Monday, March 1, 2010

Our Layered Behavior

When we’re subjected to advertising and other forms of persuasion—be these seduction of the body or political advocacy—we’re sometimes inclined to shake our heads and wonder: Do they really think we are that stupid? The answer is No. But the almighty THEY have studied human behavior. They’ve concluded that we operate at several different levels, that we are not always awake, that we’re mostly half-asleep even when we’re up, fully dressed, and it’s high noon outside. That we make many decisions without much thought, that we obey impulses and habits, that we’re emotion-driven, that emotions build up habits, and therefore we are subject to all kinds of manipulation.

We have at least three layers. One is animal pure and simple—and manifests almost reflexively. Attacked we fight or flee. We explode into rages. We “see red.” We react before we think, reflexively—and a good thing too. If we didn’t, we would be covered by burns and would be blue with bruises. Two is tribal—the behavior of social animals. Here we resemble members of wolf packs. The other day I saw a nature program (Nova, I think). It showed the battle of two packs of wolves for territory—one driving the other away. The wolves were out to kill, if necessary. But every member of both packs was, of course, a wolf. When we act from this level, it’s always us or them, and it is easy, in that state of identification, to consign them to the worst possible fate—and not just in thought, either. National passions, racism, class warfare, and soccer riots, for that matter, all arise from temporary and total identification of ourselves with some pack.

Three, of course, is conscious humanity. We’re all quite capable of it—but it’s difficult even to reach that stage when passions rise. Sometimes we need reminders. In this state we fully recognize the Other as having genuine standing. We can even extend this feeling to all life—hence we find ourselves revolted by practices, such as the confined raising of animals under intolerable conditions.

The vast majority of commercial and political appeals is directed at the pack animal we actually are—but, of course, we are more than that. The commercial calculation, however, based on observation, is that the majority of people behave, most of the time, like members of a pack. Most memories stored, therefore, and most habits formed, are of this kind—not of the higher sort. It’s wrong—but rational—to construct advertising and advocacy programs so that they are most effective. And if we behave like wolves, we’ll only hear the howling.

Collective life is a mixture in which the message addressed to the higher level, the genuinely human, is but a faint thread in a mass of coarser weave. And the results, not surprisingly, are all around us.

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