The Power of Suggestion
On a recent flight to Israel, my family was rather intrigued by the safety guidelines video. Lior Suchard, the host, did a great job of keeping the attention of the travelers. Suchard is a famous mentalist, whose performances have blown away millions of viewers.
The video begins with Suchard flipping over cards and asking viewers to remember only one card. He then explains the safety precautions while the video cuts between interesting optical illusions.
At the end of the video, the camera zooms out and you see him casually strolling atop the Eight of Hearts. Simultaneously, he throws the deck of cards in the air like confetti, indicating that he knew the viewer’s selection all along.
As the predicted card was revealed, I heard a passenger a few seats to my right exclaim, “Oh wow! That’s the card I chose!”
“Really?” her spouse asked, only half-interested.
It turns out, almost all viewers chose this very card.
At the beginning of the video, when Suchard displays the cards, the only one that appears long enough for a person to commit to memory is the Eight of Hearts.
This concept of influenced decision making struck me. Our choices are often guided by others. We may think we are making our own decisions, but we are subtly—and not-so-subtly—guided to those choices directly.
Lior Suchard is not a magician, and while many may call him an illusionist, that’s not what he calls himself. Rather, he calls himself a master of persuasion. If Suchard can persuade us through hints and exposures, then certainly Hashem can, too. This revelation begs the question, How can we have free will if Hashem is omniscient and omnipotent?
Consider the world as a game of chess. On Hashem’s chessboard, all the pawns have already been set up, and our role is merely to choose our next move, given the circumstances around us. Hashem can create a chess board with obscure options, or one where the moves are more obvious.
Hashem controls the chessboard, but we control our individual movements. In this dynamic, we keep free will, and Hashem keeps His total power.
On a smaller scale, as parents, we also present our children with options. We might ask, “Honey, do you want to do homework or go to your favorite amusement park?” The parent knows what the most likely answer will be. Does the child make the choice? Absolutely. Does the parent have the power to orchestrate his choice? Yes again. Hashem is the ultimate Parent to us, providing choices constantly. Despite His knowing what we will choose, we still have the power of choice.
As parents, we can influence our children towards a desired outcome by offering two options which differ in unimportant ways, yet share the trait we prefer.
Suppose you want your child to start a tutoring session, and they are having trouble focusing. Try offering, “Would you like to eat dinner while you work with Mrs. Jones? Or, would you prefer to eat dinner afterwards?” By presenting choices, you give your child some power, but he still completes the desired tasks.
Malcom Gladwell, in The Tipping Point, discusses a study revealing why people vote for a certain candidate during presidential elections. In 1984, Ronald Reagan was running for president against Walter Mondale. Eight days before the election, psychologists from Syracuse University recorded the nightly news shows on the three national broadcasting networks. They found that the anchor on ABC Nightly News smiled broadly every time President Reagan’s name was mentioned. After extensive research, they discovered that this subtle action persuaded more viewers to ultimately vote for Reagan.
Interestingly, other studies have found that just nodding when listening to a speaker causes listeners to agree more strongly, even if the subject matter is disagreeable. The subtleties of nonverbal communication have a powerful influence on how we and others behave and feel.
If a smile or a nod can affect the adult decision-making processes significantly, then surely we have infinite power to utilize nonverbal communication when influencing our children in a positive way. Facial expressions might even have the power to determine our children’s future observance level. If every time we said the word Shabbat we smile or express positivity, perhaps our children’s desire to keep Shabbat will remain steadfast, even in the face of today’s temptation to do otherwise.
Do we smile when we talk about the upcoming Shabbat? Are we happy to prepare for guests? For most of us, this attitude is a work in progress, but we can all make an active effort to decrease complaints. If Shabbat is associated with images of complaining and exhausted parents, then where does that leave our children?
There was a time when keeping Shabbat in America was extremely difficult for observant Jews. Shabbat observance meant losing one’s job on Monday morning after not showing up to work on Saturday. The often-used expression, “It’s hard to be a Jew,” became famous for this reason.
Many people have ultimately left Judaism because of such difficulties. We may not have these same struggles now, but there are plenty of other tests of our observance all around us.
I admit to not always smiling when it comes to Shabbat preparation, but with this context in mind, it feels more important to make an effort to do so. It is vital to send the subliminal message that being a Jew is joyous! Shabbat is our lifeline, and as it says in Orchot Tzaddikim, “We should smile when we perform mitzvot.” Our facial expressions and demeanor may determine if our kids will want to keep Shabbat when they get older, and when they are no longer living with us.
Beyond Shabbat, what do the expressions on our face transmit? Do we send our children to Jewish day schools grumpily? Do we learn Torah and perform chessed with zerizut or by rote?
In small moments and actions, Suchard guided his audience to think and act in calculated ways. In the same way, it is the smallest moments—the subtle eye roll or genuine smile—that our children notice most. If we utilize these small moments of influence strategically, they can have a very large impact down the road.
Lior Suchard isn’t the only master of persuasion. As parents and Torah-observant Jews, we all have influential power within us. Let’s use it wisely.
 Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point (Back Bay Books 2002) pg. 74
 Ibid., pg. 76
Orchot Tzaddikim, Vol. 1 (Feldheim 1996) pg. 207