Logic. Reason. The triumph of the intellect over emotion. What a fanciful dream I have held to, where I assumed the majority of humanity are relying on rational evaluation to chart out the course of their lives. Fanciful, and woefully inaccurate.
It’s a positively Victorian perspective, to think of the mind as the ruler of the heart, and for the longest time I have championed the idea that a person’s choices are ultimately made by the rational psyche, overruling the wild gut reactions. This is the kind of belief system that you can only really cultivate by staying isolated away from large groups of people, and avoiding them as they debate and discuss a decision. When you wade into the middle of a large group of people with a startling variety of opinions, you start to realize how disparate we really are. The middle ground that you assume is there for the taking turns out to be a razor-thin strip of land between a countless array of tribes shouting at each other ready to go to war. Once we ally with a side, it’s incredibly difficult to be talked out of that choice.
If you have a chance, read the book “Risk” by Dan Gardner. It talks about the two different decision-making processes that we have: the slow and methodical logical method or “head”, and the quick rough estimate method or “gut”. There’s a lot of evidence that the quick decisions our gut makes are easily influenced, and prone to error because of the complexity of modern life. The snap decisions that would have kept our ancestors safe while hunting and gathering does very little to help us pick a car to buy or to determine how dangerous a disease is. And of course, there are scores of ad men and PR women using those gut reaction triggers to try to shape our decision-making into an outcome that’s favourable to them. As an example, the rate of breast cancer incidence for women under 40 is less than 4%, but almost every breast cancer awareness campaign or donation request will feature a woman in the prime of her life. This makes the gut believe that it’s a disease that affects younger women, when really the biggest risk factor for breast cancer is age (2/3 of breast cancer cases are in women over the age of 60). And since the gut rates risks to younger people as more serious than risks to the elderly, so you’re more likely to donate more because of this. I’m not singling out cancer charities as the only ones using emotional manipulation as a tactic: everyone selling you something is using your gut reaction to swing the tide in their favour.
The most obvious sign of being manipulated is the use of fear-inducing images and words. When someone declares ominously that there is “chaos lapping at our shores” they’re trying to get your gut to send out a panicked alarm. If your gut gets scared, your head has a heck of a time convincing it to go along with a different decision. And the worst part is that, because fear is such a great selling tool, there is a constant stream of new things being invented to be afraid of. I hope that we reach a point of fear saturation, where our guts just stop flinching so easily when a black and white commercial booms onto the screen to warn you about increasing crime (not true) or huge rise in cancer rates (also not true). But what does our post-fear culture look like,when companies can’t sell you on the menace of germs or daylight robberies or the terrors of restless leg syndrome?