Thursday, October 15, 2009

Everyone is selling something all the time

(Listen.  This is the honest truth.  I'm not selling anything.)

As a behavioral ecologist, I have long believed the literal truth of the title of today's post.  It benefits each individual to convince others that they are trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.  Of course, not everyone is a Boy Scout at heart, but it is to their advantage to try to get others to believe that they are.  If I trust you, then I might buy a car from you, loan you money, give you a job, let you date my daughter, invite you to my party, give you a ride downtown, or tell you an important secret; if I trust you, there are a plethora of ways I might help you materially or help you enhance your status in the community.  As we shall see in future posts, status is everything in a species as social as ours.

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But being a regular participant and reader of social networks over the past year has brought home to me this lesson most vividly.  The posts on any social networking site are mostly a barrage of salesmanship, of one form or another.  On Facebook, for example, I have become "friends" with several celebrities: Joan Lunden, Billy Bush, Craig Crawford, Tom Bergeron, Peter Greenberg, Michael Wolff, Alexis Glick, and others.  Those people are on FB for only one reason--to sell their tv show, or their next interview of Kate Gosselin, or their next appearance on the Bill Maher show, or their next book.  And any of us who read what they write are their intended consumer. 

Many of these salespersons, mostly the females, take the tact of describing how they spent the weekend with their adorable kids at the beach, and then came home to cook mac and cheese for their family, and then washed the dirty dishes with their husband after they put the kids to bed.  That is, she is trying to sell the image that she is a regular working mom, just like you.  The difference, of course, is that she has a weekly tv show, which she would appreciate you watching on Wednesday night, and she makes $500,000 per year (and is hoping for a raise to $1M next season).  The men tend to be less devious in their approach: "Watch me tackle the health care reform bill on Sunday morning on Meet the Press".  It sounds like a football game, and that is what REAL men do.  They tackle things.

Those of us who are not famous or well-known are, more often than not, doing the same thing within our own milieu, in our own way.  We are trying to be humorous, clever, intelligent, sexy, provocative, useful, ludicrous, outrageous, or interesting.  We play to our strengths on or off FB to "win friends and influence people", as the famous Dale Carnegie course promised decades ago to entrepreneurs who aspired to be successful. All of this is perfectly normal human behavior, but once you view the world this way, nearly everything you hear or read seems trite and hollow.  In fact, if we were all perfectly honest all the time, society as we know it would probably collapse.  The lies we tell and the myths we believe keep us sane and moving forward.  My current favorite is the investment company that advertises on tv and tells us how much they care and worry about us, how they want our financial future to be bright, to be able to send our kids to college, and to retire in style.  Bullhonky!  They don't know any of us and they couldn't care less about us as individuals.  They simply want to sell us their product.  You all know what I mean.  For fun, watch a couple of hours of tv tonight, including the commercials, and turn on your crap detector.  You will find it more amusing than the content of the show you tuned in to watch.

All of this can take a serious turn as well.  Bernie Madoff pulled off the largest financial scam of all time by selling his friends and acquaintances on his investment scheme.  I know some people who invested with him.  He was, apparently, a hell of a nice guy and everyone thought he was perfectly honest.  Not!  He was, however, very good at playing his role.

What is the point of all this cynicism?  Not sure.  It is just that the older you get, the more practiced you become at seeing through the morass of lies and half-truths.  The most difficult to discern are those lies told that the teller truly believes.  By definition, I guess those are not really lies, just untruths.  Natural selection must have favored individuals who are good at telling these self-serving stories, and good at selecting individuals who are able to detect their merit.  Another example of an evolutionary arms race.  Human behavior is about as interesting and entertaining as it gets.  And it is free.  Now, I must get back to trying to entice FB readers to visit this blog.  I love each and every one of you!