Sense of meaning and surrender of choice

There is an often overlooked connection between the impression of something as meaningful — a “sense of meaning” — and a willingness to give up one’s own freedom of action and choice. Is that an ingredient in synchronicities, too? (After all, the feeling of meaningfulness is a necessary ingredient in the phenomenon as such.)

1. In his analysis of the history of advertising, Tim Wu explains the strategy of “brand building”, which emerged in the early 20th century as one of the main tactics employed by that industry.

As Wu shows, critics already in the 1930s saw it as “a calculated effort to foster irrational attachments by which a brand might survive competition from other brands […] not [trying] to convince you to make a choice, but rather to convince you that there is no choice. […] It can succeed if it manages to make the brand part of your identity.” (Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants, 78-79)

The term ‘irrational’ needs a little unpacking here. In the quote it is presumably meant to contrast with conscious, explicit choice (which would be ‘rational’, then). But of course, consumer action based on brand loyalty is not really irrational, in the sense that it would have no ‘ratio’ (i.e. intelligible reasons). It’s just that the ratio does not come from a conscious process of deliberation, but rather from an internalized sense of identity — and the brand name has somehow (as an effect of marketing and advertising) become part of your identity (“I’m a Porsche driver!”). If we assume that choices should be driven by our current interest, based on what we see as necessary or desired here and now, an identity-based choice may not be ideal. In fact, as the critics found, we might choose products which may be worse than other products — to the point where they even may be harmful or at least cause a waste of time, effort and money — merely because they belong to “our” brand. Thus in some sense, we make choices based on the wrong reasons (not based on no intelligible reasons, which would sanction the term ‘irrational’, in its proper sense).

It is worth noting, however, that brand loyalty creates broad, less conscious preference which then as such becomes less conscious. Since it is tied to our personal core of identity, it is also generally more emotionally laden. Both may lead to drops in the niveau mentale, and so tend to delegate our actions and choices to the unconscious. (Or, in more modernized psychological terms, they may result in various biases the subjects are not necessarily aware of.)

2. But there is a deeper problem still. It’s not just that our choices, when based on brands, aren’t necessarily optimal. It’s also that they become immune to new information. New information may concern the products themselves (e.g. we may learn that products such as cigarettes are detrimental to our health), the products of competitors (e.g. we may learn that the expensive premium smartphones from one company are actually technically inferior to those from competitors), or our own situation (when our lifestyle has changed and we would actually need to reconsider what we buy). But wherever such new information comes from, it won’t make it into the decision process — for that process is no longer one of taking in the situation and considering options, it is one of following the brand (and therefore, of being true to one’s identity).

True brand advertising is […] an effort not so much to persuade as to convert. At its most successful, it creates a product cult, whose loyalists cannot be influenced be mere information […]. What is offered to adherents is not merely a good product (though often it is), but something deeper and more deeply fulfilling — a sense of meaning that comes with the surrender of choice. (Ibd., 79)

3. With this we have reached the key insight from this excursus into the history of marketing and brand building. A “sense of meaning” can indicate that we have surrendered freedom of choice and action. We have internalized something (something that is actually directed by others) and let it sink into the unconscious. There it has become a part of who we are, and now it drives biased choices which may not be good for us, but which are imbued with an attractive emotional feeling — that “sense of meaning”.

We have seen this with brands in the commercial sphere (and Wu points out the origins of this tactic in organized religion; we might also add political ideologies with the same class). But something similar may be operative in synchronicities as well. And that may be responsible, at least in part, for the “feeling of numinosity”, the impression of meaningfulness, in that phenomenon.

4. If this hypothesis holds, then what would it be? What is it that a subject who experiences synchronicities has their choices surrendered to?

We shall have a look soon; but for the time being, just one final remark: if there is — specifically in synchronicities — such a connection between the sense of meaning and a surrender of choice, this suggests a shadow side of the phenomenon. The notion that synchronicities are something fascinating, a kind of an entertainment or escape from boring everyday life, even something to try and encourage and bring into your life, is risky. Perhaps it is not something desirable, but rather something of a warning signal to have a lot of synchronicities happening to you — no matter how much all those new age and self-help gurus try to sell us on the contrary.

By Leif Frenzel

Leif Frenzel is a writer and independent researcher. He has a background in philosophy, literature, music, and information technology. His recent interest is Jungian psychology, especially synchronicities and the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious.

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