Various Examples of Conventional Thinking as Manipulation

Ran into this excellent post at Men’s Health called The Men Who Live Forever and had to write about it.

It’s about a tribe of Indians in Mexico that have amazingly good health. The write-up is littered with examples of things that are supposed to be good for us not being good for us and things that shouldn’t be possible working -

  1. It turns out that the more cushioning a shoe has the worse it might be.  
  2. The Tarahumara tribe’s men have almost zero diabetes, vascular disease, etc. even though they drink and eat carbs regularly.
  3. The Tarahumara runner who won the 1993 Leadville ultramarathon was 55 years old.

Do read the article – there’s a lot more in there. There are other examples of people having great health from going back to basics – such as Taleb and walking (PDF).

Let’s assume this is mostly true – You can’t argue against a 55 year old man winning an ultramarathon.

Has Conventional thinking been so distorted by advertising and influence that it’s actually bad for us?

Conventional Thinking might not be good for us

First, let’s look around us and see if we can establish a pattern of conventional thinking serving others and not us.

What are High School and College preparing us for?

It starts with high school and college -

  1. Why would we encourage a system where 70% or more of students get labeled as mediocre or worse?  
  2. Although there are super effective mathematics systems like the Trachtenberg System and Vedic Mathematics (and even apps like  Mathemagics) high schools continue to teach via methods that just aren’t that effective.
  3. College Education leaves most people with debt. If it’s supposed to help students why do they have to spend 5-10 years in debt?

High School and College seem to be a way to ensure that we waste the years when kids and young people have the most energy and potential.

Why do we have to work 30 years at jobs we hate so at 55 we can retire and do whatever we want?

Things get worse at work -

  1. The first thing people are supposed to do after school is buy a house and add on more debt.
  2. The second thing they’re supposed to do is get a job that they don’t really like because it pays the bills.
  3. Systems like Getting Things Done minimize the amount of tasks you have and make you more effective. Yet most jobs take pleasure in overwhelming us with multiple tasks and priorities.  

There are a few rather strange notions that are prevalent – 

your job will probably be something you hate 

your 2 weeks of vacation will be the highlight of your life 

worst of all – you’ll have to spend 30 years working so you can retire and enjoy life when you’re 55-60

Is the Financial System trying to help us or just steal from us?

The conventional financial wisdom is especially bad and almost seems designed to force us to keep working forever –  

  1. You’re supposed to invest your savings in the stock market where you compete against professionals and professional cheats who rig the system in their favor. 
  2. The whole crisis is a great example – Bankers got billions in bonuses every single year while we took responsibility for their losses.  
  3. Banks were encouraging people to take on mortgages they could not afford – these are the same people who’re supposed to be our financial advisors and well wishers.
  4. Credit cards have run riot and add more debt.
  5. Perhaps worst of all social security isn’t secure any more.

The whole point of the financial industry (credit cards, banks, investment markets) seems to be the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to be.

They’re just trying to get us to part with our hard earned money – reduce how much we enjoy life, further delay when we can retire.

The whole Medical System looks set to turn into a wreck

Health is such a fundamental thing and it’s on it’s way to being totally broken -

  1. A ridiculous percentage of people (supposedly over 50%) are on prescription medicine.
  2. A lot of people don’t have health insurance.
  3. Healthcare is really, really expensive.
  4. From our shoes to our restaurants – everything seems primed to weaken our health. 
  5. Medicare is falling apart – even with all the power it can’t get good deals on drugs.  

This could be an endless list.

Conventional Thinking is definitely not good for us

It really does seem that all the things we’re supposed to do and are supposed to be good for us aren’t.

  1. School and college isn’t tapping students’ potential. 
  2. What’s the point of evolution if 75% of people have to do work they hate?
  3. The financial industry is treating us like ATMs.

In fact we can put together a different hypothesis – one that makes more sense than any self-serving justification any company can make.

Conventional Thinking is Manipulating Us

How could it be possible that the best collective pieces of wisdom in our culture are manipulative and bad for us?  

Influence and advertising have run rampant

At any given time there’s a race going on between different elements -

  1. The common person’s knowledge and understanding. 
  2. Ethical companies’ thinking and profits.
  3. Unethical companies’ thinking and profits. 

The Internet is the first mass medium that let anyone publish information. It meant people finally got a chance to be as smart as companies. A chance more and more people are taking advantage of.

Before that -

  1. Companies could take advantage of people’s ignorance.  
  2. Unethical companies tended to profit more and beat out ethical companies.
  3. The absolute best are companies that have fooled themselves and/or customers into thinking they’re ethical.

The more unethical and delusional the company the better it got at influencing people.

It’s easy to fool yourself for your self-interest

Am reminded of an interview with a commodities trader where he made an argument of this sort -

I help stabilize grain prices and without me there would be huge market instabilities and crashes and Armageddon.

Sounds reasonable until you find out that he was a major speculator who had caused a few crashes and spikes that nearly killed the industry.

That’s what a lot of companies are doing.

Take Pepsi and Coke – they have to know they’re negatively affecting hundreds of millions of people. How do you wake up in the morning knowing that your sugared water is killing people’s health? 

You rationalize – It’s free choice. We’re giving people free choice. The money makes it easy to delude yourself that it’s good for people.

The hard option would be to sell something that’s profitable and good for people i.e. bottled water. It’s not totally pure – but it’s much better than selling people sugared water.

As the Internet makes people smart a LOT of Conventional Thinking will fall by the wayside

There was a huge information asymmetry that was letting companies pull off a magic trick -

  1. Take things that are bad for customers and good for companies. 
  2. Make people do those things.
  3. Make people believe those things are good for them.

A select few companies even pulled off the absolutely marvellous trick of actually believing that they were doing the right thing for their customers.

However, as the Internet spreads actual knowledge we begin to see some tectonic changes -

  1. Most businesses that were based on exploiting customers’ ignorance are weakening.  
  2. Customers are getting very smart – reviews, price comparison, store ratings and other intelligence is leading to good decisions.
  3. People are ignoring advertising unless they confuse it with content.
  4. Banner ads have almost died in effectiveness. Except for people who are new to the Internet.
  5. Companies that ally with customers are doing better and better.  

The only negative companies that will survive are the absolutely brilliant

If you’re a company that exploits people -

  1. There are domain experts that might figure it out. Even customers might.  
  2. Once one person knows they can share it with everyone.  
  3. Suddenly your reputation is tainted forever.
  4. It’s virtually impossible to fool everyone all the time.

It takes a ridiculous amount of work (or self-delusion) to exploit people and still survive. 

The race between customers, good companies and evil companies goes on

It’s a never-ending cycle -

  1. Customers are trying to get the best deal and find out what’s best for them.
  2. Good companies are constantly trying to create win-win situations.
  3. Evil companies are constantly trying to fool people and develop newer and newer ways to manipulate and influence.

What the Internet does is it lets one really smart user reach out to millions of people and show them what companies are good and what are evil. We’ve seen it with sites in the UK like Money Saving Expert and in the US with Mike Arrington calling out Facebook for Scamville.

As long as the Internet is not dominated by one company no company can take us back to days of being trapped in Conventional thinking that benefited people other than ourselves.

The Moral is to Run Away from Advertising and Companies that claim to sacrifice themselves for us

Every time there’s advertising that is not a short-cut to what people already want we are seeing the vestiges of a business model based on exploiting customers.

The more vocal a company is about helping us without helping themselves the more likely they have an ulterior motive.

2 Responses

  1. While the article was good, I must say… Thank you for the paradigm shift, Malcom Gladwell.

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