The Overjustification Effect

The Misconception: There is nothing better in the world than getting paid to do what you love.

The Truth: Getting paid for doing what you already enjoy will sometimes cause your love for the task to wane because you attribute your motivation as coming from the reward, not your internal feelings.

Office Space – Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Money isn’t everything. Money can’t buy happiness. Don’t live someone else’s dream. Figure out what you love and then figure out how to get paid doing it.

Maxims like these often find their way into your social media; they arrive in your electronic mailbox at the ends of dense chains of forwards. They bubble up from the collective sighs of well-paid boredom around the world and get routinely polished for presentation in graduation speeches and church sermons.

Money, fame, and prestige – they dangle just outside your reach it seems, encouraging you to lean farther and farther over the edge, to study longer and longer, to work harder and harder. When someone reminds you that acquiring currency while ignoring all else shouldn’t be your primary goal in life, it feels good. You retweet it. You post it on your wall. You forward it, and then you go back to work.

If only science had something concrete to say about the whole thing, you know? All these living greeting cards dispensing wisdom are great and all, but what about really putting money to the test? Does money buy happiness? In 2010, scientists published the results of a study looking into that very question.

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The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight

The Misconception:  You celebrate diversity and respect others’ points of view.

The Truth: You are driven to create and form groups and then believe others are wrong just because they are others.

Source: “Lord of the Flies,” 1963, Two Arts Ltd.

In 1954, in eastern Oklahoma, two tribes of children nearly killed each other.

The neighboring tribes were unaware of each other’s existence. Separately, they lived among nature, played games, constructed shelters, prepared food – they knew peace. Each culture developed its own norms and rules of conduct. Each culture arrived at novel solutions to survival-critical problems. Each culture named the creeks and rocks and dangerous places, and those names were known to all. They helped each other and watched out for the well-being of the tribal members.

Scientists stood by, watchful, scribbling notes and whispering. Much nodding and squinting took place as the tribes granted to anthropology and psychology a wealth of data about how people build and maintain groups, how hierarchies are established and preserved. They wondered, the scientists, what would happen if these two groups were to meet.

These two tribes consisted of 22 boys, ages 11 and 12, whom psychologist Muzafer Sherif brought together at Oklahoma’s Robber’s Cave State Park. He and his team placed the two groups on separate buses and drove them to a Boy Scout Camp inside the park – the sort with cabins and caves and thick wilderness. At the park, the scientists put the boys into separate sides of the camp about a half-mile apart and kept secret the existence and location of the other group. The boys didn’t know each other beforehand, and Sherif believed putting them into a new environment away from their familiar cultures would encourage them to create a new culture from scratch.

He was right, but as those cultures formed and met something sinister presented itself. One of the behaviors which pushed and shoved its way to the top of the boys’ minds is also something you are fending off at this very moment, something which is making your life harder than it ought to be. We’ll get to all that it in a minute. First, let’s get back to one of the most telling and frightening experiments in the history of psychology.

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The Backfire Effect

The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.

The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.

Wired, The New York Times, Backyard Poultry Magazine – they all do it. Sometimes, they screw up and get the facts wrong. In ink or in electrons, a reputable news source takes the time to say “my bad.”

If you are in the news business and want to maintain your reputation for accuracy, you publish corrections. For most topics this works just fine, but what most news organizations don’t realize is a correction can further push readers away from the facts if the issue at hand is close to the heart. In fact, those pithy blurbs hidden on a deep page in every newspaper point to one of the most powerful forces shaping the way you think, feel and decide – a behavior keeping you from accepting the truth.

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Deindividuation

The Misconception: People who riot and loot are scum who were just looking for an excuse to steal and be violent.

The Truth: You are are prone to losing your individuality and becoming absorbed into a hivemind under the right conditions.

Source: Improv Everywhere

When a crowd gathers near a suicidal jumper something terrible is unleashed.

In Seattle in 2001, a 26-year-old woman who had recently ended a relationship held up traffic for a little too long as she considered the implications of leaping to her death. As motorists began to back-up on the bridge and become irate, they started yelling “Jump, bitch, jump!” until she did.

Cases like this aren’t unusual.

In 2008, a 17-year old man jumped from the top of a parking garage in England after 300 or so people chanted for him to go for it. Some took photos and recorded video before, during and after. Afterward, the crowd dispersed, the strange spell broken. The taunters walked away wondering what came over them. The other onlookers vented their disgust into social media.

In San Francisco, in 2010, a man stepped onto the ledge of his apartment window and contemplated dropping from the building. A crowd gathered below and soon started yelling for him to jump. They even tweeted about it. He died on impact fifteen minutes later.

“i was there and im traumatized. the guys next to me were laughing telling him to jump and videotaping the whole thing. i’m still young and in high school and this is gunna stick with me for the rest of my life. there was a total lack of respect for the poor man and people were laughing when he jumped.”
- comment left at the SF Examiner

Police and firefighters are well aware of this tendency for crowds to gather and taunt, and this is why they tape off potential suicide scenes and get the crowd out of shouting distance. The risk of a spontaneous cheering section goading a person into killing themselves is high when people in a group feel anonymous and are annoyed or angry. It only takes one person to get the crowd going. Those are the three ingredients – anonymity, group size and arousal. If you lose your sense of self, feel the power of a crowd and then get slammed by a powerful cue from the environment – your individuality may evaporate.

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The Just-World Fallacy

The Misconception: People who are losing at the game of life must have done something to deserve it.

The Truth:
The beneficiaries of good fortune often do nothing to earn it, and bad people often get away with their actions without consequences.

A woman goes out to a club wearing stilettos and a miniskirt with no underwear. She gets pretty drunk and stumbles home in the wrong direction. She ends up lost in a bad neighborhood. She gets raped.

Is she to blame in some way? Was this her fault? Was she asking for it?

People often say yes to all three in studies asking similar questions after presenting similar scenarios.

It is common in fiction for the bad guys to lose and the good guys to win. It is how you would like to see the world – just and fair. In psychology the tendency to believe this is how the real world actually works is a known cognitive bias called the Just-World Fallacy.

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Selling Out

The Misconception: Both consumerism and capitalism are sustained by corporations and advertising.

The Truth: Both consumerism and capitalism are driven by competition among consumers for status.

Beatniks, hippies, punk rockers, grunge rats, metal heads, goth kids, hipsters – see a pattern forming here?

It goes back farther than these examples, the baton of counter culture – the mantle of anti…whatever the mainstream is doing – it gets passed from generation to generation.

Whether you lived through Freedom Summer or “Jem and the Holograms” – somewhere in your youth you started to realize who was in control, and you rebelled. You started to discover the paradigms of censorship and consumerism – and they repulsed you.

You needed to self actualize, to find your own way, and you sought out something real, something with meaning. You waved your hand at popular music, popular movies, and popular television. You dug deeper and disparaged all those mindless sheeple who gobbled up pop culture.

Yet, you still listened to music and bought shirts and went to see movies. Someone was appealing to you despite your dissent.

If you think you can buy your way to individuality, well, you are not so smart.

Since the 1940s, when capitalism and marketing married psychology and public relations, the market has been getting much better and more efficient at offering you something to purchase no matter your taste.

See the punk rocker up there? Yeah, he bought all of those clothes. Someone is making money off of his revolt.

That’s the strange paradox – everything is part of the system. There is no such thing as selling out, because there is no one to sell out to.

Every niche opened by rebellion against the mainstream is immediately filled by entrepreneurs who figure out how to make a buck off those who are trying to avoid what the majority of people are buying.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were many stabs at trying to thwart this through artistic gesture  – “Fight Club,” “American Beauty,” “Fast Food Nation,” “The Corporation,” etc.

The creators of these works may have had the best intentions, but their work still became a product designed for profit. Their cries against consumption were consumed.

Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Kurt Cobain, Andy Kaufman – they may have been solely concerned with creating art or illustrating academic principles, but once their output fell into the marketplace it found its audience, and that audience made them wealthy.

Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, both philosophers, wrote a book about this in 2004 called “The Rebel Sell.” It’s available in the United States as “Nation of Rebels.”

The central theme of the book is you can’t rage against “the system,” or “the man” or “the culture” through rebellious consumption.

Here’s the conventional thinking most counter cultures are founded upon:

All the interconnected institutions in the marketplace need everyone to conform in order to sell the most products to the most people. The media through press releases, advertising, entertainment and so on works to bring everyone into homogeneity by altering desires.

To escape consumerism and conformity, you must turn your back and ignore the mainstream culture. The shackles will then fall away, the machines will grind to a halt, the filters will dissolve, and you will see the world for what it really is.

Finally, the illusory nature of existence will end and we will all, finally, be real.

The problem, say Heath and Potter, is “the system” doesn’t give a shit about conformity. In fact, it loves diversity and needs people like hipsters and music snobs so it can thrive.

For example, say there is this awesome band no one knows about except you and a few others. They don’t have a record contract or an album. They just go out there and play, and they are great.

You tell everyone about them as they build a decent fan base. They make an album which sells enough copies to allow them to quit their jobs. That album gets them more gigs and more fans. Soon, they have a huge fan base and get a record contract and get on the radio and play on “The Tonight Show.”

Now, they’ve sold out. So you hate them. You abandon the band and go looking for someone more authentic, and it all starts over again.

This is the pump by which artists rise from the depths into the mainstream. It never stops, and over time it gets faster and more efficient.

Unknown bands are a special sort of commodity. Living in a loft downtown, wearing clothes from the thrift store, watching the independent film no one has heard of – these provide a special social status which can’t be bought as easily as the things offered to the mainstream.

In the 1960s, it took months before someone figured out they could sell tie-dyed shirts and bell bottoms to anyone who wanted to rebel. In the 1990s, it took weeks to start selling flannel shirts and Doc Martens to people in the Deep South. Now, people are hired by corporations to go to bars and clubs and predict what the counter culture is into and have it on the shelves in the cool stores right as it becomes popular.

The counter-culture, the indie fans and the underground stars – they are the driving force behind capitalism. They are the engine.

This brings us to the point – competition among consumers is the turbine of capitalism.

Everyone who lives above the poverty line but isn’t wealthy pretty much has no choice but to work for a living doing something which rewards them with survival tokens.

Working as a telemarketer, for example, allows you to have food, clothing and shelter, but doesn’t put you directly in charge of creating, growing or killing those things you need for sustenance. Instead, you trade in tokens for those things. As a result, you have a lot of free time and some leftover tokens.

We don’t directly compete with each other for resources like we did for the millennia before mass production.

Before this setup, people were often defined by their work, by their output. The things they owned were usually things either they handmade, or were things other people made by hand. There was a weight, an infusion of soul, in everything a person owned, used and lived in.

Today, everyone is a consumer, and has to pick from the same selection of goods as everyone else, and because of this people now define their personalities on how good their taste is, or how clever, or how obscure, or how ironic their choices are.

As Christian Lander, author of “Stuff White People Like,” pointed out in an interview with NPR, you compete with your peers by one-upping them. You attain status by having better taste in movies and music, by owning more authentic furniture and clothing.

There are 100 million copies of every item or intellectual property you can own, so you reveal your unique character through how you consume.

Having a dissenting opinion on movies, music or clothes, or owning clever or obscure possessions is the way middle-class people fight each other for status. They can’t out-consume each other because they can’t afford it, but they can out-taste each other.

Since everything is mass-produced, and often for a mass audience, finding and consuming things which appeal to your desire for authenticity is what moves these items and artists and services up from the bottom to the top – where it can be mass consumed.

Hipsters, then, are the direct result of this cycle of indie, authentic, obscure, ironic, clever consumerism.

Which is ironic – but not like a trucker hat or Pabst Blue Ribbon. It is ironic in the sense the very act of trying to run counter to the culture is what creates the next wave of culture people will in turn attempt to counter.

“I think ‘sell out’ is yelled by those who, when they were selling, didn’t have anything that anyone wanted to buy.” – Patton Oswalt

Wait long enough, and what was once mainstream will fall into obscurity. When that happens, it will become valuable again to those looking for authenticity or irony or cleverness. The value, then, is not intrinsic. The thing itself doesn’t have as much value as the perception of how it was obtained, or why it is possessed, does.

Once enough people join in, like with trucker hats or slap bracelets, the status gained from owning the item or being a fan of the band is lost, and the search begins again.

You would compete like this no matter how society was constructed. Competition for status is built into the human experience at the biological level.

Poor people compete with resources. The middle class competes with selection. The wealthy compete with possessions.

If you live in a jungle and forage for food between spear-sharpening sessions, you compete for status with talent or prowess or…something.

If you get a paycheck, someone out there is buying what you are offering. You are selling – they are buying. So what? Your soul is not at stake if you deliver pizzas for rent money. But, if what you then purchase with that paycheck doesn’t bring you joy, doesn’t add to your life in any way other than to signal to others your status and your commitment to being authentic, that’s when it is time to pause and reflect.

Links:

Audio of a presentation given by Potter and Heath

Stuff White People Like

Great Interview with Christian Lander

White Whines

Look at this F**king Hipster