Why We Like Things That Are Bad For Us
Why do we eat upside down? Part Three of The Media Pyramid
“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God”
The insight underlying the media pyramid was derived through analogy.
Like metaphor, analogy requires us to find similarities in difference by leveraging abstraction. The ability to move up and down levels of abstraction is the heart of all creative thinking.
We can shift register in our thinking from the particular to general [from you to a person], to the paradigmatic [from a person to people], to the universal [from people to all things] and at different levels of abstraction we can look for patterns that might be fertile.
We do not eat ideas but man is not fed by bread alone.
The particular that led us to the pyramid was our own sense of wellbeing, or lack thereof. A recent confluence of attention economics, political actors optimized to harness it, and our own smartphone behaviors began to take a toll on our state of mind.
We felt agitated and anxious the more we consumed the news and yet found ourselves trying to resolve these feelings by checking the stream more frequently, which, once one could step back to think on it, didn’t make any sense.
Then we started to see lots of corroboration of the phenomenon, expressed in various ways, as backlash against technologies companies, advice on digital detoxes, robust research into news related anxiety and behaviors [which we highlighted in Part Two].
Since some of the media we were ‘consuming’ was affecting our sense of wellbeing, it made sense by extension that all did, in some way.
Why then, were we consuming more of that which made us feel worse?
MO’ MEDIA MO’ PROBLEMS
“Abundance breaks more things than scarcity” — Clay Shirky
In the last decade we experienced a complete reversal in our informational environment. Media — ideas made flesh that can propagate through time and or space — were relatively scarce, the production of media was a privileged, expensive and regulated act.
Then they weren’t. We were very suddenly faced with managing infinity, saddled with appetites that evolved when information and entertainment were valuable and rare.
We don’t tend to do well in such situations, because we evolved to find things that sustain us that are scarce especially tempting and tend to binge when we have or see abundant food sources or varieties.
THE CHEESECAKE THEORY
Certain foodstuffs that are bad for us in excess were both scarce and super high in energy on the savannah — and we evolve slowly. Hence the desire to consume these foods to excess even though that is maladaptive in a modern context.
We evolved on the African savannah and many of our desires are functions of that context, the current one being a fraction of a second on the evolutionary calendar. Evolutionary psychology gets into very tricky overfitting situations when it tries to explain complex behaviors, but it’s on firmer ground when we considering taste.
Humans evolve slowly, our created context evolves ever faster.
When we were out there in the primordial supermarket, some things were very common, some were very scarce. The things that were common, we took for granted.
Those ancestors that happened to develop a slight sweet tooth would eat more fruit. Those that developed a taste for fat and salt and umami would seek out meat. Those that did would consume highly concentred energy in a time when we spent the majority of waking life finding food, as animals do. Thus they tended to survive.
Since sugars and fats and are all relatively scarce and super high in energy compared to other foods, those that developed a taste for them survived more. For the entirety of humanity, having access to excess food was the reserve of kings and despots.
Then, thanks to amazing technology, food production cost industrialize and processed and optimized to the “bliss point” so that it tasted as good as possible as cheaply as possible. And then…
So eventually you get cheesecake, the delicate balancing act of sugar, salt and fat, smooth and creamy and cool.
Cheesecake does not exist in nature and it pushes lots of our buttons at the same time making it super delicious.
“We enjoy strawberry cheesecake, but not because we evolved a taste for it. We evolved circuits that gave us trickles of enjoyment from the sweet taste of ripe fruit, the creamy mouth feel of fats and oils from nuts and meat, and the coolness of fresh water.
Cheesecake packs a sensual wallop unlike anything in the natural world because it is a brew of megadoses of agreeable stimuli which we concocted for the express purpose of pressing our pleasure buttons.
Pornography is another pleasure technology.”
- Stephen Pinker, How the Mind Works
Let’s call this The Cheesecake Theory.
Information and entertainment were both scarce and super high in survival value on the savannah and indeed until recently. Information and entertainment could keep you alive, and could be passed on for free, creating endless value for you. Hence the desire to consume [and share media] as much as possible even though that is maladaptive in the current context.
So eventually you get the Facebook Newsfeed, the delicate balancing act of connectivity, information and entertainment blurred together, and outrage.
The newsfeed does not exist in media and it actively tries to find new ways to push all of our buttons to keep us on site, to learn more about us, to sell both to advertisers.
It is a brew of megadoses of stimuli which Facebook concocts individually for every user for the express purpose of pressing our buttons to keep us engaged in the stream.
It’s as though someone kept trying to feed you cheesecake, for free, every second of the day, from the palm of your own hand.
Every decision to ignore or forgo something takes a toll making us less able to forgo the next time.
“Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car.
No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price”.
Lazy or Easy? Now or Later? | We tend to do the easiest things possible whenever we can to save energy, behaviorally and cognitively, even though we know that we would get longer term benefits from the harder activity.
It takes more effort to do things for longer term rewards and we can easily deplete our cognitive controls.
When we are tired, it is harder to for us to make decisions for longer term gain — and we are more tired that we have ever been, thanks to work and smartphones.
So we tend to use our weekends for casual leisure as a form of recovery:
“Casual leisure pursuits are short lived, immediately gratifying, and often passive; they include activities like drinking, online shopping, and the aforementioned binge-watching.
These diversions provide instant hedonic pleasure — quite literally, actually, as all these pastimes cause the brain to release dopamine and provide instant soothing comfort.
In a culture where many people exist all week in an amped-up, overworked state, casual weekend leisure easily becomes the default for quick decompression.
But serious leisure is a far more beneficial pursuit. Serious leisure activities provide deeper fulfillment, and — to invoke a fuzzy ’70s word — “self-actualization.”
We experience the present more powerfully than the imagined future, which leads to temporal discounting when allocating attention and effort.
Additionally, contextual triggers are significant drivers. If we are absently daydreaming and get a notification, a behavior cascade can occur to benefit the notifier with some of your attention, especially when you have decision fatigue, like last thing at night.
Control is Not Control
When we have control over what we consume, we tend to feel happier. We are strongly biased towards feeling in control, and when we feel like we don’t have any control, we tend to get depressed. When you can’t control your behavior at all, we call that addiction.
This is reflected strongly across a lot of the research — the more active you are in the media experiences you have, the more likely you are to feel good about them afterwards. [See PART TWO]
So there is an inherent agency gradient that runs down the pyramid, from zero to high levels of participation, engagement and attention which maps neatly onto McLuhan’s hot and cold media construct:
McLuhan identified two types of media: “hot” media and “cool” media.
This terminology does not refer to the temperature or emotional intensity, nor some kind of classification, but to the degree of participation.
Cool media are those that require high participation from users, due to their low definition (the receiver/user must fill in missing information).
Conversely, hot media are low in audience participation due to their high resolution or definition.
So cool media seems to correlate to better to reported wellbeing because it asks more of the viewer — that is, because it is harder.
However, we are cognitive misers, evolved to spend as little precious mental energy as we can on any particular task.
So, whilst we report feeling better after more engaging active media, since it is both harder to consume and harder to find, we are predisposed to bingeing on junk food/social media if it is right in front of us all time, constantly pinging our attention from our pockets, even if we feel terrible afterwards.
Just as with the food pyramid, given the environment, we tend to eat upside down.
It’s Not Either / Or OR Both
We are often led towards naive binaries, “either / or”s, for a variety of cultural and cognitive reasons, when what we normally experience is more complex.
One way of collapsing binaries is using ‘both”.
Which is usually true, but not sufficient.
It’s not just either/or and it’s not just both — it’s usually how one interacts with the other, again and again, over time.
This means that the socio-cultural context can either increase or decrease an existing propensity over time, exacerbating normal tendencies into maladaptive ones.
A slight sweet tooth can create the confectionary industry, a penchant for connection + distraction creates social media. A hunger for information creates 24 breaking news, a hunger for status leads us into ego traps. And so on.
Remember, the more you consume, the more you need to exercise!
Forgive us for confusing our metaphors here but media consumption is mostly sedentary, and, just like with the food pyramid, each unit needs corresponding physical activity to balance it out if you want to stay healthy.
Patrick Moberg’s got some suggestions on that front:
In Part Four, we will consider the commercial and strategic implications of the pyramid.