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The rise of placebos

I’m a fan of appropriate placebos. They often have few side effects, they’re inexpensive and they work when used in the right situations. You can check out my rant on them here, it’s been read millions of times to date.

A placebo isn’t just a medical intervention. It’s any tool we use to feel better in a complicated world. They don’t just make us feel better, sometimes they actually change our physiology and can make us better. A wine label is a placebo for some (expensive wine tastes better, until the labels are obscured) and even search engine satisfaction largely comes from the story we tell ourselves about what we’re using to do the search.

Many forms of marketing are actually efforts to build placebo effects.

But how do we pick them? Why is chicken soup good for a cold but not tomato soup or turkey soup?

And why are we seeing (often to our detriment) a rise in nostrums, conspiracies and stories around things that used to be driven by facts and replicable studies?

For a placebo to be effective, our brain needs room to maneuver. That probably involves:

• Complicated problems

• Taking place over time

• That have emotional implications

When those conditions exist, our minds look for an explanation, firm footing and a chance to make things better.

But that’s always been true. The other factor is that we need to hear about a placebo from someone who had it work. The power of suggestion requires that a suggestion be made.

If an influential person was dieting on chicken soup when their cold naturally got better, it’s not difficult to ascribe the improvement to the soup. Because the placebo was around when the disease ran its course, we associate the soup with the improvement. We can then tell others (increasing our confidence, status and affiliation) in an effort to generously improve the health of our friends. Some of them will also be eating soup when their cold improves, further cementing the advantage that chicken soup has in the race to be the placebo of choice for colds.

We had plenty of placebos of every kind a thousand years ago. We had no idea why the sun rose, why the snow fell and why someone got sick. Placebos were essential for our emotional well-being. But the rise of the scientific method moved many of these stories to the side, because we understood things more clearly, and things that were complicated became less so.

In the last ten years or so, we’re seeing a shift happen.

And, as always, the internet is the agent of change here. The internet has given people a chance to share their fears and confusion and frustration about the world, particularly complicated things that happen over time. The world is not getting more complicated, but our fears and confusions are getting more widely shared, which makes it feel more complicated. Few people rant about gravity, but it’s easy to see mystery or even conspiracy in events and trends that are less simple.

If someone suggests a placebo as a cure, a palliative or a cultural touchstone, it might be used by others. And some that use it will find that it was present as things got better, and so it gains in currency. Not because it worked in the way that vitamin C works to cure scurvy, but worked in the sense that it was co-existent with something else happening.

Placebos that give us solace and patience with no side effects are magical. Alas, when we apply them to areas where we’d be better off doing something that has a more direct impact, we’re making a mistake that costs us and those around us as well.

The arc of history

By every geologic measure, modern human life is a tiny blip, a spark of static on a very long-playing record.

For most of the time that life has existed on Earth, there were no humans. And when there were human-like creatures, they spent much of their time doing not much. Nomads eat when they need to, move around and hang out. It’s not an easy life, but there are none of the modern distractions or problems that urban culture presents.

Grain began to change things, because agriculture produces far more calories per acre, allowing populations to grow… and to store the results of our labor. Stored grain, though, is easier to steal and to tax than something that must be eaten fresh off the tree or harvested.

And so you get markets and wars and governments and the rise of a group of people wealthier than any individual farmer or nomad could be.

This is all mostly irrelevant. It’s irrelevant in the way that understanding how Edison made movies or sound recordings is irrelevant. It’s nice to know the history, but it doesn’t help you win an Oscar or a Grammy.

The two most relevant forces are in a powerful dance right now:

• The carbon-fueled growth of industry.

• The information-fueled growth of ideas and connection.

Industry changed the way the Earth looks from space, it enriched billions of people and it has driven our species to the brink of extinction due to our impact on the climate. It has often been based on caste and coercion, and created both opportunities and problems.

Connection has enabled culture to thrive, and in recent years, amplified by the noise of the internet, it’s also made many people miserable in the short-run.

As we slog through another long, challenging year, one in which these two forces conflict, amplify and engage with each other, I’m remembering what Theodore Parker said more than 150 years ago:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

We really don’t have a lot of choice about yesterday. Here we are, many of us with more leverage and power than any human on Earth had just a hundred years ago.

In the last few decades, so many areas of culture have moved forward that defenders of the status quo are becoming exhausted trying to defend what was. And they sometimes express that exhaustion through anger, division and vitriol.

The good news is that we have exactly what we need to make things better. If enough of us stand up and lead and connect, we’ll continue to get closer to what’s possible.

Here’s to peace of mind and possibility. They go together.

Acceptance vs. ennui

The best way to make things better is to see how they are. And then do something about it.

Acknowledging the problem is not the same as giving up.

Too often, we’d rather not hear about it, or we choose to catastrophize as a way of protecting ourselves from the reality of what’s actually happening.

Denialism isn’t a long-term strategy.

Carrying benefits

Compared to easily-overlooked carrying costs, carrying benefits are practically invisible.

Pay once, but come out ahead over and over again.

There are habits, assets and learnings that seem too expensive right now. And so we simply stick with our status quo.

When we take the time to itemize the carrying benefits and write them down, understanding the accumulated benefits over time, they’re harder to overlook.

Carrying costs

How much does a puppy cost?

At the shelter, maybe you need to put up a hundred dollar fee or donation.

But that’s tiny compared to food, vet bills, time spent walking, chew toys, yak bones, bully sticks, groomers and those ridiculous dog costumes… perhaps $20,000 if you add it all up.

Yet we tend to focus on the cost of acquisition.

Twitter is free. Oh, it’s not. It’s not free at all. It costs a fortune in time and brain space.

Putting your business online is cheap. A simple web page. Except it’s not. It’s hundreds of thousands of dollars in management time and salaries.

Announcing the carrying costs up front is a great way to avoid hiding from them.

Some questions

Who’s it for?

What’s it for?

What change do you seek to make?

What’s the hard part?

If you could learn one skill that would help your project, what would it be?

How can you tell if it’s working?

Would it be easier if you had help?

Would it be easier to make an impact if you were willing to give up credit or control?

Does this project matter?

Is the journey worth it?

What are you afraid of?

Would they miss you if you stopped?

Problems now (problems later)

People always address now problems before they work on later problems.

Every time.

On one night in 2004, you might have had two choices. You could go out for a fancy dinner with friends, or you could buy one share of Google at their IPO. A couple of decades later, your dinner is forgotten but the shares are up many times.

Of course, some people did buy that stock. That’s not because they encountered an opportunity to save for their retirement 18 years later. It’s because they told themselves a story that people in their shoes sent money to the market that day. They turned a problem in the future (retirement) into a problem for the now (I’m a loser if I go out to this dinner instead).

Our story about the future is in the now, regardless of how far away the future is.

All we can do with the future is experience our story about it right now.

All problems are short-term problems if we tell ourselves the right story. But we usually don’t, because we discount the future significantly. A grilled cheese sandwich today is more important than two grilled cheese sandwiches next week. Unless we tell ourselves a present and urgent story about what it feels like to ignore the future.

Because sooner or later, we live in the present. A present filled with stories and cultural pressure and the urgencies we invent for ourselves.

Handmade, original and significant

There are still pockets of our culture where a single individual can create and share a body of work that’s resonant and unique.

I’ve become hooked on a podcast called A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs.

I’m now a backer on Patreon. The show is at https://500songs.com/ [My suggestion is that you start with a song you know and love instead of beginning at the beginning.]

It’s simply extraordinary. Trivia connected to cultural commentary connected to the endless web of the pop music world. Hundreds of hours of insight and connection, all written, narrated and produced by a single person.

There’s a lot to be said about the power of teams to create art and magic. But there’s still room for individuals to do this as well.

[While we’re talking music, happy to suggest a piece of software that might change how you find and play it. Built by a team, not an individual, Roon is a game-changer.]

Push vs. pull

The non-networked world was driven by push. The merchant stocked goods and waited for you to come buy them. The manufacturer made things in advance and advertised so you’d go buy them. The cab waited by the corner hoping you’d come out and hail it. The door-to-door salesperson went door to door…

But the web amplifies pull instead. When you need something, you tell Google or Amazon or Lyft or Shopify and they bring it to you. The ratio of inventory to demand has shifted dramatically–instead of one encyclopedia in every single house that sits idly waiting for you to need it, there’s just one Wikipedia, available to be pulled by anyone, at will.

When we seek to make change, our instinct is to start pushing. But shifting to pull can create efficiencies that can’t be matched by mass promotion.

The coyote’s anguish

It’s one of the best metaphors for life, marketing, achievement, community and possibility in all of TV cartooning.

The coyote is always looking for a quick win. Because he doesn’t persist with a plan that builds over time, all of his outlandish stunts add up to nothing but frustration.

The coyote is obsessed with gaining at the expense of his enemy. As a result, he’s faced with either defeat or short-lived and ultimately empty victory.

The coyote is obviously immortal, but he’s always in pain. Either in the pain that comes from hitting a wall at 100 miles an hour, or the pain of knowing that yet another short-term plan came to no good.

The coyote challenges the laws of physics in the belief that he, and he alone is entitled to his own rules.

The coyote is happy to spend money on ludicrous devices that make promises he must know are empty, but instead of investing, he keeps chasing the gimmicks.

The coyote picked the wrong goal. Even though it’s clear he can’t succeed, he doesn’t switch, obsessing about sunk costs instead.

And even though he has experienced the frustration of the short-term selfish shortcut again and again, he never pauses to consider what would happen if he created something of value instead.