How Sweet It Is

P.T. Barnum famously advised us “there is a sucker born every minute” and proved his theory by building a formidable financial empire atop a mountain of bullshit, or— as it was more-colloquially known a century ago— “humbug.” Yet our culture looks back on Barnum fondly, because despite his notoriously, um… misleading… tactics, Barnum’s customers were all in on the joke. They knew it was humbug, and were strangely pleased to have it foisted on them by a master. The eventual revelation that they had been duped, and the self-deprecatory chuckle it inspired, were a big part of the entertainment experience Barnum provided.

Modern humbug abounds; nowhere moreso than in the media industry. Advertising money has corrupted our information services to the point where much we call “news” is essentially a series of poorly disguised commercials. Drug companies bombard us with slickly-produced infomercials depicting shiny, happy spokespeople extolling the efficacy of some new pill or treatment (while page after page of alarming side-effect warnings scroll minutely across the bottom of the screen too fast to read). Rampant product placement chokes our sporting and entertainment events like glowing curtains of flashing digital kudzu…though to be fair, the advertising revenue it generates also helps FUND those things.

We seem neither to notice, nor to care. SO WHAT if our economy continues to shrink as the money-gobbling corporations force us to wallow in endless cycles of vampiric stagflation? We want our Marshmallow Fudgy Plops (now with Extra Marshmallow and 30% MORE Fudge Flavor!) As a society we seem to be growing more and more selfish and irrational. As our shared social problems become more complex we daydream of a simpler life “back in the good ol’ days” and try not to think in terms of the big picture. ANY big picture. Except the one on our 57″ inch plasma screen TV.

Our various interactive social media outlets are devolving into the online equivalent of the Tower of Babel as millions of disparate voices endlessly chatter in an effort to be heard, blending into a nonsensical roar of white-noise. It’s hard to effectively communicate via such outlets… especially when one understands The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning, which asserts human beings don’t REALLY compulsively share opinions in order to determine what is true; rather we do so primarily as a means to assert some measure of authority over others.

Which makes perfect sense. If the pursuit of reasoning through debate isn’t necessarily intended to enable us to assign accurate truth values to ideas and concepts so we can make better decisions, but instead developed purely as a combative phenomenon—the verbal equivalent of dodgeball— then our natural evolutionary compulsion is to win the argument by making all opposing viewpoints look stupid, even if such a Pyrrhic victory comes at the price of our being illogically, spectacularly WRONG.* Which, I am sad to say, is a pretty good description of most “debates” on Facebook.

Meanwhile, as a culture we definitely suffer from The Neglect of Probability Bias, which is a psychological tendency to completely disregard the actual odds when making decisions about which we are uncertain (like Han Solo). That’s why we stubbornly play the lottery, hoping for the big score and indulging in wishful thinking of the most illogical kind. We do it to experience that warm, fuzzy glow of hopeful anticipation as we daydream about the fantastic success and reward that MIGHT be headed our way.

When we don’t win… the warm fuzzies go away, suddenly and harshly. To an addictive personality the quest to re-ignite that magical comforting sense of imagined success can become an obsession. As he or she racks up loss after loss the stakes get higher and (due to The Law of Diminishing Returns) stronger stimuli are required to replenish the fantasy after each successive loss. Pathological gamblers don’t WANT to gamble their lives away… they’re just pursuing a favorite way of feeling good about themselves. As do we all, whether by buying a lottery ticket, eating unhealthy junk food, or tuning in to reality programming to gloat over people we believe are theoretically more screwed-up than ourselves.

We all choose to bathe in our own brand of humbug. The secret to not drowning in it is to recognize what it is— a distraction— and take it with a nudge and a wink.

*This blog, of course, is completely excepted from the rule under discussion.