I am the master of my fate. Aren’t I?
Like so many teenagers, I once believed that “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” I could take control, think for myself, and guide my own destiny.
It’s a wonderful thought and I really want to believe it’s true. But I keep finding more and more hidden persuaders that manipulate our thinking in unseen ways. In some cases, we manipulate ourselves by mis-framing a situation. In other cases, other people do the work for us.
Consider these situations and ask yourself: Are you the boss of you?
- When you eat potato chips, are you thinking for yourself? Or is some canny food scientist manipulating you by steering you towards your bliss point?
- When you play the slot machines, are you deciding how much to spend or is a sophisticated algorithm dispensing just enough winnings to keep you hooked? Are you being addicted in the machine zone?
- When you don’t eat fish for 20 years, is it because you’re allergic or did you just never think to test your own assumptions? Did you frame yourself?
- When you vote for a political candidate, is it because you have carefully considered all the issues and chosen the best candidate or because a cynical communications expert has got your goat with attributed belittlement?
- When you vote for stronger anti-crime laws, is it because you think they’ll actually work or are you succumbing to the vividness availability bias? (Vivid images of spectacular crimes are readily available to your memory so you vastly over-estimate their frequency).
- When you buy something is it because you need it or because you want it? Perhaps you’re being manipulated by Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, the founder of public relations. Or perhaps you’ve been brandwashed.
In The Century of the Self, a British video documentary, Adam Curtis argues that we were hopelessly manipulated in the 20th century by slick followers of Freud who invented public relations. Of course, video is our most emotional and least logical medium. So perhaps Curtis is manipulating us to believe that we’ve been manipulated. It’s food for thought.
(The Century of the Self consists of four one-hour documentaries produced for the BBC. You can watch the first one, Happiness Machines, by clicking here).