The Bed of Nails Principle

The Bed of Nails Principle

The bed of nails principle states that while laying on one nail is enough to puncture a person’s skin, laying on many distributed nails isn’t.

This principle works physically, allowing for performers to preform the “bed of nails trick.” An analogous principle works in social situations, especially politics, as a diffusion technique. In this case, it is a type of rhetoric or tactic where a person says or does so many “good” or “bad” things that a single “good” or “bad” thing has a diffused impact.”[1][2]

How a Bed of Nails Works Physically

A bed of nails is a matter of distributed force over an area of skin. The person’s weight determines the force. The total area is determined by the area of the points of the nails and the number of nails. The more nails, the more surface area, and the less weight of the person, the less force each nail exerts on a given point.[3][4]

Pressure is a force over an area. The more the force is distributed, the less force is exerted at any single point.

That is how and why people can lay on a bed of nails without puncturing their skin while laying on a single nail would surely puncture one’s skin. The ratio of the force to the area would be too great, as the area would be too small to sustain the person’s weight.

The video below shows how this bed of nails principle works with a balloon.

Bed of Nails – Cool Science Experiment.

The Bed of Nails as a Metaphor for a Social Diffusion Tactic

Now that you understand how a real bed of nails works, it’ll be easy to translate to a social phenomenon.

In areas of social influence (especially politics), the “bed of nails” is a metaphor (coined by John Oliver in July 2016) for the phenomena where “a person says so many crazy things that no one thing stands out.”[5]

This metaphor describes an old technique for influencing people that has been used by political strategists and other influencers, although to my knowledge has never been given a name before.

The Bed of Nails (as a metaphor for social diffusion) works like this:[6]

  • A person who is expected to be “good,” and says or does only “good” things, can have their career ruined over one wrong comment or action.
  • Meanwhile, a person who constantly says and does “bad” things, and isn’t expected to be “good,” can make many “bad” statements, or do many “bad” things, without consequences.

Example: Jesus is sometimes considered to have been crucified for not being clear enough that when he said “we are all the son of God.” He may not himself have been claiming to be God.

The limits of what goes “too far” are elusive, but the worse a person, the less chance any metaphorical nail will puncture the skin, and the more they will be praised for doing anything “good” (and vice versa).

Reverse diffusion (reverse “bed of nails”) is also a phenomenon. This is when a “good” person does something “good” and gets little praise as it was expected that they be “good,” and likewise a “bad” person does something “good” and gets lots of praise as it was unexpected.

Example: The lazy kid who lives in their parent’s basement and never does anything may take out the trash be praised. Conversely, the prodigy child who gets straight A’s might get a B along with their parent’s disappointment.

Ron Paul on Morton Downey Jr. – 1988. Another name for the bed of nails principle could easily be the “Morton Downey Jr. principle.” Watch Mort destroy Ron Paul in 88′, very uncomfortable stuff.

Thus, in “caveman politics,” with only this principle considered, it is more advantageous to be “bad” than “good.”

Lee Atwater (see video below) is a good example of someone who knew how to use this tactical diffusion technique and so is Mort Downey Jr (see video above).

Machiavelli, the father of political science, would agree that some degree of “criminal virtue” is needed to be a successful politician and influence. However, while those with higher ideals would be well advised to be aware of the rule, they would also be well advised to use it sparingly, to taste, and in moderation.

History shows us that the bull in a china shop approach has worked just fine for some, especially in the now, but it has also shown itself to have… “many holes in it”.

To end the metaphor, regardless of how many nails you lay on, you always run the risk of an oddly sharp one puncturing the skin anyway; no one is guaranteed smooth sailing, be they pure or purely toxic.

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story – Official Trailer.

TIP: The Bed of nails principle is closely related to an equally post modern social tactic called “oh dear”, in “oh dear” it isn’t about a person, it is about a constant stream of complex truth and half-truths having a numbing effect. In all cases, the core concept here is perhaps “overstimulation is desensitizing”, and thus purposefully over stimulating people is a workable, if not exactly virtuous, social tactic. Learn more.

Article Citations
  1. Diffusion of responsibility
  2. Rhetoric
  3. Bed of nails
  4. How Bed of Nails Works
  5. John Oliver Compares Donald Trump to Bed of Nails
  6. 26 Influencing Techniques

Author: Thomas DeMichele

Thomas DeMichele is the content creator behind,,, and other and Massive Dog properties. He also contributes to MakerDAO and other cryptocurrency-based projects. Tom's focus in all...

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Who invented the bed of nails