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.





How to Avoid Being Controlled by Fear

What are you afraid of?  Really think about it.  Now think about whether your fear makes sense.  Are the things you’re afraid of really a threat to you?  The answer is probably no.

Fear was a big part of my life for a long time.  I worried about, well… pretty much everything.  My imagination would come up with terrible scenarios.  Some of it was fear of failure, some of it was fear of the unknown, some of it was simply fear of pain and death.  I spent so much time being afraid that I was missing out on life.  Worse than that I was not happy.

Though my fears were all possible, they were not very likely.  Still, I based many of my choices on their possibility.  I refused to try things if I thought I might fail.  I didn’t do anything that risked injury or death.  I made excuses for not trying new foods or activities.  As a consequence I avoided lots of risks that were really never there.  Fear was holding me back.  I decided that I had to do something about it.

There is no way to kill fear altogether, everyone is afraid. You can learn to fight it however. The first step is to accept that you are afraid of something, and then do it anyway.  If you can acclimate yourself to this, then you are on your way to freedom.

My path began when the starter went out on my truck.  I decided to try to change it myself.  It was a frustrating, dirty, and mildly painful job, but it really wasn’t that hard.  Most of the problem was my own ignorance. When I turned the key, and the engine fired up, the feeling of accomplishment I had was amazing.

A few weeks later I was invited to a friend’s wedding…in Ireland.  I had only been on a plane once before.  I didn’t have a passport.  I had never been outside North America.  My fears told me that I should just send a gift and leave it at that.  Instead I booked a ticket.  Then I saw how cheap it was to fly to other countries once I was already in Europe.  I booked a second ticket to Germany, and ended up spending two weeks with a backpack wandering across five countries, mostly by myself,  before the wedding.

That trip showed me that I was silly to be afraid of the unknown.  Even in places where I didn’t speak the language, I was able to communicate, connect with people, and have a good time.

I got lost a LOT and it didn’t kill me.  There were times when I had no place to stay.  My travel plans were complicated by weather issues and in one case by a transportation strike.  I learned that if I stayed calm and kept an open mind, I could always find a way forward.  I also discovered that no matter where you go in the world, people are just people.  We are all just trying to live our lives in the best way we know how.

I was confused when I got home.  People kept telling me how brave I was to have gone overseas by myself.  It seemed a little ridiculous.  It hadn’t been dangerous at all.

The next year I started studying jujitsu.  I didn’t do it because I wanted to learn to fight.  I signed up to overcome my fear of being choked.  My whole life I had gone into a state of panic when my air was cut off.  Learning how to choke someone, and more importantly to me, how to be choked and defend against it, are among the first things you learn in jujitsu.  To overcome my fear of asphyxiation I intentionally let people choke me…a lot.  It took time, but I eventually learned that I was not going to die.  More importantly I got pretty good at defending myself.

Sometimes I got hurt.  It happens in combat sports.  Being hurt helped me to learn another lesson.  Most of the time, you heal.  Sure there are some permanent injuries, but the human body is a lot more resilient that you would think.  I learned that pain was not going to kill me.

These were the first steps on my journey to break the control fear had over my life.  They showed me the blueprint.

The more fears I confronted and conquered, the more the fears of those around me began to come into to more focus.  I was horrified, not just by the money thrown away on useless fears, but also by the incredible amount of wasted potential.  So many people have it in them to be great; to shape the world.  Far too many let fear keep the best inside them.

Don’t let it happen to you.  Fight it.  Start today.  Do the things you are afraid of.  Learn how shaky their foundations really are.  Then smash them.

The Pitfalls of Identity Claims in a Digital World

What image do you project to the world? Are you an athlete? Are you a brain? A rebel? Are you conservative? Liberal? A dog person? A cat person? In introvert? An Extrovert?

We answer these questions every day through our actions and our expressed opinions. They define our public persona. They build expectations for how we will act in the minds of friends and lovers, coworkers and acquaintances. Expectations of who we are. I call these identity claims.

There is another side to this. Inside our own heads we all answer those questions as well. These answers define our self-image. They define who we believe ourselves to be. The answers may or may not be the same as the ones mentioned above.

The gap between these two varies widely from person to person. Some people want so badly to be liked that they publicly identify with things that are not necessarily aligned with what they truly believe. Some people intentionally act counter to convention, despite their personal beliefs, because rebellion is what they want to define them in people’s minds. For some, what you see is what you get. Their questions have the same answers in both contexts.

There’s another factor that enters the discussion here. Somehow changing your mind has become  a negative trait in the modern world. I’m not sure why. Maybe because it means admitting that you were wrong? Maybe because it means admitting that you are fallible? The first time I noticed this phenomenon was John Kerry being labeled a flip-flopper during the 2004 presidential election. It worked and it seems to have become more and more common. I think we need to find a way past this somehow.

Admitting you are wrong, in the face of new evidence, is called learning. Considering others viewpoints, and the facts on which they are basing them, is required for learning. If your position cannot be justified by comparing your facts to new facts that have emerged, there is a problem.

Let’s get back to the identity gap however. As your public persona and your self-image diverge, when factoring in the stigma of changing your mind, you are confronted with a lose-lose scenario. If you publicly switch your stance, you risk losing the confidence of those who once thought the same way as you. If you don’t, you’re living a lie, and you know it. In my opinion that is far worse. Acting in accordance with something you do not truly believe is both morally abhorrent and a sickness that will eventually poison your soul.

I think social media has made this stigma far worse. Before the advent of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and blogging, interaction was generally limited. The way you dressed or the things that you believed were transferred at the rate of human conversation. It was far from easy for most people to broadcast their beliefs to the wider world.

That’s changed now. In the online echo chambers, a reversal is a betrayal. One is expected to toe the party line. One is expected to present a united front. It’s peer pressure on a whole new scale.

This whole thing is complicated by the fact that issues are seldom simple. Conservative and Liberal platforms are massive. It is impossible to fully agree with everything they contain, and yet the political discussion now demands that you are either red or blue. Posting anything that hints at an alternative ideology is a risk.

Worse yet, politics is only one of a multitude of idealogical divides in the human experience. It is difficult to imagine a scenario where someone whose opinion you care about would not be offended.

There are only two solutions to this problem.

The first is to keep the gap between your public persona and your self-image as small as possible. Be courageous. Be unapologetic. Live your beliefs. Understand that this will cause problems. You will likely end up cutting ties with some people who will not understand.

The second is to avoid having a public persona. Stay away from social media. Don’t engage conversations where you might have to publicly take a side. Believe what you want to believe, and let others do the same. Be understanding of others right to disagree with you. This approach may seem weak, but it takes just as much courage to let people continue do things that you feel are hurting them. To understand that you can’t live someone’s life for them. That all you can do is be supportive.

So how about you? Does any of this resonate with you? Have you found yourself failing to speak up about something that makes your blood boil because you have previously aligned yourself with its source? Have you found another way to deal with this issue? I’d love hear about it.



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