The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

Why We Love Mediocrity

People prefer what others like—junk.

It is a sad fact of human nature that we prefer mediocre products over better ones. This is one of our most frustrating qualities but also one of the most fascinating. Instead of bemoaning the fact that rap music sells more than jazz does, I want to investigate the wrinkles of the human psyche that make such tastes so prevalent.

Anyone who points to the success of low brow tastes is likely to be accused of elitism. That elitist tendency is well captured in film producer Samuel Goldwyn’s witticism that no one ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the American public. When one looks at the subsequent history of film, it would be hard to say that Goldwin was wrong except that the word “American” can be deleted.

Film audiences around the world gravitate to mindless formulaic garbage. Or at least they are not flocking to thought-provoking fare after the mode of Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), A Night on Earth (1991), or Kitchen Stories (2003).

Yet it is not just a matter of tastes in music and film: the same adoration of mediocrity can be found wherever one cares to look. Shallow novels outsell deep and literary works.

The point is that everywhere people are given a free choice between something profound and something shallow, they go with shallow. I know that such judgments are individually subjective and disputable but the overall pattern is unmistakable.

Whatever domain one chooses to examine, low quality products outsell high, even when price is not a major consideration. We see it in the great popularity of snacks and junk foods like cheese doodles and hotdogs that are not even real food so much as manufactured items. Sodas outsell fruit juice. Slug beer is far more popular than carefully-crafted microbrews. Wonder bread jumps off the supermarket racks and locally baked fresh bread goes stale like the loser that it is.

Without venturing into the fine details of furniture made from fake wood rather than real, artificial flowers versus the real thing, or yards that are paved rather than full of life and beauty, you get the idea. The interesting question for psychologists is why.

What is so great about mediocre products?

So mediocrity sells! But what is its marketing magic? There is a certain disturbing logic beneath our love of the phony and the fake.

1. It is generally inexpensive.

2. A lot of people buy it as in trashy novel versus deep literature.

3. Given that others love it, we do not have to give it too much thought. If you go to the ballpark, you end up eating hot dogs because that is what people do.

4. For all these reasons, the product is easily recognized, marketed, and sold. For it is familiar, socially validated, and creates a warm glow of familiarity and social acceptance.

5. It is bland enough to be acceptable to the majority whereas few people can really stomach microbrews—or classical music. These require too much mental effort and are ultimately displeasing to the majority. Mediocrity may be dumbed down but it is democratic.

6. So it is also perfect for promotion via mass media.

When you boil it all down, the popularity of the faux may be just another example of the mindless conformity that prevails over much of human social life. We end up sitting on compressed wood chairs, listening to drivel about celebrities, drinking slug beer and eating hot dogs. Not to worry, we are all having a wonderful time.

 

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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