Thursday, January 28, 2010

Free from Influence?

Can we ever really be free from influence? Is it possible to make a decision that has not been affected by someone's influence? Is human autonomy a myth; are we always dependent on others?

Everyone, it seems, is trying to influence your decisions. Advertisers and marketers and trying to influence what you buy. PACs, labor unions, and corporations are trying to influence whom you vote for. Friends and family are trying to influence your choice of friends, lovers, and mates.

And then there are those whose influence is less benign. Scam artists, grifters, con men, and other false prophets are trying to induce you to give them your money or your life.

With all of these people trying to influence your decisions, what does it mean to exercise a free choice? What does it mean to call a decision your own?

Some defenders of human autonomy want to restrict influence. They want to circumscribe the power of advertising, especially political advertising. To their mind too much political advertising is going to skew our judgment and seduce us into making the wrong decision.

As I have mentioned, this argument does not show very much confidence in the intelligence or judgment of the citizenry.

But what happens when you have two parties, each of which is well-enough funded, communicating its message through advertising, among other things. Wouldn't the two separate siren songs tend to cancel each other out? And why do we immediately preclude the possibility that an ad encapsulate a candidate, for good or ill, in a way that allows us to better appreciate what we are voting for?

Some people abhor influence; they will automatically reject any effort to ply their free will, whether by an advertiser or a parent.

This tactic appeals to adolescents, that is, those who have the least confidence in their independent judgement, but it does not really advance the discussion.

Say you come to a fork in the road. Two giant billboards are looming ahead of you. One promises unparalleled success if you turn right. The other promises all the world's joys if you turn left.

If you choose one have you thereby suffered an influence that has deprived you of your freedom? And if both are trying to influence you the only way to escape all influence is to choose neither, to stop in your tracks, sit down, and vegetate.

You might call this the freest choice because no one has recommended it. But if you stop and do nothing you will be abrogating your responsibility to make a free choice.

Doing nothing means that you have been induced to give up your freedom... all for a mythic notion of autonomy.

Psychotherapy has had its own way of dealing with the issue. Since the time of Freud therapists have been loath to offer advice; they have refused to suggest that their patients do one thing or the other. This makes its own kind of sense. Therapy was invented to treat minds, not people. While people take actions, minds do not.

Therapists have traditionally been anxious lest their influence induce a patient to do something that he does not really, really want to do. Since most therapy assumes that patients do not really know what they want, a good therapy patient can make inactivity a way of life.

Most therapists believe that they can help you to explore your unresolved issues. They also believe, I surmise, that once you have resolved those issues, a light will go off in your mind, a flash of inspiration will tell you what to do.

These decisions appear to pop into the patient's mind automatically, and therapists have happily assumed that if it feels automatic, if it feels like it came out of nowhere, then it is a fully independent and autonomous choice.

Of course, this notion that the thought has just appeared, as if magically, might be a simple illusion. If it comes to you from nowhere, it is probably not your choice.

Consider this. Everyone who has ever offered advice has had the following experience. You offer some advice to someone. He rejects it out of hand, and taxes you with naivete for suggesting such a thing.

But that is not the end of the story. After a decent interval, a few months perhaps, you are back discussing the problem. Your friend or colleague or spouse announces that he has figured out how to deal with it. With much bravado he announces his brilliant idea, an idea that just flashed before his mind's eye like a shooting star.

Lo and behold, it is exactly the idea that you suggested months before.

Of course, you are not going to bring this detail to his attention. If you still want him to act on the idea, with confidence and authority, then it is best to remain silent, even to praise his brilliance.

But is this the way the decision-making process ought to work? Is this the proper formula for escaping influence?

I would say No. While the little voice that appears in an epiphany might be the voice of God it might also be the voice of the Devil. The Devil wears many disguises.

The best way to make a free decision when you are facing two competing billboards is simple: do your homework. Weigh the competing assertions, try to find people who have done the one or the other, talk it over with a variety of people, and examine the possible consequences of each action.

Only work can free you from influence. Ratiocination, not inspiration, is the key. Ratiocination through discussion and debate, I mean.

The key to good decision-making is other people. You should talk to other people, work through the issues with other people, examine the problem with other people.

If it's just you and the two billboards, you are at a clear disadvantage. You are much more prone to suffer the influence of the better looking or the more expensive.

Perhaps you will find it paradoxical, but solitude makes you more vulnerable to influence.

Other people does not mean one other person. Reduce your quota of friends and family to one other person and you will become completely dependent on that person. Say good-bye to independence.

The fewer people you have in your life the more you will be dependent on the few people you have in your life.

It makes sense. If you have very few people in your life you will do what it takes to hold on to them. Better to have someone than no one. If you have a lot of people in your life you will be freer to choose between left and right, because you will know that whatever you decide you will still have a social connection.

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