“Each and every one of us has been born into a given historical reality, ruled by particular norms and values, and managed by a unique economic and political system. We take this reality for granted, thinking it is natural, inevitable and immutable. We forget that our world was created by an accidental chain of events, and that history shaped not only our technology, politics and society, but also our thoughts, fears and dreams. The cold hand of the past emerges from the grave of our ancestors, grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.”
— Excerpt from Homo Deus, by Yuval Harari
Our behavior — especially in the age of social media — is inextricably linked to how we believe it will be perceived. I’ve outlined this argument in the context of brands to make it easy to understand (read: “People Don’t Buy Products, They Buy Better Versions of Themselves,” or “The Approval Economy”), but brands are just the tip of the iceberg. In reality, approval shapes not just the brands we engage with, but everything we engage with. To understand why, it’s necessary to understand two things: first, why approval matters so much to us, and second, that everything that exists is a product of evolution — i.e., natural (or unnatural) selection.
Let’s start with approval.
Approval’s Effect on Decision-Making
Humans evolved in small groups, typically of no more than 150 people. Any more than that and we would’ve been unable to maintain familiar, stable relationships with people, and the bonds that held the community together would’ve broken down. In these groups, it was vital to have a method of identifying and expelling someone toxic to the rest of the group. Thus, out of these early groups emerged gossip, or conversation between members of the group about another member behind their back. It was a mechanism to expel someone from the group with as little friction as possible.
Gossip enabled groups to formulate common knowledge about individuals within them. It wasn’t just that everyone knew an individual needed to be expelled, but everyone knew that everyone else knew. Thus, everyone could be counted on to act when the time came for expulsion. Since expulsion from the group meant almost certain death, it follows that those of us still around today are evolutionarily programmed to fit in with the crowd. Those who didn’t are dead and didn’t procreate, so there aren’t any of them left.
Thus, we have an evolved ability to understand what others will and won’t approve of. This ability has a profound effect on our decisions.
As an extension of this idea, it’s worth examining how the selection processes that occur in both evolution and markets are, at their core, approval-distributing processes. To understand why, we must first understand how evolution works.
How Evolution Works (But First, How It Doesn’t)
For years, I believed — incorrectly — that evolution happened “to” us, like growing or aging. This could not be further from the truth. Evolution does not happen to us. Rather, it happens slowly, constantly, all around us — and we are not as much a part of it as we think.
Each of us represents a strategy that exists along an unimaginably broad spectrum of other strategies.
We — individual humans — are not “evolving.” In fact, it feels wrong to say that any one “thing” actually evolves. Rather, each of us represents a strategy that exists along an unimaginably broad spectrum of other strategies, all of which are deployed serendipitously by the body’s inability to copy itself perfectly during reproduction. We call the traits that characterize the imperfections in these copies mutations, and they explain our species’ vast biodiversity. These mutations — traits like opposable thumbs, or that we have two of them — are tested by the market (i.e., reality) and either selected (passed along reproductively because the individual bearing them was able to reproduce), or not.
Our economy works the same way.
Selection in a Competitive Marketplace
Consider the evolution of YouTube content. 300 hours of content are uploaded to YouTube every minute, and most of this content is watched maybe once before fading into obscurity. A small minority, though, goes viral, and the characteristics responsible for that virality are then repurposed by others to create similar content. Thus, the process continues.
According to the theory of competitive markets, in the long run, the best products win, and consumers are better off. Evolution proposes roughly the same thing, with two key differences (though there are many more): first, reproduction is far easier to define than the process of replication in a market (YouTube videos, after all, do not have sex); second, instead of a market for goods, like YouTube content, the market is for heritable traits.
These differences illustrate a fundamental truth: just like the flora and fauna around us have outlasted all the rest, everything “normal” in modern society — the products we buy, the norms we adhere to, the ideologies we embrace — is simply what has outlasted everything else in a competitive market.
Put another way, our behavior is a pure product of the market’s approval.
The counterargument, of course, is that we do plenty with no conscious thought for how it will be perceived. We don’t consider how other people will react, for instance, when we pull into a gas station to fill up our tank. And while this is true, it ignores the market-based approval process that gave way to gas stations in the first place. This approval process has conditioned us to correlate patronizing them with approval.
We are alive today because we are excellent at behaving in accordance with what we know is pre-approved
Gas stations once competed (and even now, are still competing — see: Tesla) with other forms of fuel and fuel distributors for market approval. Today, however, they are ubiquitous, having won that competition. Their success paints gas stations as the only option for fuel distribution that has ever existed, and makes it difficult for us to conceive of alternatives. We believe our patronage of gas stations is a cultural default, and has nothing to do with how we want others to perceive us. This line of thinking — though logical — is wrong.
In reality, these kinds of “normal” consumer behaviors have everything to do with how they will be perceived. Deep in our evolutionary past is the ability to recognize abnormal behavior and distance ourselves from it — remember, those who didn’t are dead and didn’t procreate. We are alive today because we are excellent at behaving in accordance with what we know is pre-approved, and more importantly, what we know isn’t.
Consider how much of modern life depends on being able to transport yourself somewhere as easily as gas-powered vehicles allow. Better yet, ask yourself: What would happen to the world if gas stations simply disappeared? The answer to that question is unknowably endless, but it isn’t “nothing.”
This line of thinking illustrates that everything that exists has an evolved codependence on everything else, a codependence that we consciously ignore but subconsciously understand, a codependence that can only be classified as the market’s subliminal conditioning of us to know what society deems as “normal.”
John Muir may have summed it up best with this quote:
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
Muir’s quote can be understood both as a statement of fact and as an invitation. Though it’s futile to analyze anything free of the context surrounding it (hence, the quote), there is a lesson to be learned from that futility. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson most of us never learn. We aren’t taught to analyze people and norms in the context of the systems that simultaneously shape and are shaped by them. Rather, we are taught to analyze stories: narratives with artificial simplicity that shields us from the sheer complexity and interconnectedness of reality.
Everything that exists has an evolved codependence on everything else.
Upon realizing this, what becomes immediately clear is just how mindlessly most of us live, passing through life with almost zero thought for how improbable everything around us is. Everything we do can be packed into a narrow spectrum of now codependent behavior that outlasted all other behavior in a competitive market (see: life). We think this is all there is, even as there is an infinitude of unrealized existence sitting just outside the spectrum that characterizes the world we wake up to, drift through, and fall asleep in, over and over again, until one day we don’t.
This also clarifies why we are simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by abnormal behavior. Abnormality jolts us from what might otherwise be a lifelong reverie; we are utterly compelled, after all, to observe and comment on that which exists outside the realm of normalcy (see: tabloids, gossip, weather). We cannot help but listen to the incoherent ramblings of the saucer-eyed vagabond rocking back and forth next to us on the bus, or the predictably unpredictable meltdowns of those who spend money on people to spend their money (see: Hollywood). We cannot pull our eyes from the television as a building goes up — then down — in flames; we forget life’s predictability in an instant, but we remember the novelty of the abnormal forever.
Our obsession with abnormality is matched by our desperate need to ensure it doesn’t engulf us completely. This explains why we can’t look away from that man on the bus, or that tabloid couple, or that burning building: to do so would be to forfeit the power we believe ourselves to have as we continue to observe.
In the state of nature, to be abnormal was to be disapproved. To be disapproved was to be alone, and to be alone was to be dead. We don’t realize it, but millennia later, we haven’t forgotten.
What follows is this: our default behaviors are those which have, historically, received the most approval from the market. While agencies and companies work to convince you that people will see you as however you want to be perceived if you purchase their product (select: youthful/skinny/smart/fit, etc.), the market’s selection process is busy illustrating which behaviors are practically linked to all other behaviors, or which behaviors you can perform without upsetting anyone.
We — humans — are evidence of natural selection’s approval. For evidence of what the market does, look no further than the success of everything around us. (The rest is extinct.)
Consider modernity: We drink coffee in the mornings and beer in the evenings with a reliability that can be classified only as ritual, ignoring that there were certainly once certainly other beverages competing for our attention and patronage. We shake hands almost by default, failing to recognize that there may have once been other methods of greeting that, for one reason or another, faded into the cosmic vacuum of history. We buy into ideologies like religion because doing so is “normal” and “accepted.” Meanwhile, we ignore the wars that were fought and won by those whose words so many now take as law, if only because it is easier to do so than seek out the words of those who didn’t survive long enough to inscribe them in a book. Perhaps most importantly, we tend to ignore how inextricably linked all of these behaviors are to one another.
There are exceptions, but most of us take the world as it is because the frenetic pace of living in it blinds us from the realization that neither the status quo nor the future we feel we’re running towards are inevitable.
Understanding this gives us a great sense of both pride and optimism. The former because, after hundreds of thousands of years, we are still here. The latter because although a written past conditions us to believe in a similarly written future, understanding the world as an improbably codependent ecosystem makes clear that nothing could be further from the truth.
There is a beauty in understanding that regardless of the technologies that invade our lives and promise us power over the future, the one we will end up in is as unknowable as the past was to those who came before. And though it might seem inorganic that regardless of what that future may hold, all of it will have emerged from a process, however unnatural, of approval, there is beauty in knowing that said approval will come not from the hands of some creator, or planner, but from us. It will come from the complexity of the world we inhabit, a circle of keystones that — for now — if left without us, would be incomplete.
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