Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Desire for Autonomy

Any practical consideration of human behavior tends to lead to an ethical quagmire: when we attempt to influence a person to do something, we cannot be certain that what we are doing is truly in that person’s best interest.   Even when it can be objectively and mathematically demonstrated that the person is better off for taking the action that we have persuaded him to undertake, there is still the question of ethics because, outcome aside, we have interfered with his autonomy.

This comes from the implicit assumption that people wish to be autonomous – to exercise their free will and enjoy the benefits of so doing.  Even when the exercise of free will would have negative consequences, it is argued that suffering the consequences of liberty is also of value in the long term.   In this sense, any attempt to interfere with autonomy, even for beneficent reasons, is considered ethically shady.

But this rests upon the assumption that people wish to be autonomous – and while this is assumed to be universal, it certainly is not:  there are personality types and even entire cultures in which there is an obvious desire to be controlled – people who would rather be told what to do than to decide for themselves, and who will gladly surrender themselves to the dominion of others. Whence this urge to be conditioned, to conform, and to obey?

Essentially, it is an escape from having personal responsibility – of making difficult choices and accepting the blame for any unfortunate consequences.  Even people who are quite autonomous and strong-willed will eagerly seek out authorities to tell them what to do in specific instances – to see a doctor when they are sick is to yield to the doctor’s authority.  Those who are less intelligent and strong seek out authorities more often, for less significant things.   Anyone who undertakes to diet is essentially admitting they are not competent to choose the foods they eat, and has placed themselves in the hands of an authority, and is glad to be told what to do.   Life is so much easier when one is relieved of the burden of thinking and can simply obey orders – and even if the outcome is bad, there is someone else to blame.

The willingness to compromise is the basis of human society.    While living with others is beneficial in many regards, it is also detrimental in others – and man chooses to participate in society because the good outweighs the bad.   The same can be said of an individual who submits to any system of control: so long as he perceives that the benefits of obedience outweigh the costs, he will remain obedient.   In many instances, this is faith in institutions that, like religious fervor, is based on belief rather than any evidence that can be presented – life in a totalitarian regime may be miserable, but if it is perceived to be better than the past, or hoped that it will be better in future, people will accept and support the authoritarian state.

It is not accurate to state that such people have been conditioned – they are voluntary participants and coercion and deception are unnecessary.   Those who need conditioning are the ones who do not perceive that the benefits of obedience outweigh the costs – and if the state cannot change the balance by its actions (providing greater benefits at lesser costs), then it may attempt to change the perception of such individuals: to convince them that the benefits are greater than they are, or the cost is less than it is.

To the autonomous individual, the greatest cost of subordination is his own dignity and humanity, hence the most common technique for gaining is compliance is to abolish both: one he has been dehumanized and stripped of his dignity, he has nothing to lose by cooperating with those who wish to control him.   If freedom is not an option, he can only choose which master to whom he will enslave himself.   If thinking for himself is not possible, he can only choose who will do his thinking for him.  And this is the basis of all forms of conditioning – to adjust an individual’s perception of cost and benefit – and its ultimate end is to produce the malleable man, whose perception of authority is positive regardless of cost or benefit.

And at this point, it seems I’ve strayed a bit too far from my intended subject (advertising)  - and should come to a close.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Conditioning of Man

Most of the “skills” we possess are merely patterns of behavior to which we have intentionally conditioned ourselves.   We learn that a given behavior is connected to a given outcome, and this becomes part of our mental programming.  It is not always intentional: connections are formed based on experiences, whether or not we mean to make associations, they are made.

There was an experiment (Razran) in which a group of students was treated to a series of luncheons.  For the test group, the same music was played each time.   Later, the students were asked to evaluate a number of pieces of music and indicate what the music made them think of – naturally, the group associated the music that had been played at the luncheons with food or eating.  It is because the two coincided that the connection was made, even though there was no intent or overt awareness.

However, it’s noted that conditioned reflexes are a temporary adjustment that requires reinforcement.   Once Pavlov’s dog had been conditioned to associate a bell and food, it would salivate at the sound of the bell even if no food was presented.  But over time if the bell was sounded and no food was presented, the association would in time be broken.   It is not a matter of a coincidence always/never occurring, but an assessment of the probability of a coincidence.   While it is highly unlikely that dogs can consciously calculate probabilities, they may be unconsciously estimated according to the  recentness, frequency, and intensity of the association and related stimuli.

In more complex behavior patterns, a person develops skill at a task my learning a pattern of activities and behaviors that lead to success.   He continues to follow the same pattern in the past, expecting the same outcome in the future.   If he fails to receive that outcome, he tries the same activity again, assuming he did something wrong.   It takes a few attempts for it to dawn on him that the procedure that worked in the past is no longer working (under new conditions) and to consider a different approach to achieving his goals.  The more complex the pattern or the more protracted the process, the more difficult it is for the individual will recognize the connection, hence it is harder to train and harder to break training for complex tasks.

And so, conditioned behavior is part of human life, and is often used in obvious and beneficial ways.   We develop good habits and learn skills by conditioning ourselves – and when we raise a child, teach a student, or train an employee we are leveraging the exact same mechanisms to condition them.   It is even being leveraged when we attempt to learn something by trial and error: the natural consequences of action being the reward or punishment that reinforces or discourages behavioral patterns.

On an ethical note, there is some argument to be made whether this conditioning should be considered education or brainwashing – but the difference is entirely political: it depends on whether we agree to the end to which these techniques are used.  Parents and teachers “trick” children into developing good habits and the “treatment” given by therapists can be intentionally done without informing the patient of their intentions. 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Happiness and Materialism

Anyone who truly believes that money cannot buy happiness has led a charmed life, or is conveniently forgetting a time in which they suffered for the lack of something that money could easily obtain.   

Most people can recall a time when they went hungry for a few days for lack of money to buy food, or nights when they worried about being evicted or having the utilities shut off for their inability to pay.  Many can recall a time when money would have made a significant and lasting difference in their quality of life – by enabling them to obtain a better education, or to relocate for a job opportunity that would have been a turning point in their lives.   For some, the lack of money is a constant distress.

In that sense, money does not buy happiness so much as it keeps anguish at bay: happiness is correlated to wealth up to about $75,000 per year – before that amount each increase in income has a corresponding increase in happiness, after that amount the slope flattens out considerably.   People in that income range have the money they need to satisfy their basic needs and to obtain some level of convenience and comfort – anything more buys luxury that does not increase happiness.   And this, perhaps, is the level at which more money cannot buy more happiness, at least in a general sense.

And then there is the matter of the hedonic treadmill, a theory that suggests people become accustomed to a certain level of stimulation.  When they experience a new sensation, their pleasure is intense – but as that sensation perpetuates, they become inured to it and need more stimulation in order to experience pleasure again.   So what is needed is not a stable level of income, but an ever-increasing one, such that there is a constant increase in the stimulation they sense.

However, that does not ring true given the slope of the material happiness curve: the amount of pleasure gained from a certain amount of money would not flatline after a certain point – there would still be a marginal increase in happiness per unit of income, and that is not evident.

There is also evidence that money is not a sufficient cause for happiness.  Historically, wealth has increased significantly over time and people today are nearly three times as wealthy as they were fifty years ago – this is across all social classes, even the poor are richer than they have ever been in history.   Meanwhile, studies of happiness show little improvement.  

What is needed to prove or disprove the correlation is a study in the change of wealth – to correlate happiness with wealth is a good start, but three people at a given level of income may have different histories.  The person who has been at that level of income for several years may be moderately happy, one who has recently risen to that level may be ecstatic, and one who has experienced a misfortune that reduced their income to that level may be miserable.  The average score would average the three together, washing out the effects of the change.

So to correlate material wealth to happiness would also require a study of the changes in wealth – while it is entirely reasonable to assume that there is a correlation between change in wealth and change in happiness, to my knowledge this has never been quantified.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Who Comes First?

Ethical dilemmas are often posed in the scenario of a crisis situation.  If there are only so many seats on a lifeboat, or so much space in a bomb shelter, whom do you take in and whom do you turn away?  It is presumed that the choices people make in a difficult situation reveal their true values.

The same is said of companies who face a crisis, and people watch to see “who comes first?” as a way of gauging the company’s ethical values.  Propaganda aside, whose interests does a company seek to protect when a crisis arises? Do the managers set up golden parachutes from themselves?  Do they seek to protect profits?  Or do they take care of their customers and employees?

There is a strong distaste for firms that put profits first, and the widespread perception that when companies are faced with a product recall, this is an opportunity for the firm to show their true colors and demonstrate whether they care about customers.  Particularly in industries where human life is at stake, people expect firms to put profits aside and do the right thing – as almost every firm will claim it does when there is no crisis at hand.

Unfortunately, the traditional approach of companies is first to attempt to cover up the incident so that no-one will ever realize that a mistake was made.   If it cannot be hidden, to maintain a stiff upper lip and show no sign of panic so that people think that they are well in control of the situation.   This sort of cold reserve that gives battlefield commanders the mien of valor comes off as being cold and unconcerned, or even ignorant or in denial, in non-emergency situations.

There is some merit to the notion that people will recall companies that have to issue defects as being incompetent, but survey results do not bear that out.  No-one expects perfection, and the majority of people recognize that even the best-run companies can make mistakes.

And if this bears out, then it is correspondingly true that very few people will assume that a company that makes a mistake is entirely incompetent.   Accidents will happen, and the true competence of the firm is not in producing perfection, but in responding competently when mistakes occur.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Haphazard Training

The unfortunate truth is that practices in teaching workmen skills is very haphazard.   Schools teach students the skills they might need in an abstract form, often buy rote and with little to no practical application.   When a new employee is hired he is sent to the shop with little instruction, expected to observe and figure out the job with little guidance.

This is even more so of the knowledge workers than laborers.  An individual who is meant to fuel an engine is shown how to shovel fuel into the boiler, but one who is meant to sell a product is simply told to “go sell” without any instruction.   It is to his credit that, by some haphazard process, workers can teach themselves to do a task with some level of proficiency – but this ability is too much relied upon by the vast majority of employers.

For employers, this leads to employee turnover. Employees who might have become competent with instruction are unable to figure things out on their own and leave in frustration, or are dismissed for being less productive than needed.   As such a person may learn a piece of the job in one shop, another piece in another shop, and over the course of several years come to develop competency in his trade.

Learning by experience means learning by mistakes and successes – which carries with it the necessity of making mistakes, and some of them quite serious.  “The burnt child avoids the fire” summarizes the issue of haphazard learning: it would be better if the child were taught to avoid the fire without getting burned.

This is not merely a theoretical consideration of what might happen – looking at the high turnover rate in businesses in general, and certain industries and positions specifically, it is a widespread problem.