Wednesday, March 27, 2013


"Truth"?  Contradictions? The brain doesn't care.   It  only cares about what works --and it generates heuristics to deal with survival -- with conscious cognition and the illusory "self" as a kind of feedback loop so you can modify settings strategically. You can modify the settings for Windows, too, if you take the time to learn and poke around.

Even the modules to do with “morality” and "empathy" have strategic value, as things that render better group cooperation, and therefore increase the likelihood of  individual survival.  We get by with a little help from our friends.

What about faith?  There's a module for that too.  It s covers up all kinds of things.

Faith is a module that allows us to believe in order.  It is essentially optimistic.

Faith is eternally hopeful.  "I will die someday but live on in Heaven "   Delusions about an AfterLife, either in Heaven or Hawaii are helpful,  Faith = belief + abstraction and self deception.

Since we have a sense of the future, things could be really, really depressing without stuff like faith and hope, religious or otherwise.. Look ahead quickly -- what do you see?  Oh, overpopulation, global warming, world war, pandemics, and long lineups for Ipods.  Quick: believe in God!  Existential Angst is not a recipe for action. Unlike simple fear, it is too ambivalent -- it just interferes with sleep.And you will give up on buying a new smartphone, like...forever!  Because how can you choose.

As I said, the brain doesn't give a shit about epistemology -- it's pragmatic. Accordingly, the best leaders have faith.  They believe, however, primarily in themselves.    Remember Don Draper?  He's gets things done. He gets other people to get things done --all thanks to his ability to handle contradictions and conflict, internally and externally.  Believing your own bullshit -- that's charisma.

The-faculty-of-self .    

It's also  method acting.

Don tells his clients what they want to hear, and what they want to hear depends on the culture they represent -- he plays roles.  But Don has to become the role, just as Dick Whitman became the Don Draper who died in Korea. 

Don has been lying so long he has more or less forgotten Dick Whitman . The Actor has become the Act.

This is similar to our old friend,  Ugluk, who routinely exaggerates (as we have seen)  his skills as warrior and hunter.  Now, on one level, everybody knows he’s not that good – and it’s a show – but his audience want to believe.  Just like you may want to believe there is a bearded guy in the sky looking after you, despite all evidence to the contrary.  It's called   “Willing suspension of disbelief”  and it is not just for poetry  -- it is for everything social -- but especially for all forms of propaganda, personal and public.

Don and Ugluk will not feel “cognitive dissonance’.  Cognitive dissonance is usually understood as the discomfort of recognizing contradictions in one's own beliefs.  Nope. Because the modular mind normally keeps those contradictions asynchronous.  Cognitive dissonance is  the social discomfort felt from getting caught out -- by other people -- with the ...umm... excessively wide stance intellectually --or otherwise – that comes from holding  two contradictory ideas at the same time.  In other words, you don't feel bad about your contradictions unless you get  caught  in the act with your loin cloth  down -- or at least think you might (as in " what if my wife finds out").

No one likes to be exposed –   certainly not exposed as a hypocrite.   But hypocrisy is  our natural state.  Covering it up with fig leaves, clothing, or lies?  When did that start?  Right, with the Apple. And what was the Apple  about.  a.) Getting caught b.) Self awareness.

Why do you think Steve Jobs chose the Apple as a symbol?   Not any apple but an apple with a stolen bite.

Dishonesty is  necessary to the cohesion of any society or culture .  We just have to do it right – which is why we have churches, MBA schools, and … of course… high school!   

Recap:   our brains are hardwired for contradiction on the one hand  – and self deception and hypocrisy . Big lies are a lot of small lies.

If you can’t lie – you’re in trouble.  As Freud’s contemporary, Otto Rank postulated in his theory of neurosis – neurotics are those who are aware of some of their internal contradictions -- which undermines the credibility  of the greatest deceit – or conceit --  of all – the Self.   Yes, self-awareness can make you mentally ill.

Since most “thinking’ is actually unconscious – sticking your mental fingers in all those gears and levers whizzing about inside can be painful.  Of course, you could argue that without such awareness of conflicts that somehow must be resolved there would be no creativity – we would just be automatons.

This is the secret to Barack Obama's success and failure.  Obama is a class act.  But really just an act.  He has a certain charisma -- but, as you have probably noticed, no apparent awareness of contradictions of his position.

A liberal who is more conservative than Ronald Reagan?  Obama is not phased by the incongruity of his position.  Yes, we can?  No, we couldn't!.   His solutions for the challenges that the nation faces?  None, really. In fact, he is making it worse, not better.  There is no creativity here because he is simply not aware.  


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Propaganda, Un-Evolution, Driving, and GWB.

Last time, we went on...and on...and on.... about deception, self deception --and evolution. So you must be aware by now of an unpleasant truth that your brain is really not very well evolved.  Man is the pinnacle of evolution?  I think I like Creationism better.  

Still, while the truth hurts to know that I am not really that more advanced than a turtle,  these ideas do help understand a lot of important, real-world phenomena.  Propaganda, of course. And people's response to it.  And driving.  If you understand driving, you understand everything! And will also quickly sell your car and buy a bicycle.

Since I do PR for car companies, there are some unpleasant truths here, too.
But let's not jump ahead too far.  Back to evolution.  Of, in humanity's case, our lack of it.

Yes, we are unevolved.  Our brains are sub-optimal for the kind of societies that we keep on building and which keep on failing.  You know, Greece, Rome, the Aztecs, America....  We like comforting lies.  The Unpleasant truths will catch up with us in the end. But in the meantime....

As I keep on repeating, it  all comes down to  physiology.  The brain consists of a lot of modules that operate mostly independently and unconsciously to process what we perceive of  random and unfathomable reality – that ‘indifferent” universe. Those modules must somehow reconcile individual action and social behavior -- "I-think" and "Us-think", if you like.

The brain must also reconcile direct perception and immediate emotional response, "Oh, that bear has big teeth --I'm afraid"-- with abstraction, which often involve past experiences, generalizations, and extrapolations about the future.

 "Most bears are dangerous animals but they generally prefer berries to eating people and loud noises and confidence may frighten him off.  Where's my PR, so I can google this problem".

That's the trouble with having language and logic -- the ability to manipulate reality internally.

While you are creating a mental powerpoint presentation on bears and various scenarios for appropriate response from which you can deduce an "action plan", the bear may be eating your toes, or other tasty extensions.

So, it is natural that the brain has modules to turn off conscious thought and protect you from yourself.  You see a bear with big teeth and you start running before you have time to think about it and climb a tree where the bear cannot follow.

Yup, we need mental modules that work using the vast, unconscious, high-speed resources of the brain..

Of course,  the universe doesn't care about you, since "you" doesn't really exist anyway. But it does care about your genes, which do exist.  Nothing personal!   As Don Draper says, there  isn't any "system" out there, no cosmic nanny to help you when times are tough.  So, our mental modules have to be on all the time, working more or less automatically to protect us, or, rather, to protect our genetic material -- while offering the illusion that things have a certain order that "we" can control.  Trouble is -- it's just an illusion. Life isn't that safe.

"We" are like the bird.  More or less oblivious to reality.

If the bird is lucky, it will sense something and -- without thinking -- fly away.

For humans, a good example is driving, an important cultural phenomenon on which we spend vast amounts of time and money, no doubt as a result of the fact that no high school boy can get laid without a car.

 When you drive, you do a lot of things automatically.  You don’t “consciously” think about Almost everything in driving is an unconscious subroutine, the pedals,the gear shift, the turn signals, steering wheel, eye movements forward, backwards, left and right.  Remember driving school?  Remember how hard it was to “learn” all that so it became automatic, yes, “unconscious”?

Driving is a pretty simple thing.  Anyone can drive.

But still a lot of people die in traffic . An old lady steps out against he light in a crosswalk.  A drunk driver cuts in.... Shit happens.

To survive driving, we need rules--that is, agreements with other people that they will stop at red lights, drive at reasonable speeds, stay in the right lane and so on -- and do other things that makes them predictable.   We all have to have the same automatic processes--but the situations in which those processes are applied have to be standardized.   That's pretty much the basic  paradigm for social order.  We need automaticity.  Yet, we also need standardization.

In addition, we need fail-safes because standardization always breaks down.  The rules are don't cover all eventualities -- are sometimes just plain dumb--or get too complicated.  Of course, someties the "fail-safes" are standardized too -- with predictable results.

That is where the conscious mind comes in --often as a defensive check on heuristics.    Defensive driving, for example assumes that socially presumed "order" may be just an illusion, that people may fail to follow rules.  What if the other driver is texting and doesn't see the light?  What if he/she is drunk?
Sometimes you will have to break the rules to stay alive.

In ordinary life, we have to perform many, many such complicated cognitive tasks, using different cognitive subroutines and functions, involving different cerebral modules.    Most of what we do involves heuristic thinking – and much of this is learned unconsciously.  Yet it is dangerous to be too complacent.
Consciousness and self-awareness--as modules--allow you to second guess your automatic responses and modify them.  And, as I said, break rules. 

This can be a problem for propagandists.

Propaganda, of course, aims at mental modules at the individual level -- but with great emphasis on groups - -hence the obsession with demographics and the like -- and trying to group people by their internet browsing habits.  (Porn, kinky porn, kinkier pron.....). In either case, propagandist targets mental modules that function mostly unconsciously.  Of course, its own targeting is also established unconsciously -- more groupthink! 

An advertising "pitch"  never reasons.  It is never reasonable in a rigorous, logical sense.  It is always a rationalization

Unfortunately, consciousness and self-awareness get in the way of propagandists' best efforts. It's that failsafe thing.

 Once upon a time, people liked George Bush because he was "one of us" -- and honest.  Now, they think, "he's one of them" and a liar.  How very "one of us" of us.

The point is that the brain is set up to pay attention to reality -- in the end --especially when it has big teeth and cannot be ignored. Otherwise, it's a bit of a clusterfuck because "reality" and "truth" are not quite the same. 

Luckily.... That's what pays the bills for us in the propaganda business.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Propaganda: There Is No Big Lie

Last time, I argued that the human brain evolves slowly --so we are basically the same creature today as we were millenia ago.    Not matter how advanced our technologies or how superficially complex our societies, and despite micro evolution, we are still fundamentally Stone Age men. By the same token, our cultures are rooted in the Paleolithic.  Accordingly,  rationalized, top-down control will always fail.    No Hitler, or Mao, or even the Koch Brothers will bring real order.
There is no System.  No Big Lie.  For all you 'ism's' lovers  -- No Big Truth either.  Culture is a "Kluge".

What’s the difference between Don Draper and Ugluk the Hunter? 

Not much actually.  Neither of them believed in the Big Lie, or anything like it.  Rather they believed in small lies woven together into stories.  The Art of Advertising is the Art of Life --fiction.  And in fiction it is details that matter.

Don told stories about his past; he told his clients stories about the future of their products. And all those attractive women?  When is a good line, not a story?   Go figure....

Ugluk told stories about his success as a warrior and a hunter and buddy of the Gods, who "friended" him via the Stone Age version of Facebook -- hallucinations.  So Ugluk was popular in his tribe. He would get along just fine today.Oh, and he got a lot of sex -- which proves everything I saying is true.

Don and Ugluk used their  imaginations to make things more than they were---to make themselves more than we were, manipulating not only others perceptions, but their own perceptions of themselves.  They did this smoothly, rarely missing a beat – it was natural and largely unconscious. So everybody loved it. Well, other than their competitors!

Don and Ugluk--of course-- pretended to be 'experts'. On MadMen, we all watch with a little in awe as Don does his magic show with  media, branding and marketing -- winning nods from All Powerful Clients-- and bedding beautiful women.  Ugluk does his own show at the campfire.  His is about how to hunt and kill all sorts of animals.  His listeners seem mesmerized -- even the Gods.  But Don and Ugluk's real expertise is at satisfying-- and therefore guiding -- social expectations.

My colleague at Trinity Communications in New Zealand, Dwight Whitney, calls this "expertation", where "expertise" is understood relative to "expectation".  Propaganda, PR, and Advertising are "Great Expertations".

Did you think that that propaganda, PR, and advertising were really invented in the 20th Century?    The words may have been coined at that time –but the behaviors have been with us always, just like we had psychology before Freud. That was really the main point of what I wrote last time. Much of what we see as "change" or "progress" is nothing of the kind.
As Stone Age men (or women) we  lie reflexively and unconsciously--unaware that we are doing it, as individuals and in groups because we are social beings. Think of life without this kind of “advertising”.  No one would get laid and the species would die out.  Of course, we like to think we know what we are doing.  We want to be in control.  And we think we know what we want.  But sorry to to tell you -- it isn't that simple. Because our conscious thoughts are often unconsciously decided -- not by propaganda of any kind -- so much as by biology, which is driven by strong but often contradictory needs --or by the lies embedded in culture, which is also an expression of biology.

 We are social animals. There is a tradeoff for everything.  And nothing is free.

The Ad above is an example.  For most women, picking up a "hot"  guy is about getting laid, if only because "hot" guys are more into casual sex.  At the same time, most women want to find committed partners -- who want more than casual sex -- who are usually not the "hot" guys and don't need to be 'picked up". That's why we have the expression, "Nice guys finish last".   So, we need various fictions to gloss over these apparent conflicts of interest.

Without the made-up world of our minds,  life would be so much simpler -- but boring.  There would be no TV and no consumerism.  Women would stop wearing bras and makeup.  Men would lose interest in football and baseball and “manly” stuff in general and start wearing pink a lot.  Omigod -- no porn!    WYSIWYG would take on real meaning.
Thank god   – everybody lies.

A lot of small lies - all the time, everywhere.

Still, so much attention is paid to the Big Lie.

The  Big Lie means someone is in control and we are just victims.   No, said the Germans, we didn’t hate Jews – Hitler made us hate them. No, say Americans we don't hate Ragheads, we just bomb them.

It wasn't the Gestapo that rounded up most of the Jews -- it was ordinary people,  friends and neighbors.   One can argue that  Hitler was merely expressing a tribalism basic to human nature -- fear of the "Other".  Antisemitism was not unique to German culture.  And we should never forget that it wasn't only the Jews who were persecuted --but anyone who was different -- the Roma for example -- as I said, the "Other".

There was no "System" of Control --not one that worked -- there was only the worst part of human nature, something dating back millennia.  Hitler just rode the wave. He, like George W Bush,  had hit his personal Trifecta with the Wiener Republic.

The idea of the "Big Lie" deflects attention from the multitude of may small lies that weave the tapestry of our lives, not to mention, culture in general. It is a way of avoiding responsibility.  So Don is right -- there is no Big Lie -- just a Big Excuse.   We are still primitive beings.  And cultures, for all their technologies are primitive too..

Ask Don.  Ask Ugluk.  They know.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Propaganda & Evolution

In my last post, we looked at memes and their evolution, which I suggested generate the social narratives that define every social group from the Family to the Nation--not just our histories, but our cultures.

Compared to biological evolution which takes place a little at a time over millions and millions of years, cultural evolution may seem to place in the blink of an eye – or, these days, in the swipe of a finger on your touch pad -- but it  still takes time -- millenniums.

Wait, you say.  Up until, you've been talking about culture and society evolving over just the last two centuries, as with   memes such as "the public", "the "child", "democracy" and the like -- in response to changes in technology just a few hundred years ago. 

Now, you are saying, these changes are not substantive?

Yes ... and no.

Yes, because microevolution drives evolution as a whole.  

Obviously, modern American society is quite different from New England society in the 18th Century.  But micro evolution is just that -- micro -- not macro -- small changes -- most of which do not endure.  What if the huge changes we see with industrialization and the like are more appearance than substance in the grand scheme of things? 

Consider ---while Homo Sapiens has also undergone genetic transformations over millenia -- it remains the same species.

Europeans once lived in Africa. To survive in northern climes they needed less pigmentation so their skins could generate more Vitamin D.    There were other changes, too, in the neolithic, as a response to the development of agriculture.  So Europeans look different from Africans who look different from American Indians who look different from Asians.  There are some functional differences too, such as lactose tolerance or intolerance, sensitivity to gluten and so on.

But a man is a man for all that.  And so, too are dogs.

Genetic variation and diversity make for differences -- but not substantive ones.  Your poodles and great danes look different -- but they are still just dogs.Wolves and dogs behave differently just as hunters behave differently from computer engineers.  But species similarities are greater than the differences.

Cultures are like people (and dogs).

Cultural microevolution, in response to technology, environmental changes and cultural mixing, means that new memes pop up-- like the genes for green or blue eyes and red or blonde hair or short legs on a dachshund, but they don't necessarily change anything fundamentally.     Cultures can be be bigger or smaller, simpler or more complex just like people and pets but underneath they obey the laws of human nature. 

There is no evidence that the human brain has changed that much over centuries, other than getting slightly smaller (which may shows you that TV advertising does have an effect!)

We are still have stone age brains and stone age minds.  And our cultures are stone age too. Which is not to say that macro evolution is not occurring -- just not as fast as we might like.

To repeat:  memes, like genes mutate all the time.  But only a tiny, tiny number will survive the test of time and the environment. It's trial and error.

Mostly error.  The fact is that most "civilizations" are unsuccessful experiments that commit ecocide and die.

Read Jarad Diamond

Modern American society looks a lot different from that Ugluk the Hunter's -- but it is still inherently tribal. And seems doomed to go the way of Easter Island's.  The technological and social sophistication o any "advanced society" just makes it harder to sustain.      

While industrial societies evolve to respond to  new ways of doing things and new challenges, and provide us with all sorts of shiny new tools and shiny new ideas,  is this really progress? (As  John Gray says.)   Dickens wrote with a pen.  Hemingway wrote with a typewriter.  And I am writing with an advanced computer.  My advanced computer does not make me a great writer. 

Conservatives who fear primal instincts and seek refuge in tradition and authority will probably agree with me. See:  Old Stuff is better!  To disappoint them, I must that add that there was never a Golden Age.  Fathers are just as wrong as their children, if not more so, through a surfeit of fixed ideas and a lack of flexibility.

Also,  sex is really, really fun. But I digress...

Sex is also biology.  And biology--the “design” and function of our brains – is the ultimate determinant --just as hardware on a computer decides what you can and cannot do with the software -- it is both the  limiting and enabling factor -- not just for individuals but for the Group mind, which is just a bunch of separate brains trying to coordinate.


Yup -- “genes ‘r us”.

What does all this have to do with propaganda and PR?

A lot....because.... these notions generally presuppose a top-down control of people's minds that is simply impossible.  It aint that simple.