Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Lure of the Shortcut

Assuming that my claim that controlling culture just might be the most effective route to world domination is true, what is it that gives culture this degree of power? Why are we so likely to be led to do things we would not otherwise prefer simply because someone else has told us, overtly or implicitly, that it’s how we should behave? Aren’t we smart enough to notice when we’re being tricked in this way, and to overcome any pernicious influence that cultural beliefs, inclinations, and habits might otherwise have on us?

I have a couple of different explanations for why this is often more difficult than it seems like it should be, but for today’s article I would like to restrict my focus to one of these: the lure of the shortcut. Shortcuts are appealing in most contexts, from cooking to computing to commuting—especially among people who perceive more demands on their time, energy, and attention than they feel capable of satisfying.

And culture nearly always functions as some sort of shortcut. We save time by learning the best way to build a house or solve a calculus problem from other people rather than figuring it out on our own. We don’t have to spend years pondering the most effective way to raise our children if we pretty much echo what our parents did with us. And we can conserve all manner of mental energy by assuming that people will behave predictably on the basis of a few easy-to-identify characteristics such as age, gender, and skin color, rather than attempting to dig down to assess deeper but more situationally salient traits.

It is our capacity for culture that has allowed humans to achieve much of what we have accomplished. I very much doubt any person could have made it to the moon without taking on faith a whole host of previous discoveries and basic beliefs. There’s not much one can do if one has to start totally from scratch at birth. If we didn’t follow certain expected social patterns, we would have to renegotiate each new relationship, and cordial exchanges with strangers (for instance, a visit to a restaurant) would be unthinkable.

There are thus many convincing arguments for the benefit of taking cultural shortcuts, and I am not saying we should never resort to them. My main point here, and a process I am hoping through writing these articles to facilitate both for myself and for any interested readers, is that it behooves us to consciously recognize the fact that we are taking shortcuts, and to acknowledge that those shortcuts are liable, at least on occasion, to fall, well, short.

If we mistakenly believe that our culturally-shaped perceptions fully reflect the underlying reality of the world, we will fail to second-guess them in those moments when the time or energy saved by the shortcut is not worth the cost of operating under false pretenses. Let me use an example which is perhaps more of a metaphor than anything else, but will I think at least begin to make my point. In day-to-day life it is harmless to operate under the mistaken but visually and culturally reinforced perception that the sun goes around the earth once each day. But when calculating certain weather patterns, it is necessary to recognize the fallacy of that assumption in order to predict and account for the effects of the earth’s rotation.

In the same way, many other cultural shortcuts suffice, under most circumstances, to lead us through life without much derailment, but if we don’t acknowledge that they are, in fact, mere shortcuts, then we may fail to discount them under the few circumstances in which they are apt to lead us far astray. And that’s not to mention the cultural shortcuts that frequently or almost always lead us astray, but have become so deeply entrenched in our society that we continue to follow them at our own unwitting expense.

Want examples? Stay tuned.


  1. This was a very interesting article with some excellent points. It is not difficult for me to believe that there are many examples where people take cultural shortcuts which usually work out for the better but occasionally do not. However, I am more skeptical about examples where we take shortcuts that "almost always lead us astray." If this were the case, there would be potentially significant benefits for those who could either inform individuals about their mistakes (for instance by selling the information in a book) or by profiting from their mistakes (for instance buying something from individuals who consistently undervalued a product and selling it to others for a gain). Either of these phenomena should serve to bring the misguided perceptions of people back into balance. However, I have no doubt you will present some compelling examples soon, and I hope I did not use too many unfounded cultural shortcuts in my argument.

  2. Ha! You present a very interesting argument. I have two responses:

    (1) The first is that (as you acknowledged to be possible) I believe your argument does, in fact, rest on an unfounded cultural shortcut—that of the economic ideology, which assumes that any inefficiencies will be quickly righted through the action of market forces. This assumption relies on a number of implicit claims—most immediately, that either someone else will recognize these mistakes and acquire the means to profit from informig people about them, or that the people whose mistakes are being profited from will somehow come to recognize this fact and thereby be persuaded to rethink their basic cultural templates. It does not seem to me to be self-evident that either of these processes will necessarily occur in all cases of detrimental cultural assumption.

    (2) Second of all, I would argue that there are plenty of people at the present moment who are either profiting from selling books informing other people about basic mistakes in assumption that they are making, or profiting by taking advantage of the cultural shortcuts of others (which is the point I was trying to make in my article about fashion). The fact that both types of process continue to the present day (and some of them in forms, such as advertisement, which have persisted for decades if not centuries) indicates to me that there is no simple and infallible systemic mechanism guaranteed to eradicate harmful cultural shortcuts.

    I hope that answers your doubts in a coherent way, but I am certainly open to further questions or counter-arguments. Thanks for commenting!


Thank you for commenting!