Here’s an epiphany: You are wrong about some of your deepest beliefs. And so am I.
I’ve been on a reading kick in the past year, driven by COVID-19 quasi-isolation, and while Moby Dick was amazing I found three books that transformed my conceptions about religion, politics, and the raging cultural war in the United States. In Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason, Justin E.H. Smith recounts that human fantastical beliefs have always been with us; In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman suggests our irrationality is driven by how our brains are wired to fire emotional “System 1” heuristic shortcuts when our logic-based “System 2” mental scrutinies become overloaded.
Fair points, that humans are irrational and we make emotional decisions. But why? My exploration culminated in “The Constitution of Knowledge,” where Jonathan Rauch explains persuasively that all human biases lean in one direction: toward social acceptance. This is blindingly obvious, in retrospect — when your crazy Uncle Igor argues over the Thanksgiving dinner that aliens are among us, or that chemtrails are a conspiracy by thousands of pilots to seed chemicals to keep us down, you may groan but also recognize that Igor learned this from his friends, from his preferred media channels, and that when he hangs out on his deck on weekends he is likely drinking beers with a social group who believes exactly the same thing.
Birds of a feather missthink together.
Rauch writes that humans evolved not to find the truth, but instead to gather threads of information to validate stories that our local groups believe in. This was required to fit in and survive. Consider: A few thousand years ago, the worst thing that could happen to you would be to become ostracized from your clan in the wilderness — exile then meant death. To implant yourself in your micro-society, strength is one path, but fighting your competitors means someone someday will likely fight you too. So a better approach was persuasion, telling compelling stories that others found appealing, and so quasi-truthful myths and belief systems became the basis for how we “belong.”
And because “making stuff up” doesn’t pass our strong BS detectors, the real path to persuasion is to believe something yourself even if it is not true. If you believe what the group believes, a reinforcing cycle emerges. Leaders succeed who tell the most compelling variation on the group’s prior emotional plot, and voila!, the story gets stronger.
Are you religious? Good for you, spiritual exploration is a human need and positive for mental health and heart rates. But consider there are at least 300 religions in the world, and adherents to each one believe only they are right. That’s a 99.7% fail rate in belief systems. A lot of people somewhere are messing up in their minds, surrounded by communities that tell them they hold the truth.
Humans warp data to validate beliefs. In one study, researchers gave groups of subjects a data set with the puzzle: did series A of events affect series B? In the first test, subjects were told A was applying skin cream and B was a rash; they evaluated the data and most concluded correctly that A led to a reduction in B. But in the second test, a separate group of subjects was told A was concealed weapons and B was crime rates. Here, the group split apart in their conclusions — liberals and conservatives found different outcomes, aligned with the cliches of their cultural belief systems. What was most fascinating was subjects pre-screened as higher in IQ were more likely to skew the data toward their liberal or conservative group bias when evaluating the data set.
What does this mean? Being wrong doesn’t mean you’re stupid; in fact, the more clever you are, the more likely you are twisting information to support the story of your clan.
It’s hard to believe we all can be wrong, but that’s how groupthink works. To test this, let’s play a mental game beyond our current picayune politics. Imagine it is 300 years in the future, and our great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren are now looking back. Society in the year 2321 has evolved, cleaning up the planet and expanding our circles of empathy: people no longer eat meat, which requires killing other creatures; they no longer emit carbon gases, which destroys the environment; with the rise of robotics to raise crops and provide services, most people no longer work, so governments now provide universal basic income.
Our ancestors look back on us and shake their heads. Can you believe he used to kill animals and eat them? Did she really drive a car that shat poison into the atmosphere? Did everyone really ignore their loved ones to spend time “working” with strangers for most of the day?
It is logical, if we pause, that killing any creature is wrong, that turning the planet’s air toxic is bad, that we should live our lives among those for whom we care. But most people today don’t think of such things, because our group beliefs turn our heads elsewhere.
The future will expose our current minds as misguided.
Moby Dick was tough, 574 pages with the narrative anatomy of a giant whale: parts entertaining and fleshy, intersections bony, and gross squishy segments like spermaceti. I didn’t really need to envision a harpooner falling headfirst into a leviathan’s butchered head. The long tale is all just foreboding, a sequence of warnings and premonitions not to chase the wrong dream. Ahab encounters numerous other ships with their own states of loss: a plague; one captain without wit, another who just lost his son; and near the end even all of nature tries to wave him off. Ahab just won’t listen, each warning falling on his head like hammers on an anvil.
The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s early days as a reporter tells the true tale of a Colombian trying to survive alone in a naval raft 10 days lost at sea, bored and then blissed out drinking seawater and almost resigned to die but kept alive by the pain in his wounded knee. Luis Alejandro Velasco was washed overboard by a wave simply when he wasn’t looking. Upon surviving, he was decreed a national hero, made then-equivalent millions with product endorsements, and wondered in the end, why me?
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener was the best: A simple tale of a young woman who loses herself among the futuristic male arrogance of Silicon Valley. Twentysomethings make millions with software that reinvents commodities, take retreats in analog nature as defense against their simulacra, and bored with virtualizing taxis and typing eventually plot to create entire new cities, now “smart,” from scratch. In the end Anna cashes out, washes away into a sea of creativity, where pay is less but she can be happy not drinking the technofuture Kool-aid.
Don’t chase the wrong dream; if you fall into the wrong one, you can survive; and if the dream doesn’t fit, wake up. I like these lessons.
An update from my reading of Moby Dick since I know YOU MUST BE CURIOUS. Every chapter is a vignette, about 6 pages or 3,000 words long, calculated as 13 words per line times 38 lines per page, meant to be read aloud to others in the candlelit bedtime of the 1850s which is how most books were consumed back then. Not to say Americans were stupid; in the mid-1800s, 90% of the U.S. population could read, but printed paper was scarce, TV didn’t exist, so other than sex, books were the main entertainment. People back then went to bed early, soon after sunset, because our circadian clocks are closely aligned with changes in daylight, so the oral reading and thus chapter length had to be brief; but because adults only need 8 hours of sleep an Earth cycle, they would later wake up for two or three hours in the middle of the night given the long dark periods of the Northern Hemisphere, and this was when most babies were created, because candles were expensive and who wants to read Moby Dick that late? There is a word for this mid-night wakefulness but I cannot find it. Anyway, 1800s’ short book chapters with cliffhangers tied to circadian rhythms meant to bring each reader back the next night are the root of modern Hollywood film cuts and those taunting Netflix it-will-soon-be-explained-maybe-in-the-next-episode sci-fi series. Fascinating. I digress.
So, the whale.
In Chapter Thirty-Five, “The Mast-Head,” Melville explains how the entire fortune of the whaling ships—spending three years sailing around Africa’s great horn with serious investments at stake!—resided on the youngest, greenest crew members climbing 100 feet in the air to hang on and look for whales out there. Imagine, the lunacy! Everything hinging upon a pimply teen up high, squinting in the sun, dreaming away.
It’s as if we put an entire agency’s new business process in the hands of the youngest intern instructing her, be watchful, please, we all count on you!
To be fair, there were three main masts, the lofty spires that held the biggest sails, and aware that young employees might slack off, whaling captains kept all three mast-heads manned at the same time. Three sets of eyes, looking yonder. Melville recounts even this was a mistake. These young men had likely gone to sea for a reason—
“Beware of enlisting in your vigilant fisheries any lad with lean brow and hollow eye, given to unseasonable meditativeness!”
Warning of this organizational insanity, Melville puts us in the mind of a seafaring lad, newly sprung from home farming in New England, screw his parents who made him stack field stones into long cow walls, unused to the sea and now hanging on for dear life way up high with two feet balanced on horizontal sticks, not the fancy crow’s-nest of the cold-buttressed Greenland ships, Nantucket whalers couldn’t afford that, he just had to grip stronger—
“At last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly discovered, uprising find of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only the people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came …
“But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover.
“And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever”—
Such a passage, hoisting us with responsibility to peer over the horizon, always seeking new fortune, always in danger of falling in love with our dreams.
What I took from this is don’t worry about storms. Even the clearest days and bluest skies can be dangerous.
TLDR: There is no reality we can agree upon, since the information overload upon homo sapiens is so massive we use mental frameworks as filters to block out the noise. This is why people you may care about don’t wear masks or argue politics on Twitter.
Before Covid hit, I used to go to SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas, one of the three massive confestival events held every March. The other two spectaculars, music and film, imbue the tech-geekfest with hipster cred, as if listening to a roboticist from Japan on stage explain why he created a doppelgänger of himself in plastic with similar hair made sense, it’s all cool, because an indie filmmaker is launching her bit on aliens among us just down the street.
After panels, on 6th Street filled with young technologists and filmmakers drinking beers, the conversations continue, usually ending up at a posh bar at The Driskell. This hotel was built in 1886 by a wealthy cattle baron, has a facade of pillars and architectural ornamentation, and while it now may be owned by The Hyatt (with a link on the main corporate site offering 15% off bookings!), it is beautifully classic — towering white pillars with black bases in the lobby, stained glass overhead lights, and stairs leading to a second-story lounge filled with lush leather seats pinched by brass buttons. The layout is designed for conversations, clusters of couches in U-shapes. Last time at SXSW, I spent two hours debating a VC guy, who told me to quit my agency because “Let me guess, all the value you provide is in strategy but all the money you make is by charging out execution at $150 an hour.” I nodded, and of course never followed his advice.
The point of SXSW Interactive is to predict the future. Boy, did they all get it wrong. Covid has screwed us all, in different ways, some ill or dying and others slammed by an imploding economy. If you still have a job, you’re likely working 60 hours a week, while learning arcane new technology systems and looking over your shoulder. Amid cultural devastation, America has become even more divided, with simple things such as masks or future vaccines become fodder for harsh arguments, firings of senior ad spokesmen, an incredible cage-fight match of emotional right-or-wrong. The musings on whether home IoT will revolutionize society have faded as we now argue over which path can make us heathy and employed again.
So — why are you right, and why does everyone else feel so wrong?
The misleading mental frameworks of reality
During Covid, I’ve been reading a storm, and four books bring me to my point: There is no reality. At least, none that we can all agree on. So let’s go. In order: Quantum physics, dreams, blushing, and irrationality. Leading to the conclusion that our mental frameworks distort all of our thinking so much that … none of us is really right.
Quantum physics: Sean Carroll’s “Something Deeply Hidden.”
Sean Carroll is a wonk at the California Institute of Technology who studies quantum physics, the tiniest bits, and gravity and cosmology, the giant building blocks. By putting the two puzzles together, Sean becomes a staunch advocate for the idea of multiple universes.
To be clear, there are *two* theories of multiple realities — one, from the cosmologists who peer very far into space, that there is an unlimited number of worlds so given this infinity there is absolutely another Earth out there very far away in which you invented computer operating systems and are as rich as Bill Gates. The second, which Sean digs into, is the micro-tiny-quantum multiple universe, in which subatomic particles act as waves and we can’t pin them down easily, as if they are in two places at once until observed; and given the tiny bits’ “entanglement” with the larger world looking in, this means at every instant the universe is splitting into two different realities. So again, you get to be Bill Gates, but right here on this planet.
Sean’s point: Reality splits every second into alternate pathways, so there can be no single right path or answer.
Visions: Sigmund Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams“
Sigmund Freud was a dark-minded man, obsessed with sex, and if we are honest, thought a little too much about what dreams mean. (He suggested, for instance, that women who dream of falling fear they will become “a fallen woman.” Geez, what a mansplainer…) But Sigmund had a good thesis. He spent thousands of hours analyzing patients’ dreams and came to the realization that all dreams, in which we spend about four years of our lives in REM state, represent “wish fulfillment.” The narratives we construct while asleep are stories trying to find paths to what we desire. Freud posited that our dreams are made up of recent stimuli from the prior day’s events, but also lingering childhood traumas. We have both composers and censors in our minds; if we dig deep upon awakening, we can trace back the source of dreams to events that emotionally disturbed us, and project them forward to try to understand the desire guiding our future. Freud segues a bit, the long book reads in parts like a caffeinated blog (OK, Sig did coke a lot, it was 1899 and considered medicine), but his conclusion is absolutely brilliant:
“For the dream originates from the past in every sense. To be sure the ancient belief that the dream reveals the future is not entirely devoid of truth. By representing to us a wish as fulfilled the dream certainly leads us into the future; but this future, taken by the dreamer as the present, has been formed into the likeness of that past by the indestructible wish.”
Sigmund’s point: We all wish for something in our subconscious and that wish guides all of our actions, even if our alert minds do not comprehend.
Blushing: “Humankind” by Rutger Bregman
Rutger Bregman is a Dutch historian who has written four books on the intersection of philosophy and history. In “Humankind,” he posits that our species is actually wired to be — wait for it! — nice to each other. Friendliness is our best weapon, the survival trait that leads us to thrive. In a perverse positive affront to all the histories and psychologies and Darwinistic survival-of-the-fittest fights and World Wars, Rutger posits that compassion, empathy, sharing, transparency, and honesty lead to survival.
He has some fun scientific backups on this: Homo sapiens is the only species of several hundred hominids with white eyes around the iris, making the direction of our gaze clearly visible and thus giving away our intent. We are also the only species to blush, giving away our emotions, showcasing our weaknesses. Why?! Why would any species charged with survival signal to those around them their intent, their direction, their emotional state? What a gap in our armor! Except Rutger suggests, opening our hearts to others draws others closer, leads to leadership, to mates, to genetic propagation. The humans who best express their true feelings, of understanding and a willingness to help, eventually gather more attraction.
Rutger’s point: Sharing is a super-power, and the kindest of us all will thrive.
You’re illogical! “Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason” by Justin E. H. Smith
This is the last of the foursome of my recent Covid readings, a book about the philosophical history of reason vs. rage. Justin E. H. Smith here suggests that rationality (math, logic) and irrationality (passion, emotion, religion, myth) have always been a Möbius strip for humanity, intertwined in a way that neither can be teased apart. The Enlightenment, the phase of “awakening” of science with the Karl Popper-ish scrutiny of theories that must be provably un-false, has been challenged this century by an unexpected resurgence of nationalism, tribalism, anti-expert fighting, and more broadly conservative religious uprisings. Science is on the down-and-out as millions with satellite-empowered smartphones argue over about whether global warming is real, or if we can really trust the Post Office.
Justin says, it’s all cool — the cycle of rational-to-irrational belief systems is normal. And eggheaded scientists should consider: there is cultural value in the emotional filtering of information: Religion, at its core, is a blunt cultural guidebook of hints pointing us toward actions that will help us and our community survive. Don’t sleep with your neighbor’s wife because while it might feel good, you’ll damage the community. Be kind to others because while you may miss a coin in the next deal, the communal bonding will help you all survive the next drought. Etc. etc.
But burning people who disagree? For centuries, religion was core and whacky experiments challenging convention led to you being burned at the stake. Yikes. While such horrific events are not justified, the point here is what we believe is always filtered by the zeitgeist of the day; none of us can look beyond our cultural imprints to see what really is true. Future generations may shake their heads in horror at scientists in our year of 2020 studying global warming who go home to cook dead animals upon their grill or jog that weekend with plastic running shoes manufactured by poor workers on the other side of the globe. What hypocrisy, they may holler, but our filtered ears are immune now to such cries.
Justin’s point: Irrationality is normal because all of us sit behind mental frameworks, shielding us from information we don’t like or whose cognitive load is simply overwhelming. Logic is the path out, but the thicket of protective thorns we raise is just too dense.
Conclusion: None of us is right!
It is an amazing conceit for us in our armchairs to look back upon human history and laugh, snottily, at all those who once thought the Earth was the center, that women were second to men, that some humans had the right to own other humans as slaves — but then to think, we all have it figured out now.
Dreams with our own wishes cannot be clearly understood. Humans wired to signal empathy still fight. Logic arguments are twisted by the cultural filters they rise in. And under it all, quantum physics means whichever direction we choose to go in, in another universe, the other is followed.
We don’t understand what we want.
We signal empathy but ignore it.
Our logic is polluted by emotion, myth, mental filters.
And whichever path we take twists in the wind into multiple realities.
Being “right” is a Möbius strip, with the alternative argument lying just on the other side. All of this is a lesson in humility as we struggle to defend our own points of views and fail to understand others. The logic of the universe is not a binary bit, up or down, as in here but not there. Logic is a wave function, with probabilities of being in any place, right or wrong, at any time.
Joseph Campbell, the Sarah Lawrence College professor credited with opening the minds of Americans to the religions of the far East, had a wonderful line recounted in “Myths of Light”:
The term ‘nature religions’ has become the object of rejection and abuse. But what else are you going to worship? Some figment of your imagination that you have put up in the clouds? A strange thing has happened. It is so extreme that if you don’t believe in a figure, you don’t have anything to worship. Now everything is lost!
As Covid-19 creeps into our societies, like the green vines of some alien species seeded under the beds at midnight, we seem to have become stuck partway through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief wondering what to believe. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. As of late March, politicians and pundits are still bargaining — regional governors want more supplies shipped to them, the U.S. president muses whether we all just go back to work, Congress nitpicks over the details of economic stimulus. What was first denied by some leaders (that Covid was going to ramp wildly) and then caused xenophobic anger (it was all the Chinese’ fault!) has now turned into some form of extended contract negotiation.
Clever observers see our society is caught in a version of The Trolley Problem, the classic ethics puzzle in which a runaway trolley is barreling down a track to kill, say, 12 people. You have an option to throw a switch to divert the speeding trolley to another track, where 2 people stand unaware.
Do you take no action and let fate kill the dozen? Or do you step in to swing the switch, responsible yourself for killing 2?
Get to work. Shelter in place. Economics and social distance are now the bargain we must strike over how many to kill and when.
Kübler-Ross goes on, of course, to suggest the final, inevitable stages of grief are Depression and then Acceptance. Strong minds don’t like either, since opposing a threat is what we must do in the world, we must fight! … but if our inevitable decay and death are not just likely, but preordained, then shouldn’t acceptance be our final mercy?
Personally, I’m still stuck in the middle at bargaining. I stroll the house, confined, like a caged animal. The first move was to stock the home supplies a bit, food, water, and yes, toilet paper. Then, when disaster still seemed a few blocks off, I drove out once to fix the home TV stereo setup and buy a few more dumbbell weights for the garage gym. And then, it’s work from home.
Now I wake up in the morning wondering if the dry lump in my throat is the onset of Covid, and then worry about my wife, who still commutes daily into a regional hospital to help others, and walk the halls back to the office over the garage. Then I glower at the screen, typing on projects, trying to smile when the video green light clicks on.
But bargaining seems creaky and the stormclouds of depression loom. Instagram and Twitter have tossed their usual rainbows and rages to meet somewhere in the middle, a neutral land of strange outreach, of avatars of empathy. An agency friend whom I’ve never met IRL pinged me, “hey, you doing OK?” Tough snarky souls have started sharing motivational sayings, recipes. Home video clips are everywhere. Suits, ties and makeup are tossed to the wind.
Like a beautiful-but-crowded oceanfront beach where the tide has suddenly raced out to sea, pulled by a looming vortex, we all wait, looking at each other, wondering.
Nature has surged back in this pause. Dolphins are swimming in the unpolluted waters of Venice; owls can be heard in quiet U.S. suburbs before dusk; overhead the sky is unmolested by jet contrails, just wisps of real clouds before the blue.
This pause before the surge.
Humanity isn’t done mucking with the world, of course. Concrete still clutters the planet, and at night, with our electric grid hum, light pollution still dims the stars. A utility worker came by our house last weekend with some water filtration supplies, and as I asked how he was doing, he smiled. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’re a stubborn species.” His face was red. I wondered if it were fever. It is these splashes of frisson, of nature emerging from the tides of commerce, that interest. A friend wrote me that she can perceive the world is changing, just out of sight, and she’s waiting, alert, watching for it.
This tension between death and life reminds me of a 1940 story. As Germany bombed England during “The Blitz,” Churchill’s civil servant John Colville wrote in his journal about a trip back to London:
The night was cloudless and starry, with the moon rising over Westminster. Nothing could have been more beautiful and the searchlights interlaced at certain points on the horizon, the star-like flashes in the sky where shells were bursting, the light of distant fires …never was there such a contrast of natural splendor and human vileness.
The question I have when Covid-19 really begins to kill is: What will I believe?
Many of us, immersed in modern secularism, digitally removed from nature, have fallen into Joseph Campbell’s mental trap: We are not certain whether to trust the religions of our youth, but absent specificity, is all really lost? Nature beckons for some. Leonard Shlain has claimed in his history of religion, “The Alphabet versus the Goddess,” that female-nature deities were the origins of human belief, and only later, as we encoded our societies with the linear alphabets of writing and math, were our brains rewired to believe in male father figures. Perhaps the feminine, empathic side of spirituality is more in line with our true nature.
This is not to say that God doesn’t exist, but the Yahweh and Elohim of the Old Testament are mysterious beings, where even the singular/plural pronouns are confused, and no where is this deity described as an old man with a beard. With more than 300 religions in the world, the odds of any one being exactly right are less than 1%, but the commonalities within their myths and stories — almost every religion has an Adam and Eve story, and the Noah’s flood tale has different versions across dozens of cultures — suggest there is either something true about them, as Campbell hints, or a mass delusional projection from our psyche, the vote of Carl Jung.
Intellectuals often favor Jung, saying belief in God or Goddess is just a warped projection of our inner needs and fear of death; Campbell seemed to believe there was an inner truth within all these stories, and that their common traits should give us hope.
The irony of our modern age is science is beginning to back religion.
At first glance, physics would seem at odds with a caring God. The second law of thermodynamics says entropy (disorder) increases, until all that will be left is a universe of static, unmoving heat death, of tiny particles that no longer vibrate at all. Hardly a fitting end to creation. But science has two counterpoints: Biology and Astrophysics.
Biology begins with the ever-growing complexity of creation. If things fall apart, how do bodies get put together? Even Charles Darwin, the founder of the theory of evolution, was troubled by the “eye,” a construct of aperture and lens and clear liquid and retina that is so perfectly constructed, like a wonderful camera, he questioned how his own theory could ever put together something so beautiful. It was as if you threw a bunch of paper clips in the air a million times and down fell a silver Leica.
Add in the hidden forces propelling the universe’s expansion, and something creating things seems real. Science is coming around to admit there are hidden secrets: dark energy and unseen matter of the universe being forces that continue to create, to expand, pushing the manifold of spacetime out to the new. When scientists peer into our galaxy and count the stars and planets, they find there is just not enough mass to hold the spiral together. Something unseen makes it turn, pulls us forward, binds what we see to the unknown. Even science doesn’t have a name for it yet. “Dark energy” is an obvious fudge.
Things are bound to fall part. Things are destined to be created. Death and birth go hand in hand, in the huge unseen wheel turned by nature.
As we modern humans, typically insulated from death with our old ones stashed away in retirement homes, suddenly encounter the Covid-fever thought that we really will die, perhaps belief will make a resurgence. God and nature are partners in every mythical system. If you can’t believe in one, perhaps try the other.
Myths are not lies; they are simply pathways to understanding.
How do you get someone to fall in love with you? This is the central question, if we’re honest, of all marketing. While most marketers are in the business of professional flirtation, unveiling products and services in hopes of stoking arousal, most fail — while a few, such as the late Steve Jobs, seem to have magically cracked the code of desire. Jobs took a bit a glass, called it an iPhone, and the world swooned. But why?
There are five variables that create arousal. Marketers wishing to emulate Jobs should write them down.
In “The Creativity Code,” Marcus du Sautoy tells of Picasso unveiling “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in Paris in 1916. The painting was a breakthrough in the Cubist movement, a tableau of geometric nudes … and critics initially hated it. But decades later this would be recognized as a masterpiece, a true turning point in the history of art. By pushing the edges of novelty to the brink of revulsion, Picasso had hit the five critical inputs of arousal:
1. Novelty (what is that?!)
2. Unexpectedness (you surprised me!)
3. Complexity (hm, this is hard to process)
4. Ambiguity (I don’t understand where you’re coming from)
5. Creation of puzzlement (I don’t understand where this is going)
These five variables, drawn from the psychology of Daniel Berlyne, provide a fascinating framework for how to build desire toward a product (or yes, a person). Watch any old RomCom flick and you’ll see most of the silly plots with J Lo track to these five cues. Matthew McConaughey is the new guy in town, stumbles into J Lo unexpectedly, they’re both ensnared in a complex situation, and then the potential lovers stumble through ambiguity and puzzlement before discovering what was meant to be.
A lover’s leap awry
The trick is not going too far.
A new iPhone or Picasso masterpiece stacks up these five rules to create just the right amount of hedonic value — the pleasure principle that motivates us to take action. But there is a risk, one that the Apple Watch (which did not take off in sales) and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles (which early critics hated) brushed up against. If you leap too far, pleasure collapses, hedonic value goes negative, and your recipients push back. What turns us on, if overstimulating, can flip us into revulsion.
Think of a horizontal scale going from familiar—->new, Du Sautoy suggests, and as you progress to the right an overlain curve of hedonic value (pleasure) will shoot up … and then collapse down. Something a bit novel entices, as we move into the “new realm,” but if we leave the familiar too far behind, we revolt. An iPhone probably would have bombed had it been released in 1940. (“A glass screen with no rotary dial? No thanks.”)
The marketing landscape is filled with such romantic failures. The 1957 Ford Edsel used a new thing called focus groups to design a car based on the particular features consumers liked best, but the aggregate result was a Frankensteinian monstrosity. New Coke launched in 1985 with a sweeter formula to mirror Pepsi, which taste tests showed consumers liked better … but bombed because Coca-Cola drinkers couldn’t accept the jump.
The best products hit the five vectors just enough to incite arousal without aversion, by connecting future surprise to a shared past. A few good bets ahead: The Motorola Razr 2019 revives the beautiful 2004 flip-phone design with a foldable touchscreen inside; 130 million people bought the first one — what a latent base of love to be rekindled with touches of new mystery! The 2022 VW Microbus, when it gets here, will add design flare and electric motors to the iconic hippy vans of the 1960s. Jimmy Wales’ new social network, WT:Social, rekindles the failed hopes of Google+ with a Wikipedia news twist, and might be just unusual enough to scale desire. Notable in WT:Social’s launch is its ambiguity — what will this become? — and puzzlement — what content will it feature? Jimmy is flirting with us all.
And what of ambiguity and puzzlement?
Berlyne’s theory of what drives curiosity and arousal includes two vectors marketers typically don’t think about — ambiguity and puzzlement. But consider, some of the most addictive products in the world offer enigma as stimuli.
Ambiguity is core in social networks. Yes, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram use game mechanics to create “scores” and feedback loops, number of comments or Likes etc. But these score systems also taunt you with uncertainty. Every time you share content, you face an ambiguous payoff. Will people like what you submit? Or will it draw blanks? This frisson of expectation is part of the appeal, a slot machine that may or may not pay off. Ambiguity works like the Steve Carell character in the movie “The 40-Year Old Virgin”: when a woman at a bookstore asks him what his name is and he responds, “What do you want it to be?” she is immediately turned on. Not knowing if you’ll get a response makes you want even more to get one.
Puzzlement is the last hook, also often deployed in software interfaces. The entire electronic game industry is founded on forms of puzzles. Twitter in its early days was criticized for being hard to learn; Snapchat has followed in this approach. But that very confusion gives users a huge mental reward after they climb the hill. Apple’s iTunes / Music services are notoriously overwrought and complex; try making a playlist for the first time and usually a newbie will encounter frustration. Click where? Beyond a rewarding learning curve, puzzlement is also a form of discovery, a way to engage more deeply in the system and potentially be inspired to buy more products. Bookstores with crowded shelves, Starbucks with its bizarre coffee-size naming conventions, Volvo’s XC40 SUV with a novel shifting mechanism, Amazon.com which strangely seems to hide its Prime Video links making you search just a bit to boot it up — all puzzle just enough to entice you to want to stay in the relationship. IKEA, most famously, designs the halls of its stores like a maze, forcing you to hunt through things you don’t want to find your way out.
A fun exercise, marketers, would be to jot these five beats — novel, unexpected, complex, ambiguous, puzzle — on a whiteboard and then score your products and services against them. Before you write a word of ad copy, ponder if your core product will kindle consumer desire on these vectors. You can also test them out with sweetie next date night.
Last spring at SXSW I got to chat with Poppy Crum, chief scientist at Dolby Laboratories, about her vision for a world where sensors help humans become more authentic. Her idea is new augmented reality devices (glasses, earbuds) don’t only give us vision and sound inputs, but they can output our heartbeat, focus of attention, even emotional state. Sensors extracting human data will lead to good things: Anticipation of a disease you don’t realize you have; warnings to 911 that you’re about to be mugged from the skin-crawl you feel as someone approaches behind; conversational clarity in loud restaurants as an earpiece amplifies sound just for the one you seek.
Which brings us to this news: 24-year-old Arnav Kapur has invented a sensor device that can extract what you are thinking if you just focus on language. Apparently when humans compose speech in our heads, tiny neuromuscular signals are fired away even if we don’t utter a sound. Kapur’s “AlterEgo” device, which fits around the head and jaw like a white iPhone tentacle, now helps people with speech pathologies. Play the tech forward a few years, and you can foresee remote sensors in someone else’s AR glasses scanning your brain for your mental conversation.
But … there is a spectrum of helpful-confusing-um-no-thanks in all this. For example, what if you have crush on someone and sensors reveal your glowing emotion amid a business conversation? The digital virtual valentine falls out of your chest onto the boardroom table. Oh, how awkward.
The mind spins at a world where no one could withhold anything. Humans couldn’t lie or dissemble. Romance would lose its frisson as the lengthy process of courtship is compressed to a little red-green score (“she is 78% in love with you with 10% platonic ambivalence and 12% annoyance”). New business pitches would require companies to send in only emissaries armed with true love. “Team, we’re meeting with BMW next week. OK, who has a crush on the CMO?” The subterfuges of social humans would be laid bare.
HR consultants will have a field day.
Poppy Crum hopefully proposes this future will be one of authenticity, where humans like dolphins can see inside each other and so deception and its offspring hostility, war and hate will fade away. Sensors will ease communication, monitor health, cocoon your home in IoT personalization, even maintain “the Internet of broken things” to keep electricity flowing and water pure, especially helpful in poor areas or developing nations with limited infrastructure.
But … if I engage with you just a little, and you can unfold all of my dreams, is that a good thing?
Can two things opposed to each other both be true?
Consider this theater demonstration. A ball is painted white on one side and black on the other. A magician on stage holds the ball, standing between two volunteers who are dozens of feet apart, aloft carefully, with the line of demarcation directly centered. The audience titters, already seeing the trick. “What color is this sphere?” he asks. The woman on stage left sees only the black side of the ball, and states clearly, “the ball is black!” But a man on stage right sees only the white side of the ball, and says “no, it is white!” Both see the truth. But only from their perspective.
Truth does not exist. It can only be perceived by an observer, who by his or her nature of viewing only part of the universe’s data can only misjudge the truth. This is important because when we interact with others, we must also consider truth from their perspective.
To dig deeper, consider that much of what we believe isn’t real at all. Religion, nation-states, money, advertising impressions, the value of gold, your relation to family, the company you work for — all don’t really exist. The historian/philosopher Yuval Noah Harari suggests even something as believable as “good” or “human rights” are only figments of our imagination. If one human harms another, we feel this is wrong. But to test this “good vs. bad” thesis, if we saw an ant chase another ant into a roadway where the first was crushed by a car, we wouldn’t feel horror for the insect. It’s just a dead bug in the road. When we have chicken for dinner, we don’t feel bad that it was killed at 6 weeks after arriving at prime chicken-weight when the poor bird should have lived to age 10. Because as humans we can’t wield enough empathy for smaller creatures. But the dead insects and animals, in their last gasp, might decry car tires or human forks for abuse. Our belief in the truth of “rights” is all warped perspective.
The politics of modern America bear this out. President Donald Trump has fewer than half of all U.S. adults supporting him, but those who do believe he tells the truth. Put a liberal Democrat and a MAGA Republican in the same room, and both will swear h/she is right and the other is wrong, because the facts on Fox News/MSNBC support them. This sounds absurd. But both see truth.
In the complexity of our everyday world, an Einstein of ethics might surmise we all bend the vectors of truth toward our own selves, simply to filter out the swarm of too much information, just as planets and stars warp space around them. Our very existence as points in morality makes us biased toward ourselves.
Now, certainly, there are some truths that should outweigh others. If life itself is a noble cause, because the rising complexity of our various organic beings fights the negative entropy that can only lead to the heat death of the universe, then anything that enhances life should be “good” and all killers of life are “bad.” Jesus, good. Hitler, bad. But even this is a perspective wrought by living beings who prefer wiggly atoms to those particles that don’t hook up. If the universe devolves eventually to burned out chards of hydrogen, will those little bits complain? Of, if they retain a last, tiny grasp of consciousness, will they simply sing in unison, “at last, we’ve achieved the peace of stasis!”
My point is we humans should consider the gradations and mutations of “truth” in our interpersonal interactions. Every day, I am certain I am following the truth, and any friction with others means they are wrong. But what if those others are right? Or more clearly, what if we both are right? The sight lines of perspective make more than one truth possible.
It sounds crazy, but perhaps we should believe in opposites. Truth is not a singular direction. It is a rubber sheet stretched across the universe, upon which we, as leaden balls, stretch morality into the stories we tell ourselves.
I sit here surrounded by books and wonder, what’s the point? No. Not an overly dramatic-life-threatening-self-injury-thought-thing like that, but more, what is this goal, this imbibing of knowledge, when life itself is so fleeting? A friend of mine just died. I’m processing this. And I look at the books scattered before me and wonder, why?
A few years ago I got serious about re-learning things, paying attention to the greater ideas that I once glanced over in college, and now my house is filled with Amazon shipments. Marcus Aurelius keeps me warm at night, with his pondering that “Thou art a little soul bearing about a corpse,” on his dark journal nights, or more cheerfully, “Either it is a well-arranged universe or chaos huddled together, but still a universe. But can a certain order subsist in thee, and disorder in All?,” meaning, get over yourself, ego-man, everyone has challenges holding it all together. What little I’ve gleaned from Marcus is that souls don’t continue to exist, because the universe has no room for all the energy of all the human and animal and plant souls that preceded us; the storage locker of infinite data would just get too full, so we are best off simply acknowledging that we will pass on, absorbed into the light of future creatures and elements, and that when this too shall pass, it’s OK, just the natural order of things. Marcus was a downer.
Even less cheery, the atheist Richard Dawkins glowers on my bedside table with his “The Selfish Gene,” arguing that people don’t really matter at all, we are simply lumbering robot clouds of biology that pass like waves as our genes spurt out to meet others, recombinate, and let their predictions of the future succeed or fail in a casino-lottery bet in which only the best genes get to live forever. Bodies don’t matter, just what’s in your egg or sperm. Jesus, Richard.
While Dawkins also coined the concept of “Meme,” an idea that spreads like genes through our biological social networks, Yuval Noah Harari takes story-telling further by suggesting the collective stories we tell ourselves — about religion, or money, or nations, or corporations, none of which exist, because after all, can any of these fictitious entities feel pain? — make our species successful. It’s not you that matters (as Marcus would say), or your little spermy-egg genes (Richard), but the stories we create, which allow enormous groups of soldiers or religious zealots or Amazon.com executives to band together. The fictions we create that become embedded in our species’ collective hive mind at large are what make us thrive and live forever.
Those are just three ideas of the many floating in the books in my house — that the universe can’t accept the information load of past souls; that souls don’t exist because they are simply the information processing units of the genes that fight for evolutionary survival; or that neither souls nor genes matter, because the greater data output of the human species stories is a form of meta-information that will outlast any individual.
But I call bullshit. I knew my friend. The spark within him was not a fiction, nor a gene cascading upward into some giant fantasy to fuel its next sex to be passed forward, nor a meta-story about a new religion/money/corporate concept to drive groups toward shared ambition. My friend had a soul. I could see it in his eyes, hear it in his laughter, fear for it when he tried to steer me around Austin’s SXSW in a rental car when this guy really didn’t know how to drive.
The soul lives on a thin wire, between DNA pulling for propagation from its greedy lower nuclei and the tug of millions of other humans who spin stories of shared meaning. On one side, we have gritty genetic particles trying to spread and mix little codes; on the other, massive information waves rippling forward. Balanced in the middle is each of us humans. Our little spheres of energy may indeed dissipate into the ether, if Marcus Aurelius is right, since the universe must have balance. But the universe is expanding, propelled by some unseen force. Perhaps all philosophers, old and new, are missing the truth of our human expansion after all.
If our giving to others is not a zero-sum-game, where every win requires a loss elsewhere, perhaps if we give love in new ways, unfettered, freely caring for others, we can expand our futures. Falling in love, sharing in love, spreading that love, is an unbounded resource that leads recursively to each soul’s survival.
Which means my friend’s energy is still out there. All I can do now is love others to help the wave move on.
Beyond the dark mountains of Idaho
We climbed onto plains
The night sky filled with small lights
Then yellow glow on the horizon
And then finally our red Oldsmobile dropped
into the city valley
Of Great Falls
I was six and small and my father
Loomed like a Tom Hanks hero in the front seat
His buzzcut glowing from the light of the radio
Turned low so we could sing songs
We had driven all the way from Seattle
Sam beside me, shouting
She’ll be coming around the mountain
When she comes
When she comes
Grandpa and grandma and Aunt Gin
Greeted us at 3 a.m.
I still remember
The kitchen clock hands pointed in odd places
The window a black square
And they fed us lamb and fragrant bread
And we rejoiced in family cheer
The next day, in that kitchen, parents chatting
Grandpa bald and strong at the head
Of the table a man who had
Moved to Montana to cure TB
And won a new homestead
I climbed a white-and-black step ladder crooked
Between refrigerator and white counter
Exploring and on top I found
A silvery gun
What’s this? I wondered
Picking up the shiny object
Shiny and sharp
A toy perhaps, with a notch above a barrel
White pearl handle and metal
circle before it
All conversation stopped
The adults jumped up—
my mother moaning, someone shouting
And I dropped the pistol
Where I found it
On top of the fridge
Why were they mad
So mad mad mad at me
About a toy?
My grandfather knew guns and rifles
Steel tools that went with horses
Alan Kunz was in the last U.S. cavalry
Just before machine guns
Made riding horses in battle
A bad idea
Given the line of sight
Of thousands of bullets bullets
He told a story about training on a horse
Running at full gallop while he had to take off
His shirt, turn it inside out,
and put it back on
Holding the horse with only his legs
Rebuttoning the cloth completely
To prove his balance
This was a man who was careful
But I had found one
As a shiny toy
I’ve almost forgotten that day, because it faded
But I wonder in America
As we fill our homes with ever more weapons
To protect ourselves
With children crawling around us
Exploring, playing, fighting
Is it at all that unexpected
Go the wrong way?