Things are more simple than they seem when it comes to insight – whether seeking it or implementing it. This is because much of what really matters is hidden or undisclosed in everyday communication.
When we talk or write, the standard practice is to structure your output so that people receive the message you intend, whether or not that conveys your full or deepest motives.
As a result, standard communication contains both short-hand & deletion; it is designed that way, superficially to appear efficient, not to waste another’s time, but at a deeper level not to reveal anything accidentally that will expose vulnerability, or open a gateway to exploitation or abuse.
In our inquiries, whether they think about it consciously or not, participants may be inhibited by cautionary tales and cultural beliefs about giving too much away to those who might want to influence or manipulate them.
How much of real consequence would you tell a stranger who you know to be (connected to) a salesperson?
Having said that, there are apparently exceptions, times when we reveal all to a relative stranger – like in Stranger on A Train – where two strangers agree to kill each other’s wives to relieve their unhappiness without getting caught. While intriguing, it is as well to remember that Stranger on A Train is fiction!
Nonetheless, there are places to look and ways of looking for disclosures that embody or provide a gateway to insight. To do so you might have to take a walk in the dark, to go where nobody else will go, to venture a journey into darkness rather than an exploration of the light.
So, what is in the darkness, yet is all around us, that relatively few people see? What are the biggest paradoxes of our lives in the West or in developed societies generally?
Surely, THE paradox of our age is that in spite of levels of prosperity, technology, mass access, longevity and superior healthcare, we face an epidemic of depression and anxiety.
There are a number of factors that combine to drive this epidemic:
First, individualism, and the idea that ‘you’re worth it’, deserving of anything you desire, highlighted and supported by marketing efforts to put everything within your reach. Narcissism, generally regarded as an unhealthy form of individualism has increased according to Twenge’s study:
In their recent book ‘The Inner Level’ Wilkinson and Pickett, point out that an irresistible consequence of materialism and a consumerist society is that we compare ourselves with others to gain an idea of how well (or badly) we’re doing, how far up the status ladder we are. We live in societies where we worry about how we are seen and judged by others, whether it is the way we look, the car we drive, our job, our accent or the area we live in and this makes social evaluative threat a prominent feature of modern life: ‘what will they think of me if…’ is never far from our minds.
There seem to be two common responses to social evaluative threat, one is to withdraw, to remove yourself from the status game, yet as we see in other areas, withdrawal easily – though not inevitably – leads to depression. The other is to react in an opposite manner and grasp the challenge of status resulting in attempts to big yourself up and project an exaggeratedly positive view of yourself. This leads to insecurities and anxiety, lest you should be discovered or caught out as a fake. This second solution has led to the prominence of what Fromm has called ‘marketing man’ – a person endlessly devoted to convincing others of h/her superiority.
All of this might not matter much were it not for the overriding factor of inequality: social evaluative threat and its consequences are enhanced in more unequal societies and, unsurprisingly, anxiety and depression are more common in more unequal societies. The US and the UK are among the top 5 most unequal societies in the world.
The graph below shows the picture:
First, that individualism and stressing how something can make you stand out is definitely a double-edged sword. People may be missing belonging more than separation and many of our clients would be wise to consider this. Being ‘simply the best’, is not so simple. Positive psychology and high esteem – if undeserved – can open the door to anxiety and depression.
Second, that happiness is fundamentally greater in more equal societies. All of the top 5 countries in happiness surveys are in the top ten of equal countries. Even in such troubling areas as the distress of teenagers as they struggle with their emerging identities, teenagers of more equal countries are less troubled.
So for modern marketers operating in the most unequal rich countries – where adspend as a % of GDP is higher than in more equal countries – it pays to give some thought to how to offer genuine connections and relationships in your messaging rather than the typical solo man and woman shown at the top of the pile.