How to be irresistible

In the commercials for Axe deodorant, popular with adolescent boys, its qualities are always advertised in roughly the same way: by showing that a man – however unattractive – becomes irresistible to women when he smells of Axe. This modern variation on the love potion illustrates the kind of fantasy of control over other people that can be found, I suspect, in every culture throughout the ages. Whether by magic or by speech, with charisma or hypnosis, people have tried to make others do what they want in a way that is predictably effective. One could, of course, try to reason with the other, or, the other extreme, resort to violence, but naked reason is often too weak and physical force incites resentment and revolt. People have sought a more subtle, yet powerful force.

Ever since they emerged in the nineteenth century, the social sciences have been a source of and inspiration for strategies and techniques of control over people and society. Just like the natural sciences had given us the means to manipulate the natural world, so the social sciences would allow us to mould human behaviour and society, with human engineering and social technology. In my book I have explored some of these techniques, looking in particular at the interplay between control and resistance in and around them. Control over others may be attractive, being under control less so. Especially in a society like ours, which puts so much value on individual autonomy, behavioural and social control encounters resistance. Thus, Frederick Taylor’s scientific management was denounced as inhuman because it turned workers into machines, and ‘brainwashing’ was thought to be typical of the evils of communism because it made robots out of men.

To deal with such resistance – and prevent it if at all possible – the techniques must be accompanied by a personal touch that makes them invisible or acceptable, and adapts them to the particular situation at hand. Taylor insisted that his system of management be embedded in a carefully created atmosphere of friendship and camaraderie. Even the practices referred to as brainwashing depended on fostering a personal relationship between interrogator and victim. In strategies of control, calculation and tact go together. Tact is the lubricant that allows the mechanisms of control to operate smoothly in a culture that is ambivalent about calculation.

People have asked me, and I’ve wondered myself, whether this is always the case. Would it really not be possible to create a technique of control that can be applied without consideration for such humanistic qualms and works regardless of the situation or the people involved? Perhaps ‘nudging’ fits the bill: influencing people’s behaviour by clever design of the ‘choice architecture’ is said to work whether or not people are aware of the nudge. If I could write another chapter for my book, it would be about this approach to behavioural engineering. Nudges are often put forward as the latest and best that science has on offer for changing people’s behaviour for their own good, but they are not plug-and-play and require careful adjustment to the situation at hand. Moreover, their inherently patronising character is already drawing criticism. It may well provoke resentment as the use of nudges becomes better known, and people could start to object to their deployment. Convincing the people who are being nudged of the value of these techniques will require tactful persuasion.

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