The Big Lie – the complete book online - 6 Irrationality

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Chapter 6

The Kings of Misrule


Schopenhauer thought that men’s actions were far less governed by premeditation and deliberate planning than they believed. Very commonly, men act in accordance with their inner strivings without realising what those strivings are, and then attempt to justify them afterwards. Anticipating Freud, Schopenhauer noted that we are frequently unaware of our true motives, and may only become conscious of what we were aiming at (or what the Will was aiming at) after we have acted and noted the results of our actions . . . Jung, who read Schopenhauer in adolescence and who admitted being deeply influenced by him, begins his autobiography by writing: “My life is a story of the self-realisation of the unconscious”.

Anthony Storr, Music and the Mind, 1992

In 1978 “the Reverend” Jim Jones led more than 900 followers of his cult, the People’s Temple, to the jungles of Guyana and set up Jonestown. He instructed them to drink cyanide and they did. Seventy million Chinese, members of the Falun Gong movement, believe that a mystical wheel rotates in their bellies, protecting their bodies against disease. A “Charismatic Christian” is someone who not only believes in God’s omnipotence – the supernatural power to heal the sick, enrich the poor, move mountains, divide seas, and destroy or create universes – he or she also believes that, like Superman, He routinely intervenes in daily lives. Believers will testify how God preserved them from terrorists, steered them to an elusive item when shopping, or dropped a timely ten-pound note in their path. Morris Cerullo’s annual London shows exploit these beliefs: his first great circus in 1992 was preceded by a come-and-see-the-miracles advertising campaign featuring smashed white sticks and dark glasses. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the “Charismatic” schism represented less than 1 per cent of the world’s Christians. Today it comprises more than 25 per cent, or 400 million believers. All over the world there are religious fundamentalists who fervently believe they can make peace by force, save lives by killing, achieve redemption by sacrificing themselves. As Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene has observed, “The fact is any religion sounds barking mad except to those brought up in it”.

The urge to find supernatural explanations for the exigencies of life is apparent in every part of our culture. The first known horoscope was cast for a child born on 29 April 410 bc. The idea that the movement of heavenly bodies helps to determine human events has been around even longer. At first, like reading from tea leaves or entrails, these were auguries on matters of state, but now millions of people turn to the astrology pages of magazines and newspapers to consult, with varying degrees of credulity, predictions affecting their personal life. Television’s X-Files and its many imitators, and a flood of Hollywood films, are contrived around supernatural characters or situations. Millennium fever, satanic child abuse, even the magic realism of quality literature – all require a massive suspension of disbelief.

Yet many people, against all evidence, appear to have a sublime faith in metaphysics – a belief that their fate is governed by the movements of the planets, or by supernatural beings. Or that, in the face of astronomical odds, it is they who are going to win the national lottery. People often attach strong emotional faith to secular institutions which they feel have their personal interests at heart: the football club, the company, the Tory Party, the British nation. Such beliefs and actions are beyond rationality. We can conclude that such people harbour unrealisable aspiration, unreasonable hope, and an intense conviction that the immense starry void of the universe revolves around their individual destiny. There’s nowt so queer as folk like these. Are any of them in your family?

Few people describe themselves as self-obsessed, intemperate, impressionable, flighty, or unreasoning. On the whole people model their self-images in heroic moulds. They like to think of themselves as altruistic, self-controlled, independent-minded, consistent, and rational. Their behaviour, they believe, is directed by reason, not by impulse, feelings, anxiety, traditional beliefs, dreams, portents, superstitions, hunches, omens, compulsions, magnetic influences, and other people. No amount of evidence will make them think otherwise, and they will rarely admit to being “sold” an idea.

The truth is otherwise. If the consumer is king, he is the King of Misrule. There is an abundance of circumstantial and scientific evidence to corroborate our susceptibility to irrational influences. And there are many reasons for it, from psychological inclinations to physiological limitations. Call it human nature.

A lot of nonsense is spouted by economists and others who approach advertising from a purely rational point of view. Free-market theory champions consumer choice on the assumption that enlightened self-interest ensures the rational behaviour of markets. However, tests by Daniel Kahneman at the University of Princeton show we do not always make self-serving choices. In one experiment, respondents were presented with £20 and offered two options: split it 50/50 or keep £18 and give away £2. The test conditions were completely anonymous: the respondents did not know with whom they were sharing, nor who was offering the choice. Yet three-quarters of them chose to split the windfall equally. Presumably these people were being true to a fair-minded self-image of themselves.

Even in terms of their own self-interest, people with money in their pockets are not unfailingly sensible about how they spend it, particularly if it’s in short supply. It was for this reason that workers’ wives took care to meet them at the factory gate on pay-day. In Russia today the car is the lure. Russian men must have a car, no matter if the family has to wait for furniture, clothes, holidays, even food. In all cultures in which it has been introduced motorised transport has always implied subconscious personal rewards far greater than simply getting from A to B. Ernst Dichter, who helped introduce motivational research into advertising, called this “the strategy of desire”.

Blind taste tests of products habitually demonstrate that consumers’ expressed taste preferences are illusory, e.g. more people will prefer the taste of a bowl of cereal when they are told it is Kellogg’s than when its provenance is unknown. Their judgement of taste has been manipulated by brand imagery.

A 1999 survey concluded that one in four British adults are innumerate: they could not work out what change they should receive from two pound coins when making a £1.35 purchase. Many more are severely handicapped in dealing with more abstruse mathematical concepts. The National Lottery introduced into Britain in 1994 has been called a tax on stupidity. Around twenty-five million people, more than half the adult population, participate in it each week, spending around £2.50 on average. The odds are stacked against them more heavily than in roulette or horse racing. Numbers are chosen by hunch, by system, birthdays, even by random number-generating products sold specifically for this purpose. Few punters choose a run, say, of 1,2,3,4,5,6 as their “lucky” numbers. Yet it is as likely to win as any other combination. Their judgement is poor; tests easily demonstrate that people find it difficult to calculate probability and consistently overvalue anything that they have personally chosen, even a series of numbers. The denying response to statistical logic is emotional: “Maybe . . . but just suppose you won”. In 1998 the National Lottery adopted as its advertising slogan precisely this mantra of desperate hope: “Just maybe”.

In his incisive book Irrationality: The Enemy Within,1 Stuart Sutherland, professor of psychology at the University of Sussex, scoured the scientific literature, citing well-known experiments and others less so, to compile a dossier of seemingly mindless human behaviour. The sources which he identifies lead to the following series of conclusions.

Emotion is the most powerful force behind irrational human behaviour. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, defines emotion as “a feeling and its distinctive thoughts, psychological and biological states and range of propensities to act”.2 Emotion seems to short-circuit the neurological system. As Pascal wrote, “The heart has its reasons that reason knows not of”. Love is blind. So is anger. And fear. We all acknowledge these basic feelings and others such as sorrow, joy, guilt and disgust. You can see emotion in others. Paul Ekman of the University of California at San Francisco has demonstrated that specific facial expressions for four of them (fear, anger, sorrow, and joy) are universally recognised around the world, including preliterate people in remote cultures untouched by exposure to television and cinema.3 You can feel emotion in yourself; it has physiological components: dry mouth, rapid heartbeat, a flushed face when someone is angered, embarrassed, or simply shy. Sexual jealousy and grief create the physical symptoms of clinical depression.

Emotional responses are frequently provoked by vivid impressions which overwhelm reasoning. It is images, rather than words, which are usually the trigger. Sutherland cites the film Jaws. The opening scene, supported by an ominous music track, shows an unsuspecting swimmer yanked beneath the surface of the water by an unseen force. Sutherland reports that the film kept people off the beaches in California (and doubtless elsewhere). “It has been calculated”, he says “that the risk of swimmers being snapped up by a shark is very much less than the risk of their being killed in a road accident while on the way to the coast”. Equally, the film Psycho probably kept an earlier generation of moviegoers out of the shower for some time, though that behaviour was less open to observation.

Abstract reasoning is easily bested by a concrete example, too, because the context is more accessible to us. We put more faith in the opinion of a friend in a pub, or in a single striking case, than statistics: “My grandfather’s ninety, and he’s been smoking twenty a day since he was 16”. The more personally we can relate to the way information is presented, the more likely we are to believe it. In this context, the size of the sample and whether it is at all representative is totally irrelevant. Sutherland points out that American women had been unmoved by government initiatives to encourage diagnostic tests for breast cancer until the wives of two national political figures, Mrs Gerald Ford and Mrs Nelson Rockefeller, contracted the disease. Personifications carry an emotional appeal. Whether they are representative or not does not matter, because most people assume that, at heart, other people are like themselves.

For instance, we all have “common sense”. To the philosophers of the Enlightenment that phrase stood for the ignorance and vulgarity of the herd. The 18th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico described it as “judgement without reflection, shared by an entire class, an entire nation, or the entire human race”. To Somerset Maugham it appeared to be “another name for the thoughtlessness of the unthinking. It is made of the prejudices of childhood, the idiosyncrasies of individual character and the opinion of the newspapers”. It is the set of shared assumptions which advertising argument calls into play. While the groundrules may vary depending on the society we live in, evolutionary psychologists, just as ordinary people do, proceed from the assumption that there is such a thing as human nature: people everywhere have fundamentally the same minds.

When it comes to their personal prospects, most people are determined optimists. A soldier goes into battle hoping against reason that the bullet hasn’t got his name on it. In the first week of the 1996 Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease scare in Britain, consumers stopped buying beef, leaving the supermarkets holding massive stocks. Until beef was reduced to half price, when it walked off the shelves. Apparently losing one’s mind and suffering a horrible death from a degenerative brain disorder was more easily contemplated at £3 than at £6 per pound. We all know people who prefer not to have a physical examination because it would reveal the true state of their health. There are occasions when all of us find it difficult to “face the truth”. According to Sutherland, 95 per cent of British drivers feel they are a better than average driver, most people think they will live longer than average, and 20 per cent of patients who are told they have cancer refuse to believe it. Self-deception avoids confrontation with unpleasant facts; it governs much of our daily life in matters small and large. We are poor judges of the true causes of our own moods and emotions. We will concoct far-fetched explanations to explain circumstances which seem to conflict with our view of reality – the exam was poorly designed, and so were the golf clubs.

This disposition contrives to encourage wishful thinking, slanting our judgement. The normal condition of the human spirit is an endearing and indefatigable sanguinity. People overestimate their chances of winning a lottery and underestimate the odds of being involved in a road accident. Smokers find evidence that smoking is harmful less credible than non-smokers do. Sutherland cites experiments which demonstrate that self-serving biases such as this can even affect the perception of pain. In the same way, despite obvious clues, something extremely unpleasant – even the existence of concentration camps – can be suppressed and avoided. We believe what we want to believe.


Advertising manipulates irrationality to create consumer preferences. It starts early. The Jesuits boasted, “Give us the boy before seven and we will give you the man”. The Old Testament contains the same thought. Apart from the fact that they have little disposable income, children are ideal consumers. Their uncertainty is total, their needs immediate and insatiable, their craving for peer group conformity irresistible, and they retain these early influences as adults. In some parts of the world – Sweden, Norway, and Quebec province, for example – advertisements aimed at under-12s are banned. In Britain it is controlled by the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre. Its guidelines stipulate that advertisements “must not encourage children to pester or make a nuisance of themselves to other people”. Phrases such as “ask mummy to buy” are unacceptable. Yet, while the signs on the fruit and veg section at the supermarket may read “Selected for quality and freshness”, Mum’s shopping trolley is heaped with fun-food: child-sized containers of sugary drinks and sweets, salty crisps and snacks decorated with Sonic the Hedgehog, the Lion King, Mr Blobby, Power Rangers, and Thomas the Tank Engine.

A study conducted by Dr Brian Young, a psychologist at Exeter University, in the late 1990s suggests that children “catch on” to advertising very early. By the age of five, 50 per cent know what an advertisement is attempting to do; by the age of eight it’s 80 per cent. But there is little direct advertising for kiddie products; they are popularised through a constant global flood of merchandising by companies which produce film or television entertainment for children, such as Disney and Warner Brothers. Even the BBC. Its pre-school programme the Teletubbies engendered a massive demand for merchandised items in 1997. As soon as children begin to circulate with other children outside the home, peer pressure becomes the dominating motivational force in their lives. It is a parallel world of brand values to which adults are indifferent, but which is vital to children. It is how they define themselves, in the same way the parent does by the choice of a Marlboro or a Mercedes. What matters is not what their parents say, but what the word is on the playground. A craze for yo-yos suddenly swept across Britain in 1998 without the media noticing. There are researchers who, at the risk of apprehension as presumed pederasts, patrol playgrounds armed with tape recorders and video cameras, to capture the fleeting but influential trends in children’s behaviour which are of marketing significance. Long before they enter their teens children have acquired the adult custom of investing clothing and music with emotional brand properties.

As children grow into adulthood, basic childish drives may be displaced and disguised, but the urge for conformity still governs. Experimental research confirms that early impressions colour later experience not just in childhood, but throughout our lives. Although we tend to retain and believe what we have heard or seen most recently, if new evidence conflicts with our previous opinion, it will be ignored or discredited. Once a judgement is formed we cling to it like a limpet to a rock, rejecting any lines of enquiry which may prove it is wrong. People seek to confirm their judgement, not to disprove it. We read newspapers that reflect our own views. We turn the page or change the channel rather than endure an opinion we do not share. Where beliefs are strongly and publicly held, pre-existing mindsets affect the interpretation of every new observation, and contrary arguments may simply more deeply anchor our opinion. Journalists generally come equipped with received opinion – “an angle” on their story – and can rarely be diverted to a new appreciation.

Sutherland quotes Sir Francis Bacon:


The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious pre-determination the authority of its former conclusion may remain inviolate.


When this obstinacy infects whole groups of like-minded people it hardens into dogma. Man is a social animal, and there is intense pressure to conform to what his immediate peer group perceives to be correct, regardless of how improbable it may be. And because people usually choose to associate with those who have similar beliefs, these attitudes gain tremendous group reinforcement. Various experiments demonstrate that while nearly everyone denies it, people are clearly influenced by the judgement of the majority. Opinion is influenced by the fear of ostracism. It motivates gangs of hoodlums, focus groups, and prize juries. There is, of course, a rational justification for herd behaviour: if a group takes a wrong decision the individual is absolved from guilt. Social pressure is the psychological basis of fashion and of advertising’s “join the band-wagon” appeals. The classic British advertising failure, the 1960s launch of Strand cigarettes with advertisements showing a solitary James Dean type lighting up with the slogan “You’re never alone with a Strand”, though “liked” by the public and laden with advertising awards, came to grief by misjudging the number of people who would be prepared to identify themselves as one of nature’s loners.

Because the personal and social penalties of changing their views are so high, people spend a great deal of time and effort in self-justification. If a consumer has taken a decision to invest a large sum of money on a house, a car, or home improvements, he is unlikely to admit he has made a mistake. On the contrary, he will be on the lookout for any scrap of evidence which supports his decision. This explains why car advertisements attract high readership from people who are not in the market for a new car, because they have recently bought one of that make.
This is why encyclopedia and double-glazing salesmen can usually confidently refer to satisfied customers. And the consumer’s need for self-justification helped them make those sales in the first place. As soon as the door is opened, the householder is placed in the position of having to justify his response to himself. The skilful salesman plays on this need, asking a series of general questions which gradually back the prospect into a corner. Door-to-door salesmen typically spend hours with their prey. Along the way they sympathetically but inexorably inch their argument forward, causing the householder to restate his views in various ways. Repetition will gradually strengthen an initial disposition. Parents may have been only mildly interested in their children’s education when the salesman’s foot thrust through the door. Now they are fervent about it. They find it difficult to escape the escalating argument without retracting what they have said previously. Our sense of self requires us to demonstrate consistency in attitudes and behaviour. The same techniques are used in sexual seduction – if you let me touch you above the waist, why not below?

Corporate man has a strong need to appear consistent, too, a drive which periodically leads to what would seem to be easily avoidable marketing disasters. For many years after the introduction of cash machines, British banks were adamant, in the press and in the courts, that they could not be fraudulently operated, until the police advised that there are many ways the technology can be compromised. Even after the housing market had quite obviously collapsed in Britain in the late 1980s, the momentum generated by the conventional wisdom of the recent past led insurance companies such as Prudential and Norwich Union to keep piling into the market, buying up chains of estate agents at inflated prices. Within a year or so these premises were back on the market, sometimes to be repurchased at a fraction of the price by the original owners.

The need to be consistent leads to what Sutherland calls the “sunk cost error” – the irrationality of “getting your money’s worth” rather than “cutting your losses”. People value time as well as money in this context, and will continue to invest both resources in lost causes in order to justify their past actions. That is why the most predictive determinant of future behaviour is past behaviour. It’s a far better way of pinpointing marketing targets than socioeconomic factors – sex, age, class – or sophisticated “lifestyle” categorisation – “yuppies” or “dinkies”. Those who have bought by mail order in the past, or subscribed to a magazine, or donated to a charity are the most likely to do so in the future. It’s for this reason that good mailing lists – “single-purpose transactional databases” – have become highly negotiable currencies.

Peer group pressure is exerted by role models. Instinctively we aim to copy their behaviour and reflect their attitudes. Our allegiance grants them credibility above other sources of information. Whatever they say is more persuasive, and not only in their obvious field of competence. Our striving for consistency creates a halo effect for “celebrities”. Their salient good traits lead us to overlook failings; we expect that a person we admire is admirable in all respects. It’s like falling in love. It will even impel us to abandon reason and copy deviant behaviour. Religious extremists work like this – evangelists manipulate crowd pressure, and make sure that conversions are reinforced by a very public personal declaration.

In his book, The Trouble with Science, Robin Dunbar, professor of psychology at Liverpool University, argues that biological evolution has simply not equipped us to think scientifically. Because we have evolved as social animals, we are good at interpersonal relationships but poor at thinking logically and objectively assessing evidence. But, probably because we are curious, we are not content to suspend judgement. We seek explication, even from the paranormal. Certainly the mass of humanity prefers hocus-pocus to hypothesis, conspiracy theory to coincidence. In all societies religion traditionally supplied metaphysical explanations for the unknown or the unlikely; now we have New Age forms claimed to be life-enhancing, some as old as the pyramids, others flavoured with scientific speculation. On the flimsiest scraps of “evidence” many intelligent, civilised people throughout the world believe in miracles, magic, flying saucers, yetis, angels and demons, talismans, and diets – because they want to believe in them. If our favourite beliefs are disproved, as when the film of the dead alien from outer space allegedly dissected by the US military establishment at the atomic proving-grounds in New Mexico in 1946 turned out to be a fake, we can easily replace that “evidence” with some other implausible theory.

Humans are different from animals because they can plan for the long term, but their animal nature finds it difficult to defer self-gratification. Emotional factors lead people to act on impulse. Self-control is not natural; it is imposed by cultural training. So advertising works best by appealing to our basic animal instincts. Nevertheless, it has to breach the cultural barriers erected by self-awareness. The last word belongs to Stuart Sutherland, who “wrote the book” on irrationality: “Persuasion works by making the improbable, even the impossible, seem to be a reasonable conclusion of our own thought processes”.4

1 Constable, 1992.

2 Bloomsbury, 1996.

3 “An Argument for the Basic Emotions”, Cognition and Emotion, 6 (1992), p. 175.

4 Irrationality.


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