Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Men Who Made Us Spend - Or Did They?

I just got around to watching a three part BBC programme I've recorded called The Men Who Made Us Spend. The general contention was that our preferences for goods and services are less implicitly part of our mental constitution, and more the case of manipulations by capitalists, the media and society, turning us into their playthings.

While there clearly is self-serving media and corporation manipulation intended to filtrate into our psyche, the idea that we are malleable puppets able to have our preferences drastically altered to be manipulated at will is bunkum. Businesses exist to maximise profit, which means looking for ways to extract money from our bank account to theirs. Clearly the best way to achieve this is not to try to change our natural preferences to suit their aims, it is to conduct their aims in accordance with our natural preferences. In other words, highly marketable things, like chocolate, cakes, attractive TV presenters, trendy clothes, accessible novels, addictive video games, alcohol, and box-office hits at the cinema are easy to sell to us precisely 'because' on average we like them more than healthier, safer, more circumspect alternatives. Imagine if instead of supplying beer, wine and spirits, pubs tried to make us healthier by offering only selections of bottled water, fruit juices and teas and coffees. It would obviously be much costlier than catering for our natural pub preferences, and inimical to the success of the pub industry overall.

The primary reason free markets are so successful is not because they can change our preferences at will, it is because they can satisfy the preferences we most naturally have. Of course, those preferences change along with cultural and societal changes, and businesses are excellent at driving people's tastes in the direction they think will generate the most revenue, but they don't do this in a vacuum - they have to work with what's already in us at any one time.

Here's some practical advice that works for me, and I feel confident will work for you. The best way to avoid the susceptibility of corporate and media manipulation is to avoid the susceptibility of peer pressure and status mongering. If you can resist the gravitational pull of conformity and of being shaped to fit a populist mould you'll be impervious to the thrall of those bad influences.  

In my book The Ecstasy Of A New Morality I imagined a man on a desert island with no human contact, and I talked about how he might gradually develop an intrinsic moral system by interacting with other animals. I also expanded that to a similar desert island thought experiment that can also be applied to considering how much we humans are conditioned by how others view us. To see how extreme the social factor is, think of something like style and ownership. Imagine oneself to be on the island but yet fantastically rich, living in a huge mansion, with expensive furnishings, a fast car, fine artworks and a stunning garden. In this scenario any pleasure you had in your opulent situation could only be derived from its intrinsic pleasure – there would be no sense of pleasure from others’ reactions, because there is no one there to react. It is difficult to say just how much contentment a life of such solitary richness would bring, but I suspect with the loss of that all important component of status gravitas one's equity would lose a lot of its meaning and joy.

Questioning how much we humans do without the motivation of securing prestige, approval, popularity and positivity from others leads us to some pretty candid conclusions about what is rewarding for reward's sake and what is rewarding for the responses of others. The extent to which we can resist the pull of outside thralls is roughly commensurate with the extent to which our spending will be built on self-determination.

* Photo courtesy of