Ultimately, in today’s society, is it more important to be good or to be seen as being good?
The socially acceptable answer is that it is more important to be good than to be seen as good but is this really the case? Purely from a cost-benefit perspective it appears as though the calculus has been shifting over time towards image and perception instead of authentic character. How else can we explain the exorbitant rise of social media virtue signalling and posturing that has occurred over the past decade?
In this piece I want to discuss the concept of virtue signalling across society and how this has been perverted by the influencer movement within social media in particular. This signalling is effective because it manipulates our cultural and personal patterns to fool us into believing something untrue. Some people are taking this as far as to create a personal brand about the image they have created leading to their association with a particular movement. It is possible to defend ourselves from these effects but it isn’t easy.
The question that I’ve been repeatedly asking on this blog is “Is a line crossed when we decide to publish every element in our lives online?” Is a line crossed when a minor event by a minor celebrity becomes newsworthy? What message does this send to the watchers who may want to emulate this behaviour? Do the children watching take away the message that they should be a good person regardless of the impact this has upon their personal life or do they take away a more sinister message? That all publicity is good publicity? That the only thing that matters is self promotion? That character be damned?
Culturally, we tend to proclaim our appreciation for good and selfless people. Firefighters, soldiers, paramedics, doctors, nurses and police officers all receive a degree of hero worship from society at large. We see these professions as stereotypically “good” and we associate positive attributes with the people who practice them, a halo effect.
Due to this effect we begin to develop a pattern associating the two behaviours. We observe that helping others is seen as a good thing and that those who do it receive rewards. Yet, searching for rewards can lead to unintended side effects and perverse outcomes.
One of the most pernicious examples of this behaviour is on YouTube where you can find videos of YouTube “celebrities” helping the homeless or less fortunate in various ways. I must ask though, who amongst us truly believes that these people would do the same thing if the camera wasn’t rolling? Who amongst us hasn’t had experience of the sweet as milk golden child in one sphere being a complete bully in another?
Is there anything wrong with virtue signalling behaviour though? Even when it is self serving? I mean, if the help is actually rendered and the recipient is in a better place as a result shouldn’t we celebrate this outcome? Sure, the YouTuber making the video may be making thousands off the advertising revenue but is this morally wrong? I mean, trickle down economics is still taken as gospel in certain political circles after all and isn’t this just another example?
The virtue signalling behaviour reminds me of the Robber Baron’s in the previous Golden Age of the early 20th century. The Baron’s would often donate huge degrees of wealth towards universities and the arts to obtain a building’s naming rights. Sometimes their causes would be noble, a desire to help the less fortunate or become a patron of the arts. Other times it was a game of one upmanship played between billionaires at a scale beyond our current conceptions.
Today, many billionaires (Larry Ellison excluded) donate their funds towards their personal worthy social causes and charities. As an example, Bill Gates is now known more for his philanthropy than he is for the company he founded. Should we place the self serving behaviour of video tapped virtue signalling in the same camp as Bill Gates? I mean, Bill Gates is helping to cure Polio after all. Or is there a more fundamental difference between the behaviours?
In standard economic theory all (freely entered) trades lead to an increase in social welfare. If we view live streamed charity as a trade would we view this as being freely entered? Is there a degree of coercion? A power imbalance between the recipient and the giver that is being exploited? The less fortunate party in the arrangement often cannot consent to their being filmed, they are negotiating from a period of complete weakness, a Faustian bargain results. Agree to be filmed or you won’t get anything.
Fundamentally, the perversion of charitable giving for social media branding and marketing speaks to a more sinister truth about how social media and video changes how we interact with people. It speaks to the rapid fire snap judgements we make and the degree to which we draw cues from others. The only reason why this perversion can exist is because we outsource a degree of our thinking towards prebuilt patterns and heuristics which marketers have begun to take advantage of.
Life is complicated, we’ve got bills to pay, work to do, chores to complete and errands to run. If we were to sit down and think rationally about every action we undertake we would run out of time before we got halfway through. As individuals, we do not have the time or mental capacity to investigate everything from first principles. We need mental shortcuts if we are to operate effectively.
As a solution, our brains have evolved over time to develop an instinctual pattern matcher that is trained via experience. Think of the brain as having two modes (in the same vein as Daniel Kahneman’s work on System 1, the brain’s fast, automatic, intuitive approach). When we are faced with a problem we have two options to solve it:
- Use the rational parts of our brains to carefully evaluate all of the available alternatives and determine the best course of action.
- Use a “fast”, but potentially inaccurate, heuristic to make the decision for us with a minimal amount of concentration.
The first part of our brain, the rational part, is our defence mechanism against falsehoods and deceptions. It is the part we use when advancing science and making important decisions. But, the second is the most important. It’s where we spend the majority of our lives.
The basis of the pattern matcher is incredibly important to understand. It is not a perfectly impartial automation working in the background to further a set of utopian aims. Instead, it is highly subjective and irrational and the cause of most of our biases. It is influenced by our personal experiences as well as the cultural framework we live in throughout society. What is matched will differ whether you are black, white, Asian or Hispanic. It will differ whether you are from a wealthy neighbourhood versus a poor ghetto. It will differ whether you’ve experienced a totalitarian state versus living in a liberal democracy.
There are two groups of people who study our collective patterns and the heuristic based system. They may be classified by their desired end outcomes into theoreticians and practitioners. The theoreticians have titles such as psychologist, neuroscientist or researcher. They spend their lives seeking to apply the investigative lens of science to the subject in the quest to advance human knowledge.
The practitioners on the other hand have job titles such as marketer, advertising executive and salesman. These individuals seek to develop their knowledge about human psychology in order to advance their own personal gain (or that of the institutions they work for). For many of them it is instinctual though the most successful are seeking to apply the learnings of the theoreticians to the goal of having us purchase more. An example of a practitioner whose work has touched your life is Nir Eyal who wrote a book called “Hooked: A guide to building habit-forming products”, the title alone should terrify you alone as should the fact that his work is being used by product managers around the world to make their products more effective.
Collectively we are incredibly vulnerable to the practitioners. So vulnerable that we often do not even realise how deeply ingrained certain emotional reactions towards products have become. For example, when we see an advertisement for a soft drink we are not given a list of factually accurate statements about the product designed to help us ascertain whether it will suit our needs. Instead, we see attractive, young, fun having individuals frolicking in the sun. Have you ever personally stopped to ask why that is? What relevance does a polar bear have to whether it would be nice to drink a coke?
These advertisements are not trying to establish that their product is the best. Instead, they are trying to embed an association deep within your brain. That is, they are trying to create a pattern in your subconscious. In this case, the pattern is that having fun, being young and attractive and warm summer days is associated with consuming a particular brand of soft drink. It is lifestyle marketing on a grand scale. Sexy people drink Coke so if you want to be sexy then you should too! The advertising executives want to short circuit the rational, logical, side of our brains and instead directly appeal to the emotional, instinctual, side.
More generally, there are two forms of patterns that relevant to our lives:
- Cultural patterns
- Personal patterns
In the best possible outcome of an advertising campaign a new cultural pattern is developed linking a product or brand to a positive cultural meme. To achieve this an association must be created between a desirable outcome and a product. To do this, advertisers use attractive people, status displays and play on cultural tropes in an attempt to link their products. Take the recent Gillette ad which garnered so much controversy recently. In this case, the brand was trying to associate their product with a new, “woke”, form of man who is actively involved in social justice causes. Nothing in the advert had anything to do with razors. None had anything to do with the superiority of the product. Instead, Gillette wants to associate itself with a particular cultural movement. It wants to create a new cultural pattern.
On the other hand, the worst possible outcome is the linking of a product or brand to a negative outcome such as Malaysian Airlines following a series of tragic accidents outside of their control. Cultural patterns are not necessarily constant over time. The fashion industry is a collective cultural pattern that is continuously in flux. Different body types come and go as being seen as ideal in the media.
A personal pattern is a secret that we’ve discovered that gives us some form of edge over others. These patterns are valuable because there is a mistake in a cultural pattern and it has lost it’s predictive capability. These personal patterns are valuable, but once they become widely established and known they tend to lose their predictive capability, instead regressing to the more generalised cultural pattern.
I was recently rereading Zero to One by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters. It is an interesting book by an original thinker but one of the passages that illustrates a personal pattern that is rife for abuse is Thiel’s passing commentary on the clothing choices of the founders who pitched Thiel’s venture capital fund.
Early on in his career, Thiel established that the kind of people he was looking for “didn’t wear suits”, that is, they were not the standard MBA business types educated at the Harvard Business School. Instead, they were more likely to be found hacking away at a project in jeans and a t-shirt in their garages on a Saturday night. They were technologists and nerdy geeks through and through. They weren’t the type A business types who inhabit most boardrooms.
The irony is that business people are nothing if not diligent readers of business books at airports. What effect did Thiel, a billionaire and successful entrepreneur who has the ear of politicians, have in making his secret pattern public?
In short, once stripped of it’s obscurity and secrecy the pattern became worthless, the very kinds of people that Thiel was trying to filter out with the heuristic, the standard, clean cut business people, started wearing jeans and a t-shirt. His pattern had become perverted by the individuals focused on advertising and marketing in the same vein as the virtue signalling lifestyle bloggers perverted charitable giving.
The crux of my point is that we understand our inbuilt tendencies. We make decisions on the basis of our cultural and personal patterns and that this sets us up to be manipulated by unscrupulous characters. Our patterns are a core part of our identities and help us establish who is a poser and who is authentic. As such, when these patterns are taken advantage of we tend to react unpredictably to say the least.
If there is anything that is guaranteed to make an enemy for life it is the discovery of deception. The cloying feeling of being deceived by an individual who has sought to manipulate our patterns is one of hostility. The most heart breaking of these is the case of the cheating spouse where it is the deception that wounds the most. The loss of trust and the jarring comparison between who we thought our spouse was and who they actually are can be uniquely crushing.
In a more mundane sense we have the same reaction when we purchase a counterfeit good. The counterfeiter wants to associate his low quality offering with the cultural prestige that has been developed for a brand or product over time. Brands such as Burberry spend millions every year to eliminate counterfeit goods when they can. For these brands the harm caused by counterfeiters is not in the lost sale but instead in the destruction of the cultural association of the brand and quality.
Our patterns are a core part of our identity as people but we can no longer consider them to be our closely guarded personal secrets. In recent years, academia and the advertising profession have been shining a light on the vulnerable components of our decision making systems in order to influence us. The vanguard of branding experts, marketers and social media influencers is now using this knowledge to enrich their personal circumstances by manipulating our psychological weaknesses.
One strategy that has soared in popularity has been personal branding. It has never been easier to establish a personal brand and the impact this is having upon our society will be covered in the next session.
We all seek to develop our own personal image to different extents. Fundamentally, as socially minded and reputationally conscious creatures I do not see a way out of this. The fact that you are reading this blog helps to build my own personal brand at some fundamental level, although, that is not my intent in writing. Ultimately, the desired outcome of branding is association. Specifically, a linking a person with a positive emotional state.
This positive emotional state may be represented in various forms, for example, an academic may want to cultivate a brand of dry wit and cultured sophistication. A sportsman may want to develop a brand of ultra-competitiveness and creativity. An actress may wish to be known as a style icon. There are many potential brands that we could build depending upon what our specific objectives are. As a result, at different times we will act to accentuate different components of our personalities for the desired effect.
Personal branding is not inherently bad, in a work context, knowing that someone is a plumber can make interactions with that individual a lot easier. This simplistic form of personal branding does not attempt to manipulate our perceptions, it is a statement of fact that makes working with each other easier.
The modern, social media based, variant differs in that the development of the brand is the end in and of itself. Once a brand has been established an individual can then pivot this into becoming an “influencer” and sell the association they have created with their brand to companies interested in forming an association.
Today, we are surrounded by an avalanche of lifestyle bloggers, influencers, Instagram models and the like. As such, we all feel the pressure to develop our personal brand and place our best foot forward. As we observe the glamorous lives of the privileged few, writ large on our smart phones, the fear of missing out becomes too great to ignore. Regardless of our personal objectives a brand based social media site has arisen to enable personal branding to arise.
Sites such as LinkedIn pitch themselves as helping to develop our professional brand whereas we may use Instagram to cultivate a view of our lifestyle. Snapchat is for candid moments and Twitter for showcasing our wit and thoughts to the world. If you’re into a more Gonzo style approach then you can literally livestream every moment of your waking life to Twitch or YouTube. And Facebook? People still use Facebook? Regardless of what avenue of life we’re involved in the technology companies have created an advertising driven monstrosity to prey upon the human tendencies for communication, personal branding and self promotion. Without these tools the reach of any particular strategy would be far more limited, restricted to the traditional media gatekeepers. The democratisation that has occurred in this space, arguably a good thing, has opened up new strategies.
If I was to summarise the end goal of personal branding it would be as follows; the goal of personal branding is to make who is saying something more important than what the message they are saying is.
In some settings, this can be a boon. Why do I need to research into different blender manufacturer’s when I can just trust the highly acclaimed chef and buy the brand they recommend? I may not be personally qualified to understand the difference between two scenarios but there will always be an expert I can turn to for help.
Branding is not expertise though. Branding can often be more sinister and manipulative as there is ultimately no benefit in developing a personal brand if your actions and words are still treated as equal to someone who does not have such a brand, it would incur no benefit. Thus, the goal of personal branding is to force others to suspend the rational part of their brains when you are in frame. To outsource their decision making to your “halo”.
The tragedy is that when we continuously outsource our decision making we introduce a form of sloppiness to our thinking. When we stop thinking about the truth of a statement and instead think about who is saying it then ingroup and outgroup dynamics can result. Society and civil discourse can fracture and we, collectively, refuse to listen to the perspectives of our respective “enemies” in the outgroup. An us versus them dynamic filled with false truths and fake news is the result.
The pre-eminent master of this strategy is Donald Trump who has crafted a personal brand as an outsider and created a reality distortion field around himself when it comes to his followers. When the speaker of a sentence matters more than the sentence itself, or, when an individuals statement can be dismissed (or lauded) simply by virtue of who they are then we have a problem as a society for we have lost the ability to discern the truth. Worse, imagine how tempting a society who can no longer distinguish between lies and truth is to an advertiser. Having someone purchasing your product solely because someone else told them too? It’s a dream come true for many in that space.
We should acknowledge that we will always outsource a degree of our decision making, collectively, this is the social equivalent of the “instinctive” brain that makes our decisions on autopilot. Examples include the reviews and ratings for products that have existed for decades. This collective outsourcing helps guide our decision making using a minimum of cognitive effort, it improves our time management. I don’t need to go and see a 1 star movie to know that it’s bad, I can trust the herd on this matter.
The nuance is that a brand or a rating does not teach us anything about the distribution of preferences in society. A restaurant may have three stars on average, but within that system there will be some who rated it five stars and some one. The social media equivalent of ratings, follower and like counts, can both be gamed by purchasing followers from shady Eastern European websites. Here, perception can become reality, having a large number of followers tends to attract more followers, just like a highly rated restaurant attracts more patrons. Obviously, if all of those people following you think that what you have to say is worthwhile then it must be so. Perception becomes reality in this case.
This behaviour is not restricted to Instagram influencers or other social media stars. If anything, the phenomenon first began in Academic circles through the obsession with quantifiable metrics of academic output such as citation counts. To reviewing committees these metrics became a proxy for the quality of the academic’s work which has led to all manor of gaming from citation rings to publication mills, even at the undergraduate level. Of course, if citation count is too democratic and not elite enough then you can always compute your Erdos number to ascertain your place in the academic order. The most successful popularisers in the Academic world are combining the worlds of good science and personal branding. It is no longer enough to just do good work, now you must do good work and be attractive enough to be on the front of a magazine cover.
In short, nowhere is safe from the rise of personal branding which is leading to a rise in deception based strategies to game the outcomes. This can range from situations as trivial as individuals renting glamorous cars to appear wealthy to more life altering behaviour such as plastic surgery. There have never been more strategies to deceive our compatriots than exist today and I will briefly touch upon these in the next section.
The nature of developing a personal brand is that the best wins. There are no participation trophies in this world. You’re either the best, or non-existent.
Outcome inequalities tends to follow a power law which leads to interesting behaviour in the name of the end result. Namely, that the ends may justify the means, in terms of faking behaviour and status signals, in order get to the top. Once you’ve reached the upper echelon the status tends to become self perpetuating due to the rewards that accrue. Once your brand has been bootstrapped you can then coast on the results.
Deception and artificial enhancement pervades all human endeavours. Among actors, for example, it is a poorly held secret that most of the male celebrities who star in action films are taking steroids. I mean, if the majority of amateur sportsmen at the college level are now using performance enhancing drugs why wouldn’t an actor? Especially when a major pay cheque hinges off the way their body is portrayed in a particular scene. Cosmetic surgery amongst the starlets is, if anything, more common. For an eye opening trip down memory lane undertake a cursory investigation into before and after photos from the most popular.
Yet, this just sounds like too much work, shouldn’t there be an easier way? Going under the knife or injecting ourselves with illegal and potentially dangerous hormones can lead to all many of pesky side effects. It’s also expensive and quite painful. Wouldn’t it be great to just have the result we want (the accolades of the masses) without having to go through the pain?
Fortunately, with access to a reasonable quality camera, a modicum of skills and a subscription to Adobe Creative Suite you too can also have the body of a model, well, at least your followers will think you do. You can manipulate the background, or, if it’s not working for you just substitute an entirely new one in. You don’t even need a lot of skill to do this any more, popular applications such as FaceTune have so much pre-built functionality in them that even the least qualified member of society can operate them. For a world altering overview of this check out the reddit page InstagramReality which documents this phenomenon in depth.
But, what if you don’t just want to look good you also want to seem intelligent? Fortunately, the ghost written thought leadership piece has got you covered. A pithy, 750 word, blog article which can be syndicated across multiple social media platforms is sure to do the trick right? Such an article will make it seem like you’re deep and considered, like you know the answer and that you are a weighty public intellectual. I mean, you may not have written it yourself but since it’s been attributed to your name you’ll get all the credit.
There is a glut of academic Ph.D graduates which have completely destroyed the tenured job track for themselves but this represents an opportunity for the aspirational intellectual with a chequebook. Why be smart when you can simply hire smart people to make you seem smart and give you all the credit. A ghost written article can be purchased on literally any subject you like for a few dollars (for the record, this article is not ghost written). It will not have any particular depth behind it but that is okay, you’re not going for depth, merely wanting to associate your personal brand as a thought leader. Companies now develop their “LinkedIn” thought leadership strategies on behalf of employees as part of their marketing and branding strategies. But why let companies have all the fun? Jump in and do it yourself!
So that covers appearances and intellectual capability but what about appearing materially successful? I mean, is it worthwhile being attractive in a Hyundai? Surely you want to be attractive in a Porsche right?
In our western society we tend to equate wealth with virtue and we try to emulate the successful individuals throughout society who have achieved material wealth or other forms of success. Whether this is the Seven Habits of Successful People or other pop-science book which mine the biographies of the upper echelon for commonalities. There is a flood of biographies from celebrities, sports stars, coaches and politicians that flood our book stores on whoever your role model is.
The sales pitch of these books and other associated materials is simple, a wealthy or otherwise successful individual with all of the trappings of success, a nice car, house, attractive partner and expensive clothes is willing to tell you the secret to their success. For the low low price of 29.95. We lap it up, where do I enter my credit card details again?
But, actually achieving things also seems like too much work. When we read through these biographies they seem to take a lot of hard work and delayed gratification. What if we could just rent the trappings of success to make others think that we are successful? Consumer credit is incredibly easy to access in the current low interest rate environment so why go through all that effort to live the life 24⁄7 when you can simply rent it for a few hours, long enough to get the photographic proof of your brilliance and post it to Instagram for influencer points.
No matter how you want to portray your wealth there is an option, and if there isn’t, there’s a potential business model there anyway so get hustling. There are luxury car, accommodation and clothing rental sites. You can hire models to pretend to be your girlfriend if you’re that way inclined. You can purchase access to high end events on a credit card and you can hire a professional photographer to take beautiful photos of you and all of your rented possessions to “prove” you’re a “somebody”. To top it all off, with a quick swipe of your credit card you can even pay to have someone touch up all of the imperfections in the photos to give it that little bit extra pizazz. You’ll be horrifically in debt by the end of this process but remember, in personal branding it’s a winner take all feeding frenzy. If you’re not first, you’re last.
You cannot believe anything you see in an image these days, particularly when the poster of that image has a vested interest in you believing it. There is real money and real results to be gained by manipulating images and the cost of faking it is now so low. Even “candid” social media posts are often being selectively posed and touched up to create the perception of authenticity. It’s turtles all the way down unfortunately. You need to build up defence mechanisms against these deceptive practices and integrate a healthy degree of scepticism into your day to day.
This piece of writing began with a question, “Is it better to be good or to be seen as being good?” Now, I feel like I can offer a tentative answer. The modern, hyper connected, society places a far greater importance upon image and therefore you must be seen as good above all else. From societies perspective there is little difference between the two.
The harsh reality is that prioritising the development of a personal image or brand works. It is far easier and far more effective than almost any other work you can do. Instead of spending all of that money on R&D to actually build the better product why not just market it better? Instead of exercising just use photoshop. Instead of building wealth just take on debt.
The only way to inoculate ourselves against this seething torrent of artificiality is to practice continuous scepticism and focus upon the actions of the people we interact with. We cannot rely upon how others present themselves in order to form our opinions, it is too susceptible to marketing, psychological tricks and public opinion.
To develop an edge in life we must also develop internal heuristics and keep them a secret from others. A public heuristic loses all predictive power as others are able to change their portrayal in order to reap the associated rewards.