Monday, September 28, 2009

We the Cattle

It used to be that the study of man’s foibles was the province of philosophers and religious theorists. By and large, those people wanted to understand us to improve our lot, whether on earth or in heaven. Now, we are the constant subjects of randomized double blind experiments with control groups. Of surveys. Or marketing data collection. And sociologists and behavioral economists are delving deep into the psychology of our behavior, but not out of concern for our souls, or even for the general state of mankind. They want to know what we do and why so they can tell professionals of all kinds how to deal with us. Manipulate us. Gain our support. Con us into buying stuff we shouldn’t, whether it’s political nonsense like death panels or physical garbage-to-be like huge entertainment devices.

I’ve recently been reading a book on public administration, which is a fancy term for the nuts and bolts of government. Because I have led my life on the creative, artistic side, I was surprised to learn just how codified and studied are all the behaviors that go into the running of our systems, whether public or private. And right along with that is the constant study of we the people, since we are either the clients or the customers of such organizations. It’s not enough that every bit of our buying habits that can be pulled from store discount/loyalty programs is marketed in hopes of piercing the truth of our grocery buying habits. It’s that today there is a specialty within economics that is all about every aspect of our behavior.

This idea can give you the creeps. Malcolm Gladwell has made the study of people and their snap judgments into a bestselling book, Blink, which is fascinating reading. He tries to come off like a scientist, and technically perhaps he is. But he undertook all those studies for commercial clients who wanted to sell us stuff.

Which leads me back to the real life of people who act without any self-consciousness that they are following a herd mentality—other than that they want to be fashionable, which is to be in the herd, after all. To be like the others. These people begin to ache to own iPhones and plasma TVs and blu-ray because well-educated marketers have used all their behavioral data to shape the hype. Which then enmeshes us in an ever-escalating series of created (rather than innate) desires, most of which are for ephemeral crap. The televisions of yesterday, which still operate, cannot even be given away today—despite the fact that anyone with cable can hook them up easily and receive all the channels with no problems. Why? Because thousands, if not millions of us have decided to “upgrade” our televisions. Without marketing, we wouldn’t be thinking this at all. We are treated as cattle to be herded first this way and then that. And without deliberate marketing, no one would be wasting a moment on mythical death panels, either. Someone is selling and deliberately pushing our emotional buttons to make us buy.

And the kicker in all this is that we, the cattle, get blamed for following what others have pushed upon us. The media says we spend too much, that it’s our fault that we buy too much. We listen and believe too much, too. Yet at the same time, the lingering recession is our fault because we’re spending too little. And we don’t listen and retrain ourselves into employees-to-be of towering technical skills. (Talk about satori!) Forget the fact that people aren’t spending because they don’t have jobs and don’t have money. Or that they can be very highly skilled professionals, but still be undercut by talent elsewhere on the globe because of the financial rate of exchange. After years of criticism because we as a nation don’t save, our savings rate has gone up dramatically. But we still get the tsk-tsks. Spend, cattle, spend. And tell me exactly why you buy, so I can pitch something new (and unnecessary) to you with deadly accuracy. And blame you in almost the same breath.

I don’t want to carry this cattle analogy to extremes, but herding people is a frightening concept. Yet, every day, some interest or other is trying to do exactly that.


David Porta said...

"It's that today there is a specialty within economics that is all about every aspect of our behavior."

Economics is a social science. Classical definition, it is a science which deals with the study of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. Economics, ever since it was discovered by Adam Smith, has always been about the study of human behavior. As it relates to commerce. Commerce is a social activity (hence economics a social science): it involves a buyer and a seller.

Anonymous said...

This has always been true. Macy started the whole .99 cents thing in the 19th century. The pyramids are advertising. The books published now make it clearer how we are being manipulated by our herders, but as Penn and Teller will tell you, and they have, people want to be tricked. The herders didn't make us cattle, they just work with what is already there. Which is even sadder,