On Philosophy

November 19, 2007

Giving People What They Think They Want

Filed under: Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

To simply exist a society has to be able to sustain itself, but to be successful a society has to give people what they want, because a society only exists as long as the individuals composing it allow it to. And thus if society doesn’t give them what they want, or if it doesn’t satisfy their desires as effectively as some other society, it will eventually find itself without any members, no matter what barriers are erected to prevent such changes. Without any outside influences what people desire will vary widely, and so one successful strategy for society might be to present members of society as many different ways of living, as many opportunities, as possible, so that everyone has a chance to find satisfaction no matter what they desire. However, success might also be achieved if a society provided only a few such opportunities, but arranged things so that almost every individual that is part of it desires basically the same kinds of things. Which is not necessarily as hard as it might seem at first, because people are easily manipulated. Given that I have previously discussed what a society that provides the maximal amount of opportunities might be like I will today turn my attention to the possibility of manipulating on a large scale what people want.

Although it is tempting to think of people as purely rational agents who pull their desires solely from some inner well probably no one actually conforms to that model. Obviously everyone is born with the disposition to desire the things that have made them happy in the past, and I guess it is possible that someone might proceed only on the basis of such experiences to structure their lives, constructing from these simple desires more complicated ones. But most people “cheat”, instead of finding what makes them happy for themselves people have the tendency to assume that what makes other people happy will make them happy as well. And so people are disposed to pick up the desires of the people around them. Naturally once a desire has been developed then satisfying that desire will bring happiness in most cases, and so I wouldn’t argue that adopting the desires of other people is necessarily a bad strategy. However, it does open the door for the systematic manipulation of what people want by arranging things so that everyone picks up certain desires and so that they end up reinforced, allowing them to come to dominate over the person’s other desires.

Even the most cursory observation of human behavior will reveal that some people are more popular than others, leaving what that means exactly aside for the moment, and that the vast number of people who admire these popular people (which is what makes them popular) tend to mimic them. Thus we might suppose that the behavior of the most popular people controls the desires of a certain majority, and that by controlling who is popular the desires of the population at large could be affected. But when considering how to actually do something like this we run into what might be called the paradox of popularity. The paradox of popularity is that the natural explanation for why people are popular is that they display certain ideal characteristics and are thus esteemed for them. But if they are popular because of these ideal characteristics then where did people’s expectations about what is ideal come from? Of course it is possible that they exist in a kind of feedback loop, such that the popular people affect what is considered ideal and that in turn determines who is popular, under the assumption that in the distant past this whole cycle began by some essentially arbitrary mechanism that is no longer in play today. But, while not impossible, it does not appear that such a feedback loop exists, because if such a loop existed, ungoverned by external factors, we would expect to see what is considered ideal wander in essentially a random fashion. Although it is true that what people hold up as ideal does change over time, and that there may not be any immediately obvious patterns in these changes, it seems too stable (substantial changes take too long) for the feedback loop alone to explain things. Thus I suggest that we look for some additional sources of these ideals or of popularity itself.

As mentioned earlier people will tend to pick up the desires that seem to them to make other people happy. And this suggests an easy source for these ideals, namely those that naturally make a large number of people happy. The fact that a few ideals seem to dominate and that they remain relatively stable might be explained by appealing to the fact that society makes pursuing certain things easier than others, and thus that happiness is more easily achieved under some than others. But this explanation suffers from the fact that it doesn’t quite seem to line up with reality. Although people want to be like the most popular people because they think it will make them happy those held up in this way don’t always seem exceptionally happy themselves. In fact I suspect that they are happy is something that people tend to conclude from their popularity and not from any obvious clues. Which means this can’t explain the original source of ideals, only how they are reinforced.

Another possibility is that people naturally arrange themselves into social hierarchies and that in general people want to be on the top of the hierarchy (or think being on top of the hierarchy will make them happy) and, failing that, want to at least be like the people on the top of the hierarchy. But this clearly can’t be correct as stated, because the social hierarchy would seem to put the people in power, those making the laws, at the top. But few seem to want to be like politicians; if they did homosexuality would be more widely accepted. So, if this proposal is to be made credible, it must be that, in addition to the real social hierarchy, there is also an apparent social hierarchy that only occasionally overlaps with the real social hierarchy. This fixes the immediate problem, because we can suppose that the popular people are on top of the apparent social hierarchy. But now it isn’t clear how people get to be on the top of the apparent social hierarchy. The most natural answer is to say that the most popular people appear to be on the top of the social hierarchy regardless of their real power, but this mean that the proposal under consideration can’t solve the paradox of popularity, because it relies on popularity as part of its explanation.

Because of these problems I lean towards the idea that popularity is an emergent phenomena, which by itself is rather a cop-out as an explanation, so allow me to provide more detail. First consider how we know that people are popular. At least in my experience there are no immediate visual clues, assuming that we bracket any expectations about the current trends that popular people are part of. Who is popular is something that other people tell us, we are told that someone is popular and so come to treat them as popular. Obviously in some kind of initial condition no one is popular. However, some people will be liked by more people than others are, although the differences may not be immediately significant. And this will result in more people telling us that they like that person. And this in turn will create the impression in us that the person is widely liked, which is essentially what popularity is, and we will convey that fact to others. Additionally, because of our natural tendency to copy the attitudes of other people, once someone starts to become known as widely liked more and more people actually will like them, which reinforces that impression and makes them more and more popular. Because of this snowball effect we will tend up to end up with a few people who are extremely popular and who thus outshine everyone else. Notice also that who becomes widely liked is somewhat dependant on something they do which makes them liked by some people to begin with. In previous times this was often the heroes, the defenders of the city, who people were obviously indebted to. But in the more modern age such people tend to be entertainers, who provide something that people enjoy and are thus liked for providing it. (This also explains the popularity of disruptive students when education is mandatory.)

If this is how popularity actually works, and thus the people from whom many others will pick up desires and attitudes about what is important, whether it can be controlled is not entirely clear. Obviously the media serves as a source of additional peers, beyond those we are immediately acquainted with. And obviously the media could be used to make certain people appear more popular than they really are, and thus possibly catapult them to real popularity. But it is also hard to stop people from becoming popular through normal means. On the other hand, at least in our society, the popular people are almost universally wealthy, or quickly end up so because of those who want to exploit their popularity. So if society could only effectively satisfy desires centered around material goods then it would be doing a good job in directing people towards those desires.

I’ll leave it as an open question whether a society that is successful partly because of how it influences the desires of the individuals composing is a good one.


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