I have spent my life in media – broadcast media, print media, mixed media and multi-media. I have been in front of cameras and behind them. I have said words written by others, and written words for others to say. I have done it to amuse as well as to inform, but mostly to persuade. I have worked for organisations large and small, and for governments large and small. On one memorable occasion, I worked directly for God1.
At first it was all about the information. Clients would come to us and say: “We need these people to know this,” and we would set about finding witty and clever ways to make that knowledge stick. Then we would go to the annual awards ceremonies, pick up the prizes and go and get drunk. This went on for years. Later it became about the behaviour. “We need these people to buy this, and not that; to do this, and stop doing that.” Clients would come to us, as opposed to our competitors, when words failed them, when the target group was no longer obeying the instructions. Obviously, so long as people are turning left at the left turn sign, there is no problem; when they stop doing so, there’s a budget2.
The difficulty our clients faced is that, contrary to popular belief, there is no direct link between information and behaviour, especially a left turn sign that denies you an established short cut, for instance. Behaviour is a product of a complex web of interacting strategies and reward structures that have to be taken into account if you want to control, or even predict, behaviour. It’s all about context. You can, of course, use force – stick a traffic cop on the corner – but that’s expensive. Or you can lie3.
Lying has the great advantage that it is cheap and effective, at least in the short term, perhaps long enough to get you that promotion or that seat in the House. Unfortunately, the lies tend to stick around long after their immediate usefulness has faded, and they then require more lies in order to manage their unexpected consequences. At any given moment, it is always in some organisation’s interests to lie to us, and they do so through the media. One definition of madness is ‘rational behaviour based on false belief’. By that definition we are all mad people living in a mad world, and the media are the voices we hear in our heads.
Whenever I have had a moment to myself during my career, in order to understand, if at all possible, why people do what they do, I have examined all aspects of human nature. That inevitably involves what they know, and how they come to know it. I can now share with you the fruit of that research. In summary, it is this: as you might expect, we know very little about anything, and the little we know is largely wrong.
This is a bold, not to say dispiriting, claim, and it will take some proving. It involves looking afresh at how people process information, which has a lot to do with how animals generally make sense of the world, and the differences between us and them4. Many of the articles have more science in them than you are used to getting from anyone other than Brian Greene. There is also probably too much history in others, and there is definitely too much religion, but it is impossible to discuss belief without faith coming up in the conversation. Then there’s politics and business and society at large and human behaviour generally; overall not an attractive prospect, even I must admit. It’s going to be a bit of a slog.
On the other hand, it won’t be very deep. I am basically shallow, and as you will see, I have gone for breadth rather than depth. Your depth is doubtless greater than mine, so you should be OK. I rarely go out of mine. Above all, I hope it is clear. If you find yourself saying “Oh, well, obviously” a lot, then my work is done.