Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Three Cups of Tea, Branding and Our Desire to Believe

Why are we so quick to believe liars and fabricators? We are plagued by journalists who invent facts and sources, by politicians scurrying to bury scandal, and by memoirists who find their lives are best seasoned by liberal doses of fiction. Into this last bucket place Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, founder of a charity intended to build schools in central Asia, and--as 60 Minutes revealed in a recent expose--a fabulist and a crook.

What is amazing, as this post by Bruce Bawer makes clear, is that the improbability of his story should have been apparent to even a casual observer:
[Mortenson] was the star of his own story. The whole point of his talk was how much one brave, selfless individual can accomplish in this world even against the most formidable of odds. And that individual was him. The premise of his spiel was that he’s a miracle worker, pacifying belligerent jihadist types by sitting down with them over three cups of tea and listening to their concerns. Yet the egomaniac I saw that day was somebody you couldn’t picture listening to anybody else for more than thirty seconds. Mortenson’s shameless self-celebration in Three Cups of Tea left me speechless. As Oscar Wilde observed of Little Nell’s death in The Old Curiosity Shop, how could any sensitive reader react to such nonsense with anything but derisive laughter?
Bawer continues by showing how callously Mortenson turned on those who had been kind to him to bolster his own reputation:
Then there’s Mortenson’s lie about having been kidnapped by the Taliban. He stuck a picture in his book of him and some Afghani acquaintances — who had treated him kindly — and identified them in the caption as his kidnappers
When we hear stories of people using others this way to bolster their own stories, we are rightfully disgusted. When we hear, as in Mortenson's case, that he was doing it in large part to enrich himself, and use his charity to support a lavish lifestyle, we howl for blood. But why do we buy in to begin with? It is easy to say, "We want to believe," but why? Wouldn't it make more sense for us to be exceptionally skeptical, and to disbelieve even true stories to protect ourselves from fraud and disappointment? Why, in other words, are humans so quick to trust?

Part of the answer, as David Brooks and Mark Earls and many others have pointed out, is that we are social creatures. We essentially outsource some of our decision-making to others. So if enough people tell you Greg Mortenson is a hero, you may not evaluate that claim very critically yourself before you, too, are singing his praises.

But I think it goes beyond that. People don't just have their small social groups, they love to organize themselves into big, abstract teams, teams that are defined by a series of positions its members are either for or against. Successfully aligning with these positions is the key to popularity for both brands and people.

Look, for example, at how Microsoft and Apple fostered opposing tribes of believers on the basis of different operating systems and technical specs. Mortenson did the same thing by aligning with deep-held beliefs in non-violence, in the power of the individual to make a difference, in multiculturalism. He pushes against the idea of cynicism (or what some would call realism or humility) and an us-versus-them mentality.

This places him squarely on the liberal-idealist team, which has many players in academia, in government, and in Western urban culture more generally. Many of these people struggle to solve the seemingly intractable problems in society, and are understandably inspired by someone who seems to be taking on big challenges with verve and success. Mortenson's story reflects their beliefs and aspirations so perfectly, they were desperate for it to be true. (Similarly, eight years ago who took what was commonly called the 'neocon' worldview really wanted to believe the Iraqi people were going to "greet us as liberators.")

We should remember that people (and brands) are not perfect. So if their stories are perfect, it should set off our BS warning sirens. The lesson is that we can't just investigate our enemies and be skeptical about those we don't agree with. To avoid our natural tendency to believe, to accept social decisions, and to take sides, we need to bring a critical eye even to those we want to love.

No comments:

Post a Comment