Forced Smiles: Our Obsession with Happiness and Why It’s Making us Miserable

poi_gallery_image-image-39bb6876-7218-4346-b02b-989d6fd34291When Gary Smith arrived at work the morning of April 8th, 1994, he went to check his first assignment of the day. Mr. Smith was set to install a new security system in an upscale home in north Seattle that overlooked Lake Washington. When he arrived at the home and knocked on the front door, Mr. Smith did not receive an answer. He went looking around the property for any occupants of the home. To his surprise, he found the owner of the home in the greenhouse – dead, with a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the left side of his head. The man’s name was Kurt Cobain.

In the months that followed, tribute after tribute poured in for the young musician. The Nirvana frontman may have ended his life, but his death did not end his career. Cobain’s passing only intensified his fans’ obsession with him; his early death gave rise to an almost mystical treatment of his persona. It also generated massive revenues for a band that wasn’t even playing anymore. The Cobain estate earned over $50 million alone in 2006.

Cobain was famously troubled – he had attempted suicide several times before – but it seems peculiar that a man who had achieved what nearly all of us yearn for: success, fame, and adoration from millions, would choose to end his life at its peak.

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The shift towards Individualism

Happiness is a fickle pursuit. It is poorly understood and substantially overvalued in Western culture. Before the field of psychology was invented, not much attention was given to individual happiness and how to increase its prevalence in our lives. Humans gave little thought into their emotions and what factors in their lives influenced them. It was not until the 1960s that we started to investigate happiness from an empirical standpoint.

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The proportional occurrence of the word self in a corpus of books published in English

The 1960s and 1970s were a pioneering era in psychology. The notion of “self” was a hot topic that had gone previously unexplored in the literature. Beginning in the mid 60s, the number of papers exploring the concept of “self” ballooned, reflecting the individual interests of society at the time. Marketing slogans became increasingly targeted at the individual. Dating culture and singles bars were created. For the first time in many people’s lives, they began to think and look inside themselves for answers. The era of self-exploration and self-expression had begun. At the root of the “self” revolution was the notion that happiness – defined in the context of personal fulfillment – was the most important thing one could strive to achieve in life.

It was around this time that the self-esteem movement was in its early formation. Beginning in the 1970s, the number of research papers that investigated self-esteem grew substantially.

51mbujade2l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden published The Psychology of Self-Esteem in 1969, and its influence was apparent throughout the following decade. Self-esteem became a key element in educational policy since most of early research and suppositions about self-esteem suggested that it was paramount to personal happiness. Our predilection for nurturing children created a hypersensitive approach to promoting self-esteem and ensuring that schools were a bubble of happiness and support for our children. Early research suggested that happy kids grew up to be successful, happy adults, so schools were designed to foster such an environment.

While schools were being transformed into havens of positive support, major changes in the adult world helped drive the transition from collectivist to individualist. Despite a prediction by Keynes that automation and other technological advances would create a reduction in working hours, the opposite occurred: North Americans are working longer hours than ever before. The movement of women into the workforce during the last quarter of the 20th century essentially doubled the workforce overnight, resulting in a decline in the level of participation in community groups that educated women were disproportionately active within. Two-career families have less time for community work and other group activities, and this has driven them towards individualist lifestyles.

Urban sprawl has also contributed to a more individualist culture. Despite the intent of suburban developers who seek to construct “communities”, civic engagement and collectivist values actually decrease in the suburbs when compared to those who live in the city core. Living in the suburbs means more time spent on your commute, which leads to less time available for group activities like volunteering or playing in a recreational sports league. Suburban dwellers are more likely to be reclusive despite their abundance of neighbours. Additionally, the social homogeneity of suburbs creates a reduction in incentives for civic involvement due to a reduction in social connections that cut across class or racial divides.

Television is perhaps the worst offender, compounding the effects of the previous two factors. North Americans spend an astounding amount of time in front of the TV that could be spent elsewhere, and it adds to the increased level of isolation and individualist focus of our current society. In addition to reducing civic engagement and increasing the focus on the self, increased television viewing also exposes viewers to more messages about lifestyle ideals. Whether through advertisements or programming, the images we view on television project unrealistic expectations of what we expect our lives to be like. When they don’t turn out as we had hoped, we become unhappy with our seemingly futile efforts, furthering our withdrawal from society.

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Ultimately, the primary cause of the shift away from a collectivist to individualist society has been a generational one. Before the Baby Boomers were born, entire nations had to band together to support the single greatest conflict the world has ever seen. Motivated by the threat of an evil so sinister that it appeared to be lifted from a comic book, the Greatest Generation banded together any way they could in order combat it. Without such a threat looming over their heads, each generation born after World War II ended has drifted further away from these collective values and become increasingly individualistic.

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Smiles for Sale

In a meritocratic society, happiness functions as the ultimate metric for status: if you’re not happy, it’s your own fault and I’m better than you if I’m happier than you are. It’s why the rich old miser archetype exists in popular culture. As a result of our society placing so much value in the pursuit of happiness, we have simultaneously exiled those who don’t (or can’t) follow suit.

 In a 2012 UN report on happiness, countries that scored the highest possessed high levels of social equality (including gender equality), trust, and quality of governance. This study measured overall happiness by country, but it did not examine happiness at the level of the individual. The title of the article I linked to is misleading; income didn’t improve happiness in terms of national GDP, but contrary to popular belief, relative individual income is directly related to happiness no matter what country you live in.

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For example, the United States has dreadful levels of income inequality. Those who earn a higher annual salary typically report higher levels of happiness. However, because the average annual income is skewed by the large degree of income inequality, the US is an outlier based on annual income compared to happiness levels. Countries with aa similar per capita GDP and a more even distribution of wealth report higher levels of happiness.

The oft-parroted “happiest income” benchmark of $75,000 comes from a study conducted by Nobel Prize winning economists Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton. The study distinguished between two measures of happiness: i) emotional well-being; and ii) one’s overall life satisfaction. The “magic income” of $75,000 is related to the first measure, not the second. The reason the study is misreported so often is because an income of $75,000 is a much easier to achieve than an income of, say, $500,000. Our brains are notorious confirmation bias-seeking machines, so it makes sense that a more achievable income gets shared more often to support the narrative that money can’t buy happiness. Consequently, the $75,000 figure becomes overly-simplified and obfuscated in a case of digital broken telephone.

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The metrics through which personal happiness are assessed like wealth, health, societal status, and familial status are largely a product of the first item on the list. By placing such a large financial undertone on our idea of happiness, all we have done is alienate those who literally can’t afford to be happy. This has harmful effects: mental health rates among those of lower socioeconomic standing are the highest. Ditto for substance abuse. The effect has been felt across socioeconomic spectrum, with increases in adverse mental health conditions reported for each income level. This is partly due to improved diagnostic ability and increased awareness, but the link between meritocratic societies and mental health condition is still clear.

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Despite the old adage that money can’t buy happiness, nothing could be farther from the truth in Western society. Happiness has become nothing more than a commoditized emotion that is packaged and sold. Those who can afford it flourish; those who can’t, suffer.

“It is only in a society that makes generalized, personalized growth the ultimate virtue that a disorder of generalized, personalized collapse will become inevitable. And so a culture which values only optimism will produce pathologies of pessimism; an economy built around competitiveness will turn defeatism into a disease.”  – William Davies, The Happiness Industry

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The Forced Smile

Part of what is causing this happiness inequality is how confused our society is when it comes to defining happiness. We often conflate happiness with a two closely related concepts: pleasure and positivity.

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Pleasure is typically what is typically marketed as happiness to us: a new car, a tasty dessert, or a trip to Hawaii are sold with the promise that they’ll make us happy. Pleasure is a chemical response within our brain to stimuli that involves the release of dopamine. These stimuli can be associated with positive events, but dopamine is also what causes addictions to things like drugs or gambling. Even if we avoid the obviously harmful things, we’re still at risk from a life ruled by pleasure. Research shows that placing heavy investment in pursuing superficial and materialistic pleasures leads to increased emotional instability, anxiety, and unhappiness in the long run.

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Positivity is no better. Negative emotions are normal and healthy, and should be embraced and expressed instead of bottled up and capped with a forced smile. Individuals who are overly positive are actually doing just as much harm to themselves as those who are constantly negative. It sounds counterintuitive to say, but research shows that people who force themselves to be positive all the time are actually just as dangerous as people who are negative all the time. Look at what happened to Ned Flanders in The Simpsons when a life of maintaining an infallible positive exterior finally had its armour breached. It’s important to experience both sides of the emotional spectrum, otherwise individuals risk sheltering themselves from how to deal with negative emotions properly. Striking a balance between the two is the key, albeit in a healthy, constructive manner.

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The Secret is a notorious example of the misapplication of “positivity” as it relates to happiness.

After understanding the distinction between pleasure, positivity, and happiness, we can understand when the saying “money can’t buy happiness” can be accurately applied. We are sold pleasure and positivity through a variety of channels, but none of them actually cause us to be happier; it’s an illusion conjured up in our head. That still doesn’t prevent our desire for pleasure or positivity from affecting our mental health. Our society’s obsession with happiness is especially harmful because of the poor understanding of what happiness actually is. Our pursuit of and desire for pleasure and positivity is paradoxically making us less happy in the long run.

As I touched on earlier, happiness is a very complicated subject. So what actually influences our happiness – or better yet, what is this obscure concept we call happiness? Simply: happiness is the product of becoming your ideal self. It is not a single moment, a tangible object, or any one thing. It’s an ongoing, dynamic process that is primarily driven by your unconscious. In other words, you can’t try to be happy; you just are.

So if you can’t try to be happy, how do you become happier?

Research shows that happiness is improved by increasing the amount of control and autonomy you have with your life. This is where income factors into increasing overall happiness. The more money you have, the more freedom and control you can afford. For example, in countries and cities where income inequality is highest, happiness decreases. A list of the 25 happiest cities in Canada demonstrates this: the cities with the greatest income inequality (Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal) are all near the bottom of the list. Those who feel that their efforts are futile and have no hope of social mobility between socioeconomic classes are more likely to be unhappier due to a lack of control over the outcome of their lives.

There is hope: studies demonstrate that happiness is about 50% inherited, 40% within the individual’s control, and only 10% a consequence of our environment. Perhaps what is more interesting is that new research published in 2016 has uncovered specific genes that code for happiness, depression, and neuroticism. This research yields fascinating possibilities for future work regarding genetic counselling and mental health. Epigenetic effects on happiness heritability should also yield interesting results. Despite the genetic influence, you do have a degree of control over your level of happiness. Research shows that the most effective techniques for increasing the level of control you have include taking responsibility for more things in your life, setting smaller, more attainable goals, and reducing your reliance on external validation.

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Happiness will continue to play a more prevalent role in our lives as societies around the world improve the basic needs provided to citizens. The UN report highlighted 4 key areas of global development that will improve happiness at a global level: ending extreme poverty, good governance, environmental sustainability, and social inclusion. At an individual level, the most important thing someone can do to alleviate the distress caused by the happiness obsession is to understand exactly what happiness is and avoid pursuing the pseudo-happiness markers: pleasure and positivity. Ultimately, it’s about gaining control and responsibility in our lives and halting our worries of whether we will ever truly be happy.

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We’re Fighting Fake News. What About Fake Science?

In the aftermath of the 2016 American Election, a common theme has been the push to make sense of the situation. For a result that shocked many given the tone of most media sources leading up to the election, truth and the ability to make sense of the world have been in high demand. Many reasons were listed, but I’m not here to discuss them – I already outline a great deal of why it was such a shock in this article – but my aim is to discuss one subject of controversy that was highlighted during the American election: fake news sites.

Propaganda has always been a powerful tool ever since totalitarian regimes in the 20th century realized that they could harness the power of mass media and use it to exploit basic human psychological and moral tendencies. Fake news sites are an extension of our propensity to follow narratives we have already formed within our minds in order to support our pre-conceived notions about whatever the issue in question is. This phenomenon is commonly known as confirmation bias.

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Soviet propaganda poster: “Great Stalin is a flag of the USSR’s friendship”

 

We already know what our decision is, and it is our refusal and tendency to be more open-minded that is preventing us from making an informed decision on that issue. People love reading and sharing news stories that confirm their beliefs. Skepticism is thrown out the window when we’re dealing with issues that are deeply rooted in morals like religion, politics, or health. We would rather be right in our own minds than objectively right based on empirical evidence and facts. It makes sense: reaffirming our beliefs is an exercise traversing familiar territory. It’s “safe” to read things that support our beliefs and morals, yet it’s dangerous to go outside our comfort zones and challenge them.

This raises an interesting dilemma: one of the underlying reasons that we seek out knowledge and education is that we seek truth. Look at virtually any academic discipline. They are all exercises in learning how the world functions, either at a macro or micro level, and this is largely driven by the virtue of truth. Experiments test what happens and what doesn’t happen. Papers argue for what is right versus what is wrong. Seeking a larger truth from the suggestions of a collection of smaller truths is an exploration, and by definition explorations can be hazardous.

Truth is a fundamental basis for human existence and is valued in every society. Why else do we hate it when people lie to us so much? To be called a liar or fake is one of the worst things you can call a person; you are attacking their personal truthiness. Our entire web of relationships is based on established trust between one another. A betrayal of that is to abandon truth with that person. The outrage over fake news sites is a direct result of how important truth is to us.

The outrage has produced some commendable actions. Google and Facebook have both announced that they are taking steps to reduce the impact of fake news sites to drive down traffic to these sites. While freedom of speech is important, sites that are designed to prey on the biases and kneejerk reactions of individuals should be driven underground. They should still be allowed to exist, but their proliferation should be restricted.

With these steps in place to reduce the power and reach of fake news sites, I find it curious that there has been little coverage on the influence and reach of fake news sites that have been in existence for years. They’re not inherently political, although undertones and motivations certainly exist, yet sites that promote pseudoscientific beliefs and products have not been looped into the fake news debate. I think this is wrong, as these sites are arguably more dangerous. Several tragic deaths can be tied to the adherence to pseudoscientific practices, so it is puzzling that practices that pose very real dangers to our health are still allowed to proliferate despite the apparent distaste for fake news.

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Why are sites that promote pseudoscience dangerous? There are several reasons. Most insidious is that they promote health claims that are simply untrue and can be potentially fatal to those who are misled into following them. Some particularly egregious examples include:

  1. The promotion of a toxic bleach solution as a medication. Known as Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS), proponents of this bleach solution state it has the ability to cure “over 95% of diseases caused by pathogens”. The solution has recently been adopted by parents as a cure for autism. All major health authorities warn that MMS is unsafe for human consumption.
  2.  Rejection of modern medicine in favour of naturopathic care. Many children have died or fallen ill due to their parents’ refusal to use allopathic (modern) medicine in favour of naturopathic treatments. Recall the famous case of Ezekiel Stephan, an infant who contracted bacterial meningitis and died as a result of his parents’ refusal to seek proper medical treatment and their initial refusal to vaccinate the child
  3. Bogus cancer treatments have claimed numerous victims. Chemotherapy is passed over in favour of coffee enemas, wheatgrass smoothies, and other holistic medicinal treatments. The ethical nightmare that was the case in the death of Mikayla Sault, an 11-year old First Nations girl who opted to halt chemotherapy treatments and commence treatment at the Hippocrates Health Institute, an unaccredited cancer treatment centre registered as a massage clinic. Its founder, Brian Clement, was issued a Cease and Desist letter from the State of Florida and is currently under investigation for practicing medicine without a license.

Tragically, this list could be much longer, and keeps getting longer every year. Promoters of pseudoscientific treatments or products are largely motivated by money. A common trait shared amongst individuals involved in these sorts of practices is that they sell false hope to their patients. They may suffer from a severe case of self-delusion themselves, but it is quite ironic that one of the main criticisms these individuals often make is that mainstream medicine and science are only in it for the money. Based on the fact that none of these individuals offer their products or services for free, they are entirely hypocritical in their claims.

The proliferation of pseudoscience is nothing new; there has always been a human appetite for the alternative and the mystical. Mainstream science is an inherently boring process that occasionally produces exciting results. What makes pseudoscience so appealing to the general population is a combination of how it is presented and the morals possessed by those it appeals to. Pseudoscience is often presented in a magical light, attaching almost supernatural properties to the mundane. This is why we need to sell something as rudimentary like fruits and vegetables as “superfoods” or “powerfruit”.

The values possessed by those who pseudoscience is most attractive to are heavily based on the extreme left or the extreme right of the political spectrum. A rejection of large establishments is common – either through the rejection of large corporations on the left or the government on the right – and a high level of fascination with the supernatural is also present. This why the prevalence of spirituality is so common amongst those on the extreme left and religion amongst those on the extreme right.

The most fundamental ideas that people have are religious, so it is no surprise that the most violent conflicts in the history of the world were largely driven by a conflict between groups of differing fundamental belief systems. Pseudoscience is closely rooted to how individuals view the world; while it may not be “science”, pseudoscience still mirrors science in the ways it helps us form our own version of truth. To criticize someone’s belief in pseudoscientific views or practices is to criticize their larger worldview and how their version of “truth” about the world is formed. The resulting reaction is not a pretty sight.

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In The True Believer, Eric Hoffer describes that among those most susceptible to mass movements are “the misfits”, individuals on the fringes of their society. If one examines those most invested in pseudoscientific practices, it is clear that most of these individuals would fit into a “fringe” group in society. This is not to say that these individuals are disadvantaged – quite the contrary – as many of the “misfits” present in pseudoscientific movements are celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow or Jenny McCarthy, but their extraordinary wealth and fame still defines them as misfits in the grand scope of society. These individuals do share a disdain for the mainstream as they seek an understanding of how their lives ended up the way they did, whether their outcomes are fortunate or not.

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Recently, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) passed new legislation that requires all homeopathic remedies to include labeling that highlights their lack of efficacy unless sound evidence demonstrates otherwise. While this is a step in the right direction for regulating pseudoscience, we still have a long way to go. Similar to politics, health is a passionate subject of discussion and can lead to heated debates due to its fundamental basis in our morals and worldview.

If organizations like Google and Facebook are taking measureable steps to limit the reach of fake news websites, they should expand these practices to limiting the power of pseudoscience websites, especially those that promote potentially dangerous advice or products. In our collective effort to decipher the world through truth-seeking activities like scientific research, the last thing we need holding us back from a future of more truthiness is a bunch of people telling us that we can cure cancer with a spoonful of turmeric and a prayer.

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Turmeric powder: great for curry, not for treating cancer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stop Focusing on Work-Life Balance.

Instead, focus on work-life integration.

Workplace happiness and well-being are two metrics through which many of us base our employer’s value on. Instead of higher salaries, many employers are changing their strategy of attracting and retaining top talent by offering more flexible hours and more comfortable accommodations at the office.

In a class survey of the 2015 Harvard MBA class, only 4 percent of the class expressed intent to pursue a high-paying career in investment banking, a notoriously draining career path. Instead, many graduates were opting for careers at technology companies that promised more reasonable hours combined with a high level of pay. This change in attitude is a direct result of happiness being commoditized by companies in order to recruit employees. And it’s wrong. Work-life balance is a false dichotomy.

In a work-life balance dynamic, we divide work and life into two opposing forces competing for our attention; thus we have already created a conflict between the two.  If we stress the importance of balance between work and the rest of our lives, we have created a situation where we treat work as an evil force imposing on our life and the happiness we pursue through it. We should instead seek to unite them in order to enjoy both more.

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The MBA graduates in the 2015 survey are correct for desiring more balance in their lives in the form of a reduction in hours worked, but it is the assumption that this alone will create a better life is erroneous. Work needs to be fulfilling in order to justify the decision, and many people will be more content working 80 hours a week at a job they love than working 40 hours a week at a job they despise. Countless entrepreneurs have thrown themselves into developing their vision not because they have to, but because they want to.

The present worker is largely unhappy. Over 60% of individuals report being unsatisfied in their current role. An abundance of choice is one reason that so many workers are stuck in jobs they dislike. When we are presented with an abundance of choice, our ability to make decision is actually inhibited. The decision is made to tolerate the undesirable position instead of going through the trouble of selecting a new one. Additionally, humans are risk-averse by nature. Pursuing a new career is a decision fraught with inherent risk. Our natural tendency to avoid risk causes us to avoid pursuing new work.

The other side of the scale also needs to be addressed. It is the assumption that simply having the time to pursue life – in whatever conformation one deems it to be – is enough to provide fulfillment. This is false. For life to be fulfilling in a work-life dynamic, there needs to be integration between the two. Work should inspire life, and life inspire work; otherwise, the two simply co-exist with no interaction and demand attention from the other in a harmful relationship.

We view work-life balance as a separation between the two, so we become angered when the one creeps into the realm of the other. For example, we tell ourselves that we shouldn’t be answering our work email after we get home. We remind ourselves to leave our issues at home at the door and bottle them up while we’re at work. The view that our work may threaten our quality of life and vice-versa is what created the work-life balance dichotomy in the first place.

In order to get the most out of the work-life dynamic, use the benefits provided by each to complement the other. For example, if your job has taught you to manage your time better, apply those concepts to solve problems in your life related to time management. If your job has taught you a new skill, apply that skill in a new capacity; it could be to solve a problem at home or perhaps to provide a service to a friend or neighbour.

It seems that our society has become afraid of work. Everywhere you turn there are stories of people: being miserable at their jobs, ruining their lives because of their jobs, or quitting their jobs and never being happier. The only jobs that are glorified are the ones packaged in a hero complex. Even the question of “what do you do?” is considered borderline taboo in casual conversation, as if one’s occupation is a sensitive personal detail.

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“It’s absurd and unfair, this objection to talking shop. For what reason under the sun do men and women come together if not for the exchange of the best that is in them? And the best that is in them is what they are interested in, the thing by which they make their living, the thing they’ve specialized on and sat up days and nights over, and even dreamed about.”

– Martin Eden, from the book of the same name by Jack London

People who use the topic of work only to pry or brag are typically insufferable, but we should certainly encourage each other to discuss our vocational experiences. Most of us spend a third of our day at our jobs, so to avoid sharing this part of our lives with people is denying others a chance to get to know us better. Our job title does not define us; that distinction belongs to the traits of our character. The challenges and successes we face at work impact the type of person we become in all aspects of life. And this is the true value of work in our lives: the union between work and life, and how the two complement each other for the better.

 

 

 

 

Social Network Opinion Bias (SNOB) and why it’s so harmful to ideas

Centuries ago, the majority of the population was illiterate. Instead of reading text, information was primarily passed down through spoken word.  Any recorded history could only be interpreted by the privileged few blessed with the ability to decipher scribbles on parchment. Written words were wielded as a form of power and influence. As Eric Hoffer states in The True Believer:

The men of words are of diverse types. They can be priests, scribes, prophets, writers, artists, professors, students and intellectuals in general. Where, as in China, reading and writing is a difficult art, mere literacy can give one the status of a man of words. A similar situation prevailed in ancient Egypt, where the art of picture writing was the monopoly of a minority.

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During the Dark Ages, the Catholic Church was the dominant scholarly body in the Western world. Much of the power exercised by the Church was the consequence of two factors: i) the masses were unable to read, so the Bible was interpreted by the few learned religious leaders in the community; and ii) books were expensive at the time. This created a culture of blind obedience due to the suppression of free thought. Since ideas were communicated through spoken word, alternative modes of thinking that questioned the ideas of the church or other dominant schools of thought could not easily spread.

That changed when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440; ideas could now be recorded, mass-produced, and distributed. The distinct class system and lack of literacy present in the general population still prevented the masses from owning books, but ideas produced by the educated could be printed and distributed throughout the continent. Access to information incited an entire cultural revolution in Europe:

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“The printing press precipitated 200 years of chaos. Moving from a world where the Catholic Church was sort of the organizing political force to the Treaty of Westphalia where we finally knew what the new unit was: the nation-state.” – Clay Shirky

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The sheer volume of content produced today is staggering. Reports estimate that 90% of all of the data that ever existed has been produced in the last two years. Despite the volume of information produced each day, our time to consume it is still limited. Our sources of information are even more limited in scope. Sixty-three percent of users on Facebook and Twitter use the social media platforms as their primary news source, an increase of 16 and 11 percent from 2013 numbers, respectively. As more of us consume news from similar sources, our views become more homogenized. Like any news source, social media feeds are prone to their own biases for what type content is featured.

facebook-trendsBested only by YouTube and Google, some of the most coveted real estate on the internet can be found in the top right hand corner of the Facebook homepage. The trending section of the Facebook homepage is where the most popular stories in each user’s realm are listed. There’s only one problem: these topics are not listed by objective popularity or importance to the user.

Instead, these topics are carefully controlled by a team of contract journalists. They restrict linking to certain news sources and favour certain publications over others. Like its more oft-visited rival, Twitter also has notorious problems exhibiting bias. The prevalent bias on both platforms presents a troubling scenario that is only compounded by the algorithm responsible for constructing the user’s news feeds, and specifically, the actions of the users themselves.

What happens when the source of most of our daily information is subjected to a predetermined filtering process? You get “Social Network Opinion Bias” (SNOB): a biasing of your opinion based on the influence of your social network and the filtered information shared within it. Most of our online domains are echo chambers, where only one school of thought is permitted and those who disagree are shunned and exiled from the group. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a big problem – we tend to associate with others who share our views and values –  so what’s wrong with always being in agreement with one another?

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The now defunct West England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition featured a competition where participants were presented with a challenge to guess the weight of the featured livestock specimen. In the 1907 edition of the fair, almost 800 participants submitted ballots to try their luck at estimating the weight of an ox. The crowd was composed of a variety of individuals from around the area, including those related to the agricultural industry like farmers and butchers, in addition to various citizens from all other facets of the community.

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Sir Francis Galton and the famed ox from the 1907 West England Fat Stock and Poultry show.

Also in attendance was famed statistician Sir Francis Galton, who was interested in measuring the accuracy of the group’s estimates in relation to the real weight of the ox. After analysing the estimates of the participants, Galton arrived at a stunning discovery: the dressed weight of the ox was reported at 1198 lbs, and the average guess of the 787 ballots amounted to 1207 lbs, an error of just 0.8 percent.

Amazed at the accuracy of the crowd’s estimate, Galton published his findings in the prestigious journal Nature, highlighting “the Wisdom of Crowds” as the reason the estimate was so accurate. According to Galton in his original paper: “This result is, I think, more creditable to the trust-worthiness of a democratic judgement than might have been expected.

WisecrowdsIn his 2004 work The Wisdom of Crowds, New Yorker journalist James Surowiecki describes the advantages of making decisions in large groups, provided 4 criteria are met: diversity of opinion, independence, decentralization, and aggregation. The study that Galton published had a crowd that met these four criteria, and as a result was able to make an accurate judgement on the weight of the ox.

Surowiecki published The Wisdom of Crowds before social media was established as a primary news outlet for many North Americans. This makes it all the more fascinating given how the concepts still apply. Because of the heavy selection bias present in online social networks, whether on social media, subreddits, or other internet forums for like-minded individuals, unbiased group discussion is almost impossible to achieve.

Online social networks frequently bring out the worst in people. The power of online anonymity does wonders for the sharp decrease in the civility of discussions held online. Additionally, because the discussions are more public, people are actually more likely to shame or belittle others in the discussion whose opinion they view as wrong. Negative online discussion tends to be driven by people who score high on measures of sadism.

What’s more, according to research by Wharton professor Jonah Berger, the number one predictor of a content’s ability to spread is if it incites feelings of anger. We’re more likely to see things that made our friends angry, which makes us angry since we tend to associate with like-minded individuals within our social networks. This anger generated online within our social networks has led to increased hostility towards those who do not share our views.

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Since the 1970s, and particularly in the past two decades, society has become increasingly more rigid in their politicisation. Those who primarily identify with the political right have become entrenched in their positions on numerous political issues; the same is true for those on the left. The two sides rarely mix in our current culture, and when an individual enters a group who holds views that oppose the majority, they are almost always subject to a unilateral group dismissal.

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Dr. Jonathan Haidt delivering a TED talk.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who teaches business ethics at NYU’s Stern School of Business, has focused much of his research programme around the morals that motivate political choices. Dr. Haidt’s research has determined that the political choices of individuals are becoming increasingly tied to their moral compasses.

Between the two political vantage points there are three shared moral dimensions: harm and care, fairness and justice, and liberty versus oppression. For example, both the left and right are opposed to oppression, but the source of that oppression differs between the two sides. The left believes that corporations and the very wealthy are the oppressors, while the right associates oppression with the actions of government.

In addition to the three shared moral dimensions, those on the right are motivated by three additional moral values: loyalty, authority, and sanctity. These values can explain the stereotypical beliefs commonly held amongst those associated with the right. For example, the increased prevalence of Christianity on the right is influenced by loyalty to God, who holds authority in lives of Christians, who value purity and sanctity with sacraments like baptism and marriage. Since morals are sacred, guiding principles in our lives, our political views become entrenched in our sacred values as our morals become more closely tied to them.

A leading hypothesis as to why our morals – and as a result, our political stances – have diverged so drastically is due to personality dispositions associated with each side. In general, liberals are more open-minded, creative and curious, whereas conservatives are more orderly, conventional, and better organized.

Research has supported the notion that social media has increased the broadcast range of those who exhibit more attention-seeking behaviour. Social media does not make people more narcissistic; it merely amplifies the voices of those who already are. Most social media users are fairly passive, so online engagement tends to be dominated by those who are already emotionally charged on certain topics. This is why online discussions often get so heated; only those on opposite ends of the spectrum decide to engage. The silent majority caught in the middle are left rolling their eyes or burying their heads in the sand.

In addition to our personal biases becoming more prevalent, there has not been a unifying social factor in our society in decades. In the early 20th century, two World Wars helped to unite North American society and lessen the impact of political differences. The Cold War similarly produced a struggle of opposing ideologies that produced an epic moral conflict – us versus them; communism versus democracy; Good versus Evil. After the Soviet Union fell in 1989, political divergence intensified on the path to its current extreme.

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Recent studies suggest that implicit and unconscious biases across political groups rival those present between races. In other words, in our efforts to stamp out racism and other forms of intolerance, we have unintentionally created a new hatred, only this time it exists between political ideologies. Since politics is a beliefs system, the war being fought is an intellectual one. Because of how highly intelligence is valued in our current society, each side attempts to dismiss the other’s ideas as stupid in an effort to undermine their intellectual credibility. This shuts down any chance for a healthy debate, or at the very least, social cohesion.

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Dr. Robert D. Putnam

Civic engagement has been on the decline in North America in recent decades. Since the 1960s, voter turnouts and active participation in various civic organizations like the PTA, League of Women Voters, and the Boy Scouts have all declined. In his 2000 work Bowling Alone, Harvard Professor of Public Policy Dr. Robert Putnam summarizes the reasons for the decline in “social capital” in America. In an example that gave the book its title, Putnam examines how membership in bowling leagues across America has decreased, but the number of people who go bowling has actually increased. He posits that civic engagement has so sharply declined is because individuals have become isolated through a variety of cultural shifts.

North America moved to the suburbs during the post-war boom in the 1950s. Instead of living in the city close to their colleagues and friends, many North Americans opted to move outside the city centre to a new home. While this did provide comfort and larger living spaces, it also brought increased isolation, increased dependence on the automobile for transportation, and increased stress as a result of commuting.

Entire cities have become “bedroom communities”. Ironically, cities were originally conceived as a way to bring inhabitants closer together for social interaction and work; not drive them further apart. Public policy that favoured suburban development prized the wants of individual over the needs of the community. Putnam’s data reveal an unsettling conclusion: as the size of a city increases, the percentage of the population active in the community decreases.

Technology has also played a factor. Membership and participation in many organizations is largely digital. Thanks to technology, the reach of many organizations has drastically increased, yet actual engagement has decreased. In-person discussions proceed far differently. We can detect the emotions, voice intonations, and body language of the individual we are speaking with, lending us to be more receptive to their speech. The problem with isolation in the suburbs has been met by increasing the number of screens in each home. Unfortunately, this has created a generation of stressed out, lonely individuals who exhibit increased animosity towards others, especially strangers on the internet.

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“Questioning our own motives, and our own process, is critical to a skeptical and scientific outlook. We must realize that the default mode of human psychology is to grab onto comforting beliefs for purely emotional reasons, and then to justify those beliefs to ourselves with post-hoc rationalizations”. Steven Novella, Yale Neurologist and author of Your Deceptive Mind

In 1984, George Orwell predicted that in a dystopian future, conspicuous public rage would not only be common, but be required by all citizens. Our current society is addicted to outrage. Jonathan Haidt’s research on morals has suggested that humans enjoy moral superiority over others. Those on the left take solace in feeling smug when they confront those on the right over issues like gun control or climate change, and those on the right feel vindicated when they ridicule liberals for government scandals. What’s most grotesque is that, according to Haidt, we actually get a form of pleasure from the anger that drives our moral crusade.

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Ideas are powerful, but unfortunately, the sources of most of our ideas are biased, providing an incomplete picture of the whole issue. Any good scientist knows not to accept the conclusions of one study as fact; there needs to be replication and deeper investigation into the question. Even if all signs point to a certain answer, it is irresponsible to suggest that result as irrefutable.

This is the basis behind seeking a diverse range of opinions in order to gain a more complete perspective. The rigid politicization of our world has made this quite difficult, as the coupling of our morals to political views has scripted our behaviour within our respective social networks. We risk alienating ourselves if we practice any form of ideological dissent. The decline in civic engagement has contributed to this moral coupling of politics and ideologies; the activities that used to unite citizens are quickly disappearing, driving us further apart.

Free speech is one of the most important liberties that inhabitants of Western society are privileged to express. Unfortunately, due to the systems at play in our current society, we are far too selective in how we gather facts and interpret ideas. It is imperative that we strive to remain balanced in our approach to interpreting and evaluating issues and ideas presented to us. Our brains are hardwired to make objectively poor decisions, so it is our responsibility to try to combat our own biases to remain objective in our reasoning. In a society that increasingly claims to value diversity and inclusiveness, it is quite perplexing when the most important type of diversity for a healthy society – ideas – goes largely ignored.

Why did 3 million people buy a book that tells them to respect their socks?

About a month ago, my girlfriend and I were making our weekly rounds at our local bookstore when she grabbed a copy of Marie Kondo’s “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” The book was located in a featured section themed around personal well-being and general happiness. The premise of the book, which purports to have sold over 3 million copies, is that cleaning and organizing your living space can be a life-changing, magical event.

A month later and not even halfway finished, the book now lies discarded on the floor beside the bedside table; its reader unable to finish it. As my girlfriend entertained me with her devastating critiques of the book, I began to wonder how a book full of such insane thoughts and unpractical, unsubstantiated claims could have sold 3 million copies in our day and age. This is an actual quote from the book:

“The socks and stockings stored in your drawer are essentially on holiday. They take a brutal beating in their daily work, trapped between your foot and your shoe, enduring pressure and friction to protect your precious feet. The time they spend in your drawer is their only chance to rest.” – from the section: Storing Socks – Treat your socks and stockings with respect.

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Socks that have been treated with respect. Not pictured: the smiling owner

Three. Million. Copies. Three million people have read that it’s important to treat their socks with respect, thank discarded items of clothing for giving them joy when they purchased them, or throwing away any books that do not cause their owners to “spark joy”. This book is The Secret for hoarders.

Kondo’s book  does provide an interesting case and while it hasn’t sparked any joy for me, it has sparked my curiosity. The book is actually a great example that can help illustrate the peculiar literary consumption patterns of many Westerners. If a book with such bizarre advice can become wildly popular, what does that say about the people buying the book and their motivation for doing so? Surely not everyone got duped by bloggers who were paid to cover the book or write fake reviews on Amazon, so if it wasn’t the more insidious reason, then what was it?

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The death of religion in the west has brought about the disruption of many centuries-old traditions, but strangely, our attachment to mysticism has remained. What was once widespread devotion to deities has been supplanted by spirituality and a fascination with Eastern philosophy. The title of Kondo’s book draws on just that; the use of the words “magic” and “Japanese” in the title evokes a response in line with the west’s fascination with Eastern mysticism.

We have a habit of treating many Eastern cultures with a level of respect so high that it often blinds us to the confines of our accepted reality. We associate the Japanese with their traditional cultural values like respect and honour, so when Kondo recommends that we treat our socks with respect, we openly accept this advice due to our preconceived notion of Japanese values despite the lack of factual evidence to support the claim.

The use of the word “art” in the title also reinforces the traditionalist facade of the book, despite the fact that Kondo conjured this “Japanese art” out of thin air. Because of our respectful ignorance of foreign culture, this “Japanese art” was sold to Westerners the same way that yoga, meditation, and fortune cookies have been in the past. None of the previous items in the list are rooted in tradition, but have been packaged as such in order to sell mysticism to respectfully ignorant westerners.

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The other reason why this book has sold three million copies is the “magic” in the title. That magic, however, is not related to foreign mysticism, but transformational magic related to mental health and wellness. One of the prevailing themes in Western culture is a focus on optimizing our happiness. Billions of dollars are spent on improving happiness every year as part of the “happiness economy“, and it seems that primarily among the middle to upper class, nothing is more important than being happy.

In the current developed world, happiness is traded as a currency, with countless products and technologies centred around the notion that we should constantly be striving to be as happy as possible. Our culture’s obsession with happiness is ultimately what has driven the sale of this book to the magnitude it has achieved.

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A great example of the lunacy that has been marketed thanks to the “happiness economy”. Don’t even get me started on a pseudoscience that is the alkaline diet.

When analyzing what motivates a consumer purchase, consumer psychologists and marketers examine consumers and their purchases in the context of their “jobs to be done”. Pioneered by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, the jobs to be done mode of analysis treats a product like an employee that gets “hired” to do a “job” by the consumer.

When you buy a drill, you’re not actually buying a drill, you’re buying a hole. In a commonly described example, Christensen details how consumers “hired” a milkshake from a fast food restaurant to fulfill the “job” of feeding themselves in the morning while also lasting long enough to offset the boredom of their commute to work. Christensen was seeking to uncover why consumers purchased milkshakes instead of other menu items like a bagel or a donut. Their research revealed that milkshakes lasted longer than a bagel or a donut and kept consumers full longer, hence why milkshakes were “hired” by consumers. In response to this discovery, the restaurant chain designed a special morning milkshake to last even longer by including small bits of fruit and making the shake thicker. Sales improved thanks to the change.

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If we apply this concept to sales of Kondo’s book, we can see that consumers did not purchase Kondo’s book because they were interested in cleaning. They purchased it for an entirely different reason: they were unhappy – or least, they perceived themselves to be that way. Happiness is sold to us through marketing techniques that tell us we’re miserable. In the case of Kondo’s book, the title and premise of the book are designed to convince readers that they won’t be truly happy unless their homes are perfectly organized.

While there is no concrete evidence that a well-organized living space translates to a happier life, the act of organizing or cleaning your home can contribute to happiness. However, it’s not the fact that you’re cleaning; it’s the fact that you’re accomplishing a goal. So while readers of Kondo’s book may feel better after following her advice, the same result would have happened if they set out to organize their home according to any method. As long as they did something, the effect would remain the same.

Cleanliness ultimately comes down to a state of personal preference. You can be happy in a messy home provided you’re checking off the boxes in another area of your life. Creative people are often said to have messier homes and offices, and the reason for this could be that they are satisfying their innate desire for accomplishment through a variety of projects.

At the end of the day, drivers of happiness are repeatedly tied to the process of accomplishment. Essentially, as long as you’re keeping your mind or body occupied, you’ll enjoy a higher relative level of happiness than if you were just sitting around watching TV or wasting time on Facebook. Why Kondo’s book sold 3 million copies wasn’t because 3 million people started living better lives in more organized homes with socks that they constantly thanked. It was because 3 million people bought a book because they wanted to be happier. And if any of them followed Kondo’s advice on a Sunday morning to help reorganize their bookshelf, for that time spent tidying, they were happy.

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A clean home will not make you happy, but cleaning your home will.

Why Most of us Fail at Change

We are always changing. Regardless of our external stimuli, each day we wake up a little different than the last. Some of us change faster than others, but we all experience and desire some degree of change on a regular basis. Almost all change we experience is so incremental that we cannot actively measure it. Desire for change is in theory limitless, and because of the extraordinary properties of our imaginations, this desire commonly inhabits our thoughts.

A great deal of literature surrounding the subject of personal growth and change has been present for almost a century. Unfortunately, most of the work produced by the self help industry has yielded little measurable impact on our ability to change more effectively. Self help books first became popular during the 1930s; the poor economy created a large market for hope and the desire for change. As it tends to do, history repeated itself. Various trends in self help have been present throughout the past few decades, all pandering to the major existential crisis in society at the time.

In the 1930s, Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich helped assuage the woes of the poor economy. In the 1950s, Normal Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking described the keys to a stable and happy domestic life; perfect for the post-WWII generation. When the Baby Boomers were experiencing a mid-life crisis during the 1980s, Tony Robbins released Unlimited Power to target self-actualization and living up to your potential. One of the most popular self help books today is Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, which brings a more narcissistic, self-centered approach to the same self-help platitudes.

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Most mainstream self-help books all offer essentially the same advice, packaged slightly differently depending on the cover of the book: stay positive, ignore self-doubt, visualize your goals, and eventually you’ll get what you want. Self-help and the self-proclaimed gurus that preach it usually present themselves in an almost prophetic fashion, applying the same rhetoric that religions have used for thousands of years. It’s anecdotal, based in pseudoscientific methods, and doomed to fail from the start because the advice isn’t empirically validated.

A typical self-help author is nothing more than a skilled marketer; their programs are almost never supported by any substantial evidence, and they prey upon vulnerable individuals who cannot discern between quality evidence and anecdotal, feel-good stories. Additionally, the authors themselves are not products of their programs; they’re products of selling their programs to others. It’s a very disingenuous field, but because of our constant desire for change, self-help is a multi-billion dollar industry.

What’s most unfortunate about this situation is that many people most desperate for change turn to the field of self-help for guidance, only to end up disappointed. We blame ourselves for the failure without realizing that these are broken processes. One seminar or workshop will not change your life; this is simply not how change is achieved. Unfortunately, this quick-fix, magic pill approach that we apply to so many areas in our life is a massive inhibitor on achievement.

Even if we’re not currently dedicated to a self-help regime, there is a good chance every one of us has change of some degree on our minds. Unfortunately, most of us experience a paradox of change: the ability to enact change is hindered by the thought of change. Otherwise known as analysis paralysis, the inability to act as a result of overthinking is a huge detriment to our ability to enact change. This phenomenon occurs due to the amount of choice, a lack of planning, and the sheer amount of information most of us have to sift through on a regular basis.

I can attest to numerous times when I had to complete an essay, but instead of writing, I would just read paper after paper all in an effort to trick myself into thinking I was accomplishing something. The reality is, reading is easier than writing, so all I was doing was delaying the actual task at hand and productively procrastinating. I should have produced a list, limited my selection of information, and limited how much of it I was consuming. Because many of the changes we focus on are relatively large, the difficulty of execution that comes with these changes is also quite high. Due to our propensity to focus on the product and not the process of a change, we fail in the execution of many of our goals.

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Consider a simple, dynamic system. If we break the system down into two functions, change and stability, we can begin to analyze how the two interact. Our first prediction would likely be that change initially makes something more unstable. If we consider a simple chemical reaction – adding a Gummi bear to potassium chlorate – we would see this prediction hold true. The reaction eventually subsides and the system stabilizes, but during the initial phase of the reaction, there was clearly instability present in the system.

The changes in a chemical reaction happen incredibly quickly, so while we are not a simple chemical reaction, we are each still a system. External stimuli influence our internal state and stability, and we have inputs and outputs. A sudden drop in temperature, someone paying us a compliment, or a bite of our breakfast all impact us in some way. These are all relatively insignificant changes, but what happens when you decide to create a lasting change like trying a new diet, starting a new business, or trying a new workout routine?

If you’re like most people, you fail to make a measurable impact with your attempt at change. Most of us know that the full gyms on January 2nd will empty out by the end of the month as eager New Year’s resolutionists gradually secede to their lifestyle of yesteryear. We know that most people who lose weight end up putting it back on later. We know that nine out of every ten businesses fail. We blame it on the same platitudes: you weren’t passionate enough, you didn’t stick to the plan, and you just didn’t want it bad enough. All of this empty advice parroted by various individuals fails to capture several key components in the equation – namely, humans are motivated by certain stimuli – but what is rarely discussed is our capacity for change.

If we break down change into a few basic components, we begin to see where our errors most commonly lie.

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Adopted from a DevOps article by Prof. Charles Betz

In the above diagram, we can see how the various components of change interact. While the simple diagram above is meant to explain how a DevOps team functions in terms of change related to stability, the principles of systems dynamics are applicable to any system, whether that system is a team or a single individual. If you change more often, in smaller increments, your capability for change increases, which decreases the risks associated with you changing. This in turn increases your stability. Something that is more stable is less likely to fail, unlike this bridge:

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So how can we apply this thinking to real life to actually make a difference in how we achieve change? Let’s take a common scenario where change is involved and work through it: starting a weight loss plan by joining a gym.

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The problem with most changes is that we think too big. Goal-setting is often cursed with ambitious overconfidence when it should be blessed with incremental humility. In the case of our hypothetical situation, instead of setting a goal to lose 15 pounds, it makes more sense from a systems dynamics perspective to set a goal to go to the gym twice a week. The big obstacle at play isn’t losing weight. What’s really difficult for our individual in our scenario is the change of physically going to a gym. A change that is smaller in size but still routine will be more achievable. Gradually, this can increase as our system gains the capability for more change. After a routine number of visits has been started, then a more lofty goal of an actual weight target can be established.

The same problem can be seen time and time again as people try to make a radical change in their life through some sort of epiphany or ultimatum. Dramatic change is noble and attractive, but it rarely materializes in the virtually instantaneous way it is often portrayed in various forms of media. The most stunning personal transformations take years, sometimes decades, before they materialize into their end result. To change for the better, one needs to accept the joys of the routine and the mundane. The process of great personal change is not glamourous. Those who remain humble and composed achieve the most results.

To begin a path of effective change, it is essential to work in short, measurable targets. Large projects undertaken by businesses are most successful if there is routine check-ins, weekly goals, and a progression of small changes to enact a large one. All major changes do need a kick-off point, but a common pattern seen in change efforts is to invest all energy into the beginning of the initiative with little thought on how to sustain progress and keep the participants engaged.

How many times have we seen someone announce that a new business or awareness campaign, create an elaborate launch for it, and then have its pulse barely register within a few months? I am sure all of us can relate, perhaps on a level of our own personal experience. Sustaining an initiative is inherently boring because of the nature of small change and the daily, mundane tasks that must be accomplished in order to achieve the larger goal at play. Much of the process is painful and monotonous, which is why we consider major transformations so remarkable. Dr. John Kotter of Harvard Business School argues that “the reason most changes fail is that victory is declared too early, and that real change runs deep.”

Despite the opinion that we hold of ourselves, humans interact with the world in remarkably similar and predictable ways. How we grow and develop is no exception. By applying basic principles of systems dynamics, it is evident why personal growth and change is so difficult when we approach new initiatives with a grandiose intent. In addition to the natural difficulty of change much of the popular literature and advice surrounding change is based on anecdotal evidence and disingenuous methods. Beware of confirmation bias, one of the most dangerous mental states that runs so prevalent in the world today.

It is important to recognize that change is difficult but manageable. Produce routine, frequent changes that will help condition yourself as a system that will be more resilient and stable in the long run. Any large personal change is not a short-term solution, and it is rarely glamourous. Based on some basic principles of systems dynamics, routine incremental change rooted in humility can help achieve better returns in our approach to personal growth and change.

Why Do We Hate Spoilers?

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When George Lucas announced a reboot of his acclaimed Star Wars film franchise, fans of the films went to great lengths to be the first to see the next series of adventures in a galaxy far, far away. Within minutes of the movie’s release, the internet was awash with a flurry of users posting spoilers about the plot of the movie to many who were eagerly awaiting details, and an equally furious backlash of users outraged at the notion that the secrets of the movie were ruined before they had a chance to see the film themselves. This curious reaction that has occurred countless times throughout the course of major motion picture, novel, or video game releases begs the question: why do we hate spoilers so much?

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Human beings love predicting things. Skilled predictors, or at least those who masqueraded as such, held entire occupations based around this trait. This is the reason that almost every major human civilization throughout ancient history had some sort of shaman, mystic, or some other form of particularly clairvoyantly gifted individual who was in charge of predicting the good (or bad) fortunes for the rest of their tribe or village. Uncertainty causes fear, one of the most unpleasant emotions we have the displeasure of experiencing, so we try our best to avoid environments or situations that cause fear. We’re naturally afraid of the dark, foreign countries, or even new people.

But fear or uncertainty produced in a controlled environment is actually enjoyable thanks to the cocktail of neurotransmitters released after our fear has been extinguished by a rush of relief that overcomes our senses. Horror movies, haunted houses, and amusement parks all lend their success to this principle. As long as we are physically safe, uncertainty is an exciting feeling for us, even if we’re watching a movie that’s not particularly scary.

The best filmmakers, writers, and video game designers have taken notice of our desire for a little bit of uncertainty, as it is one of the key components of creating a compelling narrative. In fact, the most enticing movies that seem to fly by despite being well over 2 hours long must strike a balance between action, fear, romance, comedy, and drama. By balancing out the various emotions elicited by these various elements while maintaining a certain level of uncertainty as to what will happen, films keep us engrossed in their story.

However, If someone spoils the ending and pulls back the curtain on the plot, the mysticism of the film is soon stripped away. If we go into a movie already knowing the ending, we think that we simply won’t enjoy it as much because our ability to be sucked into the plot line will be greatly diminished. And so we get furious at spoilers. Or so we think…

What’s interesting is that our anger may be all for nothing. Researchers at UCSD have determined that spoilers do not ruin books or movies for us; they actually help to enhance our experience. Why? Well if the plot of a story is revealed to us, we know how it ends and the major events that take place along the way. What isn’t ruined is the relationship we build with the characters throughout the movie, and we can in fact build deeper connections with the characters in the story as result.

Art forms such as film, literature, or theatre offer a sort of therapy to us as we seek to deal with our inner desires or insecurities. They help us to better understand ourselves and recognize that even our heroes on the screen can have faults. If we know what events will transpire during the story, we can ignore cataloging that information and analyze the elements of the narrative on a deeper level. We simply get more out of a story when we re-read or re-watch it.

There’s a reason many of us have a favourite book or movie that can revisit time and time again and still get the same enjoyment level, if not more, out of the experience. We notice more things – subtle cues or elements of foreshadowing – that we missed the first time around because we weren’t armed with the knowledge of the entire plot.

Our perspectives change over time, so our experience watching a movie like Star Wars as a kid will be vastly different than our experience as an adult. As a child we may have remembered the movie as a cool story about good vs. evil. As an adult, we’re able to draw on a diverse array of themes explored in the movie and this only enhances the experience for us. Even watching movies or reading books a few months apart can have radically different effects given the new knowledge and perspectives we could obtain in that time.

Despite all of this, it’s perfectly natural for us to be angry at someone who spoils a movie or book for us. We take great pride in our own ideas about how a story will unfold, and when those thoughts are interrupted by unwanted new information, we’re bound to get a little annoyed. Keeping that in mind, there’s no use exercising caution to avoid having a story spoiled; despite what your initial reaction will tell you, your first experience through the narrative will likely be better than if the ending wasn’t spoiled. Oh, and Snape kills Dumbledore.

 

 

 

 

6 Silly Reactions to Paris we all saw on Facebook

Like any major event, tragic or not, the terrorism attacks in Paris generated an incredible outpouring of traffic and content from digital and social media. This past Saturday, you couldn’t scroll past three items in your news feed without finding something related to Paris. While the intent behind much of this activity may have been well-meaning on the surface, much of it was, to put it lightly, rather silly. While we can all agree that the events were historic in their nature, and it is human nature to express concern or anguish for tragic events of this magnitude, social media has unfortunately given a rather attention-seeking undertone to expressing sympathy.

We are all guilty of actions like this at one point or another, whether it’s with international news like the events in Paris, a national election, or a big play during the SuperBowl. It’s important to recognize times where we may be a little more self-serving than we think, so the goal of this list isn’t to point fingers, it’s merely an exercise in learning to laugh at how easy it is to get swept up in trending stories like the attacks in Paris. I’ll begin with comedian Anthony Jeselnik’s excellent take on this trend to lighten the mood a little:

Now on to the list:

1. The standard “throw my hat in the mix” status

The most common status by far. Thanks to the effect that such a shocking event has on the digital world, everyone felt that it was their duty to show their support for Paris by taking a minute out of their day to express the incredibly obvious thought that all of our thoughts and prayers should be with the people in Paris. It’s really funny how difficult it is to resist this type of status. I’ve been guilty of it numerous times – usually with sports – and the Paris Terrorist attacks brought out some sort of reaction from just about everyone. While it’s noble to demonstrate your concern for a terrible and no doubt historic event, it’s also a little self-serving to seek validation about a tragedy that likely had no direct impact on your life. At the end of the day, you’re really just fishing for validation in the form of likes.

2. The islamophobic/religiophobic/borderline racist rant

These are always entertaining, because you know that anyone who posts one of these is laying it all on the line. They could risk losing a few friends or getting some angry private messages about how much of a bigot/racist they are, or they could be touted as a hero for actually having the balls to say something that some other people were probably thinking, even if it’s not the best choice of words for a public domain like Facebook. Either way, it’s never pretty to see a status of this sort. The public’s sensitivity related to religion and race are at an all-time high, so even if you bring up some valid, non-racist points in your argument, the backlash from the rest of your social mediasphere may not be worth it. That being said, when a status like this appears, it’s usually just watching a train wreck in slow motion, and the comments section will likely yield little hope for the future of humanity.

3. The counter rant to the above rant(s)


Otherwise known as the obvious level-headed thought, this status was offered as the counter to the often more vicious ones above. In the case of Paris, almost all well-informed people know that extremists are not representative of one group of people, so taking the time to inform your listeners of that fact is a pointless endeavour. Why? We tend to attract like-minded people, so most of your friends will likely share your opinion, and thus your opinion becomes as self-serving as anything else posted about a major event that everyone is aware of. Insight is only valuable to those who did not possess it beforehand; otherwise you’re just screaming in an echo chamber.

4. The guilt-seeking missile of alternative viewpoint


Next we have the status that tries to wrestle attention away from the primary tragedy to focus on the little guy – in this case, the bombings that took place in Beirut, Lebanon that same day that tragically claimed the lives of 43 people and wounded over 200. This is perhaps the most noble, yet misinformed, of all the usual statuses that occur when any major tragedy takes place. While the poster may consider themselves particularly insightful for bringing attention away from the popular tragedy that the mainstream media has enveloped, there is a rational explanation for why some tragedies are front page news and others barely make the international news briefs.

First, it is important to understand that almost all international news is very boring to us in North America because we are unfamiliar with the country or region in the news. We are unable to sympathize because  we lack that rooted connection to most foreign regions. The fact that the Western media is paying more attention to Paris, one of the most storied cities in recent history, is receiving all of the press is a no brainer. We are automatically drawn to be sympathetic to things that we are familiar with.  The fact that Paris is so familiar to many of us, whether by direct contact with the city as a result of our past travels or through its coverage in modern cinema, is the reason why the Western world was so focused on Paris and not Beirut. Paris is almost magical to many of us, most of whom haven’t even set foot in the city itself.

I’ll let philosopher Alain de Botton phrase this a bit more eloquently than I could ever hope to do:

“To grow interested in any piece of information, we need somewhere to ‘put’ it, which means some way of connecting it to an issue we already now how to care about…Properly told, stories are able to operate on two levels. On the surface, they deal with particulars involving a range of facts related to a given time and place, a local culture and a social group–and it is these specifics that tend to bore us whenever they lie outside of our own experience. But then, a layer beneath the particulars, the universals are hidden: the psychological, social and political themes that transcend the stories’ temporal and geographical settings and are founded on unvarying fundamentals of human nature.”   (from The News: A User’s Manual, 2014)

Basically, there’s a good reason why we all took to the Paris tragedy and not to the one in Beirut. It’s not a racial issue like many of the accusatory posts or shares imply; it’s simply an issue of familiarity. While easily conflated, the two are vastly different in their intent and underlying reason. Most of us are not familiar with Beirut or the country of Lebanon, and since we compartmentalize the Middle East with constant conflicts to the point that we barely bat an eyelash when news breaks of violence in the region, it should come as no surprise that Paris shocked us while Beirut (sadly) went unnoticed.

 

5. The French Flag profile picture

 

If you’re one of the many people reading this who currently has their profile picture tinged with some blue, white, and red, relax. It’s no fault of your own and I , nor anyone who abstained from changing their profile picture, thinks that they’re better than you. Honestly, it’s a little ridiculous for me to even re-read that sentence.

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The meme above should have made you laugh even if you decided to alter your profile picture with the French flag. When we take a step back and actually evaluate why this trend spread so fast and why we participated, it’s easy to say “to show solidarity for the people of Paris”, or something similar, but that’s not really why most of us participated. We are naturally drawn to express concern and sensitivity to important events of intense tragedy or joy. Look at the similar trend with the legalization of gay marriage in the United States a few months ago. Rainbow flag tinged profile pictures were everywhere. However, the two examples are vastly different in terms of context; legalizing gay marriage was a fantastic success that resulted from a social movement based on progressive beliefs held by the majority of the public, so by offering your support in any form, you were assisting the change and overall impact of the movement. An overwhelming number of rainbow tinged flags was a moral and socially progressive victory for society.

With Paris, the situation is a little different. Victims of a tragedy still need support, but there is no “cause” that these victims have struggled against, merely an effect that they have suffered from. The attacks were a random act of violence that endured no long-term political struggle or social stigma. As a result, showing support or solidarity doesn’t really accomplish anything other than everyone giving everyone else a pat on the back for participating. Victims of tragedy like this need tangible support such as food, medical supplies, or monetary donations to help overcome the effect.

Let’s say you’re watching a youth football game and a child encounters a serious injury. Suddenly, the majority of the crowd all jumps out of their seats and surrounds the child. Some offer words of encouragement, some perhaps ask the child if it’s ok, while others may simply stand around and watch. While this isn’t the wrong thing to do, it’s also not the right thing – or at least not the best thing- to do, since ultimately, the collective actions of these parents are no more effective than those who are still sitting in the bleachers. Someone needs to spring into action, stabilize the victim, and call an ambulance.

The city of Paris is not struggling against a social construct or invention, it’s struggling against the emotional and physical effects of a direct physical assault. Showing your support or solidarity with those affected is not a bad thing; it’s merely a little ridiculous to think that your contribution is actually affecting any measurable change. All that’s accomplished from a move like this is a demonstration that you’re present.

 

6. The Thoughts and Prayers Humble Brag

Perhaps most confusing were instances of people who took to social media to post a picture of themselves traveling in Paris with a caption related to the attacks in Paris as a way to demonstrate their support of the issue. While this does tie in to issue # 4 and the Western World’s widespread familiarity with Paris, it’s something more confusing altogether to think that some people felt it appropriate to divert attention away from the actual events at play and somehow make a terrible tragedy about themselves and their past travels. While throwing one’s hat into the mix at all is rather silly at any level, the fact that some people took the time to remind their audience that they’re not only concerned about Paris, but they’ve actually been there, as if to reinforce that they have some special connection to the city, is somewhat alarming given the fact that it has absolutely nothing to do with the issue at play.

Why Bother?

It’s important to recognize our motivations behind our actions, and our participation on social media is no different. While some of us may dismiss that point with something along the lines of “relax, it’s just Facebook”, that ignores the fact that our personas that we craft online have impacts on our real world selves as well. There is already ample evidence in the literature that suggests that seeking attention online is rooted in deeper problems in real life. For most of us, these issues are trivial – after all, who doesn’t like a little attention? The real damage comes when we invest too much of our energies in our online social capital.

The other issue stems from clicktivism, slacktivism, or whatever else you’d like to call it. Malcolm Gladwell penned an excellent piece on the matter for The New Yorker in 2010, so please check out his article for a great description of the issue. Clicktivism is indicative of a larger issue that has emerged from social media – our obsession with image. According to an Elections Canada survey, 74 percent of youth voters aged 18-24 reported voting in the 2011 Canadian Federal Election; in reality, that number was closer to 39 percent, which means that almost half of those youth surveyed lied about voting. That seems like an odd thing to lie about. Until you begin to think about the pressure most youth today are under to appear as close to perfection as possible.

Being politically involved has been deemed important by the vocal few, and this has unfortunately placed pressure on the rest of society to appear involved in current events, whether that involves condemning Joseph Kony (remember KONY 2012?), changing your profile picture, or lying in a survey about whether you voted or not. Ultimately, the lesson to take from our collective reaction to the tragedies in Paris is that most of us are just trying to keep up with one another. It’s not that different from our pursuits in real life, but it’s often much easier because we are in control of the filter strength.

No, We Don’t Need a $15 Minimum Wage

The traditional restaurant owner operates on a very tight budget with slim margins: 36 percent goes to labour, 30 percent to food costs, and 30 percent to operational costs. That leaves 4 percent for profit. While this number can fluctuate – for example, if the restaurant happens to be a franchise, the case remains clear that owning a restaurant is not the most lucrative financial pursuit.

The one factor largely in control of the restauranteur is that of labour cost. Food cost is dictated by a variety of factors like weather, cost of fuel, and the cost of labour needed to actually produce it. Operational costs follow a similar pattern. Labour, as a function of production, is beneficial to the restauranteur if the benefit of labour outpaces the cost of it. For example, if a employee at a cafe can pour enough coffee and sell enough sandwiches to offset the hourly cost of their labour, operations, and food, they are beneficial to the restauranteur and their services will be in demand. If the inverse is true, labour will not be in demand, and the availability of jobs, and the hours assigned to employees who possess them, will diminish as the employer seeks the most efficient way to run their business.

In recent months we have seen a surge of protests, particularly from fast food workers, in North America that advocate for a raise in the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The province of Ontario has recently increased its minimum wage to $11.25/hour. Proponents of this movement insist that a higher minimum wage will result in a reduction of poverty and will increase economic prosperity. More dollars in employees’ pockets means more money that is funnelled back into the economy, right? They also draw on real-life examples in cities such as Seattle that have already mandated a raise in their federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. However, the results of this increase indicate the opposite: a raise in the federal minimum wage will actually harm the economy. How is this possible?

As mentioned before, if the cost of labour is too high, employers will seek out alternatives to try to and reduce that cost. One of the largest changes my parents made with their business after they evaluated their first year their numbers was that they drastically reduced their labour cost by cutting back the hours of their employees. Simply put, they didn’t need that many additional staff to keep up with demand, and the bulk of the hours could be worked by either of my parents. Other employers have sought out similar paths, either by cutting back employee hours or by replacing them entirely with automated processes. For example, some restaurants have enlisted the use of tablet-based ordering systems that eliminates the need for a server to take the patrons’ order; instead, only a few staff are needed to deliver customers’ orders, but the time consuming ordering component has been replaced with technology. A higher buy-in cost, but the long term gains are far greater with the investment in service-based technology.

What will occur, and what has already occurred in cities like Seattle that have adopted the $15 minimum wage hike, is a reduction in available jobs or the closure of businesses altogether. It is overly simplistic to think that employers will benefit from raising minimum to a jump as high as $15/hour, because that profit margin needs to be maintained, or the business providing the jobs will suffer. Raising prices will alienate customers and be even more harmful for business, and the cost of operations will remain about the same, so labour cost is the factor that will almost always be targeted. At this point, one has to ask the question: which option is best? 1) A steady supply of jobs with a lower minimum wage or 2) A diminished number of jobs with a higher hourly wage? Most would agree that low-paying jobs are better than no jobs at all.

Another issue with the proposed minimum wage hike is that it would undermine the value of education in society. The vast majority of individuals who pursue post secondary education do so in order to increase their earning potential. If an individual can earn the same wage at McDonald’s that they can in numerous entry-level jobs that require a university degree, it would stimulate a “dumbing-down” of our society as more and more people would just take the easy way out and seek out easy positions that pay $15/hour. A higher minimum wage would also undermine positions that require a higher level of education, and this would only exacerbate the current issue that new graduates are facing with low paying jobs upon their entry into the workforce. Competition for minimum wage jobs would increase, and those who are more high skilled or educated would win out, leaving us right back to where we began, if not worse off.

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Let me be clear: I do agree with the reason that the #fightfor15 crowd is trying to enact change: there is a massive wage gap in North America, but the solution is not a $15/hour minimum wage. Most of the protestors involved simply do not understand the costs involved in running a business and are unaware of the other side of argument. Even if a business owner sacrifices their own earnings in the interest of equality for workers, that strategy also backfires.Economics is a very complicated social science; we can pretend to understand it by reading the news, even the pieces from the best sources available, but the reality is, a very small percentage of the population actually has a fundamental grasp of the intricacies and mathematical models involved in economics research and analysis. Most of us have an understanding of the economy from those who write news articles about it, and most journalists do not hold a Ph.D. in economics.

Look at what happened when Dan Price, CEO of Gravity, a Seattle payment-processing company, decided to cut his $1 million USD salary to $70,000 a year and raise the minimum wage for his employees at Gravity to the same amount. It made international news, many heralded Price as a social innovation champion, and tons of feel-good news stories circulated the web. What these stories didn’t account for is the fact that talented workers demand higher pay based on their skills, and if they’re not earning a wage relative to their value, they will seek work elsewhere. Clients also fear increased costs of doing business with Gravity due to this wage hike, so they cancel their accounts. Now, Mr. Price has to rent out his home in order to cope with his now floundering business; his strategy backfired. Fear not; there is a solution to the problem of wage inequality that has been recommended by many prominent economists: a guaranteed annual income.

What is a guaranteed annual income? It is a social assistance program that ensures citizens whose annual income falls below the mandated target a guaranteed level of income, which is provisioned with negative income tax, child benefit programs, or other financial breaks for the less fortunate. For example, if Steve makes $22,000 a year working at a fast food establishment (this is roughly equivalent to what a full-time employee earning the $11 minimum wage in Ontario would earn), his income would be supplemented through a negative income tax break, perhaps a child benefit or two if they applied, or other programs that would be in place to ensure that Steve’s guaranteed annual income reached $30,000 per year, which is the equivalent of making $15/hour before taxes at a full-time job.

While the money for guaranteed annual income programs needs to come from somewhere, like an increased corporate tax, carbon tax, or higher taxes for high earners, the social benefits would be immense. The negative impacts of an increased hourly wage would not occur because the burden would be spread to taxpayers, not business owners. Rates of crime would also decrease, as a lack of money and employment stability is the a key motivator for entry into a life of crime. If more people were assured of their financial stability each year, they are less likely to risk being caught for a crime. Many people who commit crimes today are indifferent if they get caught, because jail is hardly a worse alternative; for some it may be even better considering prisoners are guaranteed to be fed and sheltered.

Canada currently has a child benefit plan, the Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB), which Ivey business school professor and economist Mike Moffat calls unnecessary, as “Bay Street executives, NHL players and, yes, even business professors are given UCCB cheques each month to help cover the cost of groceries and childcare. There is absolutely no need for this, as those groups have more than enough resources to pay for the cost of raising their children, so the UCCB is a failure on both efficiency and equity grounds.” The proposed replacement, the Canada Child Benefit, would provide assistance to those who actually need it: the lower and middle class families who aren’t bringing in six or seven figure salaries. Under the CCB, families can receive a maximum of $6,400 for children under 6 years of age, and up to $5,400 for those aged 6-17. This is but one of many examples of social assistance programs that could contribute to a guaranteed annual income program in Canada.

While the income equality situation in Canada is far from perfect, the situation here is certainly far better than that south of the border. Regardless, the solution to either problem is a not a mandated minimum wage hike. Small business owners are people too, and their lives are far from perfect. The burden should not fall on the small business sector, which comprise over 98% of businesses in Canada; the burden should fall on tax payers to redistribute a little bit of wealth to ensure even that even a minimum wage employee will not have to struggle to make rent and raise a family.

This is the Way Your News Feed is Literally Destroying You

Most of you reading this will have discovered it through a link or a share through Facebook. Perhaps some through Twitter or LinkedIn. Others may have stumbled across it as a result of a Google search. Like this article, most of you get your news from those sources in that order. According to Pew Research Centre, 87% of adults aged 18-29 use Facebook, 37% use Twitter, and 23% use LinkedIn. Facebook is used most frequently, with almost 70% of users reporting they visit the site daily, 48% of users check Facebook as soon as they wake up, and 79% of all adults who use just one social media site concede that Facebook is their sole social media outlet.

PI_2015-01-09_social-media_08

What this barrage of statistics is really saying is that because of the popularity of Facebook and other social media sites in our lives, our view of the world is largely warped by the news we receive through these forms of media. Even individuals who have chosen to abstain from the social media game are still affected, because the topics and news that their social circle receive are still very likely consumed through Facebook or other social media sites. The information that these individuals receive during their daily lives is indirectly affected by their friends, acquaintances, or coworkers.

PI_2015-01-09_social-media-new_04

This may not seem like a problem at first – after all, by being active on Facebook or Twitter, you stay on top of the pulse of your world, and being current and well-informed on the happenings around the world is important. However, what most of us fail to recognize is that our news feeds are carefully constructed, not just by our tastes as interpreted by the algorithms employed by social media sites, but by the anatomy of online news outlets. If any of you like or follow a major news publication like CNN, CBC, The National Post, Thomson-Reuters, BBC, or Al-Jazeera, what you may not be aware of is that the print, radio, and television bulletins produced by these media giants are vastly different from what is produced for their online followers. Why are there essentially two versions of the same news source? To understand how the online news economy works, first we need to understand the history of the newspaper.

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Early newspapers functioned as political bulletins printed by various political parties to publish their platforms and other items of interest to party members. Most of these newspapers had circulations of only a few thousand recipients, were not really functional as a “newspaper”, and their content was strictly informative and of the editorial fashion. The first wave of true newspapers arrived in New York City during the 1830s in the form of The New York Sun and The New York Herald. Both of these papers relied on similar business models: there was no subscription – every paper was sold as a one-off item – and the way these papers were sold was by employing sensationalist headlines, gossip, and coverage of high society.

A typical front page of a yellow journalism paper: the front page of The New York Journal. Headlines like this helped start the Spanish American War.

A typical front page of a yellow journalism paper: the front page of The New York Journal. Headlines like this helped start the Spanish American War. Source: http://www.thewestthroughmodernamerica8h.com/where-did-the-term-yellow-journalism-come-from.html

This type of journalism was called “Yellow Journalism”, typified by these papers’ use of: scary headlines of otherwise unimportant events, large pictures, faked interviews, pseudoscience, fake experts, and a focus on underdog against the system type stories. In fact, one of the primary causes of the Spanish-American War of 1898 has been attributed to Yellow Journalism and the anti-Spanish propaganda contained in the newspapers in the months leading up to actual conflict, even though there was no real reason for a war in the first place.  If this pattern sounds eerily similar to modern publications like The National Enquirer or websites such as BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, or Gawker, that’s because the latter are simply modern versions of Yellow Journalism.

A change in the journalism industry occurred when Adolph S. Ochs, publisher of The New York Times, introduced a radically different model of distribution. Instead of selling newspapers with sensationalist headlines and gossip, he introduced the subscription model. For one cent per issue, an individual could purchase a subscription to the Times. The price had to be low enough to compete with the Yellow Journalism papers, otherwise the quality content would get lost in the sea of sensationalism. Since people purchased the Yellow Papers due to price and a lack of other options, Ochs sought to produce a paper whose value far exceeded that of the sensationalist Yellow Papers. Gradually, Ochs’ focus on producing quality content – as evidenced by his slogan for the Times: “All the News That’s Fit to Print” – caught on, and thousands of imitators gradually formed.

The New York Times newsroom, 1942. Source: Wikipedia.

The New York Times newsroom, 1942. Source: Wikipedia.

Since an issue of a subscription-based paper has already been sold before it’s been printed, journalists did not have to rely on ridiculous headlines or celebrity gossip to sell papers; instead they could focus on quality content, intuitive reporting, and good writing. Journalism began to become a respected and almost academic profession. Newspapers built followers on trustworthy content and quality reporting. This model would stay in place for most of the 20th century, but with the advent of online journalism, a reversion back to the Yellow Journalism tactics began.

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Today, the bulk of our news comes from online blogs, and I’m not referring to amateur blogs like this one. I’m referring to BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Slate, Vice, or all of the blogs owned by Gawker Media. As I previously mentioned, even if we choose to follow an actual news agency like the examples listed in the first section, the “news” we receive from their online portals is radically different from what is printed or broadcast over radio & television. The online versions of some our most trusted sources have become diluted to the point where much of their content is indistinguishable from the types of blogs mentioned in the second sentence of this paragraph.

Yellow Journalism papers needed to be sensationalist and controversial to sell individual papers, but accessing BuzzFeed’s listicles from your Facebook News Feed doesn’t cost you anything directly, so why have online blogs employed the same business tactics? Simple: these blogs all generate their revenue from ads, and the amount of money these ads generate for blogs is based on traffic to the site. More clicks = more money. As soon as you click on a blog article, that blog has made money. If you click through a few more articles during your visit, even better. No online blog, from BuzzFeed all the way to the BBC, is immune to this digital economic strategy.

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How do they do it? Sensationalist terms are a very broad description and don’t really explain why we click on an article designed with Yellow Journalism tactics, so here are a few common tactics employed by headline creators to get you to click on an article, even if you decide to go back after having read for 5 seconds and been left disappointed.

A tactic used by both Yellow Journalism and modern blogs is to create something out of nothing. For example, remember the dad bod? The article linked to was among the first to “report” on the “craze” of the dad bod, which was ultimately just another example of how blogs create something out of nothing. There is no reason for the dad bod to be in the news. There was no study done on it, no famous new diet that promoted it, there was no reason to create a new term out of thin air except to generate a new string of articles and create content.

The above article was created in April. As I was writing this paragraph, I Googled “dad bod” and there were still new articles being published on it. They varied from a repost by MSN that “introduced” the dad bod to its readers (3 months after they already knew it existed), an article reporting the health risks of it, and an article below that claiming a health study supports maintaining a dad bod. Time has an article claiming that the dad bod is a “sexist atrocity” (using the headline technique discussed below).

A typical headline for an article reporting content that means nothing. You can even see the fake source quoted in the second paragraph. Who cares what

A typical headline for an article reporting content that means nothing. You can even see the fake source quoted in the second paragraph. Who cares what “Marie Dugo” thinks? Source: http://motherboard.vice.com/read/dad-bods-guide-internet-meme

Another way is by exploiting a psychological concept called the confirmation bias. The “tendency to search for or interpret information in way that leads to one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors” is routinely exploited by blogs, usually in the form of a falsely reported study or a nostalgic listicle. We may already know that we’re 90s kids, a middle child, have mild OCD, and that we’re night owls, but clicking an article written by a 21 year old with a B.A. in communications that confirms one or more of those traits is incredibly satisfying for us.

The most common way blogs bait you into clicking on an article is by evoking an emotional response – the more intense, the better (in case you haven’t caught on, I purposely gave this article a sensationalist headline to illustrate this tactic). According to a 2010 study by Wharton School of Business Assistant Professor Jonah Berger, the most accurate predictor of virality is anger followed by happiness.  So, if a headline either makes you extremely happy or very angry, you’re more likely to click on it to reaffirm your happiness or see just how stupid the subject of the article is (and read the comments written by other readers who share you disgust and counter-arguments). However, one interesting thing to note is that sadness does not spread: only extreme happiness or anger does.

Don’t believe me? Go to Elite Daily and click the first article that pisses you off, which should take all of 5 seconds. Scroll to the bottom and look at the comments. Most are negative, or there may be some bickering back and forth. It doesn’t matter – the article’s subject matter is a pointless essay that doesn’t mean anything. The subject matter doesn’t matter. The article was conjured out of thin air and minted with a emotionally jarring title to get you and as many other people as possible to click on it. When people comment, their activity is shared on Facebook to bring even more traffic to article and more money in ad revenue to the blog.

This is the endless pattern that occurs with online media. Create content out of nothing or out of something as miniscule as a tweet or an Instagram post. Slap on an emotion-inducing headline. Write the article with an angle that can exploit the confirmation bias of your audience. It’s equal parts brilliant and horrifying at the same time. Neither you nor I are immune to the effect even though we know the pattern; the only difference that being wise to online media tactics will make is that you are now more aware of the purpose of most articles that come across your news feed.

As I write this, a new story is blowing up: today it was about Cecil the Lion, tomorrow it could be something offensive a politician said, or an uplifting story about a single mother fighting for justice. And ultimately, these events are handpicked because they generate traffic. The CBC article about Cecil the Lion that I linked to follows the exact tactics outlined in news blog 101: the article was comprised mostly of screenshots from Twitter and plenty of pictures. The story invokes anger from the reader, even though the events ultimately have zero impact on their day to day life.

Despite the outrage over the Cecil the Lion story, it directly impacts almost no one who is angry about it. Source: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/american-dentist-killed-cecil-lion-zimbabwe-article-1.2306401

Despite the outrage over the Cecil the Lion story, it directly impacts almost no one who is angry about it. Source: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/american-dentist-killed-cecil-lion-zimbabwe-article-1.2306401

In his philosophical analysis of the news media, Alain de Botton commented that “When reporting on a tragedy, the news tends to make dreadful conduct seem unique to a particular person. It resists the wider resonance and the more helpful conclusion: that we are all a hair’s breadth away from catastrophe. This knowledge should, if properly absorbed, sink us into a mood of reflective, mature sadness. We are more implicated than we might like to believe in the misdeeds of other members of our species. A lack of a serious criminal record is in large measure a matter of luck and good circumstance, not proof of an incorruptible nature. A clean conscience is the preserve of those without sufficient imagination. Were life, or what the Greeks termed the gods, ever really to test us, we would almost surely be found wanting – an awareness upon which a measure of understanding towards the guilty should be founded.

The tragedians of ancient Greece never forgot this. They liked to tell us how vicious, stupid, sexual, enraged and blind we could be, but they allowed room for complex compassion as well. Through the examples they leave us, we are coaxed into accepting that we are members of a noble but hideously flawed species; capable of performing amazing feats, ably practising medicine or parenting with love for many years, and then of turning around and blowing up our existence with a single rash move. We should be scared.” The News: A User’s Manual. pp 321

Despite this, the story has real world impacts: the dentist who poached Cecil the Lion has effectively ruined his life, all because the online media picked up his story and the world got pissed off for a few days. What he did was by all accounts ethically immoral and wrong, but crimes of that magnitude occur each day all around the world. The difference was that we feel a certain sympathy towards other animals, especially a mammal as prominent as a male lion, but if the same fate had been bestowed upon a human to another human in a far off country, we would likely feel indifferent to the matter. The story blew up because the world was outraged at the matter, and that generates traffic. This is not to say that we shouldn’t care about tragedies that occur around the world, but by preoccupying our time with an event that occurs quite regularly (poaching still refuses to go away, largely thanks to the demand of traditional medicine ingredients in Asia or symbolic dagger handles in the Middle East) we are distracting ourselves from local issues that more directly concern us.

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Despite the poor state that the news most of us read is in, there is still hope. We can learn from the underlying lessons the news teaches us, no matter what the source. If we feel anger about a particular story, we should take a step back and ask ourselves why that is. Is it envy? Outrage? We need to positively identify why are we feeling that particular emotion about that particular subject. Perhaps by answering that question, we can use an otherwise pointless story to learn something more introspective. We should also look to articles that we use to support a preconceived notion about ourselves and ask why we need the support of an article written by someone with no relevant credentials to be giving advice on our lives, and instead look to learn from the reason we are seeking that external validation in the first place.

And finally, consider the following: “A flourishing life requires a capacity to recognize the times when the news no longer has anything original or important to teach us; periods when we should refuse imaginative connection with strangers, when we must leave the business of governing, triumphing, failing, creating or killing to others, in the knowledge that we have our own objectives to honour in the brief time still allotted to us.”

– The News: A User’s Manual, pp. 419

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The bulk of my inspiration for this article came from these three books. Give them a read!

The News: A User’s Manual (2014) – Alain de Botton

Trust Me: I’m Lying. Confessions of a Media Manipulator (2013) – Ryan Holiday

Contagious: Why Things Catch On (2013) – Dr. Jonah Berger