Thursday, June 20, 2019

Why Understanding Culture Is Good for Business

Decoding the social mind—using culture as evidence           


Why would it be important for business to study culture?  This question is just what the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis has been probing for the past 25 years, and there is in fact a great reason: because culture is where the consumer lives. 

Culture is the software of the mind. Operating below our conscious horizon, it shapes everything we think, say, and do - from what we buy to our entire social network.  It is the outward material expression of the inward values that drive our thinking and behavior. 

Over time we’ve been decoding the cultural mindset to see what it has to tell us about ourselves, the culture we live in, and why we buy. Although the college-educated think of culture as synonymous with the high cultural expressions of architecture, literature, music, drama, and the fine arts, this is just the elite aspect. 

If we widen the cultural lens, however, we take in a panoramic landscape that includes all of culture.  This view includes everything people have ever produced over time, including the thinking and behavior behind both the highly creative and the habitual mundane, from opera to soap. In the wide-angle format, popular culture is the evidence file containing everything needed to tell where we are, where we have been, and where we are going.  Including the ability to extract the major values behind any single culture, like our specialty, the American model. 
This finding is arresting in itself because Americans don’t really think we share a “reality by common consent,” the software that drives our collective thinking. We think of ourselves as individuals, descendants of immigrants from many countries. We confuse heritage or race with culture. We focus on our differences precisely because our shared cultural imperatives operate below the conscious horizon.

We know that a shared set of cultural algorithms exist because their effects show up in our everyday behavior. Behavior is how culture is truly expressed. Without some means of relating to each other within a greater social mindset, there would be no way to talk to each other, no basis for negotiating agreements or governance, and no mass market for anything.  There is indeed such a shared reality, to be discovered across two and a half centuries of national history.

Cultural Studies & Analysis has isolated the basic values that inform and motivate Americans.  We’ve shared this short list with our clients—most of whom thought they understood their customers quite well.  Most often that belief turns out not to be reliable.  Our job as cultural analysts is to conduct a reality check on what companies think they know, in order to target our laser vision on exactly what’s behind customer buying.  We have plenty of information—but until that information is subjected to analysis, we don’t assume we know the answers it contains.
That is why there is no more important research question than the one we ask: “Why do people buy [x or y, your industry product], and what are the deep cultural needs driving both its sale and use?” 

Two decades ago we posed this question to the world’s largest entertainment company, The Walt Disney Company. First, we made the distinction between entertainment and amusement—rooted in the difference between theme versus amusement parks.  It turns out that these terms are not interchangeable, but actually channel opposing values. 

To entertain is to engage the mind, as in entertaining an idea, whereas to amuse is to distract, as in the magician’s diverting our attention by misdirection. This raised the question: if to entertain means engaging focus and attention, what subjects exert the heaviest gravity for any group of buyers?  
Through the theme park, arguably the most successful artform in the experience economy, this question can be explored to answer the next one:  What is this artform’s secret to success - the force behind its incredible repeat visitation record?  Surprisingly, it isn’t the rides, games, food, thrill-seeking, or merchandising, because these are also the stock of the amusement park and carnival. 

What Walt Disney did, because he identified so closely and positively with American people and their past, was to create an iconic cultural landscape that distills what we like best about ourselves—our favorite venues, values, and communal memories, starting with Main Street, USA as the entryway, and culminating in Tomorrowland – a three-dimensional positive view of the future. 
Unconsciously and not by design, but by natural affinity with his guests (as he preferred to call his customers), Disney’s genius was to build Disneyland on the way park patrons already thought and felt, without the least need—as companies so often assume—to “educate the consumer” about what he was trying to communicate or how he wanted them to respond. 

This is exactly the way The Center works, in a consciously focused way, to discern and define the natural fit between products, ideas, services, and experiences, and the mind of the consumer.  We use a suite of original tools, models, and definitions worked out against thousands of cultural cases using cultural intelligence.  Cultural Intelligence is our method based on the inductive logic of mining culture in order to reveal the rulebook of human thinking and decision making in groups over time.  This is decoding the social brain, the longest-running challenge in social psychology and consumer research. 

By drawing on the four principal dimensions of culture--community, context, age, and gender--our studies have derived high-value meaning from consumer issues presented by top businesses, agencies, nonprofits, educational and government groups.  Our laser compass is the secret weapon that gives our clients an extraordinary edge in understanding and strategic planning centered around the world of the consumer rather than based on their business or industry conventions.

 Our offerings include:

Margaret J. King, Ph.D., Director
The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis
1123 Montrose Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147
(215) 592-8544







Thursday, May 30, 2019

Rewiring the Brain

“Our brains renew themselves throughout life to an extent previously thought not possible.”
Michael Gazzaniga, neuroscientist 

I was just asked by a writer at Forbes about inventions that have “rewired the brain,” especially with reference to our generalized use of Google.  I scrolled around under this term and discovered quite a few usages—too many, I think, because this term has a specific engineering reference, one that overestimates the direct effects of technology on human thinking and behavior. 

Steven Johnson’s bright book on the implications of technological innovation, How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that made the modern world,” (2014) outlines six major themes, from glass, cold, sound, cleanliness, and time, ending up with light, but not one of these critical chapters from material history claims to have rewired anyone’s brain.  Instead, each domain is the story of inventions that altered human expectations and behavior worldwide, influencing the state of the art of civilization but also revealing the mechanisms of the exchange of ideas, creative teams, and the timelines of invention, as well as applied use in society. 

What has been studied with respect to thinking is the use of the internet search engine as a learning channel —but also as a storage device for memory.  The operating assumption is that once something has been discovered through Google, the user doesn’t devote any effort to memorizing the material, because we are aware we can always revisit the source to refresh that memory.  This was the same fear that developed around the printed word starting with Guttenberg’s press in 1453; that print would destroy memory--as the written word was predicted to do some 4500 years before.  Of course what happened was the proliferation of ideas fueling the Enlightenment and the freeing of thought from the confines of church doctrine and access to the riches of global knowledge. 

In the same vein, Artificial Intelligence doesn’t mean we will stop using our own brains or the discipline of thinking—AI just empowers our thought by amassing millions or billions of bytes into new patterns to inform in great depth the way we are able to see the world. Digital forms of information processing doesn’t make our brains digital, just extends our reach and grasp of data far too oversized to be absorbed through the normal senses.  The neuroplasticity of our brains, which is essentially what separates and elevates us from our primate cousins, is custom-made to benefit from the depth and breadth of big data.  

In the same way, the invention of lenses for reading in monasteries 800 years ago didn’t rewire our abilities to see and read ancient Latin manuscripts.  It simply revealed the nearsightedness that could then be corrected by a sweeping market for spectacles, then the microscope, telescope, camera, fiberglass, TV and film.  The Roman invention of clear glass cleared the way for the scientific revolution.  And glasses became a human technological wearable, the first since the invention of clothing. 

“Rewiring” is used loosely to refer to the impact of technology on human behavior and culture.  The brain is constantly reorganizing through neuroplasticity, meaning new networks of connections between neurons, which the brain does all the time with new learning.  This is a functional change, like those that occur under the influence of alcohol or depression, changing the volume of white matter and grey matter.  Gaming releases dopamine, which enhances attention and visuospatial skills, and is addictive, requiring greater and greater activity to produce the same level of reward—the same effect produced by long-term use of pornography.  Online and digital gaming by a hard-core percentage of daily users (like day-traders) get regular infusions of dopamine that promote addiction.  Meanwhile, the efficiency of attention, focus, and visuospatial skills actually bestow serious skill sets that find all kinds of uses in the world of work. 

However, this is not really rewiring, but adaptations of the brain to new stimuli or new situations that demand better efficiencies in one part of the brain versus another, which may lose potency as other areas take over.  The ratio of white to grey matter in the brain’s makeup is affected by habit and experience. Our brain seeks out rewards from the world around us—from TV, socialization, chocolate, smoking, sports betting, travel, or playing Tetris—there are as many forms of addiction as an outcome of these unending explorations.

By contrast, rewiring would be a change in structure—in the way the system works, not just adapts to new content.  This is a more fundamental level of change.  But the key trait of the human brain has always been its adaptability to new circumstances, a wide network of social demands, and the acquisition and integration of new knowledge and the creation of new ways of thinking about both new and old datasets—the adaptability implied by neuroplasticity. 

If there is a single technology that could be said to have effected such a change, it would be the invention of fire 200,000 to 400,000 years ago, the game-changing master invention of humankind that eventually led to culture itself through a biological shift.  The theory goes that the new ability to cook food over heat under control made early humans far more efficient because they could devote less time hunting and gathering raw foods and chewing and digesting them.  The high proteins of meat in greater quantities, digesting quickly after searing with fire, could be ingested and absorbed.  Meat-eating actually grew brain size to the highest ratio to body size in the animal kingdom, allowing the thinking revolution to begin that is the basis for human civilization. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

History at Theme Parks and “Disneyfication”

“History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”

– David McCullough, biographer

“[Pedantry is] precision that has gone farther than necessary to shed light on a situation.  There is plenty of precision that is there to clear things up.…However, when extra precision does not help, I would call that pedantry….I think the difference is illumination.”

-        Eugenia Cheng, The Art of Logic in an Illogical World (2018)

Jamie O’Boyle and I are both speaking at the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History (NCPH) in Hartford, Connecticut, on the “Disney and History” panel, covering the Disney Effect on history teaching and propagation.  Following are my remarks on the panel’s examination of “Disneyfication.”   

As Director of the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis, a think tank, I study the deep cultural values that underlie the most successful public history projects ever, including museums and theme parks. I speak as a long-term consultant to the Disney enterprise and as an American Studies academic. 

My career as a cultural analyst began with the dissertation, “The Recycled Hero: Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett” (1976).  This was the first analysis of the 1955 Davy Crockett craze as America’s biggest generation, the baby boom’s, first encounter with history—and its signature experience.  Twenty years later I was directing the research think-tank Cultural Studies & Analysis.  Van Romans at Disney brought us in as cultural experts for Disney’s America—the park that should have been America’s ultimate history park. Romans recognized the need to identify the leading cultural values that drive collective interest in history.   

Recently we did an analysis for Disney’s legacy school, California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), which in October 2017 launched Experience Design to carry forward the skill traditions of Imagineering.

Overall, these projects have worked to define The Disney Effect on a range of topics, but this influence is especially keen in the history domain.  This lies a long way from the original animation and kid-centered content for which Disney is actually best known.  The most popular long-running theme park ride is Pirates of the Caribbean, still the highest-rated; other history-based long-runners are the Jungle Cruise, Liberty Square Riverboat, and the Carousel of Progress.  Frontierland, opening at the height of the Crockett craze in 1955, featured a Crockett museum, a Crockett-themed shooting gallery, adding the Davy Crockett's Explorer Canoes in 1956. Today, Disneyland Paris offers a rustic Davy Crockett Ranch resort.   

To academics and scholars, this is usually referred to as “Disneyfication,” which is not meant as a compliment.  As a cultural analyst, though, I prefer to think of the term as positioning Disney as a catalyst of history made accessible through television, film, and theme park, and keyed to uniquely American values.  The famous profitability of the parks is an outcome of getting these values right and communicating them dramatically in making history come alive in three dimensions. In my professional experience, those who use the term “Disneyfication” don’t fully understand Disney – or history. Over the past 80 years, museums have become thoroughly Disneyfied, in that they replaced the traditional artifacts-under-glass with created immersive environments centered on compelling storytelling. Theme parks have set public expectations for public spaces and immersive environments. That does not mean they become amusement parks, but it does mean they focus on entertainment in the classic sense of the word: to hold the attention. When we entertain ideas, they hold our attention.  


History is always mediated.  There is no way to experience history directly.  It doesn’t exist for us except through narrative, drama, and the arts.  Never experienced directly, it’s always a channeled reality.  We depend on historical fiction as a main channel. The Disney 1957 film “Johnny Tremain” (based on the Newberry-award book by Esther Hoskins Forbes) made the Revolution immediate through character and story – opening the door to an era more and more “difficult of interpretation.” It was in fact on the reading list in many a grade-school classroom.  The Disney film “The Great Locomotive Chase” (1956) gives a real-facts inside look at the Civil War and the otherwise forgotten Andrews Raid on the Georgia Railroad by Union soldiers in 1862.

But history, for the present day, starts not with the past.  It has to begin by catalyzing and filtering what’s already there in the public mind.  In that sense, history is a form of myth in Campbell’s sense of a universally shared human quest.  Such ideals anchor cultures to give them direction and meaning.  Showcasing and distillation go to the mind of the audience to decide how and what to profile—as Walt Disney did in his role as Editor-in-Chief.  Post-craze, grade-school history textbooks began to profile Crockett as an important national figure.  (Disney now co-owns the History Channel.)

What can be learned from Disney’s relationship with popular history as a master channeler, and since the 1950s film output, America’s Dean of Popular History?  First, public history is clearly a popular culture project, not an academic one. 

Public and popular history is concerned with narrative and personality rather than academic documentation.  The popular historical imagination is fueled by literature and drama (meaning film and television), by novelists, screenwriters, and artists rather than academics.  Goal: to inspire public engagement with the past.  (Consider the driving force of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – a fictional story - on the antislavery cause from 1852.) Disney designed his first draft of Disneyland after American folk tales and heroes as a travelling exhibit. He always spoke about history as essential to our understanding of who we are--as an essential value to society (in the Council’s logo), “Where we come from, who we are, and where we are going.”  The quest for history as cultural artifact could be stated as the task of “How to capture what’s most vital about the past in order to understand its driving values for the future.”  This is the essence of capturing a spirit of the times or sensibility—the emotional power driving our bond with the people, places, and periods of our past. Those of an age to remember Disney films of the era will remember that they always started with the opening pages of a book. 

Those value narratives are what made the parks the most successful artform of the 20th century and split them off from their amusement park predecessors.  Disney’s invention is still the gold standard in design and audience response.  Museums and exhibits of all kinds show the Disney influence by their theme-park approaches and design, including front-end development based on the visitor experience and expectations.

However, later parks have proven problematic.  Disney’s America, proposed in the mid-1990s, was the logical culmination of the Disney magnets of historical interest, such as Davy Crockett, who Disney resurrected from obscurity in 1955 as the baby boom’s first collective history experience. Disney literally recycled a near-forgotten hero since the original Crockett legend was also driven by the popular culture of the era – a publication called Davy Crockett’s Almanac.  Disney’s America came from then-Chairman Michael Eisner’s interest in education (the Disney Teacher Awards was his pet project). When he asked educators what The Walt Disney Company, with its vast resources, could do to help education, one recurring answer was “Do something to get kids interested in history.” Disney’s America would have been the ultimate public history monument – one you could walk around in to experience the stories from America’s past.

But so far, it has never happened -- derailed by culture wars in the elite highlands of Virginia in 1994, the past overcome by the present.  The teachers who inspired the project were dismayed, because they know what a powerful effect the Disney lens trained on the past can be with his “Tale Tales and True” on the “Disneyland” TV series—themed by the week to match up with Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland—as well as Liberty Square and Main Street, USA. Dean of American education John Dewey appreciated the need for consistent renewal by education when he declared that “Democracy has to be born anew every generation.”  The question is what sort of education is most effective for a useable past. 

The Historical Imagination

The success of the Disney parks is rooted in thematic historical imagination; in the theme park, “a place about times,” historical periods are themed to channel the inner shared American values, as Disney’s Crockett did: the supremacy of the individual faith and action for ideals, actions seen in a moral light, control of our own space, mobility and choice; and yes, distrust of big business and big government, and faith in the axiom that the future should be better than the past.

Disney’s output as theme park inventor and filmmaker is not a documentary project, but something much more difficult and compelling.  The model for all purveyors of history is Disney’s venture to explore the reaches of art, drama, film, and literature: to find ways to animate and energize the past ….to be relived together, as the great national experience it is.  This model is the core of cultural studies as well as historiography.


Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Hierarchy and American Culture


“To be dominant means to a monkey that it gets the best of everything.  It is easy to test the status of two macaques.  All one has to do is toss a desirable object between them and see which one takes it.”

Primates, Library of Nature, 1984


The American Declaration of Independence proclaims “All men are created equal” as self-evident.  Equality is the cultural value we appear to value most highly.  But the equality assertion creates a values conflict when paired with our primate nature.  This nature is highly competitive, with asserting dominance the leading mechanism. 

The US Supreme Court cases dealing with affirmative action in the college admissions process have been forced to deal with this paradox of dominance versus group rights.  Most recently in the Harvard case in federal court last October, the outlines of the way we value and consider hierarchy are starting to coalesce.  The trial was the outcome of the 2014 suit filed by the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), who held that Harvard discriminates against highly qualified Asian students in order to favor other (less qualified) ethnic minorities—along with athletes, legacy students, and the wealthy.  It offers a showcase of reverse discrimination, one that Jews traditionally have faced as well for being an achievement elite that appears to threaten diversity mandates.[i] The federal court’s ruling is pending.

Why are hierarchy and equality so consistently on trial in our public debates?  Here is how a cultural analysis would begin to study this question, starting with college admissions as the “laboratory” for observing hierarchy dynamics at work.  Because college has long been seen as the opening channel to lifetime achievement, the admissions process for elite schools is the focal point for understanding the involved issues. 

So great has been the payoff of a college education in guaranteeing upward mobility that schools have been raising tuition at rates far outpacing general earnings.  It has taken the crisis of student debt across income levels to push parents past the assumption of higher education at any price.  The result: the value of the college degree is now no longer automatically assumed to lead to a decent career—or even job security. 

The equality tradition

Two and a half centuries since the Declaration’s equality clause, we are caught up in the crucible of the American class paradox: the self-made success (typically an entrepreneur) versus the level playing field to attain that status.  Nearly a century after our country’s founding, it took the 1866 Civil Rights Act, part of post-Civil War Reconstruction, to declare all persons born in the US to be citizens.  Two years later the 14th Amendment endowed voting rights on those same citizens.  In the past century since 1921, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) has been an ongoing bone of contention for ratification because of fears about how the general concept of sexual equality would be implemented, as well as women subject to the draft and to losing protections at work.  Ninety-eight years after it was first introduced the ERA is still circulating as a proposed Constitutional amendment.  More recently, The Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) has been in circulation for ratification since 1994, with its main barrier to ratification transgender issues.

The search for equality—racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, religious, occupational, and age—are all part of an ongoing crusade using identity politics as the medium and measure.  These efforts are now under fire as championing special rights rather than equal rights[ii]. This problem illustrates that dominance—“specialness,” or American Exceptionalism—is woven deep into the fabric of universal ways of thinking about class dominance, power, and privilege.  The file folders in the case are ancestry, gender, age, achievement, influence, favoritism….every way in which people are either born or become who they are in the social world of family, community, political alliance, colleagueship, and religious affiliation.

In considering the role of social differences, we must think simultaneously along two lines.  First, who we are as humans and how we got to be the way we are across cultures and over time; and second, who we want or need to be as social primates, and how we move along that trajectory from our common ancestry as Americans.  For Americans, who celebrate success—a major differentiator of people—balancing the achievement ethic against general social fairness is a given cultural imperative. 

The paradox

Under affirmative action, well-meaning attempts at creating equality by counterbalancing discrimination somehow equate to elevating downgraded / denigrated groups to become chosen favorites.  This act, intended as a needed palliative measure, has become another kind of social leveling that results, again, in an uneven playing field.  As an example, savvy commuters on the London Underground protested the new system that marked off in green the spot where car doors would open, preventing congestion caused by the clash of on-boarders with off-boarders.  They argued that creating this type of advantage worked against their own hard-earned competitive advantage in learning the system on their own time and effort.

The White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP), long the top white group based on bloodlines plus aggregated wealth, can now be seen as a disadvantaged minority facing the end of legacy admissions with the ascension of rival elites from Africa, Asia, and the subcontinent.  There is already a rich legacy of WASP villains throughout popular culture.  The standard character is the evil banker, or hypocritical minister, or Machiavellian president.  Any other ethnic would have the basic right to protest this casting. Any other group so maligned would be heartily encouraged to seek social justice against such hateful portrayals (the Irish could qualify as well).

To follow the cultural picture along these lines, in the US, status is weighted toward the bottom.  This is the reason there is no virtue in having a rich upbringing, and why Humphrey Bogart, Alice Cooper, Edward Norton, Chevy Chase, and Spike Jonze all kept their well-off backgrounds a dark secret.  There simply is no dramatic interest in a riches-to-riches biography.  The idea is that against all odds, like Andrew or Dale Carnegie, one realizes the resilience, motivation, and character needed to make it to the top.  This is the American salvation story.

So, should admissions (for example), be race-blind? Or, perhaps better, class-blind? College admissions, like business, doesn’t like to talk about class, because in this country, it’s a mobile system that individuals can influence, and do all the time.  Logically, therefore, failing to make a success of oneself is clearly down to the individual, not the system. 

Surprisingly, though, even ad agencies don’t use the term, even at in-house idea sessions.  Although advertising is designed to further the goal of aspiration to raise one’s class through consumption and experiences, the industry doesn’t do this straightforwardly but by talking more obliquely about income, education, and occupation (as does the US Census) as a stand-in for privilege.   A second paradox is the concept of “earned privilege,” which fits the American cultural system and is in fact acknowledged in the idea that class is a mobile structure which individuals move into and around by their own genius--or fail to navigate as a lack of strategic acumen. 

Still, this mobility would still appear to favor some groups over others – making Martin Luther King’s exhortation problematic:  to judge on the basis of character, not skin color.  Should colleges, the golden tickets to success, follow this lead?  And how should we think about measuring character?

Perhaps we can measure race as a positive on some cultural scale.  But if race is considered positively, rather than as a negative, does that also work to disadvantage mainstream white groups in their efforts—aren’t Irish, Italian, French, Nordic, Polish, et al. bona fide ethnic origins?  Despite all the press about Latino and Black demographic growth, German remains, as it has been for decades, the largest single US ethnic group.  Global conflict puts Arab and other Middle-Eastern groups (non-Israeli) at multiple disadvantage as Muslim believers. How are these groups to be weighted and assigned handicap values in the game of educational one-upmanship?  And do we want to consider this a reasonable approach to a method of fairness in assigning credits to be redeemed in building careers, professions, and reputations as the basis for a successful personal future?  As a species of entrepreneurship, higher education is the coin to bid on all that wonderful potential we automatically assign (a bit uncritically) to growing minds.

Origins of dominance: Class

Back to primatology.  All primates, particularly monkeys and humans, have an easily observed dominance hierarchy that dictates every social relationship—including the exercise of personal space.  The measure of space an individual can command is a clear physical sign of status – to feel free to co-opt the best feeding and sleeping spaces, to move into others’ personal territory and invade their personal space[iii]. 

Hierarchy assures order and enables the quick decisions at the core of wild primate survival.  Baboons and macaques, aggressive by nature as part of their defense against predators on the ground, can be depended on to generate in-group conflicts that must be held in check by the alpha group—using symbolic threats (the long stare, bared fangs), short of all-out repressive action.   “The whole elaborate structure of dominance and submissions, of threat and surrender, is surely terribly familiar.  It is like a preview, a parody of status relationships between humans” – the teacher enforcing, with a long stare, order in the classroom[iv]. The power of cliques also provides the answer to the problem of succession when the alpha dies or is incapacitated, a close parallel to human oligarchy.  Survival insurance depends on rule by the top groups, both against predators from the outside and inner turmoil and insurrection.  Males from outside or lower orders are incorporated into the ruling class over time to assure ongoing vitality and diversity[v].

As in our own elites, qualifying for membership in the inner circle or white-shoe law firm is a matter of style and the achievements made possible by a clear, confident, self-possessed manner all primates recognize (the blue-chip college degree being one symbol of this style of belonging at the top), as well as birthright in having the right mother and/or father.  This styling goes beyond the social justice concept of fairness into identity based on a deeply embedded and reinforced class intelligence.  Such style intelligence explains why we grow up within homogenous subgroups—homophilly—that persist far beyond childhood into adulthood.  This is the reason for the avid pursuit of the “right” schools beginning with preschool—not for knowledge of subjects, but for the social networking.   

Social capital

But in the American version, such intelligence doesn’t have to be taught, although aspiring parents try through many channels like sports, the arts, dance, travel, and museum-going – to cultivate it in their offspring.  Class cues can just as well be picked up by the intuitive striver (like the artist Jack Dawson in “Titanic”) to create the self-made alpha identity—within or outside existing organizations and social structures.  We move our identities around the social board as a natural act, and expect others to do the same.  During the lifelong aspirational process, we draw upon the concept of equality as the means to mobilize our talents and ambitions with as little friction as possible by using social leverage to overcome blocks to progress.  But equality isn’t the goal.  It’s simply the means to the end objective: using the equality lever to climb or create the personal top of the mountain.

This dream of developing social capital into fame, status, and economic capital creates the microculture of the super wealthy, but at the same time is also the thinking and behavioral guideline for the most modest of households. The difference that always hangs between wealth extremes is the Matthew Effect, coined by Robert Merton in 1968 after the Parable of the Talents: the tendency of the rich to become super-rich and poor to remain poor or grow poorer (“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance, but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” – Matthew 25:29, RSV).  Starting advantages of the class network accumulate quickly from birth to maintain and expand a “best of everything” lifestyle, which is the whole point of upper-to upper-middle-class attainment in a mobile class system like ours. These advantages, once earned, then become the legacy capital for children, grandchildren, and beyond—though many a fortune is squandered through bad management, a spendthrift ethic, and subdivision among many offspring. 

Celebrities, top athletes, entrepreneurs, and professionals are self-generating systems of wealth, reputation, and power that are purposefully unequal (that is to say, exceptional, excellent, and successful through competitive advantage).  But getting to those heights is part of the pursuit of happiness endowed as an inalienable right.  Although any two people can be clearly unequal in their talents, or in the hard work they are willing to apply to develop them, Americans see social equity as expandable, a commodity that underlies the achievements available to be exploited as success breeds success. Not at the expense of others, but as available to all as a public good.

The American dream is not equality.  The goal is constantly working to develop one’s unique competitive advantage.  This project is assumed to be the shared goal of the work ethic, social relations, and striving.  Equality tests are just the baseline designed to prevent anyone from being barred from the race.  The rest is the test of mettle that wins our place in the fast-moving hierarchy.  

[i]Affirmative Action on Trial,” Insight into Diversity, Dec. 2018, p. 28
[ii] Jonathan Rauch, “Don’t Call Me LGBTQ,” Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2019, p. 16 
[iii] "Primates," Illustrated Library of Nature (Vol. 1), 1984. Westport, CT:  H.S. Stuttman, pp. 107-8
[iv] Ibid, p. 109 
[v]  Ibid, p. 111

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Hierarchy versus Equality: The American Paradox

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

                - Second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence
“This system [hierarchy], endemic to all primate groups, largely goes unquestioned.” 
- Primates, Library of Nature

Senator Lyman Trumbull, the man who authored the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution outlawing slavery, called the phrase, "All men are created equal" the "immortal declaration." It is certainly one of the most enduring concepts of the Revolutionary period. Americans learn the phrase as children and accept it as part of the natural order of things.

Yet—think about it—no two humans have ever been born equal. Humans are a hierarchical species. Put a group of strangers in a room and they will sort out an informal hierarchy within ten minutes.  It is a hierarchy that emerges only in that room at that time but, during that period, everyone in the room subconsciously internalizes and conforms to it.  Hierarchy has a clear reason for existing, as primate studies of social baboons, macaques, and our closest primate relations, chimpanzees, have consistently found. 

Knowing our place in the social hierarchy – albeit subconsciously -- enables us to function as a social unit.  Unlike our more hirsute primate cousins, we don’t live in a small troop managing social relations only with the same familiar few. We live in a large social mesh of overlapping groups – family, work, friendships, colleagues, organizations, etc. – each with its own hierarchy.  We are constantly managing our standing in groups, because those groups shift constantly.  Marshall McLuhan was wrong. We don’t live in a Global Village[i] . We live on a globe of villages.

Humans are very adroit at maneuvering their way through this web of shifting hierarchies on the local level. We do it unconsciously. We have worked out social mechanisms for filling in the gaps. That’s why business executives, educators, academics, and others of the professional class have titles. In America, social rank is not tied to birth but to accomplishment. That’s why the second question[ii] you ask a stranger at a party is “What do you do?” It is the reason theme parks feature switchback lines – the accomplishment, in this case, being the act of getting there in an orderly sequence. Everyone knows who is in front of them and who is behind. Cutting in front of this hierarchy will bring down the wrath of the group because it violates another uniquely American concept: fairness.   

Yet, on a larger scale, hierarchy is in direct contrast to the equality we look for in political life. This is where the battle for dominance plays out. The search for equality as an inalienable right is the cultural value we seem to value most in every pursuit.  This assertion creates a paradox when paired with our primate nature.  In our striving society (and worldwide), humans are constantly asserting dominance over others: in promoting our values, our careers, our associations, even in religious context.  Americans in particular have chosen to battle out this war of ideas: competitive advantage, or equality?  Sounding like a dilemma, this is not a straight-out contradiction, as a search into our evolutionary history can show.  A subtle accommodation is being made, operational across our history.

Let us take a trip to glimpse inside the history of dominance in primate evolution by taking historical note of our closest cousins – our fellow primates, featuring monkeys (baboons and macaques) and apes. Originally, as today, primates lived in groups—some highly social, others (like gorillas) less so.  Within these groups there are alphas and betas, with the rules of supremacy well understood and followed by all members.  As in human society, there are leaders and supporters inside an elite circle at the top who lead making decisions and keeping the peace.  Primatologists have reported that the higher the social index/activity of the species—baboons and macaques especially—the more pronounced are rank and dominance among these aggressive species—aggression and sociability being highly correlated.  Sociability is the main fact in predicting the group’s behavior and the social graph (the map of personal connections). 

Primates practice dominance across the board, as group animals must to survive –to find food and practice defense.  But there is also the need for inner harmony within any group of any size, so members can coexist without the leading caste exercising ruthless oppression on everyone.  Someone must lead and thus enjoy the privileges of the alpha life, but tyrants live in constant fear of rebellion and resistance, even the disbanding of their supporters.  So some sense of equality must also be active. Americans consider this a fairness test in all situations, from the Electoral College to playgrounds to prisons. 

It is worth noting here that fairness is almost exclusively an American concept (in contrast to the British meaning, which is closer to justice) and that we hold it out as the ultimate test of social virtue.  The Declaration’s equality cry is built into the fairness concept, and it underlies—at a gut level—discussions of social justice, which go far beyond the technical meaning of justice as a legal concept to express an American-branded ideal.  But that ideal must always play against the dominance-hierarchy reality of social relations, and that is our paradox to deal with.  Fairness must constantly be parsed, defined, and understood within our primate nature of highly social, striving opportunism under hierarchic hard-wiring.

Fairness is the American answer to a strict hierarchy. The reality is that while all may be created equal, no one is expected to stay equal for long. We live in a very American classless society. It’s not that we don’t have classes; we do, though we don’t talk about them much. When Europeans speak of a classless society the proposed solution is to create a biological impossibility - one big egalitarian class. To Americans, a classless society means not being restricted to the class you were born into. In fact, Americans expect to move up from whatever level they were born into. That’s where fairness enters, by determining whether you are being treated in a way that might wall off your opportunities to do so.  This is also the core of political correctness.

In the next few posts, we will examine specific examples of how our dichotomy of fairness ethic and inborn hierarchical nature play out in real life, from our family, social life, to business, education, and entertainment (remember the switchback line?).  But in the meantime, here’s something to think about, right out of the primate hierarchy playbook.  Consider the following:    

When the alpha leader of a troop of primates is impulsive, erratic, or unstable, rather than protective and value-driven, the troop grows anxious, restless, and prone to infighting to try to establish dominance to transcend or disrupt the leader’s headstrong ego.  This kind of flagrant leadership upsets the order of things, disturbing relations between groups without confidence in the leader’s ability to protect and promote the body of the group.  Understand that, and you can understand the why behind what you see on the evening news.

[i] The term “Global Village” was coined by Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, and popularized in his books The Gutenberg Galaxy: The making of typographic man (1962) University of Toronto Press ISBN 978-0-8020-6041-9 and Understanding Media (1964) McGraw-Hill, ISBN 81-14-67535-7.
[ii]  The first question, of course, is “What is your name?”

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Hierarchy versus Fairness in the Happiest Place on Earth

The last place on earth people would think about hierarchy is a theme park. In fact, most people don’t think about hierarchy at all unless it is violated. It’s a biological constant. Everyone was born with the rules hard-wired into their brain. No human consciously developed those rules. They are the result of an evolutionary process that – if you include our first mammalian ancestor - took about six million years. The modern form of humans only evolved about 200,000 years ago. Civilization as we know it is only about 6,000 years old, and the industrialized world didn’t exist until the 1800s.

The rules must have evolved early, because without them, we would never have survived.
Humans are social beings. We depend on each other and have become the dominant species on the planet because we can cooperate to achieve a goal. Hierarchy is the mechanism that makes that possible. Put ten strangers in a room and they will sort out an informal hierarchy within ten minutes.  It’s a hierarchy that emerges only in that room at that time. But knowing where we stand in the group—any group—enables us to function most efficiently.  We are constantly managing our standing in groups, because that standing shifts constantly.

Few people visit theme parks alone. It is a social experience. In theme parks, every family or friendship group contains its own hierarchy, and each group operates surrounded by other group hierarchies.  Throughout a day in the park, in moving around the park, the positioning of each group member shifts to best cope with new circumstances.

Husbands and fathers usually make the logistical decisions, whereas wives and mothers have veto power. Mothers tend to be the financial, relationship, and health monitors for the group.  Always children are influencers. We do this intuitively as something we rarely think about unless forced to.  That’s most often when the unspoken norms have been violated.

When Disney was testing one of their first GPS-based devices for navigating Walt Disney World parks, they offered select guest families the opportunity to test the device. While ridiculously large by today’s standards, these were the latest technology of the era. In order to participate, guests were asked to put a refundable $25 charge on their credit card. The Imagineers didn’t want the money, they just wanted to ensure they got the device back so they could interpret the data.

What surprised the Imagineers was while the father and the children were the most interested in the device, it was the mother who carried it. She would show the screen to the husband and children, but never let it out of her hand. This went against all their expectations. Focus groups had found it was males who were the most interested in the new technology. Female interest was near zero.  So why were the mothers the ones carrying and using the device?

They finally asked us.

The answer was simple – Disney had 25 dollars of their money on hold. Mom wasn’t about to let a careless child break it -- and “child” included Dad! For the family finances, she ruled at the top of the hierarchy.

Hierarchy comes with a set of norms that are never stated but understood intuitively by the group. In the GPS survey, Mom was the responsible party and Dad and the kids simply accepted this without discussion. Unless you understand what the norms are, you will experience surprise pushback.  Theme parks create scores of temporary hierarchies throughout the park—we just aren’t used to thinking about them in that way.

The queue—either straight or switchback—creates an instant hierarchy. Your group holds a physical position in that queue. Other groups are ahead of you, and others behind. It is understood that the people ahead get to go on the ride first, while you get to go before the people behind you.

Which brings us to a cultural concept called Fairness. This is a peculiarly American belief.  In our daily lives, Americans are not interested as much in justice (a legal construct) as in being treated fairly. Guests in theme parks will endure a ridiculously long wait only because everyone else in the line is treated to the same wait length. That may be uncomfortable, but it is fair as equal discomfort under the law of fairness for all.

However, that sense of fairness disappears when the line – and the guest’s place in the hierarchy – is disrupted. Once you build a switchback (that long folded-over holding snake line), that sequence hierarchy must hold right up to the attraction entry.

But often it doesn’t. Sometimes it holds up but just until it feeds into a large holding area, particularly for theater attractions. The anteroom holds the number of audience members the theater was designed for, and it usually features some preshow attractions to engage guest interest as the inevitable countdown clock signals the approaching minutes until the theater doors open. This system seems logical until you create a serious violation of the fairness ethic.  In this case, it is this: once within the wide-open pre-show lobby, where the line formation breaks apart, guests from behind can and will move past you to position themselves by the theater door, symbolically claiming the first seating. That’s a line system designed to violate the social fairness rule.

In fact, there may not actually be any seating at all in the attraction. You may enter a standup theater where all the viewing positions are pretty much equal – but the guest standing in line doesn’t necessarily realize that.

It doesn’t even matter that you may supply plenty of signage informing them of what’s ahead; most people don’t read such advisories, nor absorb the information even if they do. There are only a few places in any attraction where people are primed to receive and accept information as they progress through. The remainder just doesn’t get noticed or absorbed.

All the guest knows is that the park just violated the social contract—that tacit understanding established with the guest—made when you funneled them into the initial switchback.

They feel cheated, because they know they have been treated unfairly. You forced them into a choice they did not expect to be making—either view the preshow or make a dash for the theater door.  Either choice means taking a loss—and human beings hate even the idea of loss.

People are not risk averse - they are loss averse. Loss aversion is a cognitive default common to all human beings. In fact, our decisions are driven more often to avoid loss than to achieve gain. The only thing we hate more than loss is uncertainty. We try to avoid that at all costs.

With only the guests’ best interests at heart, the attraction designers just forced them into a situation of both loss and uncertainty.

It won’t matter that when they actually enter the theater they then realize they haven’t really lost anything. That unfairness emotion will dominate and color the memory of the entire experience.

And the solution is so simple. Park guests are perfectly happy to get out of the elements into a climate-controlled lobby… so design the pre-show in a way that it can be seen and enjoyed from the emotional safety of the switchback line and just continue that line the full distance up to the loading door.  Minimize transitions that introduce status anxiety.

This is a simple but unfortunately common occurrence. There are a number of other transactions where establishing a hierarchy comes with an implicit operational understanding by the guest--an understanding that gets violated further along in the process.

Take FastPass systems, developed after the timed-ticket approach created by museums for their blockbuster exhibits. Insert your park ticket into the slot; out comes a timed ticket for the attraction. Go on your way and stop back at the FastPass express lane when the ticket is due.

This all works fine—unless the fast lane loads right beside the regular lane. It doesn’t matter that the people in the “slow” lane had the very same opportunity to get their own FastPass.  Emotionally, they are responding with social envy and resentment to the fairness equation, to the very visible fact that those “fast” folks are boarding the boat in front of them.  It looks and feels unfair.  Americans are acutely sensitive to such “class” distinctions, because we aren’t a fixed-class society—that is, you are not destined to remain in the class you are born into.

Is this logical? No.  Emotionally, however, it makes perfect sense. There is not nearly the same envy reaction if you were to load the FastPass crowd at an out-of-sight location, which could be just steps away or around the bend-- so long as the slower crowd doesn’t have to see it happening.   Use the discreet measure of keeping the class difference out of sight.

A parallel problem emerged when the handicapped were loaded first – not just solo, but accompanied by their extended family.  Grandma would be wheeled up to the gate in the company of a dozen clearly able-bodied family members, who would all be loaded before other in-line guests.

People didn’t have a problem with grandma. But they did have a real problem with her entire entourage becoming instantly advantaged because of family ties.

The new rule—fairer to the guest— now seems to be to park grandma with a family member at the handicapped gate. The rest of the family joins in the normal line, and at the point when the group reaches the attraction, grandma and handler join them. What could be fairer than that? 

Understanding the interplay of hierarchy and fairness is essential knowledge as you build new hierarchies within the park with options like Magic Bands, team games, special tours, priority passes, and new attractions with new timing, spacing, and pathways.

It also makes life outside the parks easier to understand.