“Once we have an experience, we are thereafter unable to see the world as we did before.”
At critical moments in our early lives, we are forced to confront the cold hard truths of existence and life. Examples include but are not limited to: Unfairness is a natural part of life. Something else must die in order for us to live. There is no meaning to our existence, except for the meaning we create ourselves.
When we are young, these truths are hard to accept. Some of us refuse to believe them. Instead, we replace them with constructs of how we wish things were.
As we go through life, we crash into the cold hard truths again and again. If we didn’t accept them the first time around, most of us eventually will. This is a big part of growing up. But for some, it can take a long time before that happens. We learn to protect our constructs and become experts at avoiding the cold hard truths.
Sigmund Freud was perhaps the first to propose that much of our behavior is influenced by the dynamics present in our childhood. In fact, the primary goal of psychoanalysis is to help us understand these influences and find ways to better handle the difficulties of reality.
The act of pushing unwanted feelings and thought patterns down into our subconscious is a defense mechanism called repression. In much the same way, we use our constructs as a technique to postpone having to deal with the difficulties of reality.
The longer we keep our constructs alive, the more committed we must become to protecting them, and the more we will be drawn to anything that helps us keep our made-up reality intact.
This makes us incredibly fragile.
If we are actively avoiding collisions with the cold hard truths, we won’t be able to examine new information in a clear-eyed, fearless way. As soon as something threatens our constructs, we will close our eyes and ears and look the other way.
On the other hand, if something enables us to keep existing in our made-up reality, we will swallow it hook line and sinker.
And this is where marketing comes in.
Edward Bernays, credited as “the father of public relations,” was among the first to use underlying psychology to influence the behavior of the masses.
He figured out how to target our repressed feelings and thought patterns to influence our buying decisions and political views. He also happened to be Sigmund Freud’s nephew.
The techniques he developed are not exclusive to truly sustainable and good actors who want to help us make informed choices. They are primarily being used in the competitive free market to position leaders, brands, and technologies so that we will buy what they are selling.
If we build our reality on constructs, we will latch on to any marketing message that taps into our moral compass and enables us to keep living in that reality. This creates opportunities for those who aren’t who they say they are.
A recent example is the controversy surrounding Oatly, a Swedish company that makes oat-milk, and it’s involvement with private equity firm Blackstone via a large investment. The controversy arose from the fact that Oatly has positioned itself as an underdog and a climate-hero, and Blackstone is a giant company that has been associated with deforestation and other unsustainable practices.
The keyword here is positioning. As a Swede, I have witnessed Oatly’s crusade against the conventional dairy industry from the start. The message has always been that if you choose Oatly, you won’t make a negative impact on the environment. All it took was some clever statistical tricks and national PR-campaigns. Oatly was the savior because their message enabled their followers to feel that they could live in the world without making an impact on the environment.
Many of Oatly’s followers are now outraged — the investment from Blackstone is largely seen as Oatly selling their soul for capital.
For those of us who are not afraid of the cold hard truths, it doesn’t take much to realize that there is nothing sustainable about Oatly, and they never had a soul to sell in the first place. Oatly’s product is a highly processed mono-crop mixed with vegetable oils. Mono-crop agriculture is the main driver of soil degradation and vegetable oils are tightly correlated with the obesity epidemic.
Oatly capitalized on people who naively want the company’s narrative to be true.
Politicians play the same game of positioning, carefully tugging at our heartstrings and pandering to whatever group of people they are talking to. If we allow ourselves to live in a made-up reality, we open ourselves up to this manipulation. It is easy to sell fantasies to those who already live in one.
Many of us end up following the wrong leaders, and the wrong brands, and the wrong technologies, for all the right reasons. We think they can deliver something they can’t. And we fail to realize it because we are busy protecting our made-up reality from colliding with the real world. This doesn't make us a good person. It’s part of our persistent immaturity.
And this is where the problem lies.
Growing up is not the same as giving up and becoming cynical. In fact, it’s the opposite. Growing up is about accepting the rules of the game and playing it as best we can with the cards we were dealt.
In the words of psychology writer Mark Manson:
People want freedom to express themselves, but they don’t want to have to deal with views that may upset or offend them in some way. They want freedom of enterprise, but they don’t want to pay taxes to support the legal machinery that makes that freedom possible. They want equality, but they don’t want to accept that equality requires that everybody experience the same pain, not that everybody experience the same pleasure.
The cold hard truths that many of us try to find a way around are usually not a lost cause. Many parts of life can be made more bearable. For example, even if unfairness is a natural part of life, there are many ways to make it infinitely less so.
But until we grow up and develop the courage to face reality head-on, we won’t be able to identify truly sustainable, real-world solutions to the problems we perceive. Instead, we will latch on to fairy-tale solutions that achieve nothing but make us feel good. We will waste our resources and continue being used by the very same forces we want to remove.
This is especially important considering the state of the world. If we don’t grow up before we act, we are just a bunch of children crying and screaming at each other, without ever finding a way to move forward.