Month: July 2010

Won’t anyone think of the children

Have you ever wondered why no one argues for a higher speed limit on the roads? Or why Australia’s government is trying desperately to censor the entire Internet? And what is the link between these two items? Is there government manipulation behind this? Well, read on to find out! Watoc arguments Since ancient times, politicians, condo boards, PTA meetings and others have found that it is remarkably easy to argue against a visible evil. If you want to score points in an assembly of people, one of the easiest way to do so is to pick something that everyone agrees is wrong / evil / annoying, and argue against it. But this only works if the evil is inherently indefensible – if someone can argue in favor of it, the technique fails. Issues such as crime, child porn, highway accidents are perennial favorites. After all, who is going to step up and defend crime, or suggest that we need more highway accidents? I call this manipulation technique “WATOC”: Won’t Anyone Think Of the Children? because it is often invoked as a protection of the widows and children. It’s important to note that war, religion, and similar topics are NOT good choices for WATOC attacks – too many people would argue that a war is necessary, for example, to make a war protest ‘easy points’. But since we can all...

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Can I change your mind about that?

Ok, let’s take a break from corporate manipulation for a second and go back to first principles… One question I get a fair bit of email about is why manipulation works in the first place. Not corporate manipulations, mind you, which is relatively easy to explain (a lot of people putting a lot of time into figuring out how to subtly influence small, individually inconsequential choices) but larger-scale political manipulations. How did a playboy playmate convince a significant portion of the population that vaccines cause autism? Why do so many people believe in 9/11 conspiracies? Why do some people still believe that there WMDs in Iraq (the subject of a full future blog, this one)? Do you know where the phrase “sour grapes” comes from? Aesop, the Greek fable writer, wrote many of our most well known fables (the tortoise and the hare, anyone?) and one of his fables dealt with a fox that couldn’t reach some grapes. Eventually, the fox convinced himself that the grapes would be sour anyhow, and walked away. Aesop concludes with “People who speak poorly of things that they cannot attain would do well to reflect on this.” Delicious, sour grapes Translation: if we can’t have something, we tend to disparage it. This is one example of cognitive dissonance, which is a well-studied theory of how people learn and form opinions. It turns out...

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What you see…

So I wanted to buy a television a few days ago… with the World Cup in full swing, I figured it was time to upgrade. The whole experience of buying a television, though, turned out to be quite informative (partly because I went with an engineer friend who designs displays for a living) and I figured I’d share some of the experience… Needed an upgrade. The thing about televisions is that, while they appear simple, they are a relatively technical large – ticket item, and so you would expect that manufacturers and retailers would educate customers and be up front about their products and try hard to steer consumers towards the best purchase for their needs. I am kidding, of course. You would expect them to lie and manipulate and twist the truth to breaking point in the hope of selling a few more units, and that’s exactly what they do. Consider an average consumer: he walks into a Best Buy (or another retailer, but Best Buy is an easy target for me), and starts to browse televisions. Most consumers have strong opinions about the size of the television they want, but typically they know almost nothing else about the set itself. The first trick that retailers use is to increase the brightness and the contrast on the television sets they are trying to move. A bright television will...

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