts seem comparatively sane. And they don’t realize that they’ve been tricked.
“People lower their guard,” as Sacha Baron Cohen himself has explained, “and expose their own prejudice.”