Something Beyond "Liking" (with Pam Murtaugh)
Why do we seek feelings from consumption? When did a society give way to an economy? When did we start outsourcing our emotions?
For decades, Pam Henderson Murtaugh was a management consultant. She traveled around the world, conducting intimate focus groups—although she doesn’t care for that term—and studying human behavior. She became the Rick Rubin of market research. Put Rubin in a dimly-lit room with some talented musicians, and magic was sure to happen (Blood Sugar Sex Magik, in the case of the Red Hot Chili Peppers). Same thing with Murtaugh and her focus groups. She was able to extract information others could not. This work gave her a unique perspective on humans and human nature.
As she explains:
I’ve been in business, but not of business; participating in the birth and growth of the global economy; studying people when I was supposed to be studying something else. It has taken decades to begin to understand the full human import.
Fifty thousand plus “consumers” all over the world shared with me minute details of their seemingly insignificant choices—from chips to credit cards, cellphones to chocolate. . . .I asked them everything I could intuit that would explain why they used what they used; in return they taught me how to understand human reality on a moment-to-moment basis. After every session of deep truth I learned their “reason” was always about them, not about it, the product or brand. But the charter from the client was about it. There was no client for them.
Yet, I agonized at the unfinished business of every project: How can it be true that little things matter so much? It became clear that people were seeking feelings at moments in time. I had to push my way through the gaggle of marketing theory: unique selling propositions, benefits, higher-order benefits. All, ultimately rooted in it, not them, and not a why at all. . . .
I finally learned what could have been obvious: people were seeking feelings from consumption. They sought those feelings at specific times when those precise feelings had meaning for them; a net effect of each dimension was felt then imprinted somewhere beyond consciousness. Something beyond “liking.” Something behind their precise intuition to reach for a certain thing at a certain moment. They were looking for how all senses melded into a dynamic feeling worth feeling.
But why would that be?
That excerpt is part of an unfinished book—a proposal, one might say—that she shared with me, called The Big Why. Being “right-brained” in nature, the concepts she explores there resist short summary. Even so, they cohere, they make sense, and they are intensely applicable the United States in post-Trump 2022. Her ideas touch on inklings I’ve had, concerning the processing speed and operating systems of my brain—and how Twitter and text messaging and all this technology has changed it, probably for ill and possibly for good.
At the end of our discussion—for Murtaugh is my guest on today’s PREVAIL podcast, the Season Three finale—she asks me to name ten things her book is about.
Here are six:
1. Little differences matter.
Back in 2015, Hershey’s, which owns the rights to distribute Cadbury chocolate in the United States, imposed a ban on the British version of the Cadbury formula. The confectioner actually sued an import-export company called Let’s Buy British for importing U.K. Cadbury bars. Murtaugh—who often worked in that industry, and who herself invented a candy bar—explains the significance:
Pundits say: “Look at the ingredients; they’re not that much different.” And, it’s true, only the top two ingredients are switched. In the U.K. Cadbury, milk is listed before sugar. In the U.S. Cadbury, sugar comes before milk. But there is so much more to this than meets the eye—or even the quick-tasting tongue. Neither all milk nor all sugar are equal. And none of them are meaningful outside of a lived context; a moment when they matter.
U.K. Cadbury has an initial sensation that is not just milk, but a warm, cooked milk that is elementally soothing. Its sugar and cocoa are processed to a finer consistency, making the chocolate stickier in the mouth. The U.S. Cadbury starts with larger-particles of sugar, offering a sweeter, brighter note that is mediated by a milkiness entirely different from cooked milk in the U.K. version.
So what? Small differences, right? Yes. And, no. Small differences make BIG differences. In the super-galactic brain’s capacity, it’s all about the connections, and how they feel when instantaneously engaged.
The cooked-milk stickiness of U.K. Cadbury actually takes control of the eater and sssslllloooowwwwssss them down; it’s an antidote to a too-fast reality, the sweet nanny saying it’s time to rest. The U.S. Cadbury is more “American” from the standpoint of being a more-determined “upper”—lifting the spirit more than soothing it. It’s more coarse and less sticky so there’s no control and restraint. (It’s also the by-product of U.S.-led research that defaults to liking—and therefore to sweetness—in optimization.) Not only are they significantly not comparable, they are relevant in entirely different moments of reality.
While to the uninitiated it sounds like so-much nonsense to say “microns matter,” it’s worthwhile to remember that Steve Jobs talked in microns. It also becomes impossible to trivialize when you know that entire cultures and continents can be charted to demonstrate how microns move markets, with billions of dollars resting on just such tiny not-consciously discernible differences.
Here, too, Tom Paine paves the way by explaining the nature of human reality:
…The cause of America is…the Concern of every Man to whom Nature hath given the Power of feeling…
It is not “emotions”—reductive, simplistic, singular titillations—but “the Power of feeling” that is the nexus of human truth. The Power of feeling is the first twinkle of the genome of human-ness. And Thomas Paine used that understanding to lay the groundwork for a revolution. One of the first planks in our platform is that America is the concern of everyone who has the Power of feeling.
But we have created an un-feeling reality.
2. The correlation between the rise of income inequality and the obesity epidemic in the United States.
Both of these things began in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan became president. As she explains:
In 1980 when income inequality and the obesity epidemic began, the U.S. population was two-thirds healthy weight and one-third overweight or obese. In 1980, the GDP was two-thirds manufacturing and one-third spending. Thirty years later, our GDP is two-thirds spending and one-third manufacturing. Thirty years later, the population is only one-third healthy weight and two-thirds overweight and obese (now higher). Our own spending and debt has surpassed the role of manufacturing in the economy. So, what? So, suffering is our largest export. It’s enormously profitable. (It’s not “comfort food;” it’s suffering food.)
And suffering begins at home. Life in the U.S. changed at the same time I was trying to understand how to be an adult in it. Never quite knowing how or where I fit—to this day—I have been struggling to get it “right” when I have never been totally sure what “it” is.
This suffering—together with the proxy of feelings from external experiences—should also support an entirely different take on why wrong foods are right so often, and how something like obesity needs to be treated in an entirely different way.
It’s as if people had learned what post-1980 companies had to learn, that out-sourcing is a highly efficient way to receive something just-in-time. What if people had learned to outsource their feelings to consumption? But why would that be?
What has income inequality contributed to this need to feel? What if the obesity epidemic was the side effect of a need to feel? What if, in a post-1980 world, people learned to outsource their feelings to consumption because living under newly created conditions—more work/ less time/ less money—made feelings hard to come by?
What if people come seeking not just a net effect, but a humane effect?
3. The subtle but soul-destroying societal changes from pre- to post-1980 life.
Anyone old enough to remember the seventies will tell you that the difference between, say, 1975 and 2005 are profound. Those three decades saw more technological change than any 30-year period in human history. This radical change was accompanied by the creeping rightward listing of the government and private enterprise set in motion by Reagan (who can be blamed for most societal ills, from climate change to the transition of news from journalism to entertainment to flat wages to the AIDS epidemic). Jimmy Carter responded to the OPEC fuckery of the late seventies by installing solar panels at the White House; Reagan, that tough guy, had them ripped out.
The inflation of everything—from food to cars—changed everything. To survive, a new generation of economic consultants converted every company’s balance sheet to shift from the bottom line—what profit is left after everything else is paid for—to the topline—calculating every input required to have something to sell. Sounds rational, no? . . .
“Personnel” became “human resources”—solely a number in the profit equation, along with all other “resources” like chairs, computers and electricity. People became judged—valued—for their quantified contribution to profit. “Essential workers”—the glorified bottom rung—is a misnomer; essential to a profit machine that must run, but interchangeable to a non-competitive degree. The position is essential; the person who holds it is not.
And today it’s playing out again. Out of desperation employers are raising wages, choking down their bilious anger: When can I get back to paying what I WANT TO PAY?
In 1980 it was the first step on the road to an oil-fueled slippery slope to where we are today, flirting with autocracy as if it’s a political “choice” and not a death sentence for democracy. Today we can see it operating at warp speed. Netflix’s viewership lags for the first time ever. Within days they had cut production and positions. These are the best practices of Profit Über Alles. One sneeze triggers a pre-emptive, wholesale revamp of the system. Everything is connected and nothing is sacred. Well. Profit. Profit is sacred.
The trajectory of The Big Why began here, and here we must recognize it because our way of life—the democracy we’ve modelled to the world—is slipping away. Because our feelings at moments in time are the currency of existence. Because “normal” has become regulated by our subconscious safety systems of feeling the right thing right now. Chaos rules when that first line of defense—consumption that delivers the right feelings at the right time—is subsumed by some unrecognized black hole that consumes us instead.
4. We are no longer a society. We are an economy.
Profit Über Alles, indeed. She writes:
I had a hypothesis: That we had become an economy instead of a society, and as such had to access our identity through outsourced experiences that became a way to define our “selves,” so vitally necessary. Some of those outsourcers are as discrete as the tiny white threads leading to ear buds. Others, like food in its endless permutations, have been perfected to manifest very specific feelings; the lived experience of “eating”—the sequential release of meta-sensory feelings that become our feelings, and a most-trusted accomplice.
The obesity epidemic and “income inequality” have the same birth date: 1980. These are co-incident, and not accidentally aligned.
How can this possibly be true?
The U.S. economy has doubled since 1980, but under the new rules of radicalized economics and the newly imposed “doctrine of left-hemisphere absolutism” barely half is now in the hands of 99 percent of the population. While the Secessionists decry any potential “transfer of wealth” through taxation, the biggest transfer of wealth on the face of the planet has happened right under our noses. The new half of the economy—fully the size of the 1980 economy—has gone entirely to the new Secessionists.
Worker’s wages have not only stagnated, they’ve been hollowed out by new costs of living put in place since 1980: More personal spending for health care—both for the rising cost of health care and pharmaceuticals, as well as to compensate for the diminishing coverage provided by employers to fewer people; new spending for “necessity” technologies—cable, internet, cell phones (and upgrades and replacements and new models); more personal spending for previously public costs like school supplies and extra-curricular activities; more spending to replace pensions and/or retirement funds that were once provided by employers; compensating for lost government funds that supported the hungry, the poor and the homeless through contributions to non-profits, food pantries and the like. And that’s before approximately $70 billion goes straight out-of-pocket to the prayer of winning the lottery.
Not only has the minimum wage not kept pace with inflation, wages themselves have not kept pace with costs of living that are not accounted as such, but hit the pocketbook hard nonetheless. This twice-as-big economy is actually a cannibalization economy, with the dictator approving an at-will feast on the net worth of the rest.
5. The fundamental difference between liking and magic.
That’s how Murtaugh, on the podcast, describes what she was looking for in all those focus groups in all those far-flung cities around the world.
And little miracles would happen. Like in the north of mainland China in a manufacturing city, amazing and earnest people dressed in their best—and their “best” had holes in it—helped me understand precious, fleeting moments in a difficult life. During a specific tasting exercise focused on a specific regional product, when they talked to me about one specific aspect of the experience, I was able to use their words to describe their life as they had described it, “So, in a ‘life of bricks,’ something that melts in your mouth like this, feels like—?”
I’m holding my breath. The answer comes through my translator from a woman on my right whose broad face beamed…
“…like winning the lottery.”
Of course it does. Sensory experiences have meta-effects that are meaningful.
The usual practice of sensory science, however, overlooks something superficially interpreted as “melt” and misses that it is a near-universal feeling of luxury, even from a humble snack. Sensory scientists have, in fact, stopped using a particular word because they’ve agreed they don’t know what it means; the word “rich.” The human truth, however, is far…richer…than they give it credit for. Something that melts and has a lot of fat in it, in the moment of consumption, feels literally…“rich.”
In two different languages, we all laughed as one.
6. The left hemisphere of the brain usurping the right hemisphere—the brain’s rightful ruler—and altering how our minds are designed to function.
The right hemisphere—the larger half of our very genesis—is mind-bogglingly silent. As the seat of our soul, our imagination, the divine, history, authenticity, the infinite and the humane it has been the bastion of humane effects. By contrast the left hemisphere—ruled by language, linearity and logic and cemented by money, metrics and technology—is noisy and commanding; it’s the systems hemisphere that reduces everything—every answer and every human—to a number. It has left us eminently vulnerable to the de-humanation we’ve lived with since 1980 as if it’s our only choice.
The North/South school pits the executive brain against the reptilian brain and in turn presumes humans will either act rationally and with intelligence or default to their “mindless” reptile brain.
This is the school most commonly subscribed to by Western academics and medicine. This executive/reptile polarity lies behind charges that food manufacturers target the limbic brain with salacious mixtures of salt, fat and sugar to addict an unsuspecting public. They completely miss the point. The biggest and most successful products are not new. They were invented through intuition, not cunning. Like Walt Disney, they found a mouse that hit it big and could never really explain why and didn’t need to. If this limbic-chicanery were true (and useful), all of today’s new products would be more successful than they are. With only a two percent success rate, “innovation” at today’s companies is only built for an immediate flash of cash; they don’t know how to build feelings on purpose, and the fleeting appearance of constantly changing new products is full proof of their incapacity to deliver meaningful satisfaction.
Western medicine wears the same blinders: People should eat right, not wrong. To them, obesity is a matter of mind over the substantial matter of weak-willed Americans that succumb to their reptilian brains. Indeed, on a Wall Street panel about obesity, Michael Jacobsen from the Center for Science in the Public Interest called Americans gluttonous and slothful. Down the table from him my jaw fell open.
It is a fundamentally inhuman and in-humane model.
The East/West/East “school,” as far as I can tell, is led by [Ian] McGilchrist. It presumes a 360-degree, whole-brain, human reality model that begins in the East (the right hemisphere), circulates to the West, then back again. Three stops, two spheres.
The left hemisphere’s facility with language and logic, its puritanical insistence on numbers above all else, and now, its command of the technology of algorithms, has given the wrong side of the brain the keys to the car. Our society now devalues what the right hemisphere brings to the table: art, love, poetry, religious experience, mystery. This, Murtaugh argues, is to our collective detriment.
The good news, it seems to me, is that while the effects of the post-1980 world are pervasive, they need not be permanent. If the right hemisphere is supposed to lead us, as Murtaugh and McGilchrist assert, then it will not allow the current topsy-turvy arrangement for long. Plenty of people—most people—are not MAGA zombie fascist economic cannibals. Most of us do value art, love, poetry, religious experience, and mystery.
Not that we should reject technology wholesale, go full Ned Ludd and smash our iPhones. Maybe the way out is something as simple—as little—as taking more time to enjoy our candy bars.
Greg Olear talks to Pam Murtaugh, the former management consultant in market research, about money, metrics, and technology, and her alarming findings after running small focus groups for decades. Is there a correlation between the rise of income inequality and the rise of obesity in the U.S., which both started in 1980? Has our society outsourced feelings to consumption? Do we even HAVE a society, or is it all just an economy now? Has the left brain engineered a coup? Plus: a Florida ditty and a take on Cole Porter.
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Note: For some reason, there is quite a bit of silence at the end of the podcast. It’s about 1:20 long, not over three hours.
Tonight is the Season Finale of The Five 8, where LB and I discuss five topics for eight minutes each. We will return on September 9. Here is the link for tonight’s show:
Photo credit: Raw Pixel.