The new strategies of desire

The Economist‘s holiday double issue a few weeks ago had an article about 1950s motivational-research guru Ernest Dichter (author of The Strategy of Desire) that argued that newfangled behavioral economics marks a kind of return to his approach to consumer behavior — that most of it is “irrational” and dictated by unconscious impulses and emotional needs, not by the perceived usefulness of a particular commodity. For a few decades, those assumptions were regarded as dubious — rejected as being patronizing toward consumers, refusing to grant them agency or the sophistication to desire things for complicated yet still conscious reasons. Motivational research and hysteria about consumer manipulation at the hands of evil corporations were based on assumptions that consumers are passive saps who are brainwashed into wanting this and that, whereas it had become more politically expedient for the left and the right both to begin to argue that consumers exercised real power over and in their deliberate shopping choices. Consumerism was touted as a genuine forum for self-expression, an arena in which the identity-enriching fruits of capitalism could be harvested. Or it was a place where consumers could genuinely subvert the hegemonic order, repurposing consumer goods to suit their own “revolutionary” purposes and undermine systems of control.

In reality, both of those interpretations of consumer behavior reinforced one another: individualistic identity projects became hard to distinguish from subversive detournement of goods, and squabbling over fashion-derived hierarchies leeched energy away from the confronting institutionalized economic ones. That is part of what makes consumer capitalism so durable. It commodfies identity and thereby makes it seem more powerful, the key to solving all of capitalism’s other inequities. It starts to seem plausible that the problems with capitalism are simply problems of self-expression.

So what then to make of the return of the irrational consumer? Here’s how the Economist article synthesizes recent behavioral research:

Humans, it turns out, are impressionable, emotional and irrational. We buy things we don’t need, often at arbitrary prices and for silly reasons. Studies show that when a store plays soothing music, shoppers will linger for longer and often spend more. If customers are in a good mood, they are more susceptible to persuasion. We believe price tends to indicate the value of things, not the other way around. And many people will squander valuable time to get something free.

In Dichter’s time, figuring out how to manipulate consumers beneath the level of consciousness was a matter of applying Freudian theory in what seemed to be intuitive, arbitrary ways (“To elevate typewriter sales, [Dichter] suggested the machines be modelled on the female body, ‘making the keyboard more receptive, more concave,’ ” the article notes). Now it’s more a matter of Paco Underhill-style applied surveillance, where retailers spy on their consumers, amass data on the ir aggregate behavior and draw conclusions that no individual consumer would have been able to explain — what kind of music leads to more purchases, how wide the aisles should be, which products should be placed at eye level, and so on.

This suggests how our improved capacity for quantification and data processing has changed the way we think of the “true self”: It’s no longer about depth psychology or the formation of a unique unconscious on the basis of universalized childhood experiences or what have you. Instead, we are starting to think the truth about ourselves is hidden from us not by our defense mechanisms but by our lack of computing power. We only have so much data in our memory (mainly our own limited personal experience) to process with our minuscule capacity to determine what is going on around us or why we are acting in such a way. Whereas computers aggregating the behavior of thousands or millions can reveal the genuine, normal response. Computers are our best analysts, not Freudians. We understand our irrationality not in reference to childhood trauma but to some composite of normal behavior built from masses of collected “shared” data and fed back to us under the guise of automated recommendations, superior filtering technology, influencing power within networks, augmented reality, etc. The empirical sheen to the computated conclusions about “ordinary” human behavior in the contrived situations being measured make them seem all the more incontrovertible. We begin to believe for expediency’s sake that the recommendation engines know the real us better than we could ever know ourselves. It makes it easy to fit into our world to accept that.

I wonder if capitalism’s system of control is evolving in a similar way. The ways capitalism offers subjects the opportunity to elaborate a unique identity are perhaps becoming either insufficient or irrelevant. They are being supplanted by improved surveillance, autosurveillance, constant confessions of the self. The politically useful concept of the unique personal identity is giving way to the more productive networked self, a disseminated identity normed through exhaustive data aggregation. The exhortation to “be ourselves” and discover the authentic self is steadily giving way to the soft commands to always be measuring ourselves, and sharing more information as a means to take that measure.

UPDATE: this All Things Digital post says basically the same thing: “The ‘Mad Men’ Years Are Giving Way to the ‘Math Men’ Era,” i.e. data is more important than creativity in intuiting what will manipulate people.