Mind Control and How to Avoid It

Every day you are under attack. They enemy are legion. They want to bend you to their will and take what you’ve worked hard to acquire. The threat isn’t physical,  you are in no mortal danger, but it would be best to be on your guard.

What am I talking about? The thread of 24/7 marketing that is woven into society. It is plastered on billboards, salted into all live programming, filling up your inbox, and flickering across the screens of phones and tablets and browsers. Unless you spend significant time roaming in wild places, everywhere you look, someone is trying to sell you something.

There’s nothing wrong with this, in principle, but marketers don’t play fair. They’ve long ago learned the levers in your brain and are happy to use them against you. If you don’t understand those vulnerabilities the game, you are just as likely to resist them as you are to beat the house in Las Vegas.

First let’s talk about your brain. You don’t actually have just one. Well you do but different sections provide different services.  In general our behaviors can be divided into two classes, irrational and rational. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky dug deeply into this and won a Nobel Prize for it. Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is excellent.

They found is that we have two systems of thinking. One is intuitive and very fast. The other is logical and deliberate and takes much longer. Marketers want us to buy things from them. Once the purchase has been made, their job is pretty much done. As a consequence they are interested in stimulating the first system.

This Intuitive system is very good at reacting quickly, but it is also tied into some of the deep hard wiring of our brain. Those parts are there to keep us alive. In general they will push  us toward the upside.

Fear is a big player here. The classic story is this: if you mistake a bush for a lion in the dark, and run away, you’re still alive. If you mistake a lion for a bush, it’ll be the last mistake you’ll ever make. This is generally how most fear is set up. It plays to the immediate upside, but doesn’t consider the longterm consequences.

Sex is another strong motivator. In the distant past, sex meant passing on your genes to the next generation, or at least getting a little help with the yard work in a decade or so. It also felt good, even way back then.

Comfort, usually in the form of a surplus of something (food, shelter, clothes, cave space), meant you didn’t have to be cold or hungry or cramped into a tiny crack in a rock. It meant you didn’t have go risk your life to bring home dinner.

Community is another deep lever. we are a social species. We really want to get along. We’re also are programmed to learn by mimicking others behaviors. If you don’t believe me, stop on a sidewalk sometime and just look up. It won’t take long before others have joined you in looking up, even if they don’t have a clue what they are looking at.

Food, particularly food with lots of calories, is the last of these deeply programmed motivators. Sweet, fatty foods, that were very calorie dense, were a godsend in a calorie starved world. Even though that situation has changed, we are still suckers for sweets.

These hardwired processes are powerful. They can easily overpower that slower, rational progression of thought that I mentioned before. With the right pressure on the right buttons, a modern, rational human being can be transformed into and irrational bundle of emotion, and the decisions we make then are pretty poor. Lets look at a few examples.

Fear is everywhere in advertising, and politics. There is fear that you will miss out on a deal, fear that your family is in danger, fear that you are stupid, fear that you will lose something you have, and of course fear that you will die. Marketing is a veritable fear buffet. Don’t even get me started fear in politics. We don’t have that kind of time. Sadly, I even used fear to kick off this post (sorry…).

Have you ever noticed how they put sexy women in ads for pretty much anything?  It’s not an accident. A low cut top and a sultry smile go a lot farther in selling a zero turn radius mower than the technical specifications. Now show that woman tossing her hair and saying “Bad Boy” and you can convince someone with a postage stamp yard to drop $6000 on a 61″ cut that will do 9 MPH.

Comfort is a tough one. I define anything beyond what you need as a comfort margin. I’m not saying all comfort is bad, but comfort is insidious. it is easy to decide that if some is good, more is better. Marketers play on this by upsizing everything. Houses, cars, food. Soon you are driving around by yourself in a six passenger vehicle to buy clothes that won’t fit in your packed walk in closet, and are trying to figure out how your credit card balances got be so high.

Community can’t be bad right? Wrong. How many billboards have you seen touting that the leasee was voted #1? They seldom say much more? #1 at what? Voted by who? Then there are the Ford and Chevy commercials that tell you their product is the top seller in its class? Does that mean it’s the best? Nope, just that they’re better at convincing customers to pay up. Kind of a self perpetuating system.

Last but far from lest is food. Do you really think Nutty Bars are the best way to rebuild blood volume after you have donated a pint? Not really, but blood banks have learned that if you end the experience with a sweet treat, it will build a positive memory of the occasion and you will be more likely to give again, when the next blood drive rolls around. What about all outhouse meetings that no one would go to except for the free lunch that accompanies it? Is it a coincidence the most of those free lunches end up on a salesman’s expense account?

The most important weapon to fight against these manipulations is awareness. When you see someone trying to pair up things that shouldn’t be related like breasts and mowers, take a step back. Get mad. Give yourself time to engage the logical side of your brain so you can make a better decision.

Study their gambits. Point them out to others. My kids and I play a game where we try to spot all of the attempts at manipulation in the rare cases we can’t fast forward past them. The more you look, the better you get at spotting them.

And speaking of fast forwarding, avoid them altogether. Treat the places you are subjected to ads like you would a high crime neighborhood on a dark night. Stay away. Pay an extra buck to buy the app without ads. Use your DVR instead of watching live. Stream your music ad free. Buy things online instead going to the store, they are crazy good at building enticing end caps these days.

So that’s it. If you can build a few good habits, your mind, and your money will be safe from the predations of the marketing industry. Give it a shot and let me know how it works out.





I am addicted to learning about why. From nutrition to neuroscience and philosophy to behavioral economics I am always seeking to understand. When I am not completely immersed in the latest book to catch my eye or practicing Brazilian jujitsu, I am usually cooking for my wonderful wife, playing with my two beautiful kids or out running with one of our dogs.

Leave a Reply


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: