Sunday, August 31, 2014

What manipulates us

People usually think they are in control of their lives and that they make decisions based on free will or rational consideration. And the thought that something controls them, their mind and decisions, feels absolutely unacceptable and everybody tries to run away from any kind of manipulation. But that is sad and pointless. Influence and manipulation are inescapable and they have been with us since ever. Mother Nature is the greatest manipulator.

A very common form of manipulation is social pressure. People do what other people do. You see, life is pretty uncertain. And difficult. Also risky. So let's just go with what other people did before me, because, apparently, it leads somewhere. This 'somewhere' may not be too good but at least it's familiar. Sounds good. No, don't do something different, it's scary. Who knows what's there. Why don't we just go back to what Pete is doing, you know, normal things for someone his age.

Like, as you approach the age of  30, most people around will be getting cars and stop using the public transportation. But if this is not really your thing and you'd rather spend the money differently, to travel the world or start a business, you're going to be different and basically seem to be nuts to the other people. This can get really annoying and can be a real obstacle to living the way you want.

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else’s life. - unknown Apple Computer founder

Another example: the dance floor. Going there when it's empty? Impossibru! When there are people enjoying themselves? Looks like fun, let me join you! You'd be dancing the exact same thing but doing it alone makes it impossibly scary.

Innovation. The opposite of innovation is doing things the same way like others. Your boss yelled at you to get anything done, so you yell at your subordinates when you become the boss because that's what a boss does, right? What good is it when you think you should do something different when the society is drilling you "this is how it's supposed to be done" so hard, that you end up changing your mind and stick with the outdated solution?

So that's for social pressure. You know what other, very natural, element manipulates us? Hormones. I bet you are already aware of this. It's very humbling to see what they can do with us. Consider, for example, the many cases of unwanted pregnancies even though we have perfectly available condoms or other contraception. I haven't made anyone pregnant myself but I imagine that in some cases, the passions and flood of hormones before sex can cause someone to "forget" to use a condom. On the other hand, without this call of nature, some of our grandparents, parents and ultimately us might not even be here ;)

Having children. People's priorities change significantly once they have children. Young people dread the idea of having to settle down and be responsible for a child and they think they want to live this way forever. And yet, most parents say that having children is the most beautiful and enjoyable thing in the world. What happened? Well, hormones, again, are making sure we are reproducing. Compared to the influence of hormones, our opinions have no power. See this TED talk on other ways we are deluding ourselves regarding our future plans.

TED talk: Dan Gilbert: The psychology of your future self

Testosterone, another one of our little hormones. It's supposed to be responsible not only for sexual drive but also the more general life success drive. An increase in Testosterone, which can be achieved by better nutrition, more exercise or other means, influences men's decisions towards more active/aggressive. Instead of watching TV, they may be more likely to go work out. Instead of keeping quiet at work, they may be more likely to express a different opinion to their boss or propose their own idea. It's not a change caused by a rational decision or planning. It's something that influences emotions and that directly influences actions. Without even thinking about it.

Or maybe it's a different hormone or perhaps a set of hormones. Anyway. There's a regulatory chemical in our body which says how much energy can we afford to expend and how much can we risk. If the body thinks that resources are scarce and we are in a bad situation, it starts saving energy. And plays everything safe. That was quite useful in the past in order to somehow stay alive but today it's pretty outdated because the risk of dying from lack of resources (i.e. food) is really low and therefore it's not a risk to drain blood sugar to keep intelligence and willpower cranked to the max.

So, to recap, we can be influenced by our friends, by the society we live in, by our work culture, those little hormones inside us, by our biological clock, by fear and anger, internal balance of nutrients or any other chemicals, by an attractive person passing by... Sometimes it's called influence, other times it's called manipulation. It doesn't matter. It's here with us and it always has been. Objectivity is an illusion.

Check this book out, especially if you think you're smart or rational! David McRaney: You Are Not So Smart

Recently there has been some uproar because Facebook has conducted a tiny experiment. Media informed about this immediately as Facebook published that information and a lot of people got really annoyed but without any good reason.
(this is

Instead, let's think if we can manipulate ourselves to achieve goals that the rational, long-term planning self wants to achieve? Yes, we can, by keeping in mind that emotions drive our decision in a pretty large number of cases.

Example: Sports. It's so painful and annoying and can I go home already and have a dessert at first but if you manage to get over the initial phase, the body will eventually give up and release those promised endorphin hormones which means that you start having some fun and enjoying the activity. So in the beginning it really is legen ... wait for it .... And if you repeat a couple of times, you slowly start to build a skill which actually feels really good because you think you can potentially brag about it and raise your social status. And that is what can make you stick with your sport routine. Not your doctor telling you that you need to move.