Currently Reading:

Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

The Thurber Carnival

The Thurber Carnival

James Thurber

For some reason, tragedy seems to be something that is universally understood.  It transcends time and culture.  From the works of Shakespeare, we study Hamlet and Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, or the love sonnets.  We can watch a foreign film, and the themes of love and loss and betrayal resonate with us, even if we don’t fully comprehend their context.  The books that survive the test of time, get translated into sixteen languages, almost always fall into those categories.  It seems fair to say that we all, as humans, experience love and longing and despair in more or less the same way.

But comedy is different.  Comedy, for some reason, we experience very differently.  Jokes are notoriously hard to translate.  And not just puns, which depend upon the rhythm and sound of the language.  Pretty much every joke is hard to translate — from one language to another, and from one century to another.  It’s one of the most reliable markers of linguistic fluency: do you get the jokes?  Because most humour relies upon the violation of expectations.  The setup leads you to expect one thing, and the punchline delivers something else.  So to get the joke, you need to understand the context of the setup, to know what the expectation is.  And you need to understand in what way the punchline violates that expectation.  Otherwise, you don’t “get” the joke.

But once you do “get” the joke, it doesn’t get funnier with repetition (usually).  Because now you know what to expect from it.  And it’s true not just for individual jokes, but for whole genres or styles of humour.  Once the joke no longer violates the convention, but becomes the convention, it ceases to be funny.  Jokes just don’t age well, the way that tragedy does.  Which unfortunately becomes apparent while reading The Thurber Carnival.  Thurber is remembered as one of the great American essayists, cartoonists, and humorists.  But as humour, today, it just isn’t that funny.  Some of it provokes a wry smile, and some of it is just sort of inexplicable, because the context of it is lost.  You can only do satire if the reader knows that it is that you’re satirising.  Otherwise, you’re just talking to the walls.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Robert Cialdini

If the Buddhists are right, and suffering is the product of desire, then marketing geniuses must be among the most evil beings on earth.  They’re in the business of creating and stimulating desire.  And not just any desire, but desire that can’t be quenched.  Their products can’t be wholly satisfying, because if they were, we wouldn’t want more.  Successful marketing must always leave an edge of discontent — a quick sugar rush when we buy, followed by a crash that makes us want to buy more.  Have an iPad?  Buy an iPad 2!  Have a 2010 Lexus?  Trade it in for a 2012!  Have a copy of Influence from the library?  But the revised edition with all-new appendix!

A lot of us would like to believe that we’re fairly immune to marketing.  Sure, other people are easily persuaded.  But we’re smarter than that.  We use our free will, make our own choices.  Which is pure nonsense, of course.  Open your refrigerator.  What’s in it?  Did you buy it?  Why that milk carton instead of the others?  Why those particular carrots?  Why that frozen pizza, organic cheese, bottled beer?  Was it cheaper?  Is it pitched as being healthier?  Did it have a convenient place on the supermarket shelf?  Did your friends recommend it?

Lots of things influence our purchase decisions, create desires in us.  In Influence, Cialdini reduces those factors to six: reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcityReciprocity says that if I do something for you, you feel obligated to do something for me.  I send you a “free gift” in the mail, so you feel obligated to donate to my charity.  Commitment and consistency says that once I get you to think of yourself as a certain kind of person, you feel you have to do certain things to stay consistent.  I spoke to a political campaign organizer who would use this to good effect.  The idea was to call registered Democratic voters, and poll them about their opinions on key democratic issues.  Once you had gotten them to verbally affirm the party line, then you ask them to help out with the campaign phone bank.  Because they had just verbally affirmed themselves as “good democrats”, they felt compelled to comply in order to seem consistent.  Social Proof says that if all your friends are doing it, you should do it, too.  The Internet is full of it these days — entire marketing agencies exist to pay people to write positive product reviews in massive astroturf campaigns.  Liking means pretty much what it says — the classic car salesman stereotype who sends Christmas cards to his customers year after year so they’ll buy from him again, because he’s just so sincere and likableAuthority also means what it says:  four out of five dentists recommend this book.  Finally, scarcity: if an item is seen as being scarce, it’s also seen as being more valuable.

Of course, these principles don’t apply just to marketing products.  As the title says, it’s about the psychology of persuasion, and the principles are the same no matter what we’re trying to persuade someone to do.  Whether we’re arguing for a political cause or trying to get a date, the methods work.  They work partly because of how we’re socialized, and partly because of how we socially evolved as a species.  Cialdini wisely appends a section to the end of each chapter entitled “How to Say No”, giving instructions for how to recognize when a particular technique is being used against us, and how to diffuse the influence without grossly violating social contracts.

Of course, he wants to sell you the book first.