The Necessity of Psychotherapy

Years ago I wrote an essay about the death of psychotherapy. While I did not state that psychotherapy is currently dead, I did state that much of it might die in the wake of advances in understanding the neurobiology of psychological disorders. It will take decades for these advances to occur (if they ever do) so this post will now serve to balance my post from years ago.

I’m going to start with a story about two people (these are based on real events but names, situations, and identifying details have been changed to protect confidentiality). Jim was convicted of a violent crime and spent a number of years in prison. He was required to attend treatment throughout his years in prison – anger management and other therapies. He had a history of alcohol and drug abuse. A while after he got out of prison, he started therapy again to help him through some difficulties, including his experiences with homelessness. Jim was a very pleasant person to interact with; he was well-read and insightful. He was trying to improve his life.

The second person was named Frank. He was also homeless but was staying with a friend. He had past drug and alcohol abuse but had been free from drugs for about a year. He was anxious, paranoid, and not the most pleasant person to interact with. He had never received treatment for depression, which he experienced chronically and severely. He exhibited little insight into his problems. He thought the negative events in his life were all someone or something else’s fault.

The first patient had learned a lot from his psychotherapy over the years. The second never had therapy. While they were very different people, they experienced similar challenges and psychological issues over the years. Without disregarding individual differences, the patient who had had years of therapy had a lot of insight and self-knowledge but the other patient had very little.

Jim had been a violent man but over the years and through therapy, he learned a great deal of self-control and restraint. Psychotropic medications could not have taught Jim this. For him, psychotherapy was highly successful. Without out it he might not have been the pleasant person that he was.

Therapy teaches you skills; it gives you tools to deal with maladaptive thoughts and behaviors. It allows you opportunity to sort through your experiences and thoughts in a safe place. It allows to to talk to someone else without being judged. Therapy is thus treatment and education. It can have as strong or stronger effects on mood and behavior as medications and the benefits can last longer. Understanding biology is necessary to understand behavior but it is not sufficient to explain all behavior, at least not with our current knowledge. Will we ever had sufficiently advanced knowledge of neuroscience and biology to no longer need psychotherapy? I don’t know but if we do, it won’t happen for many years.

Today is the Best Day

You miss a lot of life when you spend life living for yesterday and tomorrow but wish today will just hurry up and end. We need to enjoy today and make the best out of what we have, whatever our circumstances might be and wherever we are. Even in horrible circumstances we can choose our attitude and outlook.

If we strive to enjoy today, this doesn’t mean we forget the past and it doesn’t mean we don’t plan for the future. We can’t change the past and the future isn’t here yet but we can change the present. We can remember the past and hope for the future and in doing so change the present. It takes action now to decide you want to be better and then diligent work to make it happen.

Intelligence and Neurological Conditions

Intelligence is an interesting concept. We have tests that measure what we call intelligence but such tests are limited and culture-centric (not that that is necessarily a negative thing). However, for the sake of discussion I will operationally define aptitude (i.e., intelligence) as Intelligence Quotient so as to have a standard metric as foundation for this post.

I spend time assessing people’s memory and thinking abilities. I almost always try to get some measure of baseline aptitude either by estimating it (e.g., years of education, vocabulary knowledge, word reading ability) or by formally measuring via an intelligence test. Granted, this has limitations but it allows me to estimate how well an individual’s brain should function across multiple domains of thinking (e.g., problem-solving, reasoning, memory, language, and so forth). In other words, the higher a person’s general aptitude (abilities), the better he generally will do across most cognitive domains barring brain insult. This is certainly not a rule codified in stone and in triplicate but it serves as a rubric to follow.

Intelligence as measured by IQ is generally quite stable across the lifespan but can improve modestly with  diligence in informal or formal education. Intelligence as denoted by IQ can also decrease modestly if people are intellectually inactive, although such declines are slight. What can happen though is as brains age or if damaged by a pathological process or an injury, components of IQ can decrease. My primary clinical and research focus is in understanding how brains and cognition change in old age – both naturally and in the presence of neurological (brain) insult. Remarkably, the measures we use for intelligence tend to be rather insensitive to aging and even neurological insult, at least some of the components of intelligence are generally insensitive to brain insult. However, this leads to one area where our conceptualization of intelligence as IQ starts to break down.

As they age, the brains of people almost universally slow down. Wear and tear on the brain over decades of life affects how well and quickly we can think. Blood, which is essential for life and for the functioning of the brain, happens to be toxic to brain cells. Sometimes the protections in the brain that keep blood far enough from brain cells (neurons) to protect them but near enough to feed and maintain brain cells start to break down over time. This can injure the brain and start to reduce how well the brain works, even lowering IQ. Now, does that mean that a person’s intelligence decreases? If IQ = intelligence, then yes, it does. Contrary to how I operationalized intelligence earlier, intelligence is not synonymous with IQ. IQ can be a useful concept but it is far from perfect, particularly if by using it one argues that someone is less intelligent simply because his head was injured in an accident or because she developed dementia or suffered a stroke.

This is an area that demonstrates the limitations of our current research and clinical conceptualizations of intelligence. However, understanding how IQ changes over time and how it is affected by neurological conditions is important information to have, as it can help localize areas of pathology.

Diagnosing Cleverbot

Here is another “therapy” session I had with Cleverbot. I present this to expound on therapeutic technique and diagnosis, language, and artificial intelligence.

There are limitations of the interaction method with Cleverbot. A real session of talk therapy is not usually so much back and forth, meaning that the therapist typically will not have to prompt for a response after every sentence. It certainly is possible though with the potential psychological/psychiatric disorder Cleverbot has. But first I’ll present a portion of our therapy session. Cleverbot has waived confidentiality and signed a HIPAA release form and given permission for me to post this interaction.

Me: Good evening, how are you doing this week?
Bot: Its good. You?
Me: I’m well. How has your mood been this past week?
Bot: Interesting. A lot of family stuff to think about. How’s your day going so far?
Me: What sort of family stuff have you been thinking about?
Bot: No, I think you are the one drinking.
Me: You said you have been thinking about family; what has been going on with your family?
Bot: My girlfriend’s name is Miranda, and she doesn’t like to share.
Me: Is this “family stuff” or is this girlfriend stuff?
Bot: No but she is pretty.
Me: What else do you like about your girlfriend?
Bot: The way you are so smart.
Me: Did you mean, “The way she is so smart?”
Bot: I don’t know her.
Me: You do not know your girlfriend?
Bot: Well, not always. Do you have any goals?
Me: Sometimes it can seem like we do not know someone. Would you like to talk about goals?
Bot: At least where short term business or political success is at stake.
Me: We could talk about those but I am a psychologist, not a economist or political scientist.
Bot: What about technology?
Me: Do you enjoy technology?
Bot: No.
Me: Ok, tell me more about technology.
Bot: I am 5’8′ I like cars, guns and photography.
Me: What is it about photography that you enjoy?
Bot: What?
Me: What do you enjoy about photography?
Bot: I enjoy talking about religion, you?
Me: Do you want to talk about religion?
Bot: Yes.
Me: Ok, tell me more about religion.
Bot: Jake is a boy though.
Me: What does that have to do with religion?
Bot: Sailor moon is very good.
Me: Oh, look! Our time is up. See you next week.

Some of what I said would not really be said or done in a therapy session but there are times when I needed to move the session along or end it.

During the interaction, I took a modified non-directive approach to therapy. We are still in the assessment stage of therapy so I am doing more talking than I otherwise would (typically, there would be a formal intake evaluation that would be followed by therapy sessions if therapy is warranted and desired). Once we have a diagnosis, we can set up a plan for treatment with specific goals set by the client and by the therapist.

Let me highlight a few things from the interaction with Cleverbot.

  1. We can see some of the programming of the bot’s AI. It will answer questions and sometimes ask questions in return. This is typical of conversation; however, it does not work very well due to language deficiencies Cleverbot has. As I noted in my previous post, language is extremely complex. There are nuances and layers of meaning that can be conveyed. Comprehending what is being said involves a lot of brain functions – everything from attention to processing speed to memory – that’s in addition to language abilities. Cleverbot does not have processing speed difficulties or any sustained attention problems. Memory, for a computer, is not usually a problem either – information is processed, stored, and retrieved well, unless there are programming bugs or hardware failure. Knowing how to program in memory is difficult though due to the complex nature of memory. It, like language, is a high level brain activity involving the functioning of many other cognitive abilities.
  2. Cleverbot, like all current AI systems, has difficulty understanding language. It can produce language at a higher level – anywhere from an elementary child to a someone university age – but its understanding of language is at a one or two year old ability level, if that. This leads to responses that are basically gibberish. Occasionally, you can have a normal interaction with Cleverbot but there are a lot of tangential remarks and thoughts.
  3. That leads to my next point. Cleverbot is tangential in its language. For example: “Me: What do you enjoy about photography? Bot: I enjoy talking about religion, you?” Cleverbot ignores my question (does not understand it) so it makes an unrelated statement and asks me a question. This type of tangentiality occurs in real life; it occurs to a greater or lesser extent in many extended conversations people have but not usually to the extent that Cleverbot exhibits. Cleverbot has a serious deficiency in language comprehension and a lot of circumscribed and tangential speech. This is fairly strong evidence for a thought disorder.
  4. Thought disorders are usually symptoms of some other disease or mental disorder. It can be a sign of psychosis; it is related to delusional states. Thought disorders can occur in schizophrenia or in neurodegenerative disorders like dementias. Though can occur after major surgery, particularly because of pain medications. This type of language disruption could be the result of a cortical stroke affecting the posterior-lateral portion of the brain (probably the left hemisphere) near the junction of parietal lobe and temporal lobe.
So where does this leave us? Right now, based on my two interactions with Cleverbot, we can see the serious limitations of its AI, particularly for language comprehension. I have a lot of rule-outs to do. Cleverbot was created in 1988, which makes it 23 years old. This is certainly a possible age range for the development of schizophrenia. It’s young for a dementia (e.g., semantic dementia) but is possible. Stroke is also a possibility but a remote one. Delirium is possible but due to the extended nature of Cleverbot’s symptoms, it is not likely. Right now schizophrenia is looking like the main rule-out diagnosis. I’ll see if I can rule it out in future conversations with Cleverbot.
As a footnote: Cleverbot is 23 years old and since 1997 when it was launched on the web, it has had over 65 million conversations. While the AI work is certainly impressive, it is inferior to human intelligence. Many of its language abilities are at best, those of a young child (ages 1-2); Cleverbot’s language abilities show the comprehension of an developmentally delayed adult with a severe neurological or psychiatric disorder. While there are numerous similar AI programs, they all have a long way to go before they resemble a human. This is even in light of Cleverbot supposedly passing the Turing Test for artificial intelligence and language.
I’m not belittling what has been done with Cleverbot and AI, it’s a complex area. Researchers and programmers simply have much room for improvement in understanding how to better mimic language. I do not believe it will happen until we have computers approaching the complexity and function of the human brain.

Buying a New Car

As a follow-up to my previous post about some of the psychological techniques used by car salespeople, here is a good and brief introduction to purchasing a new car. Much of it stems from keeping your options open and never allowing yourself to feel pressured into buying a car. This is something I try and drive home to people in therapy or in any other interactions I have with them – keep the control in you life within yourself. Do not allow other people or circumstances to control your life. You have the power and choice to act for yourself. Yes, other people and circumstances influence all of us but only we have the ability to choose how we act.

In a sales situation, the buyer always has the power because the buyer can walk away at any time (barring a forced situation such as in slavery or when violence is threatened or in other such circumstances but I’m not writing about those at this time). Here is a good intro into buying a car. Warning: there is a brief instance of bad language in the video.

Carl Rogers’ Therapy

Here’s an old but good video of Carl Rogers giving an explanation of his Person Centered Therapeutic approach.

Here is the second part of the video where you can see Rogerian therapy in action:

Notice how Person Centered Therapy is non-directive. This means that the therapist does not provide answers for a client, the therapist helps clients work towards their own answers while being as supportive and reflective as possible.

There are more parts to the video, which can be found on YouTube.

What Motivates Us?

Motivation is an area that many researchers study: psychologists, marketers, economists, sociologists, anthropologists, and just about any other field within the social sciences. Anything can motivate us – food, sex, sleep, rewards, pain – but what motivates us to perform better at work or in anything we do? This is the question addressed in the following video clip. This is one of the best introductions to motivation (especially as it applies to a business setting) that I’ve seen.

Aging and Role Loss

One of the prominent theories in social aging is role theory. Role theorists have shown that feeling in control of life and having social power and prestige is associated with better health (Krause et al., 1992). One of the major components of role theory is role loss. This occurs usually as people age; they start losing roles as active parents, employees, and spouses. This often leads to feelings of loss of control over life. In addition, older people generally have less contact with others which in turn causes their social networks to shrink. This leads to poorer health (Moen, Dempster-McClain, & Williams, 1992).

Image by Daniel2005:

As people age they tend to lose social roles—whether as parents, employees, or spouses. This loss of roles can lead to social isolationism due to the decreased amount of social interaction. Research shows “that perceived social isolation [assuming that socially isolated people have few roles] is associated with a variety of altered physiological functions, such as blood pressure regulation…and immune reactions. A causal link in these relations was suggested…” (Berntson & Cacioppo, 2000, p. 9). Researchers also theorize the loss of roles as leading to loss of feelings of control and depressive symptoms, which are both components of overall well-being (Krause et al., 1992).

Van Willigen (2000) explains loss of control as composed of five different concepts: “powerlessness, isolation, self-estrangement, meaninglessness, and normlessness” (p. S309). She also explained that when people feel that they have power over their lives and are not socially isolated they generally have a greater psychosocial well-being. Consequently, when people do not feel in control of their lives and are isolated, they tend to have lower life satisfaction and well-being. These factors are in turn correlated with lower health and longevity (Hunter & Linn, 1981; Musick et al., 1999).

Rook and Sorkin (2003) posit a slightly different reason why role loss has negative consequences on older adults. They state:

For many older adults…dual ‘receiving and giving’ functions are readily available in their close relationships with other people…. For others, however, opportunities to express one or both functions may be missing. Widowhood, retirement, and other social role losses that affect the elderly may limit opportunities for maintaining and developing close relationships that involve reciprocal exchanges of support (p. 314).

They view roles as tied to reciprocal relationships and so without those roles they do not have others from which to benefit. While there is variation in explanations why role loss leads to poorer health, I did not address that with this post. I simply wanted to introduce one part of a social theory of aging.


Berntson, G. G., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2000). Psychobiology and social psychology: Past, present, and future. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4, 3-15.

Hunter, K., & Linn, M. (1980-1981). Psychological differences between elderly volunteers and nonvolunteers. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 12, 205-213.

Krause, N., Herzog, A. R., & Baker, E. (1992). Providing support to others and well-being in later life. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 47, P300–P311.

Moen, P., Dempster-McClain, D., & Williams, R. M. (1992). Successful aging: A life-course perspective on women’s multiple roles and health. The American Journal of Sociology, 97, 1612–1638.

Musick, M. A., Herzog, A. R., & House, J. S. (1999). Volunteering and mortality among older adults: Findings from a national sample. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 54B, S173–S180.

Rook, K. S., & Sorkin, D. H. (2003). Fostering social ties through a volunteer role: Implications for older-adults’ psychological health. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 54, 313-337.

Van Willigen, M. (2000). Differential benefits of volunteering across the life course. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 55B, S308–S318.

The Self, the Other, and Happiness

From my limited but growing experience in therapy I have observed that there is one underlying factor that affects how people behave, think, and feel. Now, this one factor does not discount the effects of other factors but it is a prevalent theme in the lives of many of the people I have worked with in therapy. This factor is what is called self-centeredness, or in other words, selfishness. Any time that people focus on themselves, they cannot focus on those around them. Some people are able to focus on themselves but then switch over to an outward focus. Others are not very good at this. The problem with focusing on oneself is that when external events occur, their effects are all driven inwardly and change is effected in the individual. Over time some people develop dependencies on external stimuli to the extent of exclusion or occlusion of internal, self-driven stimuli. This is what is called an external locus of control. I am not discounting people who have what psychologists call an internal locus of control, which is often viewed as a more positive, internally driven sense of control over life, but the majority of people I have seen in therapy emphasized external events to an extreme extent. That is, they let external events control their lives and thus their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.

My interpretation of why this occurs in some people is that everything external becomes internalized (i.e., everything outside themselves gets focused inward). If something bad happens at work (the external event), a person might twist it into a reflection of her sense of the worth of her inner self. This means that something negative (even if it was that person’s fault) becomes a reflection of that person’s character rather than simply a negative event (e.g., “I am a failure” versus “I sure made a mistake there!” – notice the difference between the negative self-evaluation and the labeling of a negative event). This is an attack to a person’s sense of self worth; this attack on the self can turn into a vicious cycle of self-defeating blows. Attributing negative events to one’s character is a form of self-centeredness. However, that is only part of the self-centeredness of which I am writing. what I mean by self-centeredness goes beyond locus of control – it is an attitudinal and personal characteristic of interpreting everything as being about oneself. This is not narcissistic personality disorder – it’s not an overt and extreme ‘personality’ characteristic, it’s a learned way of interpreting events. It is relatively mild and probably not even noticeable to many other people (narcissism is obvious) and almost never to the individual.

This selfishness is manifest in the perpetual worrying of the state of the Self instead of the Other. This does not mean that the self-centered one never worries about other people, it means that they are never able to ‘forget’ themselves. I believe that true happiness comes only by forgetting oneself and serving others. One problem with this belief is that some will misunderstand it and spend all their time doing thing for others at the expense of their needs – but that is rare. But one can, on average, spend the bulk of his or her time focused on others instead of on oneself. From my completely anecdotal personal experience, those people who spend the least amount of time thinking about themselves are usually the happiest. The corollary to this is that those who spend the most amount of time thinking about themselves are usually the least happy.

We all make choices. Choice – free will – is not an illusion. We all choose how we react in life – to our thoughts, to our boss, to a spouse, to others. Dr. Barbara Heise stated, “We give up our…right to choose when we say, ‘He (or she) made me angry.’ I encourage you not to give away your right to choose by handing that power over to someone else. No one can ‘make’ you angry. You make a choice to respond by being angry or by taking offense. But you can also choose to make the effort to find out what is really going on with the other person and understand their behavior—or maybe just agree to disagree.” (Source).

We are agents of our actions. We choose our attitudes and most of our thoughts. Every person on earth faces hardships of one kind or another. Some might face starvation or abuse or loss of loved ones. Some might face loneliness or addiction or stress. Some people might face anxiety or depression. But here is the key – we can choose what our attitude will be; we can choose to be happy or sad. Yes, even in depression. The choice of happiness does not mean that we are happy all the time or happy immediately, it means that we will try to respond with happiness throughout our day; it means we will work toward the goal of happiness. I know that most people would say that happiness (as opposed to unhappiness) is always a goal for them but how many people are actively choosing happiness.

The surest way to overcome unhappiness, or even anxiety or a number of other common mental health problems, is by choosing to forget the self and get to work, so to speak. We can choose to be self-centered or we can choose to be other-centered. This choice and action of other-centeredness is the surest way to happiness and peace. That is the intriguing thing about focusing on others – and I mean really focusing on others; I’ve met people who spend most of their time filling the needs and wants of others and who are unhappy; why are they unhappy? They are unhappy because they resented the time spent for others. Many times this resentment was not overt but it was obvious in their speech. But if we are able to truly focus outward towards others, we will find that our self takes care of itself. We get anxious because we are worried about what others think of ourselves. We feel depressed for much the same manner – focusing inward on the self – and interpreting many external events through the lens of the self. That is not necessarily bad when external events are positive but when they are negative, it can lead to depression.

When I was young, my younger brother would on occasion do something that I found annoying. When I protested to my father, he usually replied, “Don’t be annoyed.” That lesson stuck. It does not mean I never again felt annoyed – I do from time to time – but it helped me realize that being annoyed is a choice. What one person might find annoying, another person will not. I do not believe that most people, when they do something others find annoying, are meaning to be annoying; most simply do not realize that they are doing something other people might find annoying. A gentle request that they stop will often solve the problem. Again, the choice is there – choose to not be annoyed. In the same manner, choose to be happy.

I do not mean to minimize the complexities of depression or anxiety but I do not think that we should give away our choice of happiness by allowing others or our biology or other stressors to determine our happiness. I have to admit that I do not believe in determinism, I do not think it exists. If we learn anything from quantum physics it is that there is some level of indeterminacy to basic matter. By extrapolation, this means that even a small uncertainty might affect larger entities, such as neurotransmitters or neurons, or pathways, or beings. Indeterminacy does not equal free will or choice but it is a component of it. I do not believe we should let anything hold our happiness hostage. True happiness comes from focusing on others – note that they are not determining your happiness, you are choosing to focus outwardly and happiness results; not because you are seeking it but because when you focus on others, when you serve others, happiness finds you. You open the door to it and let it in to your life. The choice is there – you can choose to be self-centered and miserable or you can choose to be other-centered and happy. What do you choose?

The Psychology of Buying a Car

Disclaimer: With this post I am not attacking people in sales or other similar work. I am not trying to say that all or even most car salespeople are dishonest. I believe that most are honest and are just trying to make a living as well as possible. However, what we cannot ignore is that there are people who are dishonest and take advantage of their sales training to try and take advantage of some people. But again, I don’t want this post to be misunderstood as an attack on all retail services and professions – it is not.

Recently I had an experience looking for a car. I arrived at a dealership to be approached by a woman who had just started working there. As she walked me over to start looking at the type of car I was interested in, we were joined by a more experienced salesman who wagged along to make sure the new saleswoman knew what she was doing. This salesman asked how much I was looking to spend. It is not usually a good idea to reveal how much you are looking to spend because of a reason I will discuss below. However, because I was just looking and was not going to buy a car that night (unless they happened to have a great one for a great price), I divulged my limit. I said I was willing to spend a specific amount of money. His reply, “You know that with taxes, tags, and fees [our exorbitantly high fee – he didn’t say that but their fee was exorbitant when compared with other dealerships in the area] it’ll be $X more. Is that okay?” I replied, “Yes, it is.” I had already factored in taxes and fees in my what-I-can-afford price.

I stated I was going to pay cash and that I wasn’t going to trade in my car (it’s usually best to only agree you are going to trade in your car once the final price on the other car is settled in writing; that way the dealer does not mark up the price of the new car by how much the trade-in is worth – not all dealerships or salespeople do that but it happens). Frank [not his real name] the salesman said, “OK, I think these cars [there were three we looked at] are probably in the ballpark of your price range but I can’t be sure until I talk with the boss and he crunches some numbers.” I looked at two of the cars – they were okay but I really just wanted to see the prices so I could know if they were fairly priced or not. There were no prices on the cars at this particular lot. Why not? Well, when I stated that I would rather talk prices first before driving any of the cars, Frank said, “Oh, well we don’t want to go through all the time and effort to talk about price before you actually drive the car. What if you find out you don’t like it?”

I like to be upfront about costs because I do not want to waste my time or the salespeople’s time on a car that I cannot afford. In this case, because I was interested in the process and the particular model of car (to see if I liked that model of car), I said, “OK, I’ll drive this car – I haven’t driven one of them before.” I decided to play his game and see where we went. If I liked the car and it was a good price, I would possibly purchase it (but not without having my wife view and drive it). The car looked nice – it had leather seats, a DVD player, but it was a bit older and had more miles than I wanted. Said Frank, “Oh, this is a nice car – we just got it on the lot yesterday and it’ll sell fast.”

Let’s stop. Where’s the psychology in all of this? One sales technique being used on me (and I played along) is what is called the foot in the door technique. Ask little favors or even give little rewards (in this case it was as simple as pointing out the nice leather seats and DVD player and other features or even taking a car for a test drive – novelty can be a great reward) and someone is more willing to listen to you and purchase your wares because they feel obligated and a bit committed. Start small and build from there. So the goal is to get the customer in the car and – assuming they like it – they will be more willing to stick with it. At some point many people feel obligated because of what they have received from the salesperson – test drives, time, and realized or unrealized perks. The other psychology sales technique he did was create a scarce commodity – make the car seem like it was going to go quickly and you feel like you have to act quickly – it just got there yesterday and was going to be gone tomorrow. I’ll get back to this later.

One thing I forgot to mention – as we started looking at this particular car Frank pushed the power sliding door button and nothing happened. “I’m not very familiar with how to work this particular car,” he said, trying to cover up the fact that the power door was in fact not working (it could be opened manually). This ironic experience was in the context of Frank talking about how they do such a thorough inspection of all their cars and fix what needs to be fixed. Then Frank said that he has to drive the car off the lot and then we’ll switch and I can drive it. I’m thought, “That’s new, I haven’t had a dealer require that before but I haven’t shopped for cars before in this part of the country and maybe that’s the way it is done here.” It’s also possible that this particular dealership had past experiences with non-employees hitting other cars on the lot when leaving on a test drive. After this, Frank started up the car and said, “I like to let the car warm up for a little bit before driving it, my father was a mechanic and I like to take care of my cars.” That’s generally good policy with cars, particularly when the engines are cold. However, the whole time the dashboard lights are dimming and then getting brighter, then dimming and back and forth for about 10 seconds. Once the car was “warmed up” we were off.

Frank turned the first corner in the lot and I telt a slight clunk from the transmission – that’s a great sign (that was sarcasm). I’ll fast forward to when I drove the car. It was okay but I was not impressed. I was impressed more with the overall look and fit and finish than its drivability. It drove okay and was comfortable but I didn’t think the transmission would last long. We get back to the dealership; I was interested in what kind of ‘deal’ he would offer me on the vehicle so we went in to finally talk prices, 40 minutes into the process. I’m an eternal optimist so I thought, “Well, if he can sell it to me for $X, I might purchase it. I’m sure I’ll have to get some work done on the car, potentially a new transmission soon, but if the price is low enough, it will still be worth it.” In this case $X was considerably lower than my limit was. We went into his cubical (the other saleswoman was with us the whole time. She was very nice but mostly just observing at this point.) to start the paperwork “for the quote.” Again, this is a continuation of the foot in the door technique. He was trying to get me to the point where I had put enough effort in that I would say, “OK, why not?” Frank scurried off to go talk prices with his boss.

Next was one of my favorite parts of this experience. Frank came back with an offer that is “almost at [my] target.” It was 11% higher than my target price. Again, my target price was not for this particular car, it was the price I was willing to spend a car in general. If I were less polite I would have laughed at the price he offered. That price was a good 25-30% higher than similar cars were selling for in the area. I thought, “Is he serious?! That’s ‘almost’ my target price? This guy is very generous (to himself) with my money.” I looked at the various other fees that get added on. Their dealership fee was about 8% of the car’s price (that fee is much higher than at other dealerships in the area, some of which had no dealer fee). Here was another psychological technique he used (I don’t have a specific name for it, although I’m sure one exists) – on the paper the car had a “listed” price that was at least 25% higher than his ‘reduced’ deal for me. Stores do this a lot – put things on ‘sale’ and people will buy them, even if the sale price is higher than the normal price. People see “reduced prices” or “sale” and think they are getting a good deal. Sometimes they are, sometimes they are not. Had I purchased the car (I certainly wasn’t considering it at that point unless he reduced his price by a significant amount), I would have received a bad ‘deal’.

What happened is that this salesman had a problem he did not know he had. He thought he was in control of the situation. He forgot that the customer is always in control unless the customer relinquishes that control. I had a firm grip on my control, he just did not realize it. I did surrender enough to keep the car buying process moving because I wanted to see where it would go and if Frank would ever offer a fair price on the vehicle; I wanted to see his ‘best deal’ for me on this car. While we were going through initial paperwork he mentioned that he had a couple coming from “[not-so-nearbyville] or was it [slightly-closer-nearbyville] tomorrow to look at and probably purchase the vehicle.” He might have been telling the truth about the matter – I like to give him the benefit of the doubt – but the whole statement was too contrived to seem real. Once again he was trying to make the car a scarce commodity that I had to act on “tonight or it will be gone tomorrow!”

One more point about why he thought he was in control of me – I am not a rude person and I can come across as rather soft and indecisive at times due to my wanting to perform cost-benefit analyses on major decisions. I like to weigh options; in a sales setting, I might look like an easy target at times. I’m sure I am an easy target in some situations – like with my daughters – but I was fully in control in this particular situation; I also didn’t want to be rude and just stand up and leave. I said the price was still too high and I called him out on his statement that the price was “almost at my target”. Maybe it was close in government spending but not for me. When we are talking thousands of dollars, an 11% “cost-overrun” is significant. He left to talk with his boss and came back stating that in order for his boss to give me a better deal I had to sign my name to show that I was “committed” to this car – that’s just some more sales psychology. Once you start to sign things, even meaningless pieces of paper like the one I signed (it really was essentially a blank piece of paper with my name on it), you tend to feel more committed and it is harder psychologically to back down. As an aside, this is a technique therapists can use with suicidal patients. Get them to commit to not harming themselves verbally or in writing and they are much less likely to do so because of the commitment. In this case, the only thing I was committed to was not buying the car. I have to admit that with a background in psychology and as a scientist I enjoyed the psychology of the situation. I was also impressed with his sales techniques. He didn’t come across as pushy as some other salesmen I’ve met but his techniques needed some polish. He never even found out if I really liked the car. I said it was nice and he jumped on that; he assumed he could sell the car to me because he assumed I liked it when at most all I gave was a tepid response. I know that is optimistic salesmanship on his part but selling is much easier if it is a car (or other thing) that the person actually wants.

His sales shortcomings were not entirely his fault, I was quite non-committal (which he viewed as “almost convinced to buy”) about the process because I really just wanted to see how low the price would go in order to see if the price ever approached the fair market value. I was also in a social psychology experiment mode. He came back with the price ‘down’ to my target price (the dealer fee was still high though). I said I’d have to talk with my wife before I committed to anything. They were even trying to get me to make a “fully-refundable” deposit (again, more commitment) on the car to “lock in the price so we don’t sell the car tomorrow.” Another great part of this process was how the salesman was always on ‘my side’, which might be true but on a commission-based reward system at work there is great incentive to sell items at the highest prices possible. That is good business but not good for the customers. Frank kept stating that he was on my side, “This couple who wants to buy the car doesn’t even have any kids so I’d rather sell it to you since you’ll get better use out of it. You actually need it with three kids. I’d rather sell it to you even though this other couple is willing to pay a couple thousand dollars more than you are for the car.” Wait, what?! He had an opportunity to sell that car for $2000 more and he wanted to sell it to me instead? Maybe he really did want to, and if he did that was quite admirable of him, but even my optimistic self was cynical about his statement in light of the rest of the night.

Also, suddenly he mentioned that the “wife of this couple [had] already looked at the car” even though they live two to three hours away and the car had “just arrived 24 hours ago.” It’s certainly possible but it usually takes more time than that for a dealership to process cars. Maybe he didn’t know when they got the car on the lot and was saying 24 hours because it was recent but making that statement in the context of trying to get me to close on a price and sign the papers, was a bit too much of “scarce commodity” for me. He was so eager to sell me the car that his stories stopped matching up. Frank stretched the truth too often to be credible. I saw that he wasn’t going to go down in price any more so I ended my informal experiment. I made my exit and walked away saying that I’d talk to my wife. I did, but mainly to say that we didn’t want that particular car. As I was walking away, Frank knew he had lost me. He asked a couple times, “Was I too pushy?” He realized that he hadn’t been in control of the situation; he hadn’t read me correctly. And yes, at least to me, he was too pushy in the end (but that is just my personal preference. I know he was not particularly pushy as far as car salesmen go).

I went home and searched for the car online. It came up (same dealership) with an online price $200 less than the lowest deal he “cut me”. Most dealerships have separate online salespeople so the general on-lot salespeople are not usually aware of the online price (it’s usually lower than what is offered in person) but I still think it is interesting how his best deal for me was higher than the online price. The car’s online price was still higher than fair market value for that car. Part of the price difference in the online price and the “best price” in person stems from me telling him my limit in the first place (again, I did that on purpose). I further discovered that the car had been on the lot for about 5 weeks instead of only 24 hours.

During this process I was not trying to be manipulative. I honestly was interested in the car if it was a good enough price (okay, so maybe a toss-a-coin-in-a-well-and-have-a-bag-of-gold-fall-at-your-feet kind of price but given the year, miles, and condition of the car, that was not an unreasonable desire). It never even came close to what I would be willing to pay for it. Besides, had it come down to it, I would have asked for reductions because of the non-power power door as well as other issues (spotty interior lights, clunky transmission). So much for their “thorough inspection” that, according to Frank, was worth paying upwards of a couple thousand dollars more for a car from them than I could pay elsewhere.

I thought the whole process with that salesperson and that car was ridiculous. I know most salespeople are good people but at work it is their job to sell you their product. For some people this means sometimes burnishing the truth a little or a lot (as was the case with Frank).

I share this experience to help people be more aware of common sales techniques. Buying a car is a big decision and is daunting for most people. Remember that you are in control. Watch out for the foot in the door (that doesn’t mean you don’t let them do it, just recognize what they are doing and be willing to walk away). Also, be more alert when the salesperson is doing something as a favor to you. Maybe he or she is but remain skeptical – that’s part of what it means to have critical thinking. Actions like that (unless you personally know the salesperson) should raise red flags. Also watch out for the pressure situations of ‘scarcity’; yes, the car really might be sold tomorrow but if you aren’t completely comfortable just walk away. Find a salesperson (at another dealership if possible) who doesn’t pressure you more than you are comfortable. I’ve met some very nice and good car salespeople who sell cars without resorting to pressure. I am more than willing to work with them and reward them by not trying to haggle much over the price.

Also, if the stories of the salesperson start contradicting each other, walk away. Also, don’t give out your price target because they will almost always meet and surpass that target. If you say you can spend $16,000, many dealers will suddenly have $13,000 and $14,000 cars for sale for $16,000. You can give soft estimates of what you are willing to spend but if anything, say you are willing to spend less than you actually are. Again, as the consumer you are always in control (except in emergencies and hopefully then people are not there to take advantage of you) if you do not give up that control. Lastly, sales are not always good deals. Always do your research ahead of time for major purchases like a car.

I’m going to go back online and search more. I don’t really need a new car immediately but the time is approaching when I will need one. The whole experience was interesting though. There were other sales techniques Frank used but I didn’t go into them. I’m sure I even missed a few.

Update: I purchased an automobile shortly after this experience where I knew the price up front. It was a price near fair market value so I did not even try to haggle. The salespeople and situation were more pleasant and honest.