I am reading a scary book: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. The premise of the book, amply supported by research, is that we’re not as rational as we believe ourselves to be. We in fact have two mental modes. One is rational and works something like this:
“It’s lunchtime and I’m hungry. I would really like to have five pieces of cake, but I’m overweight and not interested in dying prematurely. Then too, the cake at this restaurant was stale the last time I ate here, and they don’t have cheesecake on the menu, which is my fave. Guess I’ll have a shrimp salad and split a lavender creme brulee.”
We believe that’s how we make most of our choices, because those are the choices we’re aware of. The trouble is, processing every decision, from what to pay attention to, to what reaction each stimuli merits, would be the work of ten brains plus two, and we’re each only issued the one. That brain has developed all manner of quiet pathways that are busily deciding Stuff for us, all unbeknownst to us, owner of said brains.
Take for example, the exposure effect. This has nothing to do with David Beckham’s naked chest, so git your mind outta the back seat. Way Back in the Jungle Day, we learned to notice anything different in our environment, because different could mean deadly. When that different thing–a newly fallen tree, a peculiar species of orchid, a fish we hadn’t seen before–kept showing up without doing us any harm, we figured it was benign. Benign fixtures became part of what helped us sort out the next oddity from what was trustworthy, and thus familiarity became associated with being good. Or that’s the theory.
Fast forward to those clever folks with nothing better to do than study human nature… and you get an experiment like so: For thirty days, every day, the morning newspaper on a college campus had a little box in one corner with five strange words in it and no explanation. (The words were real words from an obscure language). After a month, regular subscribers were asked which words they thought were associated with benign concepts, and which ones were probably terms for unpleasant concepts. Overwhelmingly, the more often the word had been published, the more likely it was to be considered a “good” word.
Now do you see why this book is scary? Extrapolate that to Google ads, Facebook ads, campaign coverage… and no, we don’t have to consciously focus on information for our busy little Jungle brains to start recognizing it and deciding (without our awareness) that it’s benign.
This is part of the theory behind propaganda, effective advertising, and Montessori schools. Put anything in our environment consistently enough, and if it doesn’t hurt us, our brains are wired to start seeing it as benign. The conclusion I draw for myself: I must ensure that I remain aware of what’s in my environment, so my oh-so-helpful jungle brain doesn’t allow the exposure effect to steer me in directions I don’t want to go.
What’s one thing you’d like to get out of your immediate surroundings? To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of The Virtues of Christmas.