Hypnotized Humanity?

We underestimate the power of suggestion.  If you’ve ever been to a performance by a hypnotist, it is obvious just how much power suggestions can have over our experience of reality.    People can be convinced they have snakes crawling over them, are in danger, take on very different personas, and do things that they would otherwise not choose to do.   It can be a bit creepy.

Yet you do not need to be in an hypnotic trance for suggestions to be powerful.   Advertisers know this.  That is why McDonalds spends less time talking about its food than creating a mood.  “You deserve a break today.”  Cute scenes of kids, friends, people laughing, “lovin’ it”!   These are meant to place suggestions in your mind about how to feel when you see a McDonalds, making you more likely to think, “gee, let’s go eat at McDonalds.”   You haven’t really compared dining possibilities, you just feel like having McDonalds.   You feel loyalty to a particular brand.   Mountain Dew seems to be a more exciting soft drink than Sierra Mist.  It used to be that advertisers would place subliminal messages in ads, brief bits with words or suggestions that went by too fast to be consciously perceived, but expected to have a subconscious impact.   Suggestions.

In life we are constantly bombarded by suggestions.  Politicians making statements, cultural biases and fads, claims on the news, in the media, within a sub culture.   What has value?   What is common sense?   What will make me happy?   For example, for a long time our culture was convinced that blacks should be treated differently than whites, and the races should not mix in marriage.   That’s the way the world was, that’s what people grew up with.    All customs, beliefs, political justifications and the like reinforced the suggestion that this is how the world should be.

Those with the power (usually whites) had little reason to resist these suggestions.  This made it seem like there was something better about their race, rationalized unequal treatment, and gave a nice narrative to why conditions in the US were as they were.  Even progressives found it hard to break through the programing.   Blacks more easily rejected the suggestions because they were the ones hurt by the social structure, and its injustices were felt more keenly by blacks.  Even then, the power of these suggestions made it hard to mount a serious challenge to the existing social structure.

Martin Luther King’s “Letter to a Birmingham Prison,” wherein he expressed disappointment that white clergy and liberals were saying “slow down” or “don’t demand too much,” was really a shout to “wake up!”  You’ve been hypnotized into accepting as normal a state of affairs that should enrage you.   In fact, if we look back at history we see slavery, sexism, and an atrocious state of human rights as normal throughout most of human history.   If we could go back to Savannah, Georgia in 1824 and yell “wake up, slavery is evil,” we’d be marginalized as radical abolitionists — dangerous and misguided.

Political struggles are often efforts to yell “wake up” loud enough to shake people into questioning the suggestions being fed them, and get them to see things from a different perspective.  Yet it is always easier to stick with the world we’ve become accustomed to.  The suggestions that define how we interpret reality are comfortable, we’re used to them, and as we get older it becomes ever more difficult to truly question the world view we hold, especially if it has been rather stable.  Alternative suggestions sound weird, radical, dangerous or contrary to all we hold true.   That is one reason why change tends to be generational — a new generation may be open to new suggestions in a way older folk are not.

How do we break this hypnosis?   I think first and foremost is to recognize it exists — to recognize that every political, religious, social and cultural perspective we hold is in part shaped by the world around us.   Once we recognize that, then we can start reflecting on those beliefs and perspectives.   Second is to acknowledge the capacity of those with power and money to make and reinforce suggestions about how to think.  Whether political propaganda, advertising, or media messages that stick within narrow narratives (even if you can have the diversity between, say, Fox and MSNBC) all have enormous power to shape how people understand their world.  It creates a pervasive discourse, a set of ‘normal’ meanings and understandings through which reality is interpreted.

All of this means we have to don some humility.   Each of us may think ourselves clever, smart, critical and independent, but we are all to some extent products of our culture.   If we were born in Cairo or Tehran we’d think differently about the world than we do now; if we lived in the 1700’s our world view would be fundamentally changed.  Much of who we are depends on where and when we are.   Yet, I do think we can wake up.

Once we recognize that we’ve been subjected to massive suggestions about the world from our culture, friends, family and media, we can start the reflective process which gives humans the capacity to be ourselves and claim our own identity.   It’s not that we can completely come up with a totally autonomous worldview — the impact of culture and the suggestions that we “listen to” every day is always there, and always a part of us.   But we can resist their ability to shape us, and learn to question those suggestions being thrown our way.

In advertising: as we pull into McDonalds we can say, “do I really want this, why do I feel I want this, is it due to advertising, is this what I want,” and start thinking of alternatives.  At least make the decision consciously.    It can also be useful in thinking of politics.   In recent debates on this site about taxes and the role of government, I think it’s important for all sides to think seriously about the other’s perspective.   By that I don’t just mean entertain the arguments, but really listen and try to comprehend how a perspective can be different than ones’ own.   The more we do that in all issues, the more likely we are to have a clearer view of the world, and how suggestions may be leading us to embrace things we actually don’t believe in.

This also explains the importance of both art and satire.   Art can reflect creativity, the ability to explore aspects of life beyond conventional thought and the status quo.   It can be an impetus for “waking up” from a series of comfortable suggestions.   Since the Roman Empire and satirists like Juvenal, satire has had as its core method a refusal to accept conventional norms and rules of the discourse, and play with strange takes and perspectives on things.  Sometimes that allows the satirist to see reality more clearly than the serious pundit.

It may be comfortable to live hypnotized by the world around us, being programmed to want certain things, define success a certain way, and go with the flow.  But when we do that, we give up living an autonomous life, and soon feel alienated from life.   That emptiness can come out as depression, anxiety, hopelessness, or a desire for thrill, something to make us feel alive.   And, though we can never be completely outside our culture and the suggestions it provides, I do think it’s possible to resist and reflect.   Learning to view things from diverse perspectives, taking seriously the world views of those who think differently, and never being too settled in ones’ own beliefs and ideas about the world is one way to do that.   Living “awake” may be the key to a really satisfying life.

  1. #1 by Nancy B on January 29, 2010 - 02:14

    I think the sort of manner in which people are swayed is very often the cause of a lot of yucky, yucky things. But the manner in which people, in general, oversimplify and act with instinct and familiarity in making their choices is a facet of who we are. I suppose what I am saying is the manner in which we are able to tune out and accept things is always painted as a negative attribute of our brains, but I think it is just an attribute of our brains that gets used for negative things.

    When we keep returning to our favorite local coffeeshop, we are doing a similar thing as when we eat at McDonalds. The packaging is just different. McDonalds package is more vapid, I’ll give you that – “Eat our food and you’ll be happy because yay!”. But when we are drawn to a local coffeeshop, we are drawn the coziness, the closeness, the ‘friendly ol’ coffeeshop’ demeanor and the feeling of supporting a local business. All of these aspects are part of the coffeeshop’s ‘package’, just like having a good time with your friends while enjoy heart attack food is part of mcdonalds package. It’s easy for us to rip apart mcdonalds, but at the root of both choices – local coffee or mcdonalds – is a similar degree of comfort & quick thinking.

    Same thing with revolutionaries. The language used to incite change isn’t random – it’s chosen specifically to evoke a reaction in the reader and get them to sympathize and believe in the cause. Oftentimes, people are being swayed in a way that history deems progress, as opposed to manipulation and a blight on national character. But again, at the heart of both the dictator’s agenda and the revolutionary’s agenda, there is a need to convince people of their cause emotively, not 100% pragmatically.

    I’d love to be completely engaged all the time and make rational decisions, but I don’t think that our brains are capable of rationalizing all of our choices. Granted, voting and eating are important and it’s great to get all of the facts in each of these areas. But we will inevitably be swayed – I will inevitably prefer local food as opposed to Mcdonalds, for example, but I can honestly say that has more to do with culture I belong to than the information I have access to.

    I have been using the word ‘swayed’ because I think that is what we are, rather than hypnotized. When we eat at McDonalds, we are being emotively conned, but we are still rational human beings who are capable of making decisions. We choose to make the decision not to overanalyze this one. We will be swayed in certain directions when we choose not to care, both in advertisement and rhetoric, from both global conglomerate advertisement schemes and from grassroots local foods movement organizers.

    • #2 by Nancy B on January 29, 2010 - 02:15

      Oh my, I write quite a lot more than I think I do.

  2. #3 by Josh on January 29, 2010 - 03:06

    Most movies nowadays have that hypnotic power you speak of. It seems if a film is big, epic, with some sort of orchestral soundtrack, people will automatically be drawn to it.

    I have to say, however, that many of the folks who are “swayed” by such things like cheap Hollywood films, McDonalds, etc. are some of the most humble people I know. They are content with a simple lifestyle. Intellectuals sometimes overthink things.

    Personally, I prefer individuality over society and culture. That’s why I love country life. Away from the influence of the masses (nothing against city slickers), I think individuality can be achieved in a more genuine manner.

  3. #4 by Mike Lovell on January 29, 2010 - 15:07

    Well, first off it is not a matter of opinion that Mt Dew is more exciting than Sierra Mist..it is a fact. i’m not even a Dew fan…I’m a Pepsi/Dr Pepper kind of guy myself. But Sierra Mist is only slightly more exciting than tap water on any given day.

    As for the Mcdonald’s suggestions…Yes I do want it. I know its crap food, but it tastes good, its easy and convenient (except when driving your patrol car down the road and the ketchup and dehydrated onion chunk covered terrorist pickle jumps out of the burger to attack your clean uniform…that’s an atrocity!)

    Suggestion is quite the thing…I think it is easier to succumb to it when just going about your daily life, but if you’re expecting it, it may not work as well.
    My wife’s senior prom (the only prom I ever attended) they had a hypnotist for the afterprom. I of course volunteered, because this piqued my curiosity. It didn’t quite work…just before I was “out”, he tipped my head back. But given my nature for pandering to an audience, I stayed up, and was not picked out as a faker by the guy. I went through the whole process and forced myself to get creative and assimilate to what people were doing (or being told to do/feel). I think it was somewhat of an exerise in controlling my environment, as I can be a bit of a control freak, and don’t like to fully let go of the reins.

    So it could be that visual mediums like tv and movies are teh best way to acheive the power of suggestion, because it is at that time that we are most relaxed and just trying to immerse ourself into the alternate reality.

  4. #5 by Renaissance Guy on January 30, 2010 - 14:06

    Ah, yes. You are right, of course. As Socrates siad, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” However, I have to ask. . .

    Who has been hypnotized–those who adopt a liberal approach or those who adopt a conservative approach? It’s easy for people on one side of the fence to claim that the other side has simply been swayed by outside forces. Hardly anyone thinks it possible that he or she has been swayed.

    Ever since I started to appreciate classical music to the dismay of my parents, I can honestly say that I have tried to be my own person. In college I was very much in open disagreement with many of my professors. In church I have had many an argument with one pastor or another.

    You may dispute my claim, but I believe myself to be one of the most independent thinkers around. (Which is why I now align myself with a third party, angering both my friends on the right and my friends on the left!)

    • #6 by Scott Erb on January 30, 2010 - 14:16

      I don’t think “conservatives” or “liberals” are any more or less “hypnotized” than others. I do think you show a willingness to consider other perspectives even as you defend your own, and that to me is what matters. Ultimately, we each have to make our own calls in an uncertain world and act on them. But I don’t see this as a “right” or “left” thing.

  5. #7 by The Empathic Guide on March 1, 2011 - 20:00

    Great article, Scott, thank you. I think your ability to see through the McDonalds ads could be used as some kind of test to find out how ‘awake’ you actually are! I for one can barely stand to look at them on the rare occasions I’m confronted with them – the attempt by this corporation who makes a fortune out of exploiting animals and people to convince us that they’re some kind of ‘friendly local hang-out’ is nothing short of obscene – and an offence to our intelligence. We also have similar adverts here for Tesco supermarkets (so huge that apparently one pound out of every seven is spent there in the UK) – ‘Every little helps’ goes their slogan, announced over chirpy music- and I find it amazing that more people can’t see beyond the spin. Wake up, folks, and don’t let these people keep taking you for fools!

    • #8 by Scott Erb on March 2, 2011 - 04:22

      Thanks for the comment, Empathic Guide! Have you ever read Benjamin Barber’s “Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole.” It really goes into the marketing techniques corporations use. Two year olds can identify brands, and children two to four are actively marketed to. The idea is to start manipulating them when they are young, and they’ll get used to it. I see real parallels between consumerism and fascism.

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