Do you feel manipulated? All the time?

English: Portrait of Ivan Pavlov, Russian phys...
English: Portrait of Ivan Pavlov, Russian physiologist and experimental psychologist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my concerns about our modern society is the amount to which we are being manipulated to do things that, upon reflection, most decidedly are not in our own personal best interests.

Of course, I  understand and appreciate the argument that as individuals we have ultimate “free choice” and that no one else — governments, churches, other groups — should be allowed to make choices on our behalf. This is often pulled out as the fundamental logic behind less government intervention, no regulation, self-regulation, “free” markets, and the like.

What I think is not very well understood by the general public is that the very essence of business is to sell us more of what they make, and so each individual business has a strong and sustained financial incentive to do everything (within legal boundaries) in their power to learn how to “sell more” and to follow up on it. [Here is a previous blog post that lays this out in much greater detail]

What does this look like, in reality? For example, through extensive product research, fast food companies have discovered that the human body is wired to embrace fat, salt, and sugar due to age-old biological wiring that says those things are scarce (which they were in the diet of 5,000 years ago) so we naturally gorge on them. Of course they are not scarce anymore, but humans are biologically addicted to them so they find their way into pretty much all recipes coming from our modern industrial food complex. Those same companies extensively research consumption habits, store layouts, serving sizes and price points, colour patterns, and all related aspects to determine “how to sell more”. While this is to be expected as a feature of our modern profit-oriented business society, unfortunately the end result is that consumers are increasingly manipulated into a series of small decisions that often work against their own stated goals.

Of course, the example above is probably well known by most, although not thought about actively when we find ourselves short of time and needing a “quick bite”, and there are 20 fast-food joints within a 5 minute drive from the office….

There are some changes being made — regulation requiring calorie counts being displayed, companies creating “healthy menu” alternatives, and various related things. Interestingly, the studies here suggest that these things don’t work that well — check out this article from The Smithsonian. [In the same vein as some of the ideas suggested in this article, I once suggested that we use basic colour coding for our foods — check out that blog post here.]

Here is another article I have stumbled upon recently that play out this “manipulation” theme: this article from the Washington Post identifies some research suggesting that slot machine sounds manipulate players to play longer — frankly, this is not surprising, given that longer play time drives the profits of the industry.

With one-third of Americans now clocking in at “obese” we certainly need to figure out some ways to counter-act our lack of willpower and personal discipline in the face of the ongoing systemic nature of the business machine and it’s “reality distortion” capabilities.

Oh, and would you like that meal super-sized? Might as well, as it’s a long time before you’ll get your afternoon super snack…. Pavlov would be delighted, or would he?


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