They say human beings use only ten percent of their brains. They say polyunsaturated fat is better for you than saturated fat. They say that tiny squiggles in a rock prove there once was life on Mars. They say our children's test scores are declining. They say Jesus was a direct descendant of King David. They say you can earn $15,000 a week in your spare time. They say marijuana leads to LSD, and LSD can lead to suicide. They say the corner office is a position of power. They say the elderly should get flu shots this season. They say homosexuality is an environmentally learned trait. They say there's a gene for homosexuality. They say people can be hypnotized to do anything. They say people won't do anything under hypnosis that they wouldn't do when conscious. They say Prozac alleviates depression. They say mutual funds are the best long-term investment. They say computers can predict the weather. They say you haven't met your deductible.
Who, exactly, are "they," and why do they say so much? More amazing, why do we listen to them?
We each have our own "theys"--the bosses, experts, and authorities (both real and imaginary) who seem to dictate our lives, decide our fates, and create our futures. In the best of circumstances they can make us feel safe, the way parents do. They make our decisions for us. They do our thinking for us. We don't have to worry about our next move--it has already been decided on our behalf, and in our best interests. Or so we hope.
For not everyone to whom we surrender ourselves is deserving of our trust. The pretty young "sales associate" at the Gap may not be the best judge of how that pair of blue jeans looks on us, or of which belt we should wear to a job interview. Even though she seems genuinely concerned with our well-being, we must not forget that she's been trained in the art of the "upsell" and is herself under the influence of a barrage of incentives conceived at corporate headquarters. One scheme leads her to compete with her colleagues on the sales floor for daily prizes, while another threatens penalties or termination if she does not meet a certain quota of multiple-item sales by the end of the week. The coercive techniques inflicted on her, and the ones she in turn inflicts on us, are the products of years of painstaking research into methods of influencing human behavior.
The justifiably cynical among us have come to expect this sort of treatment from the professional people in our lives. When we walk into a shopping mall, we understand that we will be subjected to certain forms of influence. We recognize that retail sales are about the bottom line, and that to stay in business, shop owners depend upon our behaving in a predictable and somewhat malleable fashion. If instructing a salesgirl to unfasten the second button of her blouse may garner a larger volume of sales, the store manager owes it to himself and his superiors and their shareholders to do so. And, chances are, it will work.
But these techniques are rapidly spreading from the sales floor and the television screen to almost every other aspect of our daily experience. Whether we are strolling through Times Square, exploring the Internet, or even just trying to make friends at the local bar, we are under constant scrutiny and constant assault by a professional class of hidden persuaders. In most cases, if the coercion works according to plan, we don't even realize it has been used.
It's not always easy to determine when we have surrendered our judgment to someone else. The better and more sophisticated the manipulation, the less aware of it we are. For example, have you ever attended a sporting event, rock concert, or political convention in one frame of mind, but found yourself inexplicably swept away by the emotion of the crowd? How many times have you walked into a mall to buy a single pair of shoes, only to find yourself purchasing an entire outfit, several books, and a few CDs before you made your way back to the parking lot?
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