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Informed consent (rarely is)

Adults make choices and live with the consequences.

No one else should tell us what flavor of ice cream we prefer, or what career to choose. We’re good at knowing what we want.

In practice, this works really well for certain kinds of decisions. But when we add the network effect, profit-seeking industrial entities, statistics, long-term impact and side effects, it often falls apart.

Few people with terminal lung cancer made a fully informed decision when they started smoking cigarettes decades ago. Millions of teens who got hooked on a Juul certainly didn’t. We’re tempted to take the “free” case of bottled water that the local market is offering, without considering what’s going to happen to those bottles when we’re done with them. And while it’s easy to overregulate the testing and distribution of pharmaceuticals, it’s even easier to underregulate them.

There’s no right answer, there’s simply a spectrum.

Ideally, we’d each be able to make smart, long-term decisions with accurate information. I consider myself pretty rational, but, like most people, I don’t do a longitudinal study before taking a pill or buying a new product. We use buzz, hype and status to make decisions without statistics or peer-review.

Society might not know the ideal answer about where to draw the line between individual choice and community standards, but it’s worth asking the questions. Are people likely to be misled, confused or tricked into taking actions that hurt themselves and others? Are there incentives in place for consent to be skipped, or profits to be made when people are not fully informed? Are there bugs in our human decision-making processes that are likely to be hacked by organizations that have a different goal than we do? Are there public health implications that have more impact than the benefits to an individual?

Like microeconomics, classic marketing theory happens in a vacuum, not the real world. To put it into widescale practice, we need to think hard about the impact of millions of decisions, often made without clarity or perspective.

The empathy of useful feedback

When a friend shows you work in progress, your best contribution is to imagine the point of view and preferences of the person it is being created for. “I don’t like it,” isn’t useful, because it’s not for you. “I could imagine that someone who wants x, y or z would be looking for…” is much more helpful.

You don’t have to be three years old to be a toy designer, and you don’t have to be three to give useful feedback on a new design.

On the other hand, when a friend shows you something that’s finished, the most important thing you can do is find two or three truthful and positive things to say. When someone trusts you to share their work, and cares enough about the world to bring the work forward, that’s already two things worth applauding.

Are you doing what you said you wanted to do?

If you want to be a poet, write poetry. Every day. Show us your work.

If you want to do improv, start a troupe. Don’t wait to get picked.

If you want to help animals, don’t wait for vet school. Volunteer at an animal shelter right now.

If you want to write a screenplay, write a screenplay.

If you want to do marketing, find a good cause and spread the idea. Don’t ask first.

If you’d like to be more strategic or human or caring at your job, don’t wait for the boss to ask.

Once we leave out the “and” (as in, I want to do this and be well paid, invited, approved of and always successful) then it’s way easier to do what we said we wanted to do.