Manipulation – The Great Enemy?

add Decades ago, Pepsi launched an advertising campaign that had people drink Pepsi and Coke from two different cups that were label-less and had them decide which drink they preferred. The results showed that Pepsi was preferred to Coke. This prompted Coke to launch a campaign that slightly altered its age old recipe but failed miserably. A scientist, however, finally uncovered something fascinating that Coke would have liked to have known. Because of years of marketing and positive feelings such as community, Christmas, and family that people have typically associated with Coke, people would find Coke tastier than Pepsi if they knew that they were drinking Coke. Indeed, it is what the neurologist was able to uncover. This story is covered in depth in the book “Buyology”, by Martin Linstrom. The suggestion here is quite fascinating. Our perception of a product can change our taste of it. There are, of course, several other examples of this. One other instance I can recall is in Dan Ariely’s book, “Predictably Irrational”, where he gets college students to drink beer with vinegar in an experiment. The findings suggested that once the students were told that the beer they were drinking contained vinegar, they rated it much lower than when they tasted the same drink without knowing that vinegar was added to it. This relates to the Placebo concept, of course. What we believe can affect our senses. The problem with this concept is it’s difficult to use it to benefit oneself. It’s quite easy to use it to manipulate people, and it’s what most, if not all of what the marketing world are constantly trying to achieve. The reason why it can’t be self-beneficiary is because the attempt of trying to convince yourself something is real undermines the ability to genuinely believe it. I cannot make myself believe that eating a strawberry will cure me of my headache because I know that I don’t have any good reason to believe that strawberries cure headaches. Going back to the Coke vs Pepsi example, what this finding underscores, and quite worryingly, is that marketing is extremely effective, and companies should and will invest as much money as they can to find innovative ways of trying to manipulate people. It is, however, unreasonable to condemn corporations, as they are only responding to the incentives created by people’s responsiveness. Many people are often insulted at the thought of other human beings trying to control their minds, but isn’t that a natural part of human behavior? Whenever we lie, exaggerate, compliment, flirt, joke with other people, are we not trying to provoke some kind of response? And we do so without ever asking for their permission. When you lie to compliment someone to seem more likable, you surely must know that they never explicitly expressed their desire to like you. You are, in effect, manipulating them. There is no difference between large multibillion dollar companies trying to manipulate our minds by using subliminal messages in their advertising campaigns and our attempts in trying to get a person to like us by flirting with them. The reason, I think, why the former is considered a moral abomination while the latter is not is because these companies are making quite ridiculous profits by their efficient use of mind manipulating techniques, whereas the most anyone can get out of flirting with a random stranger is a private relationship with that person. And in both cases, the exchange is bilateral. In other words, when it comes to flirting, both parties (usually) get something out of it. And when it comes to corporate advertising, you are ultimately getting a product for the trouble of letting your mind become manipulated by its subliminal or in-your-face messages. Of course, the obvious drawback is that we sometimes get tricked into buying products we don’t really want or need. But then again, don’t people end up going out on dates with people they never really wanted to go out with in the first place all the time because of a good first impression? It’s precisely the art of first impressions that marketers often spend their lifetimes trying to perfect. Trying to grab a person’s attention from the few seconds that they get to see their ads is the ultimate challenge, and whoever does it the best is the world’s greatest flirt.

Overwhelming Choices

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In a world of large scale production, mass consumerism, and high market competitiveness, the amount of choices we have keep on increasing, but our satisfaction, paradoxically, doesn’t. Typically, the more choice we have, the happier we are because we feel we have more freedom to make a decision that perfectly matches our tastes and preferences.

There are a couple of points I’d like to make about choices, and in particular, food choices. Before I discuss how we can manage choices more efficiently, according to research from the field of Behavioral Economics.

First, imagine you were reincarnated as Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway, and were stranded on an island. After getting over the shock of what had just happened, you begin to instinctively find ways of sustaining your health. You look for water, food, and shelter. With time, you begin to innovate new ways of creating ways of doing those things more efficiently. You might design a clever way of collecting water from leaves after rain fall, you might design and learn to use new weapons to hunt for food or develop better techniques for collecting fruits and vegetables.

You may then look for ways to protect yourself from nature, or sheltering yourself. You may find new ways of creating clothes or building a house (Or live in a cave). You’ve already prioritized what really matters, everything else is irrelevant. Self-preservation is all that matters.

Food choices are the least of your concerns. All you care about is finding anything with nutritional value that would help you survive. The only criteria that you’re using is functionality. It’s how we once lived for a very long time, and now are living in a very different world from the cavemen who we consider our ancestors. At one point, we didn’t care about what kind of food we ate.

We now care what kind of food we’re getting, if it looks fresh enough, how good it tastes, how well it’s packaged, what brand it is, and which store we’re getting it from, and how much we’re going to pay for it, whether it’s good value for money, and how long it will last, how many calories it contains, and how much saturated fat, unsaturated fat, sodium, and sugar it has. Of  course, I’m not suggesting that this is a bad thing in itself, and that we should go back to eating coconuts and fish, and talk to a volleyball. But too much choice is overwhelming, it’s mentally draining, frustrating, and can make us supremely inefficient.

The criteria mentioned above include only some of the things our brains need to calculate, and in reality, we couldn’t possibly calculate with any reasonable accuracy what the most ideal choice would be. Often times, we are so overwhelmed by all this data that we sometimes make no choice at all for fear of making the wrong choice. We always have that dreadful fear of thinking back a few days later, and wishing we had gotten that other one.

This problem of choice can, of course, be extended to several different areas of life, food is only one of them and I think deserves particular attention as I feel it ought to be the least complicated choice we make, but is quite the opposite.  In restaurants, menus often have 7, 8, or 9 categories of food, and every category has about 8 or 9 choices of its own. That’s a range of 49 to 81 choices on what you’re going to consume, for a very short amount of time. Sometimes,  people spend more time choosing what they want to eat than time actually eating. This isn’t because people are indecisive, it’s because there’s simply too much choice. There’s too much data to process to make a confident decision about what you want to eat.

Choosing food should not have to take so much of our time. The simple reason is opportunity cost. The amount of time and energy that we spend on simply choosing what to eat could be effectively used for something much more worthwhile and satisfying.

There are many people who are aware of this, and have devised clever ways of dealing with the problem of choice. Think of how much time you spend choosing what to wear, every single day. Imagine that time were used differently, and that energy was put into other activities. An interesting solution is one used by the president of the U.S. Obama himself has admitted to wearing only grey or blue suits. “You need to focus your decision-making energy,” he told Vanity Fair. “You need to routinize yourself.”

As for buying or ordering food, a smart way of dealing with all this choice chaos is simply by making choices before looking at the menu. Decide if you want meat, chicken or fish, whether you’d like it with vegetables, or without, with cheese or without etc.. Grocery shopping, Clothes shopping, Electronics shopping, or any kind of shopping work the same way.

Once you’ve identified what you want beforehand, you’ve already removed choices you would have had to make in the future. This narrows down your options, and in this case, it’s exactly what you need, that is of course, if what you need is to use your time and energy more efficiently towards other things.

References:

“The Paradox of Choice”, Barry Schwartz

http://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2012/sep/17/barack-obama-secret-weapon-routine

ISIS and The Psychology of Terrorism

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Terrorism is broadly defined as “the unofficial or unauthorized use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” Today and in the past decade, the most familiar form of terrorism is Islamic terrorism that we have known as “Al Qaeda” and most recently, “ISIS”. This isn’t to say that Islamic terrorism is the only form of terrorism that has existed. The past has seen Jewish, Christian, and even Buddhist terrorism. It should be noted, however, that the current form of Islamist terrorism is most worrying for many people due to (but not limited) the following reasons:

1) Ambition: As opposed to the old terrorism that predated Islamic terrorism, the current forms seek not only to topple governments and regimes, and seek purely political resolve, but have plans far greater and ambitious. The ultimate goal between these terrorists is to takeover the world, and Convert “Non-Muslims” or “infidels” into their religion, or alternatively, have them killed.

2) Method: The other worrying aspect about these new terrorists is the way they try to achieve their goals. They employ horrific, inhumane, and despicable acts of violence against their enemies and innocent civilians alike. There is no limit or guidelines to what they can, or cannot do. Their objective is to employ whatever means necessary to terrorize as efficiently as possible.

3) Background: It is not only people with mental disorders or poor, impoverished backgrounds who join terrorist organizations, some people who are well educated and intelligent may also do so. The man in charge of the World Trade Center bombings was one of those people.

Important Distinctions to Keep in Mind:

– It is important to make a distinction between groups of terrorists within the same belief system. For example, some terrorist groups receive popular support from their people and are very much integrated in their respective societies such as “Hamas” and “Hizballah”. In contrast, other organizations are very much isolated from society, and do not have such integration in society such as “ISIS”.

– Suicide bombings are not an exclusively Islamist conception. Two examples are a secular, nationalist group in Sri Lanka, called the LTTE, has practiced human bombings for over 20 years, and their bombs have caused killed a large number of civilians. Another example is the Japanese Kamikaze in World War II.

– Islamic teachings, or the Quran do not advocate suicide. “The Arabic term used is istishad, a religious term meaning to give one’s life in the name of Allah, as opposed to intihar, which refers to suicide resulting from personal distress. The latter form of suicide is not condoned in Islamic teachings.” (Library of Congress, 1999)

Motivation: 

There are many theories that seek to explain the motivations of these individual both from a personal, psychological level, and from a broader, sociological level. What seems to be prevalent very often is that these terrorists believe that they are saviors of society, and genuinely believe that they are fighting evil. They also gain feelings of value and self-worth from committing these acts against evil. Their lives seem to have a meaning, or purpose.

Other theories also suggest, that terrorism emerge from political repression, and injustice. That these individuals feel as though they are being alienated, and discriminated against because of their belief system. Even within the Middle East, the struggle between Shia and Sunni Islamic groups is more intense than those between the West and Muslims. Many have explained this hatred through repressive Shia governments present in both Iraq and Syria, and it is precisely when these political tensions escalate that these Islamist fundamentalists gain in strength, momentum, and numbers.

There are a number of factors, both identifiable, and unidentifiable that explain why otherwise mentally sane people choose to become terrorists. Some choose to fight for religious organizations that are engaged in a nationalistic, political struggle with less emphasis on religious fundamentalism, while others are on the opposite end of the spectrum.

The danger of ISIS and similar groups today is that they are thriving in the midst of the chaos that the region of the Middle East is seeing. The longer the destruction, war, poverty, discrimination, and displacement go on, the more fertile the breeding ground for disillusionment, violence, and hate in future generations.

There is simply no simple solution to stop this from happening. There are very few people who are against the total destruction of ISIS, and for good reason, this is a group of violent, monstrous sociopaths who are on a mission to kill and torture. They are estimated to have 10 to 20 thousand armed forces, and if military efforts are concentrated against them, it is unlikely that they will survive.

There is only the hope that future generations will be dissuaded to join terrorist militias through education, popular condemnation of violence, and knowledge that the world isn’t against them, and consequently be able to shape a future that is dominated by moderates and reformers rather than extremists and terrorists.

References:

http://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/pdf-files/Soc_Psych_of_Terrorism.pdf

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/0162-895X.00195/pdf

Curiosity

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“The first and simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind, is curiosity.” Edmund Burke

Curiosity for me is an overwhelming sensation. It’s a sudden burst of energy, an old acquaintance, a dear friend. If it leaves me, so will my purpose in life.

When people describe their attitudes towards learning with adjectives such as “insatiable” and “voracious”, it’s hard for me not grin in agreement. It’s a universal feeling, and I think that’s what makes it so powerful. My concern is how sometimes we let more unimportant matters in life get in the way of it. There are so many distractions, so much mindless, addictive, superficial entertainment that numbs our minds and silences our curiosity.

To read about a subject you’re passionate about not only takes passion and curiosity, it takes patience and time. Some have taken advantage of our natural tendency to be attracted to images and highly engaging quick entertainment that substitutes for introspection and learning. I don’t say this as a criticism of culture, or the times, but as a criticism of myself and those like me. I used to be more curious when I was younger, but let my curiosity become subdued by immediate entertainment, choosing to boost my endorphin levels instead of searching for insight.

Thankfully, I have taken steps to eliminate this kind of cheap, unrewarding entertainment out of my life. I have seen people take drastic steps such as going without internet for a prolonged period of time, or putting their phone away. This, to me, is no solution at all. It only makes the problem even worse. Imagine an alcoholic trying to kick the habit by promising himself to stop drinking for a week, then going back to it. I think the better way is to eliminate dependency, not to take a vacation from it.

In other words, I believe taking permanent steps are the things that stick in the long run, because well, they’re permanent. I used to spend a lot of time playing games on my smartphone so I decided to remove all games off of my phone. In my previous post, I talked about decision points. This is one in particular that has had a dramatic affect on me. If I wanted to play a game, it would require me to search for one, and then download it. The fact that I need to take steps to play the game makes it easier for me to not want to.

The other reason I don’t believe in putting your smartphone away or going offline is because I think we’re truly lucky to be living in this era of information. It isn’t stressed enough how much access to knowledge we have. It’s unprecedented, amazingly easy and really quite remarkable. We have the ability to find information on absolutely anything in seconds. Not long ago, this was considered science fiction. To turn away from this technology is ludicrous, especially when we are more than capable of benefiting immensely from it.

The problem with distractions isn’t only that they waste time, but they kill curiosity. The amount of energy we have to learn and think is finite, and distractions are effective at draining out that energy. They are effectively wasting your time and energy. Certainly, some games have been shown to improve mental sharpness as well as shows and movies, I am not referring to those games that require you to actively use your mind. I’m specifically referring to games and shows, and game shows that don’t.

The beauty of curiosity for me, is that it exists in everyone and yet is the same in no one. a part of being human is to  have many inherent flaws that do well to hurt our growth and potential. Even some of the traits that we consider in high esteem can be damaging to our well-being. If you love too much, you can be blinded. If you trust too much, you can be misled. If you are too kind, you might be taken advantage of, if you are too brave, you may hurt yourself. Curiosity is one of the rare things that cannot be harmful when used in excess.

If you’re anything like me, and the infamous phrase, “Curiosity killed the cat” was wandering through your mind, it would interest you to read this interesting post that attempts to track down the origin of the phrase. Apparently, It was originally “Care killed the cat”, a line in a Shakespearean comedy before it was recently  changed. http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/curiosity-killed-the-cat.html

    “Curiosity is the lust of the mind.” Thomas Hobbes

Decision Points – That Extra Push

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Decision points are smartly engineered scenarios that force you to stop and think about what you’re doing. I learned the term from Behavioral Economics and really think it’s fascinating, and extremely helpful. The idea, put simply, is that your mind basically has two systems. The first is responsible for your intuition and instinct. It’s automatic and fast, and operates by using heuristics. Your behavior is molded and improved upon through practice. When you play sports, dance, or drive a car well enough, it takes over and is responsible for the extraordinary calculations that you’re able to make in a very short amount of time.

The second system, as described by the brilliant Psychologist Kahneman in his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, is the deliberate system. It’s what’s responsible for conscious thought, and is characterized as being slow and careful. It would be responsible for doing things like studying for an exam, or making a to-do list.

Decision points then interrupt your system 1, and force your system 2 into action. Why would you want that happen? Consider this example. You’re sitting at home one day, watching your favorite TV series, and munching on your favorite snack, let’s say it’s a giant bag of Doritos. While watching the show, the process of eating becomes automatic as in you aren’t consciously aware of every chip that you’re eating. Because your System 1 is in charge, you don’t have to worry about the chips and can focus your attention instead on whether or not Walter White is finally going to get what’s coming for him.

What usually happens in this scenario, and many other similar scenarios, is you would tend to overeat according to your own standards. What I mean by that, is if I asked you beforehand whether or not you think you should eat a whole bag of Doritos, you’d probably say no. These are you own standards, and automatic processes do a good job of disrupting it.

You would surpass the point of eating until you are full because your thoughts aren’t focused on how hungry you are, or aren’t. It’s not surprising that a lot of dietary advice out there would suggest you eat without watching television. It keeps you more aware of how much you’re eating, and that’s good. But I think there’s a better solution, and I also think you’ll agree with me.

Eating while watching TV is a pleasure in life, and it should never be substituted for anything. This is where decision points come in. The first thing you would need to do is instead of grabbing the entire bag of chips, pour a bit of it into a bowl. Alternatively, eat a smaller bag. The reason this helps is that studies have shown that we are less likely to eat 5 bags of something, than eat 1, even if the 1 bag has the exact same quantity as the 5 bags combined.

This, I think, is truly amazing. What’s happening here is that every time you finish from 1 bag, you’re forcing yourself to make a decision point, “Should I open the next bag or have I had enough?” The reason I think this is so insightful is because it can be applied to so many different areas of life that have to do with discipline and control. Here are some from the top of my mind.

Say you’re trying to cut down on drinking, you can apply the same principle. To force yourself into a decision point, think about making your cups smaller. Maybe you’re a heavy smoker, and you want to cut down on smoking? Use more boxes with less cigarettes in each box, or smoke smaller cigarettes. Say you were watching too much TV and needed to force yourself to focus more? Set an alarm that would go off at the end of each episode. What all of these situations do is that they force your System 2 into an action. And as it turns out, that brief moment of intervention can go a long way to helping you stay disciplined.

Telling ourselves we need to something is easy, but forcing ourselves to do it is usually not. Oftentimes, we find ourselves really motivated at the start but see that motivation wane off as time progresses and routines kick in. It’s easy to stay focused and disciplined in the short run, but the challenge is to to maintain it, otherwise, there’s no point in trying in the first place.

I think decision points are a very powerful tool, if used correctly, and cleverly to be that extra push that you need to stay focused, motivated, and disciplined.

Being Human and the Sweet Spot of Irrationality

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Human beings are innately irrational. We tend to overeat when we shouldn’t, we don’t stick to fitness plans, we miss appointments, we forget we put our keys, we are easily manipulated by media, we smoke, we do harm to ourselves, we don’t get enough sleep, we overpay, we trust people we shouldn’t trust, we make snap judgments about people without really knowing anything about them, we lose track of our spending, we procrastinate. But is irrationality truly damaging to our well-being, is it really harmful?

Being human entails being irrational, at least to some extent. A lot of the arguments that would be given for irrationality being harmful center on our failure to achieve goals we put forth for ourselves. That doesn’t really damage us. It prevents us from achieving certain goals in the short run, sure, but I think that’s necessary for our well-being.

There are thousands of different occupations in life, there are so many different paths, and choices we can make, and this explains why, wherever you go, you will find that people are so different. Now imagine for a second, that we were all perfectly rational beings. And to be clear, when I say perfectly rational, I mean we are not subject to any mental heuristics or shortcuts, every single decision we make is precise, mathematical, and well thought out.

In this world society, what I suspect we would have is a convergence of behavior to an alarming degree. Since some decisions are more rational than others, and since we are all rational human beings in the made up world, we would all choose the most rational decision. We would choose the same food, we would choose the same clothing, and there probably wouldn’t be any music, since it’s irrational to make music for people who are so rational that they have successfully devoted their lives to maximizing their productivity, and things like art, music, poetry, and theater would really have no meaning.

It wouldn’t really be a world that’s attractive to live in. Now, I’m not saying we need to be completely irrational, but some level of irrationality is welcome. It keeps us wanting to continually struggle against our nature, and that’s exactly what motivates us to improve. We need to be imperfect to have any kind of meaning in life. We need to fail at achieving our goals, so that when we do achieve our goals, they become all the more meaningful. If people didn’t have to endure hardships towards achieving what they want, then it would greatly reduce the meaning of trying to pursue that goal in the first place.

It takes hard work and tremendous effort to be able to identify our points of irrationality and then address them properly, but by having this balance, by consciously implementing rationality to fight irrationality, we become constantly motivated to strive for improvement.

Imagine human beings were perfectly rational beings who never made any mistakes, that all our thinking processes were perfectly valid and consistent. It would make for quite a boring existence, and that I feel, that would be quite damaging. Being completely rational is clearly not as harmful as being completely irrational (You’re more likely to survive if you’re completely rational), but the point here is that a little bit of irrationality is not really damaging us.

The more we learn about our irrationality, and the more we are able to adopt novel ways of becoming more rational, the more effective we will become at accomplishing our goals, and reaching a higher level of satisfaction, and the more we will be able to understand why human beings act the way they do, and that in itself is fascinating. Too much irrationality can obviously be harmful. We would make the wrong choices too often, and in a world where rationality exists, being too irrational can be a cause of social exile. Having said that, the level of irrationality that most people possess isn’t harmful at all.

Achievement

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“For a man to achieve all that is demanded of him he must regard himself as greater than he is.” Van Goethe

There are a very small number of people throughout history who have truly achieved great things from a global and historical perspective. What I mean by that is that there are very small number of people who have gone down in history as reformers and difference makers,  A testament to that fact is that by the end of this post, you will have probably recognized the authors of the quotes that you will see. This means that the same names have reappeared and will continue to reappear throughout your life.

This kind of timeless achievement, in my opinion, is very context based. The people who’s names are inscribed in history books, and who’s teachings and legacies are religiously celebrated and tirelessly echoed by school teachers, professors, parents, and students are remarkable and exceptional people. But the significance of the things they have done depends heavily on the historical and cultural context that they found themselves in.

What they all seem to have in common, however, was self belief. You don’t become a president of a great nation without really believing in your capacity to undertake immense responsibilities with a minimal amount of fear and doubt. In a sense, it seems rather conceited or even delusional to believe in yourself unflinchingly, and genuinely feel that you are entitled and fit to reach posts of such high rankings. It’s a little insane. I say this because it is really impossible to reasonably reach a conclusion that you are qualified to rule a country of hundreds of millions of people, and be able to make decisions that would, for better or worse, have lasting effects on their lives and on the state of the country that you are in.

This, of course, only applies to politicians, but surely, a certain level of conceit must have existed within the greatest entrepreneurs of our time like Henry Ford, Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs. They must have believed that they were capable of reaching heights that the vast majority of people wouldn’t even dream of reaching. I think on some level, if you do want to achieve this level of fame and status, you need to allow your ego to inflate infinitely.

On the other hand, there are figures who are rarely talked about in mainstream media, but who have truly accomplished remarkable things in their lifetimes and have dramatically changed the lives of people around them. Social entrepreneurs, humanitarians, nurses, and doctors. It’s unfortunate that history does not remember those people with the same reverence that they do world leaders, generals, dictators, and psychopaths. But perhaps those who work towards the benefit of mankind without caring about gaining fame, money, and post mortem statues would have wanted nothing more than silent acknowledgement, and perhaps a selfless philosophy that can opposes and contradicts the wicked nature of man, and one that that can be emulated and repeated.

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” Harry Truman

Philanthropy, while the worthiest of all causes, will never be able to capture the ambitions of the majority of people. Self interested fame, wealth, and power will always be the prime motivators for human action. They always have been.

However, maybe achievement can be characterized more internally and personally. Maybe we can all become achievers, and even overachievers in our own small domains, by being dedicated, perseverant, and diligent. Or maybe, we can learn to become more delusional, and achieve greatness. Whatever we choose to do, we better do it the best way we can.

“If you can’t do great things, do small things in a great way.” Napoleon Hill