The Staggering Bullshit of Self-Referential Journalism

I recently came across an article entitled “Why ‘C’ Students Usually End up Being the Most Successful in Life”. The author of the article argues that the most successful people in the world are those who got mediocre grades throughout their life and “didn’t allow their academic experiences to deter them from rising to the top.” I’m normally one to ignore Elite Daily articles, but this article struck a chord with me, because it is a perfect example of the type of self-referential bullshit peddled by most journalism targeted at Millennials today.

What do I mean by self-referential? I mean the types of articles that try to get every reader to pigeon hole themselves with the titular archetype described in the article. For example, in the aforementioned article, a reader who is currently pulling a C average may think that they too will be successful because they are going through similar hardships to the success stories described in the article. This is a dangerous connection to promote, though, because it completely ignores the myriad of factors responsible for success to the magnitude of becoming President or becoming a billionaire. The problem with self-referential articles of this style is that they provide poorly described correlation, but no established causation. If these articles don’t provide much empirical evidence for the points that they are making, why are they so popular? I’ll seek to answer that question later on, but first, let’s critique the article to see what’s so wrong about this particular piece.

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Let’s begin with the examples the author uses to illustrate his point. Former US Presidents George W. Bush, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, George H.W. Bush, and Vice President Joe Biden are all listed. Additionally, the late Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Elizabeth Holmes, and Sir Richard Branson are listed as entrepreneurial evidence that poor students make successful people. What about the qualities the author describes? According to the article, “Success requires passion, perseverance, emotional intelligence, and the ability to understand the value of failure.” All admirable attributes, but are these qualities only bred in individuals who achieve a sub-par academic standing?

George W. Bush

George W. Bush

Of all of the Presidents listed, George W. Bush is the most well-known for his academic struggles. What the author seems to ignore is the impact of nepotism. Bush, along with every other President he lists, came from a wealthy, well-connected family, including the former, whose father also happened to be President. It’s not like he had a tough upbringing. Kennedy came from a wealthy Massachusetts family that was heavily involved in politics. Johnson came from a similar background, except that his father lost the family’s wealth for a brief period, but not before he was well known in the Texas political scene. While Vice President Biden was hardly a model student, he still made it to law school, graduated, and was admitted to the Delaware Bar in 1969.

Let’s move to the entrepreneurs. Steve Jobs was brilliant, and only dropped out of school because the financial strain was too great on his parents. Bill Gates came from an upper class family, was programming when he was 12, scored a 1590 (out of 1600) on his SAT, was a National Merit Scholar, and only dropped out of Harvard because he was going to start Microsoft. Hardly a C student. Zuckerberg, the son of a dentist & psychiatrist parents, dropped out for similar reasons, and was also a brilliant and gifted student in high school like Gates was. Holmes was a star student at Stanford and received a scholarship from the university to pursue an independent research project, which eventually evolved into Theranos, the company that made her the youngest female billionaire in history. Branson already had his business well in motion when he finished preparatory school, not to mention his father was a lawyer and his grandfather a judge.

So despite the fact that the author is conflating dropping out of an Ivy league school because you have better prospects with being a ‘C’ student, let’s evaluate a larger sample size to further disprove his argument; say, the top 20 richest people in the world (from Forbes).

1. Bill Gates – see above

2. Carlos Slim – Civil Engineering degree

3. Warren Buffett – M.Sc. in Economics from Columbia

4. Amancio Ortega – No educational info

5. Larry Ellison – Drop out, no information on academic performance

6. Charles Koch – M.S. in mechanical and chemical engineering from MIT

7. David Koch – M.S. in chemical engineering from MIT

8. Christy Walton – Inheritance

9. Jim Walton – Inheritance

10. Liliane Bettencourt – Inheritance

11. Alice Walton – Inheritance

12. S. Robson Walton – Inheritance

13. Bernard Arnault – Engineering from Ecole Polytechnique

14. Michael Bloomberg – MBA Harvard Business School

15. Jeff Bezos – B.Sc Electrical Engineering/Computer Science, Princeton

16. Mark Zuckerberg – see above paragraph

17. Li Ka-Shing – forced to leave school at age 15 due to father’s death

18. Sheldon Adelson – dropped out of college, discharged from the army, began a career in sales

19. Larry Page – M.S. Computer Science, dropout of Stanford’s Computer Science Ph.D. program

20. Sergey Brin – B.Sc Mathematics, dropped out of Stanford’s Computer Science Ph.D. program

As you can see, the common trends seen among the above are that the extremely wealthy in the world were hardly average students, and only dropped out of university to pursue better options, which ended up being the businesses that made them the billionaires they are today. While there are some outliers, such as billionaires who inherited their fortunes or worked their way up through a sales career, the prevailing theme is that most of the world’s most successful people got to where they are because of intelligence or nepotism, and because they studied engineering, computers, business, or even a combination of the three.

While intelligence may be hard to measure with one specific method, the fact remains that almost all of these billionaires also attended prestigious schools. Even if their admittance was not indicative of their intelligence (George W. Bush did attend Yale after all) the fact that these individuals were surrounded by intelligent peers and offspring of the elite surely contributed to their success. Page and Brin formed Google after they met as Ph.D. students at Stanford. Zuckerberg didn’t create Facebook by himself. Holmes was able to create Theranos in part thanks to the mentorship provided by her brilliant mentors at Stanford. The author clearly does not understand how successful people are created, and it is quite unfortunate that they are voicing such a poorly misinformed opinion on a popular website read by millions each month.

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Fame and fortune to the magnitude of being a billionaire is incredibly hard to come by, and while it would be a terrible thing to give up on your dreams if you buy into the odds, it is equally as foolish to buy into the self-referential garbage being promoted by articles like the one discussed above. In North America, the youth of the past few decades have been raised to think that they are all special. For me to state the opposite would be met with a great deal of criticism because our culture celebrates individuality and shuns normalcy and the average. However, the notion that everyone is exceptionally special is in fact a dangerous myth; anyone who understands statistics will tell you that.

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With over 7 billion people on the planet, perhaps we should begin to accept that we might be more similar than we think? By rejecting the notion that we are all special, great things are destined for us, and bad things should never happen to us because, as special people, we don’t deserve such misfortune, perhaps we can begin to cope with the reality that not everyone is destined to become rich and famous. We should learn to accept the fact that it is perfectly acceptable to lead an average life, so long as one is happy with their existence and the hobbies and interests they pursue.

An article that paradoxically promotes poor academic performance and success is a symptom of our narcissistic and entitled culture. We are curiously led to believe that we will be successful, whether that be through fame, fortune, or both, simply due to the fact that we have gone through a few hardships in life due to a below average GPA. What may be difficult to acknowledge is the fact that hard work is often not enough; extraordinary financial gain takes more than that, otherwise every single mother who works three jobs would be a millionaire. Financial success is a consequence of hard work, yes, but also upbringing, personal education, parents’ education, peer group, mentors, nepotism, and more.

If this article sounds pessimistic, then the existence of that feeling in your head has proven my point about the entitled state of society today. However, this doesn’t mean that we should approach life with a negative outlook, only a more realistic one. For starters, you should work hard to get the best grades you can. Along the way, if you happen to come up with an idea that you think has the potential to grant you a life that good grades alone cannot, then at least you have the stability of a solid academic standing to fall back on should your idea fail. Aside from extreme cases of success, the best way to a stable, well-paying job is through high academic achievement. Medicine, law, academia, banking, consulting, and other high-paying careers typically treated as “successful” all take your grades into account along with other key character traits. To dismiss grades as meaningless is foolish, but to stake all of one’s worth in them is equally so. Social skills and your personal network are also vital to landing a fulfilling career, so don’t ignore the value of making friends along the way.

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Narcissism and sense of entitlement are on the rise today.

Even if you don’t end up becoming a billionaire, millionaire, or achieving the job you dreamed of getting during your time at school, what you should try to remember is that while income is important to a degree, happiness and fulfillment are achieved through many other avenues beyond financial compensation. When you get to a certain pay grade, everything you buy simply upgrades, but your overall happiness does not. Yes, you can afford a nicer car, a larger house, and more expensive clothing, but in all likelihood, so can your peers, and then you are right back to where you started.

Your high salary will draw you to a larger house, which are traditionally surrounded by other large houses owned by inhabitants with incomes similar to yours. Their cars are also of the same level of quality as yours, as are their other possessions. By attaining a career with a higher salary, you merely further the process of competitive consumption, but in no way do you ever experience some sort of ultimate victory; merely a brief one. That is why it is important to remember that happiness is achieved through other avenues: art, travel, philosophy, religion, politics, and volunteering are but some of the many. Income is subject to diminishing marginal utility: the less you have of something, the more you will sacrifice to get it. Focus on first gaining a life of stability, upon which you can pursue happiness through a variety of interests not influenced by income or status.

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Why is self-referential journalism both so popular and so damaging today? As mentioned earlier, we are an increasingly narcissistic population and we love finding positive support for our idealized version of ourselves, even if it’s incredibly far from the truth. For example, one common misconception many people hold is of their relative intelligence. This is explained by a psychological phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

dunning-kruger-effect

In a series of experiments, Dunning & Kruger discovered that those who scored low on the tests they administered (known as incompetents) grossly overestimated their own abilities and were unable to accurately position the extremity of their own inadequacy. Basically, people that aren’t that smart don’t know that they are, and this can prove harmful during interactions in general society, the workplace, or other team-based initiatives. So when an article comes out that says that people who drink more, stay up later, and do drugs are also more intelligent, this leads a large group of people to misattribute their social habits to a perceived a higher intelligence than their peers.

 Self-referential journalism also exploits the confirmation bias of its readers. The confirmation bias is “a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors.” When applied to self-referential journalism, it becomes quite clear that these types of articles seek to exploit this cognitive bias and cause readers to create a false picture of themselves in the process.

For example, if an article comes out that says that funny guys are better in bed, sarcastic people are smarter, sexier, and more successful, or that people who have sex every day are healthier, happier, and more creative, confirmation bias will lead people to seek out articles like the ones above that describe things about themselves they think are true. Someone could read all of those and leave thinking that they’re now better in bed, smarter, sexier, more creative, and are destined to be successful, all because they think they’re funny, sarcastic, and perhaps have sex every day (even if that isn’t necessarily true). This can lead to some very inflated egos, and since we are constantly being exposed to journalism framed in a self-referential context, the problem will only get worse.

What can we do? Humility is perhaps the most lacking virtue of our generation. The narcissistic are rewarded in an era of self-promotion and a content-laden news feed. Those who stick to the background are often left behind those who command more attention. It is still possible to command attention without being a narcissist, and that is through earning attention instead of forcing it on people. A good example of this? Compare Bill Gates to Donald Trump. Gates stays out of the spotlight, contributes to the betterment of humanity, has remained faithful to the woman he married, and refuses to spoil his children despite his immense personal wealth. Donald Trump puts his name on everything, had a reality TV show, and has had failed marriage after failed marriage because he opted for the trophy wife instead of the trophy marriage. Look at which one of the two is richest -in both senses of the word – and there’s your answer.

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Attention, Narcissism, and our Anti-Science Culture

My academic background is in ecology and environmental science, and like all other fields of study, science is not immune to politics; many scientific camps are divided by political interests and personal beliefs. This may be surprising when you consider that a field based on such heavy empiricism such as science can still be subject to such polarized internal debate, but science cannot answer everything, and as humans, we are still vulnerable to our personal beliefs, choices, and emotions. I was aware of this issue (I even took a course in my undergrad called Political Biology), and yet I was still surprised by the number of anti-science beliefs held by people who work in the environmental scene. I soon discovered that this is not an isolated scenario; an entire culture of anti-science has been steadily growing in recent decades, and much of it is masked in pseudoscience or scientific myth.

The political left has a large distrust of industry, corporations, and is primarily opposed to capitalism as a whole. Due to the destruction of our environment thanks to widespread industrial activity around the world as a result of capitalism, the left is also heavily concerned with environmental issues. What is often conflated with the negative effects that capitalism has on the environment is industrial science. Common examples of this include opposition to genetically modified foods, opposition to certain pesticides, or opposition to western medicine & vaccination programs.

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While the political left may be the dark horse in the anti-science race, the political right has long been the front-runner. With its fair share of pervasive anti-science beliefs such as creationism or climate change denial, citizens with strong conservative beliefs have long been ridiculed by the scientific community. What has become clear in recent years is that our culture is becoming largely untrustworthy of science no matter what our political affiliation or good intentions align with. Where did this widespread mistrust of scientists and the scientific industry come from? A change in cultural tastes combined with cognitive bias.

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Hartmann_Maschinenhalle_1868_(01)Once the Industrial Revolution forever altered the pace of production capabilities, skilled labour was the commodity most in demand. With all of this new technology becoming widely available, the world needed people to operate it. Within a few decades, the blue collar labour market was satiated, so the economy progressed towards the acquisition of knowledge and information. We had the technology to create a variety of products and services, so science and technology took massive leaps forward during the “knowledge economy”. Major innovations such as home appliances, the automobile, and space travel emerged from our quest for knowledge and its application. The field of marketing was invented at this time to inform, educate, and persuade consumers to purchase certain products over others. Above all else, information was the driving force behind the economy.

Once the Internet was developed, knowledge became widespread – so widespread that information began to lose its value. The professions that gained the most prestige during the knowledge economy – scientists, professors, and even physicians saw their value dwindle in the face of the abundance of knowledge, despite the fact that the overall intelligence of general population had not changed. For example, despite the wide availability of knowledge, average SAT scores have not changed in decades (see figure below). However, when you combine the abundance of knowledge with a growing culture of narcissism and a cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, you get the current anti-science state of today. This is not to say that the world is overwhelmingly against science, but notable cases of anti or pseudo science are much more common today thanks to the rate at which information can spread*.

*This historical evolution of the economy is largely based on ideas from The Fourth Economy by Ron Davison

the-internet

How does narcissism influence distrust of scientific authorities? Recall that SAT scores haven’t changed much in decades, yet the percentage of students on the honor roll has. University enrollment has also ballooned. In essence, we now have an entire generation who think that they’re much smarter than they actually are due to the grades they achieved or the school they attend. What this generation chooses to ignore is the unfortunate position that many high school teachers are in: competition to attend university and be rich and successful is more intense than ever, so more students than ever need high grades to compete. The pressure falls onto the shoulders of their teachers to be complacent with the demand. With a grossly inflated sense of intelligence comes an overestimation of one’s abilities.

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The Dunning-Kruger effect describes the cognitive bias associated with those who score low on various intelligence tests, who overestimate their abilities, are unable to recognize their incompetency, and are unable to accurately recognize the extremity of their inadequacy. Inversely, highly competent individuals underestimated their abilities and also underestimated the complexity of tasks for others that they themselves found easy. To put it bluntly, stupid people think that they’re smart and talented and don’t realize how stupid they actually are, and smart people are humble, but incredibly poor judges of how easy things are for the general public. Combine this cognitive bias with a healthy dose of narcissism and an abundance of information and you have a recipe for disaster.

Snapshot

A graphical representation of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Instead of placing their trust in their doctor, many people think that their doctors are stupid and that they know what’s best for their health, or their children’s, all because they “did their research” using WebMD and a few articles written by a guy with an undergraduate degree philosophy. Because information is widely available, people don’t place the same value in the “keepers” of knowledge like scientists or physicians that they once did. For example, instead of listening to overwhelming scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified foods for consumption, some people would rather listen to bloggers whose relevant credentials include a computer and hands.

Trust is often placed in the alternative, because the alternative is viewed as exciting, honest, and free of corruption. Sometimes society fails people, and instead of accepting the fact that sometimes bad things happen to people regardless of how they conduct their lives, they blame “the system” and seek out the alternative in a quest for salvation. This is what leads people to make irrational decisions like foregoing chemotherapy in favour of coffee enemas, only consuming organic food to cure allergies, cancer or autism, abstaining from vaccinations, or becoming a Scientologist.

Jessica Alba shopping at Whole Foods Market. Many of our beliefs or practices are influenced by celebrities, often in an aspirational attempt to live like they do, even if what they do is not backed by any credible evidence. The belief that organic food is better for you is a marketing ploy and lifestyle gimmick reinforced by photos like this one.

Jessica Alba shopping at Whole Foods Market. Many of our beliefs or practices are influenced by celebrities, often in an aspirational attempt to live like they do, even if what they do is not backed by any credible evidence. The belief that organic food is better for you is a marketing ploy and lifestyle gimmick reinforced by photos like this one.

So why do people place their trust in sources who have professional level credentials (MD, PhD, etc…) who promote alternative solutions to their problems? The answer lies in a different appeal of the alternative: its moral superiority and “cool” factor. Going to the doctor to get a prescription isn’t cool. Getting vaccinated isn’t. Neither is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. But undergoing a detox program is! So is beating cancer with wheatgrass enemas and a raw vegan diet. Eating green coffee bean extract or going on the paleo diet to shed pounds is also cool. Because of the susceptibility of people in today’s world for narcissism and status, they will be more likely to compete and participate in activities that make them appear morally superior and cool, which is precisely why these anti-scientific practices have been gaining steam in recent decades. Science is boring and uncool, but raw juice detox programs aren’t.

Because information is so pervasive – we are constantly bombarded with hordes of it every day – it becomes quite difficult to pick apart the correct story, because its often buried under a landfill of sensationalist junk. It is not the content of information that we base our choices on; it is how the information attracts our attention. Unfortunately, this often leads people down the incorrect path, because agencies that peddle misinformation are adept at constructing headlines or concepts that are attention-grabbing. This is the same reason why conspiracy theories are so popular. Facts are often mundane and boring; real news is created through excitement. The concept of virality is heavily based in attention and triggering emotions such as fear or anger, not in the quality or truthiness of the article’s content.

Gwyneth Paltrow has come under fire recently for repeatedly promoting bogus health and wellness products and treatments. One thing people don't understand is that Gwyneth Paltrow is attractive and healthy because of genetics and her lifestyle afforded by her wealth, not because of detox programs or vaginal steaming sessions.

Gwyneth Paltrow has come under fire recently for repeatedly promoting bogus health and wellness products and treatments. One thing people don’t understand is that Gwyneth Paltrow is attractive and healthy because of genetics and her lifestyle afforded by her wealth, not because of detox programs or vaginal steaming sessions.

This attention-based economy is primarily the reason why the environmental movement is so frustrating and convoluted; there are great causes at work, but there are just as many causes that are hypocritical or simply based on fictitious premises. Alarmist campaigns get the most attention, and due to preconceived notions about capitalism or political affiliations, most supporters of these types of campaigns will not yield in the debate on the issue. What is fallacious about this scenario is the fact that there should not be a debate in the first place. A debate is based on two differing opinions; perhaps a new policy on economic reform or education, or where tax dollars should be spent. What is so confusing of today’s anti-science culture is that we are debating issues that are explained by overwhelming scientific consensus using nothing but opinions and anecdotal evidence erroneously attributed to causation, when it is merely correlation at best.

Due to the culture of narcissism and the Dunning-Kruger effect, opponents of science are exceptionally unyielding because they are unaware of how flawed their argument is, or they simply have too much pride in their perceived intellect to admit that they’re wrong. Education and intelligence has an established importance and value in society, so no one wants to admit that they’re wrong, let alone unintelligent. In an ever-increasing population and society that values self-expression, promotes uniqueness, and breeds narcissism, we will continue to see people abandoning the boring world of science in favour of cool and exciting alternatives, which can often have fatal impacts.

What opponents of science need to understand is that there is no scientific industry conspiracy: all physicians are not pill-pushing industry shills, GM crops are not dangerous, and you can’t cure cancer with turmeric and a prayer. We all like to think that we’re well-educated, special people who deserve no wrong, but we all must remember a few things to help correct our behaviour: i) we’re not that special; we’re not that smart; we’re wrong more than we think; ii) we need to place more trust in the consensus of esteemed scientific professionals who have made it their career to better understand problems in our world and stop thinking that we know better than they do just because we don’t agree with them; iii) stop listening to dangerous and poorly-researched advice wrapped in a veil of “truth” or “enlightenment” that is created for the financial benefit of a few people at the expense of thousands. Eventually, opponents to contentious scientific topics may come around; after all, Galileo was once thrown in jail for believing that the Earth revolved the Sun.

The trial of Galileo Galilei.

The trial of Galileo Galilei.

 

Barely Makin’ It. How McDonald’s can Break Out of its McSlump.

mcdonalds-corporation-mcd-comparable-sales-slump-for-ninth-consecutive-montThe once iconic golden arches of McDonald’s restaurants are crumbling. The company’s sales have been steadily declining for the past 6 quarters, and cost a former CEO his job. What was once seen as a juggernaut in the fast-food industry has faltered in recent years due to a variety of factors.  Steve Easterbrook, current CEO of McDonald’s Restaurants, recently unveiled a plan to halt the international restaurant chain’s recent struggles and turn the company around.

These include refranchising more locations to cut costs at headquarters, restructuring the management of the territories McDonald’s serves to reduce cumbersome decision-making, and finally, improving food quality to better compete with fast casual chains like Chipotle or Shake Shack. Other improvements discussed by Mr. Easterbrook include increasing employee wages, as recent widespread protests against the low minimum wage paid to fast food industry workers seemed to almost exclusively target McDonald’s, who are often conflated with the entire fast-food industry.

Steve Easterbrook attends the annual Confederation of British Industries (CBI) conference in Islington in central London, in this file photo taken on November 26, 2007. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Steve Easterbrook attends the annual Confederation of British Industries (CBI) conference in Islington in central London, in this file photo taken on November 26, 2007. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Like any face of an industry, whether its Coca-Cola, WalMart, or McDonald’s, these corporations are often the first to be subject to intense criticism and ridicule. Unless dealt with appropriately, public outcry can negatively impact sales. Walmart decided to redesign their logo to invoke a more environmentally friendly response and increase their overall environmental stewardship. Because the Coca-Cola company’s presence is more product-based than storefront-based, the criticisms against Coca-Cola have been less scrutinous, so the company has yet to undergo any radical changes, especially considering that the company’s sales haven’t taken a serious hit in recent years.

McDonald’s Restaurants has experienced the most growth in emerging markets like China, Japan, Poland, and the Middle East, while growth in the United States have been relatively stagnant, which is alarming considering that 40% of the company’s revenue comes from its American restaurants. At present, McDonald’s is caught in awkward position. Not authentic or focused enough like Chipotle, no sense of luxury or class like Starbucks, not progressive enough with technology or key mergers & acquisitions like Burger King, and no perceived health benefit like Subway. The key to success for McDonald’s has always been a combination of convenience & price, with food quality taking a back seat. It’s the Wal-Mart principle: no one actually wants to go in there, but sometimes you do because it’s cheap and you know they’ll have what you’re looking for.

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If you examine the regular clientele of a typical McDonald’s location, you’ll see a familiar combination: teenagers who can eat whatever they want and not pay the price (yet), low-income individuals who are drawn by the low prices and convenience, families who get pulled to the store by their children’s desire for toys, and the occasional walk-in of a customer who knows that McDonald’s is awful for them, but they just need a quick bite to eat. We’ll call these groups teenagers, unfortunates, families, and occasionals hereafter.

What McDonald’s has lost is the market that competitors like Starbucks and Chipotle have captured. Coffee is big business anywhere you go, and by offering a product that gives the impression of high status, you attract individuals who are indeed high-status or who aspire to be. With their recent re-branding and introduction of the McCafe additions to stores across North America, McDonald’s tried to capture an atmosphere of vague sophistication, but what they forgot to alter was the actual product itself. Starbucks can get away with charging $5 for a latte because the whole atmosphere of a typical store is designed to elicit a high status response: warm furnishings, jazz music softly playing, free wifi to attract people to sit and enjoy the experience of the store. Effectively, Starbucks has created community hubs with many of their locations, not just a place to grab a coffee.

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Chipotle has chosen a different route, opting to promote the merits of their products instead cultivating a complete upscale atmosphere like Starbucks. The ingredients used in Chipotle’s products may be a little healthier, but the meats and legumes used in their products are still heavily processed and high in sodium. Their recent move to remove ingredients that are genetically modified was another step in that direction, despite the fact that their is no scientific evidence that demonstrates any health concerns related to GMOs. Be that as it may, health conscious consumers will still respond positively to this strategy and continue to choose Chipotle over McDonald’s when given the choice. This is the same strategy Subway used to rapidly expand during the 2000s, albeit with rather aggressive franchising options. Healthy eating sells, even if the health aspect stops at the public’s perception.

McDonald’s largest direct competitor is Burger King, who recently merged with Canadian coffee giant Tim Horton’s in 2014. In addition to making smart investments to benefit the global presence of both companies, Burger King has also succeeded in developing the hi-tech end of its operations with the successful launch of an app used to order food, which in fact has increased the average customer’s spend by 20% according to Bloomberg. Starbucks and Taco Bell have also gotten into the app game, and like Burger King, have the numbers to demonstrate the revenue-generating power of an app.

While Easterbrook’s strategies are outlined in his recent company address, there is still the issue of retaining alienated customers who are choosing options perceived as healthier or indicative of higher status. McDonald’s will have no problem retaining unfortunates due to price point, teenagers due to price point and lack of health concern, families because of Happy Meal toys and playgrounds offered at select stores, and occasionals because of price point and convenience. What McDonald’s needs to focus on is recouping the lost individuals: health conscious trend-seekers and luxury conscious status-seekers. Here’s how they can do it.

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Let’s start with the trend-seekers. The health conscious are drawn to places like Chipotle because of the ingredients and visibility of the food preparation. These consumers are generally more knowledgeable (or at least take pride in thinking they are) so a transparent food preparation system, otherwise known as a sneezeguard, is the key to reconnecting with these customers. Additionally, choice is also extremely important to these customers, as it couples with their knowledge of healthy food choices (or perception of it). While giving customers more control over their order does impact time, items from restaurants like Chipotle or Subway often have a higher average price to compensate. Healthier items often come with a higher price, so consumers do not mind paying a bit more for healthier food as long as they feel they are getting their money’s worth.

McDonald's Golden Arches are seen at the Union Square location in New York January 29, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

McDonald’s Golden Arches are seen at the Union Square location in New York January 29, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Another reason Chipotle has gained ground on McDonald’s is because of the perceived lower carbohydrate content of their products. Despite the fact that rice is just as high in carbs as a hamburger bun is, consumers are comparing a hamburger bun at McDonald’s to a tortilla at Chipotle or even wrap at Subway. Low carb diets are always popular despite no clear consensus if they are in fact healthier or aid in weight loss. Same goes for followers of the Paleo diet. At Chipotle, I can order a “naked” burrito, and forego all carbs from my order and simply get meat and vegetables; same goes for a salad at Subway, but at McDonald’s, my choice and control over my order is much more limited due to pre-packaged notion of their salads. Dieters like to feel in control, so the prospect of choice and transparency of their meal preparation provides reassurance.

What McDonald’s needs to do is incorporate transparency and more choice to their menu. While one of Easterbrook’s goals if improvement was to streamline the menu and eliminate poorly selling items, all that needs to be done is eliminate the variety of meats that need to be prepared, as they are the most time-consuming part of the meal prep. You don’t need to cook vegetables in a food warmer to serve them. Offer a greater amount of vegetables on sandwiches and wraps, and offer customers desirable healthy food choices like avocado or kale. Consider gluten-free options, or at least the promotion of items that already are.

*UPDATE May 7th, 2015* Apparently McDonald’s is set to introduce a new line of healthy salads with ingredients like kale, pumpkin seeds, and couscous. While salads are a step in the right direction, McDonald’s is in the burger business, so salads alone will not save them. The consumers McDonald’s needs to reclaim want staple items that are healthy: this means more vegetables offered on their sandwiches.

What most people are eating for breakfast has also drastically changed, and consumers desire more protein with their breakfast. McDonald’s breakfast is still a staple item for many consumers, but it has become outdated and needs a revamp to align with consumer tastes. Consider more items involving the two top-selling protein items for breakfast, yogurt and eggs. Offer more fruit at breakfast as well. McDonald’s still has the power of convenience; all they need to do is tweak their menu and streamline their protein offerings.

Now let’s consider the status-seekers, who can often be conflated with the trend-seekers; the tastes of the two often overlap. In Australia, McDonald’s has recently piloted a number of concept fast-casual locations know as “The Corner”. As this article in Business Insider describes, these locations offer a more upscale approach to the traditional burger & fries game, complete with a trendy layout, fresh ingredients, and the transparent meal preparation I spoke of earlier. The article is a little misleading, as it implies that all McDonald’s locations in Australia are like this, which is not true. However, if McDonald’s can investigate future renovations to some existing locations in areas where status-seekers are prevalent, the fast-casual approach may alleviate the stigma of McDonald’s being a dining location for the impoverished.

An Australian location of  McDonald's fast casual concept restaurant

An Australian location of McDonald’s fast casual concept restaurant “The Corner”.

The Corner does not have overt connections to the traditional McDonald’s brand, and locations would draw in clients willing to pay a bit more for a heightened experience and a higher quality product. Corner locations would also have the advantage of McDonald’s superior real estate holdings, vast supply chain, and purchasing power with suppliers. These locations could out compete other fast-casual locations that offer gourmet diner style food by virtue of price alone.

One other approach McDonald’s can employ is the strategy that Tim Horton’s has built its success on: national pride and nostalgia. Despite its international reach, McDonald’s generates 40% of its revenue in the United States. Americans are notoriously patriotic, yet McDonald’s seems to have lost touch with its roots, recently burgeoned by minimum wage protests by many of its domestic employees. One other strategy McDonald’s could employ is to try and reconnect with its American roots. The success of this approach is evident in the lasting success that Tim Horton’s enjoys across Canada.

Tim’s, as it is affectionately known in Canada, is one of the most prevalent chain restaurants in the country, but because Tim’s has tapped into Canadian national pride, it remains a cherished part of Canadian culture. Because Tim Horton’s has united its Canadian customer base on one thing they all have in common, their nationality, they have tapped into an almost universal appeal.  Customers who are of the status-seeker variety may choose Starbucks for a coffee, trend-seekers may avoid the baked goods-heavy menu, but overall, the perception of Tim Horton’s is quite positive. Perhaps to reclaim some of its lost success, McDonald’s needs to tap into the patriotism of its American customers. After all, the appeal of Americana is what made McDonald’s such a revered international powerhouse.

It will be an uphill battle for McDonald’s. Thanks to the internet, consumers are far more informed than ever before, and as a result, healthy eating is on the minds of more consumers today than ever. A challenge that comes for chains like McDonald’s is the digital spread of misinformation and rumours that can produce damaging effects on the bottom line of a company. These digital wildfires will continue to be a problem for companies into the future, so in addition to changing consumer tastes, McDonald’s will need to ensure a controversy-free future if they hope to bounce back from their recent sales slump.

6 Reasons Why Protests Against the New Ontario Sex Ed Curriculum are Unsexy

Demonstrators in front of Queen's Park in Toronto, Ontario.

Demonstrators in front of Queen’s Park in Toronto, Ontario.

Yesterday, thousands of parents withdrew their children from school as part of a province-wide protest against the new sexual education curriculum set to be introduced by the Provincial Government in September. Protestors called for a revision of the contents of the new curriculum, stating that the material was inappropriate for children, at least in the proposed grades the material was aimed to be instructed. One protest at Thorncliffe Park Public School left the school of 1,350 with 1,300 absent students and a wall of protestors outside. A Facebook group run by a parental group based out of Thorncliffe calling for the widespread, week-long protest against the curriculum currently has over 12,000 members, most gathered within a day. A quick glance at the page reveals that this issue is quite controversial, with both sides of the debate getting increasingly hostile towards one another.

A group of protestors in Kitchener, Ontario.

A group of protestors in Kitchener, Ontario.

When it comes to arguing on the internet, nothing ignites the fury of people more than the well-being of their children, whether it is their education or health. The Wynne government currently has no plans to alter their course, but numerous school board officials have agreed to sit down with parents and listen to their concerns on the issues with the curriculum. Sexual education, while comprising a very small percentage of actual instruction time, can have profound impacts on the social and physical well-being of children as they grow and develop. As a parent, it’s instinctual to act what you perceive to be the best interests of your child, but contrary to popular belief, being a parent doesn’t make you an expert on children, let alone their psychology or biology. In fact, being a parent provides a higher risk for implicit bias for what is right for your child, because instead of considering advice and recommendations from trained professionals on the subject, it often involves going with the overwhelmingly strong gut feeling felt from such important issues like health or education.

Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals presenting the new Ontario sexual education curriculum.

Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals presenting the new Ontario sexual education curriculum.

Let’s consider the new Ontario sex ed curriculum. It was not drafted by a crooked Liberal government or a politician wishing to push her homosexual agenda on our children, like some of the more bigoted critics have claimed. The new curriculum was in fact developed by a highly skilled, highly educated team with backgrounds in sexual health, education, and child psychology. It was a much needed update from the outdated curriculum of 1998, mainly because gay marriage is now legal, and virtually every kid who can read (and even some who can’t) have cell phones now, so sexting needed to be included, even if the word itself is face palm worthy.

Scary words that arose out of the critique of the new curriculum like transgender, gender identity, anal sex, or masturbation caused an uproar amongst a healthy percentage of the population of Ontario parents, and ever since it was introduced, the Wynne government has been under intense scrutiny. Some political analysts even fear that the opposition to the sex ed curriculum is so strong that this issue alone could be a tipping point in the next Provincial Election.

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With that brief introduction out of the way, let’s examine why the protests against the new curriculum are an ignorant waste of time.

1) Most true sexual education doesn’t occur in the classroom.

I don’t know about you, but I learned basically everything I know about sex from two sources: the internet and my friends. Sex ed was a time to laugh at your teacher saying penis or get grossed out by the symptoms of an STI, but when it came to one half of being a sexual being, that is, the social and psychological part of it, that happened outside the classroom. The notion that grade 1 students learning the sensitive nature about sexual organs are located and the ethics behind that won’t negatively impact the way they act. Learning about gender identity won’t turn your kids gay, and if parents are still worried about that then they clearly still need education themselves. Kids will learn about sex one way or another – it’s either going to be from their teacher or that kid with an older brother and no boundaries, so it might as well be from the trained educational professional.

2) Gender identity, same sex marriage, and other LGBTQ issues need to be taught today.

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We’re not living in the 1950s anymore. Sheltering children from these issues will only cause increased hostility and even violence should they one day encounter a person who identifies with the LGBTQ community. Teaching children about same sex marriage will not “turn them gay”, nor will learning about gender fluidity. You are born the way you are and attracted to whatever gender flicks your switch. The reason why we have seen an increase in the number of people identifying as LGBTQ is because it has become increasingly acceptable to do so. In the past, because of the stigma surrounding LGBTQ individuals, many kept that part of their identity concealed for fear of being ridiculed or persecuted. It’s not like you can take a blood test to determine your sexual orientation.

By teaching children about the normalcy and acceptance of the LGBTQ community, we are encouraging a more inclusive and respectful society overall. These principles of acceptance will extend beyond someone’s sexual orientation; increased awareness and acceptance can extend to being more inclusive of others from different races, social classes, or nationalities. Unfortunately, this notion is largely opposed due to religious reasons, and the protests have been criticized for being vaguely homophobic.

3) The curriculum aims to educate about cyber-bullying, which is a huge, often unseen issue.

Building on the theme of acceptance, the new curriculum also encourages education and awareness about the harmful practice of cyber bullying. This relatively new form of discriminatory behaviour is especially hard to regulate because we don’t see it happening; children have access to cell phones and computers, but we can’t always be policing their behaviour on them. It is much easier to identify victims of physical or social bullying, because we can actually witness children doing it to one another. Cyber bullying is a new beast all in itself, and many older teachers may be blind to the symptoms or signs of it occurring in their classroom.

4) Criticizing the curriculum is the educational equivalent of not vaccinating your child.

Remember the measles outbreak at Disneyland that was all thanks to a group of privileged parents in California who thought that they knew better than their physician did because Facebook said so? The same level of expert-shunning and government mistrust and fear-mongering is prevalent throughout these protests. Even if you think that your child is too young to be exposed to certain subject matter, the scientific consensus and decades of research done by people way smarter than you begs to differ. Just because your child learns about the normalcy of masturbation in grade 5 or the increased dangers of anal sex in grade 7 does not mean they’re going to turn into a weird teenage sex maniac by the time they get to high school. That is all motivated by factors outside school, like parental income and education level.

5) Sheltering your child from a sex ed curriculum is setting them up for social suicide.

When kids are going through their teenage years, nothing is cooler or more taboo than sex. It’s on everyone’s minds due to raging hormones, and even more so if you aren’t getting any. Failure to be well educated about sex sets a child up for bullying or potential embarrassment down the road. Like it or not, sex is everywhere in the world, and it’s a normal, healthy part of being human. To shelter or protect kids from it until they’re almost done high school is helicopter parenting at its worst, and by the time your child moves on to post-secondary education, they’ll be socially awkward and lag behind their peers. Social skills are just as important as a quality education, and being exposed to a proper sexual education curriculum will shed some of the taboo from sex and make a child’s transition into adulthood much smoother.

 

6) The protests are quickly turning into xenophobic ad hominem arguments.

The neighbourhood around Thorncliffe Park Public School is predominantly populated by an immigrant population, and most of the media coverage about the protests as well as the Facebook group previously mentioned have predominantly featured immigrant parents voicing their concerns about the new sex ed curriculum. While the protestors have every right to voice their concerns, an unfortunate byproduct of these protests, specifically related to the media coverage surrounding them, is that these protests have started to breed xenophobia from 2nd or 3rd generation Canadians who support the new curriculum. With the rise of ISIS in the past year, Islamophobia has re-entered the collective minds of most Canadians, and these protests may unfortunately help contribute to that in the province.

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The new sex ed curriculum is far from perfect, but it is definitely a progressive step in the right direction. Further improvements to the curriculum should seek to include the psychological and social aspects of sexual health, and not just be a streamlined anatomy lesson. New social changes and norms need to be reflected in what children are learning, and opposing the new curriculum will only create further conflicts down the road. It is imperative that we try to educate and spread awareness on matters of sexual health and gender identity to children, as miscues related to these matters can be incredibly damaging. Sex is becoming an everyday part of life, so instead of trying to shelter kids in a manner that is effective as trying to grab a handful of water, we should embrace education and progress and stop protesting a necessary evolution to the Ontario sexual education curriculum.