The Meaning in Life

Seeking a life that matters.

Sucker-phobia: The fear of being taken

We hate to be a sucker, but what to do?

So, I drank the Kool-Aid, jumped the shark, sold my first-born for a tulip.  However you put it, I joined the ranks and now engage in behavior that is difficult to describe with any dignity.  In times gone by, saying what I do out loud was likely to get your shins rapped with a cane, your ear yanked from its socket, and your teeth flossed with a redolent bar of Glenn's Sulphur Soap.  Let's be frank and cut to the chase.  I tweet.

I suppose I could say that I twitter, but that probably doesn't help me.

I joined Twitter, and I blame Psychology Today!  Specifically Pamela Rutledge and Moses Ma, who recently reported on their experiences with Twitter.

Now, I am the social media equivalent of the guy at the party who keeps trying to talk about serious things while other people are trying to concentrate on their next beer pong shot or figure out whether to cue up the Taylor Hicks playlist or the Taylor Swift playlist (I have been assured that they are different people).  I don't really understand the appeal of Facebook or Myspace.  I can't explain why I love emailing my friends, but I am not at all into messaging people through Facebook.  The whole thing feels like a colonoscopy to me.  Why are people telling me about how long it's taking to find coconut milk at the grocery store, and why are they always challenging me to test my IQ or virtually write on a Supreme Court nominee's digital cast?  Next, they'll be goading me to see what I'd look like if I was whatever species of thing Yoda is (which I would totally do). 

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I think developmental psychologists call this the "Andy Rooney Pivot" where I release my youth into the mists of history and embrace my remaining decades of cranky perplexety.

Anyway, that's just a really roundabout way of setting the scene, which is me tweeting things on Twitter.  Because I vainly cling to a few last vestiges of dignity, I like to call the things I write "posts" not "tweets."  I suppose it's splitting hairs to defend tweeting versus using Facebook to "update" the world about baby bowel movements, the song you're listening to, or messed up coffee orders.  But I don't like to tweet or update those things.  I tweet nerdy things.  The posts I like to make are links to cool research in psychology and brain sciences, leadership and management, and prudent doses of art, architecture, and the eternal misery and humiliation that come with being a Minnesota Vikings fan (TEST: Can you believe the Vikings are pursuing Brett Favre?  If you're a Vikings fan, you're simply relieved they're not pursuing Brett Michaels [or Andy Rooney]).image

Recently I tweeted, err posted, a link to an article that received double-to-quadruple the attention of a normal post.  The nature of the post - and the way in which it was passed along - reveals something that suddenly seemed fundamentally paradoxical about human nature. 

Here's the text of my post: "Here's a shocker! Humans prefer cockiness to expertise - New Scientist" and a link followed that.  I just added the here's a shocker part to be ironic, but you probably guessed that.  The article it links to describes research by Don Moore of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in which research subjects were rewarded for guessing people's weight from their photos, with one twist: they were required to buy advice from one of the other volunteers.  Confident guessers were hired more often, and seemed to become more decisive in their advice.  Even though people learned to avoid some chronically wrong guessers, guesser confidence still predicted where most of the money went.

I think this is interesting in its own right, as a demonstration of the human thirst to be certain (and maybe wrong) rather than uncertain (and maybe right).  For example, self-verification theory says that we work to confirm our view of ourselves, resisting information that contradicts that view - even if the information suggests we're better than we think (e.g., Swann, Wenzlaff, Krull, & Pelham, 1992).  Certainty and consistency are our stock and trade in a sense.  From a meaningful living point of view, building a sense of comprehension about life provides us with a sense of predictability and consistency (assuming our comprehension is at least somewhat accurate!), and is probably a part of our ability to weave our experiences into a narrative story of our lives.

As I watched people pass the link on and add their own comments to it (e.g., "I knew it, the carnival barkers are in charge!"), I saw another layer of the appeal.  We all think we're about to be taken!  There's a sucker born every minute, PT Barnum said, and we're worried it was us!  The problem for us all is that there are two kinds of experts:  the folks who are very, very confident about what they know - and the folks who are very, very aware of the limits of what they know.  A football running back is a confident expert - hit the hole, hit it fast, hit it hard.  Even the Minnesita Vikings recognize this.  A scientist is usually a tentative expert - see the data, see the limits in the data, present the highly qualified possibilities of what the data might mean if we can get more data that look a lot like the data we just reported. 

Running back-style experts say things like - DRINK TWO GLASSES OF RED WINE A DAY!!!!! 

Scientist-style experts say things like - There is some evidence, by no means unequivocal, that in certain epidemiological studies and even in a small number of experimental trials, controlling for many of the variables that are also related to undesirable health outcomes, moderate consumption of alcohol, generally defined as between one and three servings of alcohol for women, two and five servings of alcohol for men, where a serving is defined as one ounce of "hard" alcohol, five ounces of wine, or twelve ounces of beer and are you still reading this, if you are, why are you still reading this???

The stuff the Running back-style expert says is a lot easier to understand and remember, and it all sounds so certain and confident.  Even if it's wrong.

How are we to know?  We can't all pore through the data on everything we might eat, drink, or invest in, can we?  After all, if we can barely stand to listen to an expert striving for the full accuracy of what is known on a topic, we sure as heck won't bulldoze our way through a stack of technical reports.  Heck if the Federal Reserve couldn't figure out what collateralized debt obligations meant for the market, how could I?

We have to take someone's word for it at some point.  So, how do we decide who to listen to?  As our technological world spins out complicated gadget one after the

other, a typical person's ability to understand all those miniature circuits and tiny buttons is going to feel more and more frayed.  If some 15 year old kid told me I needed to pour Red Bull in my SDRAMM slot on my laptop NOW before something bad happened, I'd probably say, "Yes, sir! How many of those tiny cans, sir?"

I guess the real lesson here is that experts need to be confident in reporting what they know, including confidently describing the limits to that knowledge, without becoming paralyzed in qualifications.  Heck, even doctors can't say absolutely that a cut-and-dried procedure like amputation will stop pain (as phantom limb syndrome proves).

Consumers, as humans, are wary of complicated stuff - they want to make a clear choice, act decisively, and never look back.  But they have to learn how to penetrate the web of probabalistic statements that enshroud knowledge and expertise.  Confidence of the source is no substitute for actually being right.

The meaning we create of our lives can't be some rigid mummy, withered, dessicated, and brittle in the face of rough handling.  We need to develop meanings in our lives that help us overcome our aversion to uncertainty, and tackle it head on.

Reference

Swann, W. B., Wenzlaff, R. M., Krull, D. S., & Pelham, B. W. (1992). Allure of negative feedback: Self-verification strivings among depressed persons. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 101, 293-306.

Michael Steger, Ph.D., is a faculty member in the Counseling Psychology and Applied Social Psychology programs at Colorado State University.

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