Archive for August, 2008

Appropriate Backlash

August 19, 2008

Over the weekend I read Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini, a recommendation of Tyler Cowen‘s.  The book laid out some principles which people use to influence others behavior, and illustrated the principles with colorful examples.  It was a quick and entertaining read, but I was miffed by Cialdini’s conclusion.  He writes that we should militate against those that would use the psychological methods described in his book to influence us:

The enemy is the advertiser who seeks to create an image of popularity for a brand of toothpaste by, say, constructing a series of staged “unrehearsed-interview”…Here [we] are all being exploited.  In an earlier chapter, I recommended against the purchase of any product featured [in such a commercial] and I urged that we send the product manufacturers letters detailing the reason and suggesting that they dismiss their advertising agency.  I would recommend extending this aggressive stance…We should refuse to watch TV programs that use canned laughter.  If we see a bartender beginning a shift by salting his tip jar with a bill or two of his own, he should get none from us…In short, we should be willing to use boycott, threat, confrontation, censure, tirade, nearly anything, to retaliate.

Cialdini’s vitrionic response seemed to me a bit over the top.  Canned laughter may induce us to laugh more than we otherwise would have, but we still choose to laugh.  If we tip a bartender because it looks like other people have tipped him we still decide whether to tip or not ourselves.  It would be great if the toothpaste salesman gave us a completely dry list of the advantages and disadvantages of his brand vis-a-vis the other products available, but the real world we can’t be surprised when a salesman advocates for his particular brand.  As long as we understand the mechanism which which he is trying to influence us, we are free to choose to buy or not to buy it based upon our own judgement.

The appropriate response to a “psychological” sales pitch is to recognize it as such, and thereby render it ineffective.  Once we understand how seeding a tip jar may influence our decision to tip a bartender or not, we can make sure that we only tip for truly good service and not based on the amount of money already given.  There is no reason to aggitate further against businesses who use those type of pitches than to express your personal preferences by either buying or not buying their products.  If Cialdini wants businesses to stop using the methods described in his book, he should just try to educate consumers about how they may be persuaded.  By writing such a popular book, he has already gone a long way to do just that.



August 16, 2008

Last night my parents took Petek and I to see “Big Top Chautauqua” outside of Bayfield, Wisconsin.  The show was about the history of Minnesota, and featured a whole bunch of black and white pictures of daily Minnesotan life from the late 19th and early 20th century.  There were a few historical events that I was surprised to have never heard of, and the live music was great, but my strongest impression was of the roughness of life during that period.  In the expressions of the people in the photographs, I was reminded of my days in the countryside of China.  After living in China for a while, I realized that people expected much less from the government.  They knew that if they got sick or hurt, there would be no government safety net to take care of them.  They knew that they had to make plans (children) so they would have means to get by in old age.  Often, I felt as though people were just trying to get by.  I imagine Minnesotan pioneers would have had a similar attitude.

Test Tube Murder?

August 4, 2008

Would you support the right of a pregnant woman to abort her pregnancy against the wishes of the father of the fetus?  What about the right of a father to abort a fetus against the wishes of a pregnant mother?  If babies could gestate outside a woman’s body, would you reconsider your responses?

This type of technology might also refocus the abortion debate.  Megan McArdle is right on the money here:

Pro-choice advocates don’t talk so much about the right not to be a parent; they focus on the right to control your own body.  That’s also where the constitutional law seems to be focused, or so I read the right to privacy.  The minute you can take an aborted fetus and put it in an artificial womb, that argument falls away, and we get down to what pro-choicers really care about:  not having a kid.

The Truth about Human Nature

August 1, 2008

A United Kingdom university published the oldest joke in the world today.  At the same time, you give some modern humans a little leeway, and look what happens.

Some things never change.