Primitive Consent for an Automatic Age

Every day in every way, I’m getting better.


Every day in every way, I’m getting busier.


BACK IN THE 1960S A MAN NAMED JOE PINE HOSTED A RATHER remarkable TV talk show that was syndicated from California. The program was made distinctive by Pine’s caustic and confrontational style with his guests—for the most part, a collection of exposure-hungry entertainers, would-be celebrities, and representatives of fringe political or social organizations. The host’s abrasive approach was designed to provoke his guests into arguments, to fluster them into embarrassing admissions, and generally to make them look foolish. It was not uncommon for Pine to introduce a visitor and launch immediately into an attack on the individual’s beliefs, talent, or appearance. Some people claimed that Pine’s acid personal style was partially caused by a leg amputation that had embittered him to life; others said no, that he was just vituperous by nature.

One evening rock musician Frank Zappa was a guest on the show. This was at a time in the sixties when very long hair on men was still unusual and controversial. As soon as Zappa had been introduced and seated, the following exchange occurred:


PINE: I guess your long hair makes you a girl.


ZAPPA: I guess your wooden leg makes you a table.


Aside from containing what may be my favorite ad-lib, the above dialogue illustrates a fundamental theme of this book: Very often in making a decision about someone or something, we don’t use all the relevant available information; we use, instead, only a single, highly representative piece of the total. And an isolated piece of information, even though it normally counsels us correctly, can lead us to clearly stupid mistakes—mistakes that, when exploited by clever others, leave us looking silly or worse.

At the same time, a complicating companion theme has been present throughout this book: Despite the susceptibility to stupid decisions that accompanies a reliance on a single feature of the available data, the pace of modern life demands that we frequently use this shortcut. Recall that early in Chapter 1, our shortcut approach was likened to the automatic responding of lower animals, whose elaborate behavior patterns could be triggered by the presence of a lone stimulus feature—a “cheep-cheep” sound, a shade of red breast feather, or a specific sequence of light flashes. The reason infrahumans must often rely on such solitary stimulus features is their restricted mental capability. Their small brains cannot begin to register and process all the relevant information in their environments. So these species have evolved special sensitivities to certain aspects of the information. Because those selected aspects of information are normally enough to cue a correct response, the system is usually very efficient: Whenever a female turkey hears “cheep-cheep,” click, whirr, out rolls the proper maternal behavior in a mechanical fashion that conserves much of her limited brainpower for dealing with the variety of other situations and choices she must face in her day.

We, of course, have vastly more effective brain mechanisms than mother turkeys, or any other animal group, for that matter. We are unchallenged in the ability to take into account a multitude of relevant facts and, consequently, to make good decisions. Indeed, it is this information-processing advantage over other species that has helped make us the dominant form of life on the planet.

Still, we have our capacity limitations, too; and, for the sake of efficiency, we must sometimes retreat from the time-consuming, sophisticated, fully informed brand of decision making to a more automatic, primitive, single-feature type of responding. For instance, in deciding whether to say yes or no to a requester, it is clear that we frequently pay attention to but one piece of the relevant information in the situation. We have been exploring several of the most popular of the single pieces of information that we use to prompt our compliance decisions. They are the most popular prompts precisely because they are the most reliable ones, those that normally point us toward the correct choice. That is why we employ the factors of reciprocation, consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity so often and so automatically in making our compliance decisions. Each, by itself, provides a highly reliable cue as to when we will be better off saying yes than no.

We are likely to use these lone cues when we don’t have the inclination, time, energy, or cognitive resources to undertake a complete analysis of the situation. Where we are rushed, stressed, uncertain, indifferent, distracted, or fatigued, we tend to focus on less of the information available to us. When making decisions under these circumstances, we often revert to the rather primitive but necessary single-piece-of-good-evidence approach.121 All this leads to a jarring insight: With the sophisticated mental apparatus we have used to build world eminence as a species, we have created an environment so complex, fast-paced, and information-laden that we must increasingly deal with it in the fashion of the animals we long ago transcended.


John Stuart Mill, the British economist, political thinker, and philosopher of science, died more than a hundred years ago. The year of his death (1873) is important because he is reputed to have been the last man to know everything there was to know in the world. Today, the notion that one of us could be aware of all known facts is only laughable. After eons of slow accumulation, human knowledge has snowballed into an era of momentum-fed, multiplicative, monstrous expansion. We now live in a world where most of the information is less than fifteen years old. In certain fields of science alone (for example, physics), knowledge is said to double every eight years. And the scientific information explosion is not limited to such arcane arenas as molecular chemistry or quantum physics but extends to everyday areas of knowledge where we strive to keep ourselves current—health, child development, nutrition, and the like. What’s more, this rapid growth is likely to continue, since 90 percent of all scientists who have ever lived are working today.

Apart from the streaking advance of science, things are quickly changing much closer to home. In his book Future Shock, Alvin Toffler provided early documentation of the unprecedented and increasing rapidity of modern daily life: We travel more and faster; we relocate more frequently to new residences, which are built and torn down more quickly; we contact more people and have shorter relationships with them; in the supermarket, car showroom, and shopping mall, we are faced with an array of choices among styles and products that were unheard of the previous year and may well be obsolete or forgotten by the next. Novelty, transience, diversity, and acceleration are acknowledged as prime descriptors of civilized existence.

This avalanche of information and choices is made possible by burgeoning technological progress. Leading the way are developments in our ability to collect, store, retrieve, and communicate information. At first, the fruits of such advances were limited to large organizations—government agencies or powerful corporations. For example, speaking as chairman of Citicorp, Walter Wriston could say of his company, “We have tied together a data base in the world that is capable of telling almost anyone in the world, almost anything, immediately.”122 But now, with further developments in telecommunication and computer technology, access to such staggering amounts of information is falling within the reach of individual citizens. Extensive cable and satellite television systems provide one route for that information into the average home.

The other major route is the personal computer. In 1972, Norman Macrae, an editor of The Economist, speculated prophetically about a time in the future:

The prospect is, after all, that we are going to enter an age when any duffer sitting at a computer terminal in his laboratory or office or public library or home can delve through unimaginable increased mountains of information in mass-assembly data banks with mechanical powers of concentration and calculation that will be greater by a factor of tens of thousands than was ever available to the human brain of even an Einstein.

One short decade later, Time magazine signaled that Macrae’s future age had arrived by naming a machine, the personal computer, as its Man of the Year. Time’s editors defended their choice by citing the consumer “stampede” to purchase small computers and by arguing that “America [and], in a larger perspective, the entire world will never be the same.” Macrae’s vision is now being realized. Millions of ordinary “duffers” are sitting at machines with the potential to present and analyze enough data to bury an Einstein.


Because technology can evolve much faster than we can, our natural capacity to process information is likely to be increasingly inadequate to handle the surfeit of change, choice, and challenge that is characteristic of modern life. More and more frequently, we will find ourselves in the position of the lower animals—with a mental apparatus that is unequipped to deal thoroughly with the intricacy and richness of the outside environment. Unlike the animals, whose cognitive powers have always been relatively deficient, we have created our own deficiency by constructing a radically more complex world. But the consequence of our new deficiency is the same as that of the animals’ long-standing one. When making a decision, we will less frequently enjoy the luxury of a fully considered analysis of the total situation but will revert increasingly to a focus on a single, usually reliable feature of it.

When those single features are truly reliable, there is nothing inherently wrong with the shortcut approach of narrowed attention and automatic response to a particular piece of information. The problem comes when something causes the normally trustworthy cues to counsel us poorly, to lead us to erroneous actions and wrongheaded decisions. As we have seen, one such cause is the trickery of certain compliance practitioners who seek to profit from the rather mindless and mechanical nature of shortcut response. If, as seems true, the frequency of shortcut response is increasing with the pace and form of modern life, we can be sure that the frequency of this trickery is destined to increase as well.

What can we do about the expected intensified attack on our system of shortcuts? More than evasive action, I would urge forceful counterassault. There is an important qualification, however. Compliance professionals who play fairly by the rules of shortcut response are not to be considered the enemy; on the contrary, they are our allies in an efficient and adaptive process of exchange. The proper targets for counteraggression are only those individuals who falsify, counterfeit, or misrepresent the evidence that naturally cues our shortcut responses.

Let’s take an illustration from what is perhaps our most frequently used shortcut. According to the principle of social proof, we often decide to do what other people like us are doing. It makes all kinds of sense since, most of the time, an action that is popular in a given situation is also functional and appropriate. Thus, an advertiser who, without using deceptive statistics, provides information that a brand of toothpaste is the largest selling or fastest growing has offered us valuable evidence about the quality of the product and the probability that we will like it. Provided that we are in the market for a tube of good toothpaste, we might want to rely on that single piece of information, popularity, to decide to try it. This strategy will likely steer us right, will unlikely steer us far wrong, and will conserve our cognitive energies for dealing with the rest of our increasingly information-laden, decision-overloaded environment. The advertiser who allows us to use effectively this efficient strategy is hardly our antagonist but rather must be considered a cooperating partner.

The story becomes quite different, however, should a compliance practitioner try to stimulate a shortcut response by giving us a fraudulent signal for it. The enemy is the advertiser who seeks to create an image of popularity for a brand of toothpaste by, say, constructing a series of staged “unrehearsed-interview” commercials in which an array of actors posing as ordinary citizens praise the product. Here, where the evidence of popularity is counterfeit, we, the principle of social proof, and our shortcut response to it, are all being exploited. In an earlier chapter, I recommended against the purchase of any product featured in a faked “unrehearsed-interview” ad, and I urged that we send the product manufacturers letters detailing the reason and suggesting that they dismiss their advertising agency. I would recommend extending this aggressive stance to any situation in which a compliance professional abuses the principle of social proof (or any other weapon of influence) in this manner. We should refuse to watch TV programs that use canned laughter. If we see a bartender beginning a shift by salting his tip jar with a bill or two of his own, he should get none from us. If, after waiting in line outside a nightclub, we discover from the amount of available space that the wait was designed to impress passersby with false evidence of the club’s popularity, we should leave immediately and announce our reason to those still in line. In short, we should be willing to use boycott, threat, confrontation, censure, tirade, nearly anything, to retaliate.


I don’t consider myself pugnacious by nature, but I actively advocate such belligerent actions because in a way I am at war with the exploiters—we all are. It is important to recognize, however, that their motive for profit is not the cause for hostilities; that motive, after all, is something we each share to an extent. The real treachery, and the thing we cannot tolerate, is any attempt to make their profit in a way that threatens the reliability of our shortcuts. The blitz of modern daily life demands that we have faithful shortcuts, sound rules of thumb to handle it all. These are not luxuries any longer; they are out-and-out necessities that figure to become increasingly vital as the pulse of daily life quickens. That is why we should want to retaliate whenever we see someone betraying one of our rules of thumb for profit. We want that rule to be as effective as possible. But to the degree that its fitness for duty is regularly undercut by the tricks of a profiteer, we naturally will use it less and will be less able to cope efficiently with the decisional burdens of our day. We cannot allow that without a fight. The stakes have gotten too high.

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