Selling the Sizzle

English: Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Resized,...
Image via Wikipedia

Every salesperson has learnt that you don’t sell the sausage, you sell the sizzle.

Sizzle: “the desirable, tempting and enticing sounds and aroma that convince you to eat what is basically a dead pig.”

Sausages are only the start, of course. Wouldn’t you love more time? This new dishwasher will give you what you want! A dishwasher is what you have to offer, but the promise of more time is what you actually sell.

Don’t you long to stay young forever? This new cream/car/drink will make you look as young as you feel! The promise of eternal youth is so desirable, tempting and enticing that it can be used to sell almost anything.

This approach has been highly successful at selling dishwashers, cars, creams and drinks as well as sausages, but can it work with social issues? The social marketing movement certainly thinks it can, and it has some great ideas for improving communication (think Hillary Clinton vs. Obama, or the old Hillary versus the new).

But like all simplifying processes, it misses out something important. The sizzle approach assumes we all desire the same thing, that our needs and wishes are simple and fairly undifferentiated. In the background to all this is the highly influential hierarchy of needs established by Abraham Maslow in the 1950s. In short, Maslow claimed we all look for food and shelter before worrying about status and self-actualization. We only seek the higher order needs once our basic needs have been met. Seems obvious, but research carried out at Goon Park showed that primates don’t actually work like that: those baby rhesus monkeys sought out maternal comfort [even though fake] before basic food and water. Harry Harlow wrote, “Certainly, man does not live on milk alone.”

The secret to selling the sizzle of social progress is to recognize that the sizzle comes in four distinct varieties. Not one. Not two. Sure, four is harder to deal with than one, but the good news is it’s not ten – or fifty. If you can get your head around just four varieties of sizzle – four alternative storylines – then you can sell refrigerators to Eskimos and to everyone else for that matter.

Jonathan Haidt has a new book out which goes some way towards explaining the significance of emotions and intuition for moral reasoning. He says it much more elegantly, but the gist it that it’s not all sausage – a lot of moral reasoning is sizzle. However The Righteous Mind sticks to the traditional conservative/liberal distinction and so in my opinion misses some of the opportunities that a Cultural Theory perspective offers.

For more details read The beetroot lesson: the politics of disgust.

Click to access Sellthesizzle.pdf

More on Questions about Grid-Group Theory

So Y asked three interesting questions regarding Grid-Group Cultural Theory. This is a line of thought, a method of inquiry, developed by the British social anthropologist Mary Douglas, along with numerous collaboraters, and more recently numerous younger adopters who never actually worked with Douglas. Its early presentation was in the influential book Natural Symbols.

DMK has already given a response to this in the original comments (many thanks!), and here’s my additions.

1. is the theory considered to be a post modern one?

Quick answer: no. Slightly longer answer: The theory was developed on the cusp of the rise of the postmodern as a dominant category of analysis. Neither Mary Douglas nor Aaron Wildavsky were involved with anything that would be recognisable as explicitly ‘postmodern’. Like Derrida, Douglas was strongly influenced by the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss. But whereas Derrida subverted structuralism, Douglas extended it. In particular they each took quite different approaches to Levi-Strauss’s methodological use of the distinction between nature and culture. In many ways Cultural theory might appear to advocates of the postmodern as hopelessly compromised by the ‘grand narrative’ that there are four and only four cultural worldviews. That’s what I like about it. On the other hand, there are many, I think, who see the ‘constrained relativism’ (Marco Verweij) of Cultural Theory as being too relativist for comfort. I like that too.

For more context, Richard Fardon’s book is invaluable: Mary Douglas: An Intellectual Biography.

2. does it have prestige in the academic world or is considered niche theory?

I think it has some prestige, but precisely as a niche theory. For example, in the study of risk, CT is one of three main approaches to the subject, but only one. In social anthropology it would probably be seen as obsolete.  Fardon’s book has a section entitled ‘Theoretical Marginality”. However, it’s quite possible to make an academic career out of Cultural Theory (or a re-branding of it) and a number of highly respected academics have adopted or adapted a CT approach for at least some of their work. But there is no large movement or institution that has adopted it as a significant approach. CT’s strength/weakness lies in that fact that it has been applied piecemeal in a large number of different disciplines. It appears to have an explanatory power as yet not fully realised.  I think the conceptual strengths of Cultural Theory have not really been matched by its methodological capacity. There is potential to further develop rigorous methodologies that develop some of the concerns of Cultural Theory.

3. do you think that online/virtual communities on the internet can also be classified according to the grid group (like wikipedia, linkedin etc)?

Yes. Prof Sun-Ki Chai, at the University of Hawaii is a very rare individual in that he has both published on Cultural Theory (he edited a book of essays by Aaron Wildavsky, I believe) and patented a web crawler that can analyse web data according to several social science approaches. His work shows a way to do what you suggest, from a predictive social science angle.

Some questions about Grid-Group Cultural Theory

Here’s some provocative questions about Cultural Theory from Y.  Before I attempt an answer, I wonder if anyone else reading this has an opinion or comment…

1. is the theory considered to be a post modern one?

2. does it have prestige in the academic world or is considered niche theory?

3. do you think that online/virtual communities on the internet can also be classified according to the grid group (like wikipedia, linkedin etc)?

Any thoughts?

Samuel Bowles on economic inequality as a policy option

Prof Sam Bowles has a couple of books that compliment the work of Richard Sennett on cooperation – one published in 2011, the other due later in 2012. Whereas Sennett takes a sociological approach, Bowles focuses on economics. In particular he has done some interesting work on computer modelling of property rights.

A two-bit theory of social reality

English: Publicity photo from the game show Tw...
Image via Wikipedia

It is not obvious whether the world is analogue or binary, continuous or discrete. It’s a live question and the subject of a recent essay contest set up by the Foundational Questions Institute.

That said it seems clear that much or our social lives revolves around the assumption that the world is indeed binary. Male or female, black or white, left or right – simple binary oppositions structure our social relationships through and through. Moreover, we live in an era when developments in technology make it abundantly clear that the bifurcation of the universe into one and zero brings great leaps forward. Why do we do this to ourselves? What possible benefit can it confer?

One answer might be that it makes things simpler, thus allowing us to make faster decisions.

The reason Twenty Questions pretty much works as a parlour game is that twenty yes/no answers are all it takes to distinguish between 1,048,576 (220) discrete subjects. This seems to be roughly the high end of a practical taxonomy for personal use. By way of comparison, note that if one was to play the game using English Wikipedia articles it would need to be renamed Twenty-Two Questions to cover the 3,673,861 articles in existence in mid-2011 (222 = 4,194,304).

The promise of information theory, on some accounts, is that we can sort everything in binary terms. In John Wheeler’s well-known formulation, ‘it from bit’:

“It is not unreasonable to imagine that information sits at the core of physics, just as it sits at the core of a computer.

It from bit. Otherwise put, every ‘it’—every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself—derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely—even if in some contexts indirectly—from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. ‘It from bit’ symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom—a very deep bottom, in most instances—an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.” (John Archibald Wheeler 1990: 5)

In physics perhaps (more generally, in the ‘ontological basement’, as Paul Davies puts it). But as any one who has ever heard of racism or sexism will recognise, splitting the social world into opposed pairs often makes us get things very, very wrong. Our fondness for quick and dirty social heuristics has a habit of misleading us. Simpler does not by any means equate to more correct. Reality is more complex than a game of Twenty Questions and it takes more than yes/no answers to parse the social.

So it is not surprising that when faced with various kinds of binary sorting mechanism we experience a sense of disappointment. What may have seemed like a good idea – to simplify by means of bifurcation – turns out to produce less than useful information. The left/right dichotomy in politics turns out to be forced and to obscure almost as much as it reveals. Similarly it turns out that gender is a poor indicator of ability to own property or many of the other issues it has historically been used to indicate. And as for skin colour, this seems to produce far more noise than signal…. It is as though the usefulness of binary sorting has got the better of us and instead of recognising its limits we have tried to sort everything in binary terms. The reward is conservation of energy. The cost is accuracy.

What if the cost is too high? A recent example is a paper claiming to provide insights into differences between national cultures on the basis of a distinction between ‘tight’ and ‘loose’ cultures. This is a fairly well-rehearsed but contentious pair of categories that derives from anthropology.

The problem is that the ranking of nations on this basis doesn’t appear to shed much light on the national characteristics in question. Again, what is claimed to be signal looks suspiciously like noise.

I remain to be convinced but in the meantime I want to propose an interim alternative.

Instead of simplifying by means of one bit of information (tight/loose, black/white, male/female, left/right) we should do so by means of at least two bits of information.

It seems to me that a binary choice, between yes and no or between 1 and 0 always implies a set of Boolean operands just waiting to be used. Yes or no always begs the question: Yes and no?

One way of depicting this expanded set of choices is to frame each binary single bit choice as a two bit choice:

YES                 Yes and not No                      Yes and No

NOT YES       Not Yes and not No              No and not Yes

                          NOT NO                                           NO

This is not to suggest that reality actually is made up of two bits, or any other number of bits for that matter, information theorists notwithstanding. Rather, my claim is that if, in seeking to understand the social world, there is indeed a sweet spot somewhere between energy conservation and accuracy, then a two bit heuristic process is closer to that sweet spot than our current dominant but misleading fondness for single bit, yes/no thinking.

It from two bits.


Differences Between Tight and Loose Cultures: A 33-Nation Study

Michele J. Gelfand, Jana L. Raver, Lisa Nishii, Lisa M. Leslie, Janetta Lun, Beng Chong Lim, Lili Duan, Assaf Almaliach, Soon Ang, Jakobina Arnadottir, Zeynep Aycan, Klaus Boehnke, Pawel Boski, Rosa Cabecinhas, Darius Chan, Jagdeep Chhokar, Alessia D’Amato, Montse Ferrer, Iris C. Fischlmayr, Ronald Fischer, Marta Fülöp, James Georgas, Emiko S. Kashima, Yoshishima Kashima, Kibum Kim, Alain Lempereur, Patricia Marquez, Rozhan Othman, Bert Overlaet, Penny Panagiotopoulou, Karl Peltzer, Lorena R. Perez-Florizno, Larisa Ponomarenko, Anu Realo, Vidar Schei, Manfred Schmitt, Peter B. Smith, Nazar Soomro, Erna Szabo, Nalinee Taveesin, Midori Toyama, Evert Van de Vliert, Naharika Vohra, Colleen Ward, and Susumu Yamaguchi

Science 27 May 2011: 332 (6033), 1100-1104. [DOI:10.1126/science.1197754]