The Trouble With People

December 22, 2013

1. Don’t assume that people know what they want.

2. Don’t assume people will tell the truth about their wants and dislikes even if they know them.

3. Don’t assume people can be trusted to behave in a rational way.

— The Trouble with People, chapter 2 of The Hidden Persuaders

If anything, the following half century plus since the publication of Vance Packard’s examination of America’s consumers and the advertising industry that spurred them on to increasingly dizzying heights have proven the above 3 insights not far off the mark. thehiddenpersuadersDespite our increased sophistication and awareness of the ways we are being manipulated into consumer habits, it is still fanciful to imagine ourselves as any sort of rational actors, logically calculating our best self-interest in the economic realm. I point to the current attachment we bear toward our electronic gadgetry especially cell phones as an example where brand loyalty seems to be appears to trump basic common sense.

It’s just a telephone, folks; a mode of interpersonal communication not a magical device that will confer eternal happiness upon us. But that may also just be the sad digression of a sore loser Blackberry user.

Later on in his book, Packard talks about the course of action taken to deal with such irrationality. “If people couldn’t discriminate reasonably,” he writes, “they should be assisted in discriminating unreasonably in an easy, warm emotional way.” One manner of doing so, advertisers happycity(and by extension those depending on advertising’s dark arts) needed to become ‘merchants of discontent’. Stir up feelings of dissatisfaction, restlessness and frustration with what is essentially the status quo and then deliver up the latest new and improved gizmo as the singular agent of change for a better, fresher feeling future.

Unfortunately, we may have been designed for susceptibility to such a line of negative attack. As Charles Montgomery writes in Happy City, as descendants of hunter-gatherers “…who compulsively looked ahead in order to kill more game or collect more berries than they did yesterday…We have been hardwired for active dissatisfaction.” Born to be disgruntled.

Of course, such irrationality and a tendency toward seeing the glass half empty may also play a part in the political realm. It confounds logic, coming almost as it does straight from the gut. Going negative, as they say in the campaign game, seems almost natural. Get under people’s skin, get them bristling and fussy. You don’t even have to provide any reasons why everybody’s nose should be out of joint. Just pick a sore spot and poke it. discontentedRepeatedly.

Sound familiar?

In a discouraging way, it does help to explain how, when a political movement goes bad, and by bad I mean negative, stressing anger and irritation, it’s very, very difficult to counteract it. Once the mood of the electorate turns foul, they’re not looking for sunshine. It’s retribution they want, somebody’s head on a platter.

I wish there was an easy, one sentence answer to the question of how you counterpunch that tactic. Certainly Barack Obama’s Hope/Change victory in 2008 served as a good example of the power of delivering an upbeat message. It resonated enough to get him re-elected despite some of the luster coming off at least in part because he didn’t deliver enough of the promised hope and change.

The NDP breakthrough here at the federal level in 2011 could also be characterized as a triumph of our better angels although that has to be dampened slightly by the fact that the forces of darkness attained majority government status in that election. hopeGood news/ bad news. What do you want to hear first?

I’d like to believe that there’s some sort of correlation between negative campaigns and low voter turnout but I’m just not sure how robust the evidence is to back that claim up. Toronto’s 2010 municipal campaign certainly felt like a negative one. Team Ford proved to be masterful merchants of discontent. Turnout spiked. Anger and resentment can deliver voters to the ballot box.

It hasn’t done a lick of good, though, when it comes to governance. HULK MAYOR SMASH CITY!! The natural impulse to such a situation is to try and summon a new anger, an anger at the wanton disregard of how responsible politicians should ably function in the proper running of the city.

I’m Not Him. Anybody But Ford. Sound the alarms! Mount the ramparts!

Like most anger, it’s not very inspiring. Voting against something or someone instead of voting for something or someone rarely excites the electorate. It simply plays into our natural inclination toward dissatisfaction. Hold your nose and vote. Ho-hum!

We can’t just be angry. We have to know what we’re angry about. imagineArticulate what it is we’re fighting for not what we’re fighting against. We have to know exactly what it is we want because, as Vance Packard wrote over 50 years ago, people don’t necessarily know what they want and might not tell you even if they did.

We have to be merchants, not of discontent, but encouragement. Of boisterous, positive encouragement about this place we live and how everyone who chooses to be here is offered the opportunity to live here to their fullest potential.

It’s a tall order, for sure, but the alternative is just more divisive nastiness of which we’ve had too much of over the last 3 years. Let’s start demanding more, offering more. Let’s be merchants of aspiration.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr