Tim O'Reilly
Words That Matter
Published in
7 min readDec 7, 2017

--

Illustration: Sunday Büro

WW e are all fools in one way or another. Fools for love, fools for vanity, fools for greed and arrogance, laziness and envy.

In the fourth century AD, the Egyptian hermit Evagrius the Solitary classified human failings into eight major groups. In 590, Pope Gregory I revised Evagrius’ list to create the canonical seven deadly sins of the Catholic Church: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride, which were to be defeated by the cultivation of the corresponding virtues of chastity, temperance, generosity (charity), diligence, patience, gratitude, and humility.

The struggle against vice and for virtue — what Aristotle called “the control of the appetites by reason” — is a constant. Laws punish, or at least threaten, our most egregious failings, and the cultivation of virtue of one kind or another thrives in venues as distinct as churches, diet and addiction programs, meditation studios, and CrossFit gyms. There are entire industries of self-improvement designed to help us overcome our real or perceived failings.

The study and classification of human failing also continues. Behavioral psychologists have identified at least 188 distinct cognitive biases that cause people to make bad choices, and economists have urged the design of systems that “nudge” people to make better ones.

But there are other industries, far larger and more pervasive, that nudge us to indulge our failings: restaurant portions too large, unhealthy snack foods lab-tested to make us crave more, advertising that persuades us to buy things we don’t need, financial firms that outsized gains while betting against their customers, politics microtargeted to appeal to voters’ prejudices rather than serve the public good, and, of course, “news” headlines designed to make us outraged or titillated rather than informed.

This is the world explored by Nobel Prize–winning economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller in their book Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception. Phishing, of course, since 1996 has referred to the use of spoofed webpages, email addresses, or other forms of internet communication to lure unsuspecting users into giving up their secure credentials so they can be scammed. But Akerlof and Shiller use the term far more broadly, pointing out that our businesses, our politics, and our society use pervasive phishing-style deception to prey on…

--

--

Tim O'Reilly
Words That Matter

Founder and CEO, O'Reilly Media. Watching the alpha geeks, sharing their stories, helping the future unfold.