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.

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Overwhelming Choices

choice

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

Conspiracy Theories – The Problem

Conspiracy theoru

Like almost everyone I’m sure, I’ve been told about and exposed to many conspiracy theories. Some made sense, of course, while others were utterly ridiculous. But all of them shared one very striking aspect. They were all inevitably unsatisfying. At least for me, here’s why.

Being exposed to a conspiracy theory usually starts with a promising premise. There is often a story, a narrative that allows you to imagine how the motive could be real, and perhaps why the facts are concealed so well. This introductory stage is interesting, you begin to think, wonder – perhaps there is something to this theory. Perhaps everyone else is deluded, so you start your investigation. You start to look for facts, and the second stage begins. .

It seems that many of facts you are discovering match the hypothesis amazingly well. Here, you start to get annoyed that you didn’t know this earlier. How could you have been so foolish? Why didn’t anyone say anything sooner? Your anger drives to you be more investigative. You begin to look for more facts to support the hypothesis. You start to slowly lose your capacity for critical judgment about this particular topic, and you forget that you’ve learned all about ‘confirmation bias’ and it’s harmful effects on reason and clear thinking. You start to loosen your standards for what should count as ‘evidence’ and what shouldn’t. You start to interpret numbers and statistics in a way that would always support your theory.

You then reach stage three. You’re now feeling more empowered with this information, almost like a prophet who’s on a mission to spread the truth to those who don’t know. And you do just that, you start with friends, family, acquaintances – anyone willing to listen. Some will entertain your proposition, some will even feel you’ve enlightened them, but most will laugh it off. You then argue, trying to recall facts and figures. Referring to everything you can that had you convinced in the first place. You block out what they tell you because they’re obviously wrong. They haven’t read the facts. They don’t know about the articles, they can’t, they’re not supposed to. If they weren’t convinced by the end of the argument, you are slightly disappointed that you have failed to convince them, but then move on to greener pastures.

After a while, you feel you need more reinforcement, and here, you enter stage four. You seek out people who share similar thoughts, and begin to share information. You quickly realize that they already know a lot of what you know. Some know a little more, and others much more. You feel energized, and motivated to continue and learn more.

After you build relationships within that community, your beliefs are reinforced. You feel more reassured and confident. You may even feel slightly elitist in that you possess knowledge that only a few number of people do. Time then passes, and slowly your passion, interest, commitment, and dedication reach a critical stage.

You’ve now entered stage number 5, the one that divides conspiracy theorists from everyone else. There are three alternative modes of action that you can take.

One, you will proceed with passion and venom and continue to build on your knowledge about the subject and try to reach out to more people.

Two, you will take a few steps back and rethink about how smart it really is to really delve into this, and you slowly start to lose interest and get occupied with other things in life until the matter doesn’t concern you entirely.

Three, you neither back out nor delve in, you only retain the knowledge you already have that will inevitably slowly fade with time. You don’t actively try to preach what you’ve learned, but you do so passively. If asked about the subject, you will reach into the depths of your mind and retrieve whatever information you can find, but you will do so based on social context more so than a powerful motivation to recruit more people to your way of thinking.

Based on my life experience, these are the different paths you can take, and what you choose will depend of course on your personality more than anything else (the objective validity of you beliefs). What I have always disliked about conspiracy theories is that I generally felt that they were potentially a horrible source of anger and despair and really no source of happiness and fulfillment.

Some conspiracy theories might be true, I do not deny that. Some are quite sophisticated and intelligent, but the problem with conspiracy theories is that by their definition, they cannot lead you to the truth. Indeed, if you are interested in the pursuit of truth, you will find that conspiracy theories are unsatisfying simply because their nature is that they cannot be proved. I suspect that it would be ignorant to assume that everyone is interested in the truth. I believe that this is simply not true. I find that a lot of people use conspiracy theories as emotional reassurance, a way to connect to a society, or merely a pursuit of intellectual interest. Some do it wittingly, and others unwittingly.

I think learning about conspiracy theories is a fun intellectual exercise and could make for great conversation with people, but I would prefer to leave it there. My reasoning is not only will you be unable to prove its validity, but the mere belief in certain ideas could be debilitating and destructive. If you believed some kind of theory that is fundamentally opposed to the way society works for example, you’re likely going to feel resentment, hatred, and distrust towards that society, and there’s little benefit that could accrue from that.

Instead, if some of us are naturally inclined to search for truth, I feel it would be a lot more beneficial and conducive to a sustainable, healthy, and fulfilling existence if we focused our energy towards looking for truths about matters that can actually be verified and confirmed.

problem: i think its interesting at first but then becomes useless.