Category Archives: Problem Practices

Communication behavior or analysis that is often counter-productive

Mindful of the Bullseye on Our Backs

I wonder what it means to carry the awareness that we have bullseyes painted on our backs.

There’s something inherently disconcerting about being a “target.” The lethality implied in the early use of the term is still with us, more than it should be, but its also obvious that its meaning has clearly broadened.  Even so, the 17th Century origins of the term are grammatically consistent with how we still use it today, namely: to be the object of another’s attempt to have us yield. In the noun form, a “target” is a person. As a verb, to be “targeted” means that we are the quarry of someone else. A word rarely heard by our ancestors is now firmly in the canon of common usage.

In different language, the idea was even a rule of thumb for Aristotle, who instructed citizens of Macedonia on how to assess audiences, adjusting verbal appeals to match their characteristics.

What is so striking about the modern use of the word in marketing and every kind of communication is that it has become ubiquitous. A pitch for almost any ideology, service or product is strategically designed to convince anyone identified as falling within the target audience. This is still standard lingo of Marketing 101. My guess is that even children as young as eight or nine understand this form of exchange in what is too often a one-way transaction. Sellers often seem to reap benefits from their “core demographic” that exceed what comes to the buyer. This “margin” is a bedrock of American consumer culture.

I wonder what it means psychologically to carry the awareness that we have bullseyes painted on our backs. Our daily consciousness can’t help but remind us that we are being tracked for what we represent rather than who we are. We cannot live in this culture without the knowledge that others are interested in us less as free agents and more as bodies ready to comply with particular appeals. Add in just enough delusion, and someone within a target audience may be flattered by the apparent attention. But those who are more aware know better. Even so, the wary will still be among the consumers who collectively lost $3.3 billion in 2020 from online scams and other offers of things or services that were never delivered.

We now occupy a world where software makers target us with appeals to buy computer protection to ward off many others who target us for personal gain. On the internet, easy anonymity and clever algorithms mean that the odds can favor the grifters.

The side calculation of estimating our trust in others

To be sure, targeting is not always easy. It must happen amid an overload of channels and platforms, reducing the effectiveness of any one appeal. Selling today means aiming for prey concealed in a forest of competing distractions. Being noticed is one problem; being persuasive is another.

But the game persists. The uber-strategy of targeting has altered the ways we relate to others. The awareness of being in the crosshairs and about to receive another’s self-serving messages makes us wary. We are often unsure who we can trust. Interestingly, the idea of a person with “good character” who merits our confidence was Aristotle’s gold standard for effective persuasion.  In his words, who we are often speaks louder than what we say. Now, we must now constantly do side calculations to determine who among our many contacts will not violate our the faith we have placed in them.  Every calculation pushes us further into defensiveness and suspicion: realms that, among other things, are fertile ground for conspiracy theorists.

So, rhetorically, we now sit in a very different place. The strategy of the “double game” played for laughs in old classic films like The Music Man (1962) or The Sting (1973) has now taken on the attribute of  a common norm applied to messages that come to us from beyond the small bubble of family and friends. What was once a plot device has become a dominant and darker transactional pattern.

Making Sense of Truth-Denial

Fantasy theme analysis helps us understand the contagion that happens when “information” combines with our hard-wired impulse to see the world in self-perpetuated stories.

There are many aspects of the ongoing pandemic that defy easy understanding. It’s not always clear why it has spread in some areas of  the world and remained more contained in other parts. But we do know proven ways to reduce the spread of COVID and its variants.  A simple list of public health precautions is available to anyone who cares to look: mask up especially indoors around other people; get tested if you have symptoms, and be sure to be vaccinated with one of the amazingly effective shots that will greatly increase immunity and lower the chances of death.  The science is clear: these precautions work. A person is more likely to get sick and die without a vaccine. As of this summer, 97 percent of the individuals in hospital ICUs for COVID were unvaccinated.  No wishful thinking can change these facts.

Even so, the denial of this most elemental of realities persists, and gives the virus a chance to change and infect new victims.  Meanwhile, alternate narratives circulate and gain credence mostly because they affirm what the deniers want to believe.  Hence COVID becomes a tool of control cleverly engineered by big-pharma, big government, or a host of other phantoms.

The Mechanism of Evidence Denial

Years ago, social scientist Robert Bales noted that groups of people put together in a room to solve a problem often reach a moment when there is a convergence of views around a preferred narrative. In many cases folks in the group didn’t have the facts or knowledge to make a judgement picked up bogus ideas from other like-minded people around them. Think of a jury reaching a judgment on a case based on a shared prejudice.

Later on theorist Ernest Boorman at the University of Minnesota refined Bales’ ideas into a convincing and solid theory called Fantasy Theme Analysis. Boorman acknowledged what  we all sense: that even in the presence of good information, we tend to rely on the views of our reference group and our natural compulsion to spin narratives that allow us to move from uncertainty to conviction.  This is more likely to happen with people who were never adequately trained in even the rudiments of fact-checking or assessing a source’s likely credibility. One result is the protective responses of fantasy themes that “chain out” to others with similar views and the same inabilities to process truth claims.

Such flawed thinking may well cost us our republic.

Fantasy theme analysis helps us understand the contagion that happens when incomplete information combines with our hard-wired impulses to see the world in sets of comfortable stories. Each one is filled in with actors, motivations, villains, and final outcomes. We hate incomplete narratives, as when there is an airplane accident caused by bad weather.  So we are happy to construct our own story, regardless of what solid evidence might oblige us to believe. We especially want to put human agents in the picture to be at least partly responsible.

Here’s another example I have used that suggests that none of us are immune from fantasy thinking. I was sitting in my office one day in the 80s with a copy of the New York Times opened up on my desk. A colleague dropped by and, at the same time, we both noticed the paper’s front-page picture of the new Soviet version of a space shuttle. The Buran space craft looked exactly like the American version. Same wing shape. Same color. Same size. And without missing a beat we both blurted out the view that “they must have stolen the American design.” End of story. We “knew” it and we were ready to fill in the blanks. The similarity of the shape was enough to accept the fantasy of a theft of our plans.  All the while, we pretty much ignored the physics of space flight, which mandates similar design parameters for any earth-to-space vehicle.

With group fantasies, the world is explained from existing beliefs. Without them, we would have to live with the continuous uncertainties mandated by the real world of incomplete information and awkward truths.

In my field the phrase homo narrans is sometimes used to describe the essence of our species. We tell stories to live. That is our priority, with Truth far down the list of imperatives. Truth is often too inconvenient. It feels better and it is much easier to bolster each other’s views with agreeable tales that put a disliked faction or renegade political group behind a particular phenomenon.  Such flawed thinking may well cost us our republic.

If we are looking for reasons for the current peril of the American experiment, we need to deal with the paradox of a society awash in “information” that makes it possible for frail minds to cherry-pick beliefs that fit with what they already “know.”