What really works against bigotry

Sep 30 JDN 2458392

With Donald Trump in office, I think we all need to be thinking carefully about what got us to this point, how we have apparently failed in our response to bigotry. It’s good to see that Kavanaugh’s nomination vote has been delayed pending investigations, but we can’t hope to rely on individual criminal accusations to derail every potentially catastrophic candidate. The damage that someone like Kavanaugh would do to the rights of women, racial minorities, and LGBT people is too severe to risk. We need to attack this problem at its roots: Why are there so many bigoted leaders, and so many bigoted voters willing to vote for them?

The problem is hardly limited to the United States; we are witnessing a global crisis of far-right ideology, as even the UN has publicly recognized.

I think the left made a very dangerous wrong turn with the notion of “call-out culture”. There is now empirical data to support me on this. Publicly calling people racist doesn’t make them less racist—in fact, it usually makes them more racist. Angrily denouncing people doesn’t change their minds—it just makes you feel righteous. Our own accusatory, divisive rhetoric is part of the problem: By accusing anyone who even slightly deviates from our party line (say, by opposing abortion in some circumstances, as 75% of Americans do?) of being a fascist, we slowly but surely push more people toward actual fascism.

Call-out culture encourages a black-and-white view of the world, where there are “good guys” (us) and “bad guys” (them), and our only job is to fight as hard as possible against the “bad guys”. It frees us from the pain of nuance, complexity, and self-reflection—at only the cost of giving up any hope of actually understanding the real causes or solving the problem. Bigotry is not something that “other” people have, which you, fine upstanding individual, could never suffer from. We are all Judy Hopps.

This is not to say we should do nothing—indeed, that would be just as bad if not worse. The rise of neofascism has been possible largely because so many people did nothing. Knowing that there is bigotry in all of us shouldn’t stop us from recognizing that some people are far worse than others, or paralyze us against constructively improving ourselves and our society. See the shades of gray without succumbing to the Fallacy of Gray.

The most effective interventions at reducing bigotry are done in early childhood; obviously, it’s far too late for that when it comes to people like Trump and Kavanaugh.

But there are interventions that can work at reducing bigotry among adults. We need to first understand where the bigotry comes from—and it doesn’t always come from the same source. We need to be willing to look carefully—yes, even sympathetically—at people with bigoted views so that we can understand them.

There are deep, innate systems in the human brain that make bigotry come naturally to us. Even people on the left who devote their lives to combating discrimination against women, racial minorities and LGBT people can still harbor bigoted attitudes toward other groups—such as rural people or Republicans. If you think that all Republicans are necessarily racist, that’s not a serious understanding of what motivates Republicans—that’s just bigotry on your part. Trump is racist. Pence is racist. One could argue that voting for them constitutes, in itself, a racist act. But that does not mean that every single Republican voter is fundamentally and irredeemably racist.

It’s also important to have conversations face-to-face. I must admit that I am personally terrible at this; despite training myself extensively in etiquette and public speaking to the point where most people perceive me as charismatic, even charming, deep down I am still a strong introvert. I dislike talking in person, and dread talking over the phone. I would much prefer to communicate entirely in written electronic communication—but the data is quite clear on this: Face-to-face conversations work better at changing people’s minds. It may be awkward and uncomfortable, but by being there in person, you limit their ability to ignore you or dismiss you; you aren’t a tweet from the void, but an actual person, sitting there in front of them.

Speak with friends and family members. This, I know, can be especially awkward and painful. In the last few years I have lost connections with friends who were once quite close to me as a result of difficult political conversations. But we must speak up, for silence becomes complicity. And speaking up really can work.

Don’t expect people to change their entire worldview overnight. Focus on small, concrete policy ideas. Don’t ask them to change who they are; ask them to change what they believe. Ask them to justify and explain their beliefs—and really listen to them when they do. Be open to the possibility that you, too might be wrong about something.

If they say “We should deport all illegal immigrants!”, point out that whenever we try this, a lot of fields go unharvested for lack of workers, and ask them why they are so concerned about illegal immigrants. If they say “Illegal immigrants come here and commit crimes!” point them to the statistical data showing that illegal immigrants actually commit fewer crimes on average than native-born citizens (probably because they are more afraid of what happens if they get caught).

If they are concerned about Muslim immigrants influencing our culture in harmful ways, first, acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns about Islamic cultural values (particularly toward women and LGBT people)but then point out that over 90% of Muslim-Americans are proud to be American, and that welcoming people is much more effective at getting them to assimilate into our culture than keeping them out and treating them as outsiders.

If they are concerned about “White people getting outnumbered”, first point out that White people are still over 70% of the US population, and in most rural areas there are only a tiny fraction of non-White people. Point out that Census projections showing the US will be majority non-White by 2045 are based on naively extrapolating current trends, and we really have no idea what the world will look like almost 30 years from now. Next, ask them why they worry about being “outnumbered”; get them to consider that perhaps racial demographics don’t have to be a matter of zero-sum conflict.

After you’ve done this, you will feel frustrated and exhausted, and the relationship between you and the person you’re trying to convince will be strained. You will probably feel like you have accomplished absolutely nothing to change their mind—but you are wrong. Even if they don’t acknowledge any change in their beliefs, the mere fact that you sat down and asked them to justify what they believe, and presented calm, reasonable, cogent arguments against those beliefs will have an effect. It will be a small effect, difficult for you to observe in that moment. But it will still be an effect.

Think about the last time you changed your mind about something important. (I hope you can remember such a time; none of us were born being right about everything!) Did it happen all at once? Was there just one, single knock-down argument that convinced you? Probably not. (On some mathematical and scientific questions I’ve had that experience: Oh, wow, yeah, that proof totally demolishes what I believed. Well, I guess I was wrong. But most beliefs aren’t susceptible to such direct proof.) More likely, you were presented with arguments from a variety of sources over a long span of time, gradually chipping away at what you thought you knew. In the moment, you might not even have admitted that you thought any differently—even to yourself. But as the months or years went by, you believed something quite different at the end than you had at the beginning.

Your goal should be to catalyze that process in other people. Don’t take someone who is currently a frothing neo-Nazi and expect them to start marching with Black Lives Matter. Take someone who is currently a little bit uncomfortable about immigration, and calm their fears. Don’t take someone who thinks all poor people are subhuman filth and try to get them to support a basic income. Take someone who is worried about food stamps adding to our national debt, and show them how it is a small portion of our budget. Don’t take someone who thinks global warming was made up by the Chinese and try to get them to support a ban on fossil fuels. Take someone who is worried about gas prices going up as a result of carbon taxes and show them that carbon offsets would add only about $100 per person per year while saving millions of lives.

And if you’re ever on the other side, and someone has just changed your mind, even a little bit—say so. Thank them for opening your eyes. I think a big part of why we don’t spend more time trying to honestly persuade people is that so few people acknowledge us when we do.

Zootopia taught us constructive responses to bigotry

Sep 10, JDN 2457642

Zootopia wasn’t just a good movie; Zootopia was a great movie. I’m not just talking about its grosses (over $1 billion worldwide), or its ratings, 8.1 on IMDB, 98% from critics and 93% from viewers on Rotten Tomatoes, 78 from critics and 8.8 from users on Metacritic. No, I’m talking about its impact on the world. This movie isn’t just a fun and adorable children’s movie (though it is that). This movie is a work of art that could have profound positive effects on our society.

Why? Because Zootopia is about bigotry—and more than that, it doesn’t just say “bigotry is bad, bigots are bad”; it provides us with a constructive response to bigotry, and forces us to confront the possibility that sometimes the bigots are us.

Indeed, it may be no exaggeration (though I’m sure I’ll get heat on the Internet for suggesting it) to say that Zootopia has done more to fight bigotry than most social justice activists will achieve in their entire lives. Don’t get me wrong, some social justice activists have done great things; and indeed, I may have to count myself in this “most activists” category, since I can’t point to any major accomplishments I’ve yet made in social justice.

But one of the biggest problems I see in the social justice community is the tendency to exclude and denigrate (in sociology jargon, “other” as a verb) people for acts of bigotry, even quite mild ones. Make one vaguely sexist joke, and you may as well be a rapist. Use racially insensitive language by accident, and clearly you are a KKK member. Say something ignorant about homosexuality, and you may as well be Rick Santorum. It becomes less about actually moving the world forward, and more about reaffirming our tribal unity as social justice activists. We are the pure ones. We never do wrong. All the rest of you are broken, and the only way to fix yourself is to become one of us in every way.

In the process of fighting tribal bigotry, we form our own tribe and become our own bigots.

Zootopia offers us another way. If you haven’t seen it, go rent it on DVD or stream it on Netflix right now. Seriously, this blog post will be here when you get back. I’m not going to play any more games with “spoilers!” though. It is definitely worth seeing, and from this point forward I’m going to presume you have.

The brilliance of Zootopia lies in the fact that it made bigotry what it is—not some evil force that infests us from outside, nor something that only cruel, evil individuals would ever partake in, but thoughts and attitudes that we all may have from time to time, that come naturally, and even in some cases might be based on a kernel of statistical truth. Judy Hopps is prey, she grew up in a rural town surrounded by others of her own species (with a population the size of New York City according to the sign, because this is still sometimes a silly Disney movie). She only knew a handful of predators growing up, yet when she moves to Zootopia suddenly she’s confronted with thousands of them, all around her. She doesn’t know what most predators are like, or how best to deal with them.

What she does know is that her ancestors were terrorized, murdered, and quite literally eaten by the ancestors of predators. Her instinctual fear of predators isn’t something utterly arbitrary; it was written into the fabric of her DNA by her ancestral struggle for survival. She has a reason to hate and fear predators that, on its face, actually seems to make sense.

And when there is a spree of murders, all committed by predators, it feels natural to us that Judy would fall back on her old prejudices; indeed, the brilliance of it is that they don’t immediately feel like prejudices. It takes us a moment to let her off-the-cuff comments at the press conference sink in (and Nick’s shocked reaction surely helps), before we realize that was really bigoted. Our adorable, innocent, idealistic, beloved protagonist is a bigot!

Or rather, she has done something bigoted. Because she is such a sympathetic character, we avoid the implication that she is a bigot, that this is something permanent and irredeemable about her. We have already seen the good in her, so we know that this bigotry isn’t what defines who she is. And in the end, she realizes where she went wrong and learns to do better. Indeed, it is ultimately revealed that the murders were orchestrated by someone whose goal was specifically to trigger those ancient ancestral feuds, and Judy reveals that plot and ultimately ends up falling in love with a predator herself.

What Zootopia is really trying to tell us is that we are all Judy Hopps. Every one of us most likely harbors some prejudiced attitude toward someone. If it’s not Black people or women or Muslims or gays, well, how about rednecks? Or Republicans? Or (perhaps the hardest for me) Trump supporters? If you are honest with yourself, there is probably some group of people on this planet that you harbor attitudes of disdain or hatred toward that nonetheless contains a great many good people who do not deserve your disdain.

And conversely, all bigots are Judy Hopps too, or at least the vast majority of them. People don’t wake up in the morning concocting evil schemes for the sake of being evil like cartoon supervillains. (Indeed, perhaps the greatest thing about Zootopia is that it is a cartoon in the sense of being animated, but it is not a cartoon in the sense of being morally simplistic. Compare Captain Planet, wherein polluters aren’t hardworking coal miners with no better options or even corrupt CEOs out to make an extra dollar to go with their other billion; no, they pollute on purpose, for no reason, because they are simply evil. Now that is a cartoon.) Normal human beings don’t plan to make the world a worse place. A handful of psychopaths might, but even then I think it’s more that they don’t care; they aren’t trying to make the world worse, they just don’t particularly mind if they do, as long as they get what they want. Robert Mugabe and Kim-Jong Un are despicable human beings with the blood of millions on their hands, but even they aren’t trying to make the world worse.

And thus, if your theory of bigotry requires that bigots are inhuman monsters who harm others by their sheer sadistic evil, that theory is plainly wrong. Actually I think when stated outright, hardly anyone would agree with that theory; but the important thing is that we often act as if we do. When someone does something bigoted, we shun them, deride them, push them as far as we can to the fringes of our own social group or even our whole society. We don’t say that your statement was racist; we say you are racist. We don’t say your joke was sexist; we say you are sexist. We don’t say your decision was homophobic; we say you are homophobic. We define bigotry as part of your identity, something as innate and ineradicable as your race or sex or sexual orientation itself.

I think I know why we do this: It is to protect ourselves from the possibility that we ourselves might sometimes do bigoted things. Because only bigots do bigoted things, and we know that we are not bigots.

We laugh at this when someone else does it: “But some of my best friends are Black!” “Happy #CincoDeMayo; I love Hispanics!” But that is the very same psychological defense mechanism we’re using ourselves, albeit in a more extreme application. When we commit an act that is accused of being bigoted, we begin searching for contextual evidence outside that act to show that we are not bigoted. The truth we must ultimately confront is that this is irrelevant: The act can still be bigoted even if we are not overall bigots—for we are all Judy Hopps.

This seems like terrible news, even when delivered by animated animals (or fuzzy muppets in Avenue Q), because we tend to hear it as “We are all bigots.” We hear this as saying that bigotry is inevitable, inescapable, literally written into the fabric of our DNA. At that point, we may as well give up, right? It’s hopeless!

But that much we know can’t be true. It could be (indeed, likely is) true that some amount of bigotry is inevitable, just as no country has ever managed to reach zero homicide or zero disease. But just as rates of homicide and disease have precipitously declined with the advancement of human civilization (starting around industrial capitalism, as I pointed out in a previous post!), so indeed have rates of bigotry, at least in recent times.

For goodness’ sake, it used to be a legal, regulated industry to buy and sell other human beings in the United States! This was seen as normal; indeed many argued that it was economically indispensable.

Is 1865 too far back for you? How about racially segregated schools, which were only eliminated from US law in 1954, a time where my parents were both alive? (To be fair, only barely; my father was a month old.) Yes, even today the racial composition of our schools is far from evenly mixed; but it used to be a matter of law that Black children could not go to school with White children.

Women were only granted the right to vote in the US in 1920. My parents weren’t alive yet, but there definitely are people still alive today who were children when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.

Same-sex marriage was not legalized across the United States until last year. My own life plans were suddenly and directly affected by this change.

We have made enormous progress against bigotry, in a remarkably short period of time. It has been argued that social change progresses by the death of previous generations; but that simply can’t be true, because we are moving much too fast for that! Attitudes toward LGBT people have improved dramatically in just the last decade.

Instead, it must be that we are actually changing people’s minds. Not everyone’s, to be sure; and often not as quickly as we’d like. But bit by bit, we tear bigotry down, like people tearing off tiny pieces of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

It is important to understand what we are doing here. We are not getting rid of bigots; we are getting rid of bigotry. We want to convince people, “convert” them if you like, not shun them or eradicate them. And we want to strive to improve our own behavior, because we know it will not always be perfect. By forgiving others for their mistakes, we can learn to forgive ourselves for our own.

It is only by talking about bigoted actions and bigoted ideas, rather than bigoted people, that we can hope to make this progress. Someone can’t change who they are, but they can change what they believe and what they do. And along those same lines, it’s important to be clear about detailed, specific actions that people can take to make themselves and the world better.

Don’t just say “Check your privilege!” which at this point is basically a meaningless Applause Light. Instead say “Here are some articles I think you should read on police brutality, including this one from The American Conservative. And there’s a Black Lives Matter protest next weekend, would you like to join me there to see what we do?” Don’t just say “Stop being so racist toward immigrants!”; say “Did you know that about a third of undocumented immigrants are college students on overstayed visas? If we deport all these people, won’t that break up families?” Don’t try to score points. Don’t try to show that you’re the better person. Try to understand, inform, and persuade. You are talking to Judy Hopps, for we are all Judy Hopps.

And when you find false beliefs or bigoted attitudes in yourself, don’t deny them, don’t suppress them, don’t make excuses for them—but also don’t hate yourself for having them. Forgive yourself for your mistake, and then endeavor to correct it. For we are all Judy Hopps.

The facts will not speak for themselves, so we must speak for them

August 3, JDN 2457604

I finally began to understand the bizarre and terrifying phenomenon that is the Donald Trump Presidential nomination when I watched this John Oliver episode:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-l3IV_XN3c

These lines in particular, near the end, finally helped me put it all together:

What is truly revealing is his implication that believing something to be true is the same as it being true. Because if anything, that was the theme of the Republican Convention this week; it was a four-day exercise in emphasizing feelings over facts.

The facts against Donald Trump are absolutely overwhelming. He is not even a competent business man, just a spectacularly manipulative one—and even then, it’s not clear he made any more money than he would have just keeping his inheritance in a diversified stock portfolio. His casinos were too fraudulent for Atlantic City. His university was fraudulent. He has the worst honesty rating Politifact has ever given a candidate. (Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton are statistically tied for some of the best.)

More importantly, almost every policy he has proposed or even suggested is terrible, and several of them could be truly catastrophic.

Let’s start with economic policy: His trade policy would set back decades of globalization and dramatically increase global poverty, while doing little or nothing to expand employment in the US, especially if it sparks a trade war. His fiscal policy would permanently balloon the deficit by giving one of the largest tax breaks to the rich in history. His infamous wall would probably cost about as much as the federal government currently spends on all basic scientific research combined, and his only proposal for funding it fundamentally misunderstands how remittances and trade deficits work. He doesn’t believe in climate change, and would roll back what little progress we have made at reducing carbon emissions, thereby endangering millions of lives. He could very likely cause a global economic collapse comparable to the Great Depression.

His social policy is equally terrible: He has proposed criminalizing abortion, (in express violation of Roe v. Wade) which even many pro-life people find too extreme. He wants to deport all Muslims and ban Muslims from entering, which not just a direct First Amendment violation but also literally involves jackbooted soldiers breaking into the homes of law-abiding US citizens to kidnap them and take them out of the country. He wants to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, the largest deportation in US history.

Yet it is in foreign policy above all that Trump is truly horrific. He has explicitly endorsed targeting the families of terrorists, which is a war crime (though not as bad as what Ted Cruz wanted to do, which is carpet-bombing cities). Speaking of war crimes, he thinks our torture policy wasn’t severe enough, and doesn’t even care if it is ineffective. He has made the literally mercantilist assertion that the purpose of military alliances is to create trade surpluses, and if European countries will not provide us with trade surpluses (read: tribute), he will no longer commit to defending them, thereby undermining decades of global stability that is founded upon America’s unwavering commitment to defend our allies. And worst of all, he will not rule out the first-strike deployment of nuclear weapons.

I want you to understand that I am not exaggerating when I say that a Donald Trump Presidency carries a nontrivial risk of triggering global nuclear war. Will this probably happen? No. It has a probability of perhaps 1%. But a 1% chance of a billion deaths is not a risk anyone should be prepared to take.

 

All of these facts scream at us that Donald Trump would be a catastrophe for America and the world. Why, then, are so many people voting for him? Why do our best election forecasts give him a good chance of winning the election?

Because facts don’t speak for themselves.

This is how the left, especially the center-left, has dropped the ball in recent decades. We joke that reality has a liberal bias, because so many of the facts are so obviously on our side. But meanwhile the right wing has nodded and laughed, even mockingly called us the “reality-based community”, because they know how to manipulate feelings.

Donald Trump has essentially no other skills—but he has that one, and it is enough. He knows how to fan the flames of anger and hatred and point them at his chosen targets. He knows how to rally people behind meaningless slogans like “Make America Great Again” and convince them that he has their best interests at heart.

Indeed, Trump’s persuasiveness is one of his many parallels with Adolf Hitler; I am not yet prepared to accuse Donald Trump of seeking genocide, yet at the same time I am not yet willing to put it past him. I don’t think it would take much of a spark at this point to trigger a conflagration of hatred that launches a genocide against Muslims in the United States, and I don’t trust Trump not to light such a spark.

Meanwhile, liberal policy wonks are looking on in horror, wondering how anyone could be so stupid as to believe him—and even publicly basically calling people stupid for believing him. Or sometimes we say they’re not stupid, they’re just racist. But people don’t believe Donald Trump because they are stupid; they believe Donald Trump because he is persuasive. He knows the inner recesses of the human mind and can harness our heuristics to his will. Do not mistake your unique position that protects you—some combination of education, intellect, and sheer willpower—for some inherent superiority. You are not better than Trump’s followers; you are more resistant to Trump’s powers of persuasion. Yes, statistically, Trump voters are more likely to be racist; but racism is a deep-seated bias in the human mind that to some extent we all share. Trump simply knows how to harness it.

Our enemies are persuasive—and therefore we must be as well. We can no longer act as though facts will automatically convince everyone by the power of pure reason; we must learn to stir emotions and rally crowds just as they do.

Or rather, not just as they do—not quite. When we see lies being so effective, we may be tempted to lie ourselves. When we see people being manipulated against us, we may be tempted to manipulate them in return. But in the long run, we can’t afford to do that. We do need to use reason, because reason is the only way to ensure that the beliefs we instill are true.

Therefore our task must be to make people see reason. Let me be clear: Not demand they see reason. Not hope they see reason. Not lament that they don’t. This will require active investment on our part. We must actually learn to persuade people in such a manner that their minds become more open to reason. This will mean using tools other than reason, but it will also mean treading a very fine line, using irrationality only when rationality is insufficient.

We will be tempted to take the easier, quicker path to the Dark Side, but we must resist. Our goal must be not to make people do what we want them to—but to do what they would want to if they were fully rational and fully informed. We will need rhetoric; we will need oratory; we may even need some manipulation. But as we fight our enemy, we must be vigilant not to become them.

This means not using bad arguments—strawmen and conmen—but pointing out the flaws in our opponents’ arguments even when they seem obvious to us—bananamen. It means not overstating our case about free trade or using implausible statistical results simply because they support our case.

But it also means not understating our case, not hiding in page 17 of an opaque technical report that if we don’t do something about climate change right now millions of people will die. It means not presenting our ideas as “political opinions” when they are demonstrated, indisputable scientific facts. It means taking the media to task for their false balance that must find a way to criticize a Democrat every time they criticize a Republican: Sure, he is a pathological liar and might trigger global economic collapse or even nuclear war, but she didn’t secure her emails properly. If you objectively assess the facts and find that Republicans lie three times as often as Democrats, maybe that’s something you should be reporting on instead of trying to compensate for by changing your criteria.

Speaking of the media, we should be pressuring them to include a regular—preferably daily, preferably primetime—segment on climate change, because yes, it is that important. How about after the weather report every day, you show a climate scientist explaining why we keep having record-breaking summer heat and more frequent natural disasters? If we suffer a global ecological collapse, this other stuff you’re constantly talking about really isn’t going to matter—that is, if it mattered in the first place. When ISIS kills 200 people in an attack, you don’t just report that a bunch of people died without examining the cause or talking about responses. But when a typhoon triggered by climate change kills 7,000, suddenly it’s just a random event, an “act of God” that nobody could have predicted or prevented. Having an appropriate caution about whether climate change caused any particular disaster should not prevent us from drawing the very real links between more carbon emissions and more natural disasters—and sometimes there’s just no other explanation.

It means demanding fact-checks immediately, not as some kind of extra commentary that happens after the debate, but as something the moderator says right then and there. (You have a staff, right? And they have Google access, right?) When a candidate says something that is blatantly, demonstrably false, they should receive a warning. After three warnings, their mic should be cut for that question. After ten, they should be kicked off the stage for the remainder of the debate. Donald Trump wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. But instead, they not only let him speak, they spent the next week repeating what he said in bold, exciting headlines. At least CNN finally realized that their headlines could actually fact-check Trump’s statements rather than just repeat them.
Above all, we will need to understand why people think the way they do, and learn to speak to them persuasively and truthfully but without elitism or condescension. This is one I know I’m not very good at myself; sometimes I get so frustrated with people who think the Earth is 6,000 years old (over 40% of Americans) or don’t believe in climate change (35% don’t think it is happening at all, another 30% don’t think it’s a big deal) that I come off as personally insulting them—and of course from that point forward they turn off. But irrational beliefs are not proof of defective character, and we must make that clear to ourselves as well as to others. We must not say that people are stupid or bad; but we absolutely must say that they are wrong. We must also remember that despite our best efforts, some amount of reactance will be inevitable; people simply don’t like having their beliefs challenged.

Yet even all this is probably not enough. Many people don’t watch mainstream media, or don’t believe it when they do (not without reason). Many people won’t even engage with friends or family members who challenge their political views, and will defriend or even disown them. We need some means of reaching these people too, and the hardest part may be simply getting them to listen to us in the first place. Perhaps we need more grassroots action—more protest marches, or even activists going door to door like Jehovah’s Witnesses. Perhaps we need to establish new media outlets that will be as widely accessible but held to a higher standard.

But we must find a way–and we have little time to waste.

“But wait, there’s more!”: The clever tricks of commercials

JDN 2457565

I’m sure you’ve all seen commercials like this dozens of times:

A person is shown (usually in black-and-white) trying to use an ordinary consumer product, and failing miserably. Often their failure can only be attributed to the most abject incompetence, but the narrator will explain otherwise: “Old product is so hard to use. Who can handle [basic household activity] and [simple instructions]?”

“Struggle no more!” he says (it’s almost always a masculine narrator), and the video turns to full color as the same person is shown using the new consumer product effortlessly. “With innovative high-tech new product, you can do [basic household activity] with ease in no time!”

“Best of all, new product, a $400 value, can be yours for just five easy payments of $19.95. That’s five easy payments of $19.95!”

And then, here it comes: “But wait. There’s more! Order within the next 15 minutes and you will get two new products, for the same low price. That’s $800 in value for just five easy payments of $19.95! And best of all, your satisfaction is guaranteed! If you don’t like new product, return it within 30 days for your money back!” (A much quieter, faster voice says: “Just pay shipping and handling.”)

Call 555-1234. That’s 555-1234.

“CALL NOW!”

Did you ever stop and think about why so many commercials follow this same precise format?

In short, because it works. Indeed, it works a good deal better than simply presenting the product’s actual upsides and downsides and reporting a sensible market price—even if that sensible market price is lower than the “five easy payments of $19.95”.

We owe this style of marketing to one Ron Popeil; Ron Popeil was a prolific inventor, but none of his inventions have had so much impact as the market methods he used to sell them.

Let’s go through step by step. Why is the person using the old product so incompetent? Surely they could sell their product without implying that we don’t know how to do basic household activities like boiling pasta and cutting vegetables?

Well, first of all, many of these products do nothing but automate such simple household activities (like the famous Veg-O-Matic which cuts vegetables and “It slices! It dices!”), so if they couldn’t at least suggest that this is a lot of work they’re saving us, we’d have no reason to want their product.

But there’s another reason as well: Watching someone else fumble with basic household appliances is funny, as any fan of the 1950s classic I Love Lucy would attest (in fact, it may not be a coincidence that the one fumbling with the vegetables is often a woman who looks a lot like Lucy), and meta-analysis of humor in advertising has shown that it draws attention and triggers positive feelings.

Why use black-and-white for the first part? The switch to color enhances the feeling of contrast, and the color video is more appealing. You wouldn’t consciously say “Wow, that slicer changed the tomatoes from an ugly grey to a vibrant red!” but your subconscious mind is still registering that association.

Then they will hit you with appealing but meaningless buzzwords. For technology it will be things like “innovative”, “ground-breaking”, “high-tech” and “state-of-the-art”, while for foods and nutritional supplements it will be things like “all-natural”, “organic”, “no chemicals”, and “just like homemade”. It will generally be either so vague as to be unverifiable (what constitutes “innovative”?), utterly tautological (all carbon-based substances are “organic” and this term is not regulated), or transparently false but nonetheless not specific enough to get them in trouble (“just like homemade” literally can’t be true if you’re buying it from a TV ad). These give you positive associations without forcing the company to commit to making a claim they could actually be sued for breaking. It’s the same principle as the Applause Lights that politicians bring to every speech: “Three cheers for moms!” “A delicious slice of homemade apple pie!” “God Bless America!”

Occasionally you’ll also hear buzzwords that do have some meaning, but often not nearly as strong as people imagine: “Patent pending” means that they applied for the patent and it wasn’t summarily rejected—but not that they’ll end up getting it approved. “Certified organic” means that the USDA signed off on the farming standards, which is better than nothing but leaves a lot of wiggle room for animal abuse and irresponsible environmental practices.

And then we get to the price. They’ll quote some ludicrous figure for its “value”, which may be a price that no one has ever actually paid for a product of this kind, then draw a line through it and replace it with the actual price, which will be far lower.

Indeed, not just lower: The actual price is almost always $19.99 or $19.95. If the product is too expensive to make for them to sell it at $19.95, they will sell it at several payments of $19.95, and emphasize that these are “easy” payments, as though the difficulty of writing the check were a major factor in people’s purchasing decisions. (That actually is a legitimate concern for micropayments, but not for buying kitchen appliances!) They’ll repeat the price because repetition improves memory and also makes statements more persuasive.

This is what we call psychological pricing, and it’s one of those enormous market distortions that once you realize it’s there, you see it everywhere and start to wonder how our whole market system hasn’t collapsed on itself from the sheer weight of our overwhelming irrationality. The price of a product sold on TV will almost always be just slightly less than $20.

In general, most prices will take the form of $X.95 or $X.99; Costco even has a code system they use in the least significant digit. Continuous substances like gasoline can even be sold at fractional pennies, and so they’ll usually be at $X.X99, being not even one penny less. It really does seem to work; despite being an eminently trivial difference from the round number, and typically rounded up from what it actually should have been, it just feels like less to see $19.95 rather than $20.00.

Moreover, I have less data to support this particular hypothesis, but I think that $20 in particular is a very specific number, because $19.95 pops up so very, very often. I think most Americans have what we might call a “Jackson heuristic”, which is as follows: If something costs less than a Jackson (a $20 bill, though hopefully they’ll put Harriet Tubman on soon, so “Tubman heuristic”), you’re allowed to buy it on impulse without thinking too hard about whether it’s worth it. But if it costs more than a Jackson, you need to stop and think about it, weigh the alternatives before you come to a decision. Since these TV ads are almost always aiming for the thoughtless impulse buy, they try to scrape in just under the Jackson heuristic.

Of course, inflation will change the precise figure over time; in the 1980s it was probably a Hamilton heuristic, in the 1970s a Lincoln heuristic, in the 1940s a Washington heuristic. Soon enough it will be a Grant heuristic and then a Benjamin heuristic. In fact it’s probably something like “The closest commonly-used cash denomination to half a milliQALY”, but nobody does that calculation consciously; the estimate is made automatically without thinking. This in turn is probably figured because you could literally do that once a day every single day for only about 20% of your total income, and if you hold it to once a week you’re under 3% of your income. So if you follow the Jackson heuristic on impulse buys every week or so, your impulse spending is a “statistically insignificant” proportion of your income. (Why do we use that anyway? And suddenly we realize: The 95% confidence level is itself nothing more than a heuristic.)

Then they take advantage of our difficulty in discounting time rationally, by spreading it into payments; “five easy payments of $19.95” sounds a lot more affordable than “$100”, but they are in fact basically the same. (You save $0.25 by the payment plan, maybe as much as a few dollars if your cashflow is very bad and thus you have a high temporal discount rate.)

And then, finally, “But wait. There’s more!” They offer you another of the exact same product, knowing full well you’ll probably have no use for the second one. They’ll multiply their previous arbitrary “value” by 2 to get an even more ludicrous number. Now it sounds like they’re doing you a favor, so you’ll feel obliged to do one back by buying the product. Gifts often have this effect in experiments: People are significantly more motivated to answer a survey if you give them a small gift beforehand, even if they get to keep it without taking the survey.

They’ll tell you to call in the next 15 minutes so that you feel like part of an exclusive club (when in reality you could probably call at any time and get the same deal). This also ensures that you’re staying in impulse-buy mode, since if you wait longer to think, you’ll miss the window!

They will offer a “money-back guarantee” to give you a sense of trust in the product, and this would be a rational response, except for that little disclaimer: “Just pay shipping and handling.” For many products, especially nutritional supplements (which cost basically nothing to make), the “handling” fee is high enough that they don’t lose much money, if any, even if you immediately send it back for a refund. Besides, they know that hardly anyone actually bothers to return products. Retailers are currently in a panic about “skyrocketing” rates of product returns that are still under 10%.

Then, they’ll repeat their phone number, followed by a remarkably brazen direct command: “Call now!” Personally I tend to bristle at direct commands, even from legitimate authorities; but apparently I’m unusual in that respect, and most people will in fact obey direct commands from random strangers as long as they aren’t too demanding. A famous demonstration of this you could try yourself if you’re feeling like a prankster is to walk into a room, point at someone, and say “You! Stand up!” They probably will. There’s a whole literature in social psychology about what makes people comply with commands of this sort.

And all, to make you buy a useless gadget you’ll try to use once and then leave in a cupboard somewhere. What untold billions of dollars in wealth are wasted this way?