How Marketing Works

I recently finished teaching a marketing class where I asked my students to get into groups and do some ‘market research’ on why their fellow classmates would or wouldn’t buy a particular brand.  Then they would report their ‘marketing insights’.  One group chose Ralph Lauren and then asked a group of female students whether they would buy Ralph Lauren products (including perfumes, sunglasses, etc.).  The female students said no, it was too expensive and so the marketing insight was that Ralph Lauren was priced too high and they should lower it.

I then asked the female students a few follow-up questions.

First, I asked them whether they own/regularly wear clothes, perfumes that are as expensive as Ralph Lauren, to which they replied that they did – and that many of their clothes were about equally or even more expensive.

Second, I asked them if they thought that the Ralph Lauren clothes were of worse quality than the clothes they wear, to which they replied no.

Lastly, I asked them: if I gave them a Ralph Lauren shirt or some Ralph Lauren perfume, how often would they wear it? The female students said they likely wouldn’t.

So it’s not really about the price, is it? I asked.

I guess not, they responded.

But then what was truly motivating this decision and why would they ‘lie’ about it?

As consumers (or as people in general), we like to think of ourselves as ‘rational’.  When it comes to buying things, we love to tell ourselves that we are getting quality stuff for reasonable prices – that we are maximizing our utility. If we buy something relatively expensive, it’s worth it, because it’s quality,  it provides certain features, or we give some other rationalization.  And yet our decisions are not actually made this way.

Recently, I read an article on reddit (Ad’s Don’t Work that Way) outlining some of the misconceptions about how marketing influences us (I won’t go into those here but feel free to read the article for some context) and providing some insights into what is really going on ‘under the hood’ of consumers.  The article was relatively well-done but I felt it was wrong in a few places and could have provided a bit more information of the underlying processes.  When I suggested I could write something on this if people were interested, the response was a resounding yes.

Obviously I can’t detail decades of psychological and marketing research but I will try to give a good overview.  If you want to know more – please let me know.


Clutter and Information Overload



To begin, it’s important to recognize that marketing is more than just advertising. For example, when you walk into or past a store – the layout, music, the way the sales people interact, and even it’s location have been designed in a specific way to signal a specific idea (more on that in the next section).  Further, most products have been branded very specifically – from clothes to cars to computers, each exposure provides some level of information to you.

Current estimates suggest that we are exposed to between 4,000 to 10,000 of theses messages a day, with around 360 specific ‘ads’.  Couple this marketing information along with all the other information we received in a day (our jobs/school, social media, news, etc.) – there’s clearly too much for us to process everything.  Attention and cognitive activity is a scarce resource and we tend to conserve it when and where we can.

As such, marketing messages aren’t typically telling us about their features in any great depth or why we should buy them.  That information can be found if you are motivated enough.  Rather, the information is made to convey a specific association and/or a clear value proposition.  These two ideas are discussed in the following sections.


Cognitive Associations,  Categorization, and The Self.


Consider for a moment what happens when you walk into a room you’ve never been in before (like the one above).  Immediately and without any thought you know exactly what the items in the room are.  You know that the chairs are chairs and that the table is a table and not a desk. You even know the difference between the coffee table and the dining table.  You may have never seen tables or chairs like these before and yet you know exactly what they are.

Despite requiring no effort, this ability to quickly form associations and categorize items is an extremely impressive feat. Robotic engineers and AI developers have struggled with this problem.  For example, driverless cars struggle with identifying whether an item in front of them can be driven over/through (like a plastic bag) or whether it must be avoided (like an animal or large rock).  While we like to think of certain cognitive feats, such as solving mathematical problems or playing chess, to be the pinnacle of human achievement – this ability to automatically associate and categorize a seemingly infinite number of items, which even young children can do, may be the most remarkable.

To better understand how we do this, consider and reflect what happens when you read – ‘Santa Claus’

You automatically generated associations of Santa – red, fat, elves, reindeer, Christmas, which in turn generated even more associations.  These associations come with valence too – which means they are tied to positive and negative emotions (which might be where the meme of emotional advertising comes from).  For many, just thinking about Santa will generate feelings of ‘happiness’ because of the strong association with Christmas, presents, and family (although if Christmas is an anxious-filled difficult time for you, Santa probably won’t come with that same feeling of happiness).

This process is implicit – which means it is generally automatic, uncontrollable, and also can operate non-consciously.  If I say “don’t think of a white elephant” – you will automatically and uncontrollably generate associations of a white elephant.

What does this have to do with marketing? Marketing is designed to create these associations.  Think of any brand – Coke, Apple, McDonald’s Walmart, Amazon, Nike – immediately these brands come with a set of associations.  Some good and some bad.  Marketing’s goal is to generate strong positive associations.

Image result for Brand Associations

This is why brands get anxious when their spokespeople do something not in-line with these associations – like Tiger Woods being dropped from most of his endorsements after his infidelity scandal or why Google fired James Damore after his memo was leaked.  These companies are worried about the negative associations that might form and often with good reason.  Estimates suggest that the Tiger Woods scandal cost shareholders 12 billion dollars. 

An example I like to use in my class is Dyson.  Once again, what comes to mind when you think of Dyson? And how do those associations differ from your associations with, for example, Hoover? If you are like most people – Dyson is associated with modernity, innovation, ‘coolness’, etc. whereas Hoover is associated with your grandmother – older and more traditional.

When I ask my students whether they’d rather buy a Dyson or a Hoover – virtually all of them answer Dyson.  However, then I show them a recent consumer report (below) which demonstrates that Hoover beats out Dyson (at least on these bigger vacuums).

The kicker? I then ask them again – Dyson or Hoover? and still, despite it being more expensive and rated worse, a large majority of students continue to choose Dyson.


But why? Because products are our extended self.  We integrate the associations of the brand into associations of our self.  When we buy (or experience) something, that consumption is not simply providing us with functional utility – it is saying something about us as people.  We care about this a bit more when it’s public, but even in private, we care about what a brand says about us.  We don’t want to feel old, we want to feel young and innovative – so we buy a Dyson.

The below image comes from a very influential paper detailing how we develop self-esteem and identity.  In essence, the authors argue that our self-esteem and identity is a function of the associations we have with ourselves (e.g. professor, intelligent) and the valence or categories we have with each of these items. Since products also carry associations and we integrate these products with our sense of self; they in turn become instrumental to our self-esteem and our identity.

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The article that spurred this post explored the idea of ‘cultural imprinting’ – which ultimately is just the shared set of associations we have in a specific culture.  It’s important to note that these associations can differ from one specific culture/social group/person to another. For example, Tattoos may be see as ‘trashy’ to some people but as a signal of toughness or beauty to others.  When Starbucks came to Australia, a country with a strong laid-back coffee culture, it assumed its strong associations would carry over. In doing so, it quickly opened a number of stores contributing to Starbucks being viewed as just an impersonal corporate coffee shop.  Eight years later, it closed 60 stores, sold it’s remaining 24, and posted a loss of a $143 millions dollars.

Returning to the Polo shirt example from the beginning – why then did the female students not want to wear Polo? Because to them Polo is likely associated with male, preppy, etc. and that’s not who they want to be, nor how they want to be seen.

Associations change Perception


To see the power of these associations, consider the following:

In blind taste tests, Pepsi beats Coke.  But put labels on them and Coke beats Pepsi.  Why? Because when you’re drinking Coke, you aren’t just drinking sugar/aspartame water – you are drinking the associations you have with Coke (As an aside, many people like to rationalize this by saying that Pepsi is sweeter so that they prefer Pepsi in a single sip but not an entire can.  However, if true, this wouldn’t explain why Coke beats Pepsi when branded)

A recent large study found that, on average, people prefer cheaper wines to more expensive wines.  But put labels on them, tell people how much they cost and this effect reverses.


Or consider that in blind taste tests McDonald’s coffee beats out Starbucks and GreyGoose Vodka does not live up to the hype.

We tend to associate high price with high quality.  One of the reasons that Iphones never/rarely go on sale is because they don’t want to signal that their phones are worth less than they charge.  If they had a one-time sale of Iphones for $400 – then people would think that their phones are only worth $400.

To demonstrate just how these associations can change perceptions, I give my class a container of Dove soap and a container of Old Spice, except I replace the Dove with Old Spice.  I pass it around and ask people to smell it.  Not only do the men say they would buy the Old Spice and women the Dove, but the students actually report a difference in the way it smells.

Ultimately, we tend to conform to our expectations.  Think something is suppose to be good, it usually is.  Although this can backfire when the difference is too large (we all have those experiences when something is over-hyped), this is the exception rather than the rule.  It is the Placebo effect – except instead of mitigating pain or sickness, it’s associations of status, masculinity, coolness, or general taste and quality.

Accessibility, Bounded Rationality, and the Value Proposition  


You might be thinking that this might be true for certain things or for certain people, but surely there are some instances where people are looking at actual metrics and buying based on that.

Fair enough but you’d only be partially correct. Messages that are put out there still have an effect in another way.

Think about the last phone you bought.  How many different phones did you compare?  I recently asked my class and many people didn’t even compare any.  If they wanted an Android, they bought Samsung and if they wanted IOS, they bought the latest Iphone.  At the high end was three.   There are dozens of alternatives, each with different price points, advantages and disadvantages.  They aren’t cheap either, so one would think they would be a product category that people would do their research.  And yet, most people make their decisions without it. Why?

Marketing creates our set of alternatives.  When we need to buy something we think of the few products that come to mind.  Need a new printer – you’ll probably check out a few of the ones you know – HP, Canon, Brother, Epson.  Not only are they the ones you are likely to type into Google for searching, but the brands you know and have heard of tend to convey some level of reliability and quality.  How likely are you to buy some printer you’ve never heard of even if the ratings are good? In the vacuum example, Shark was rated as the top vacuum in that category – but many people haven’t even heard of it – so could they even consider it?

And when we compare, we are like single issue voters. We look at the few features that are important. Marketing – both in the advertising sense and in the product development sense – tends to focus on and delivering these one or two values.  Decisions are typically made as some trade-off between these core values and cost.  Buying a car? What do you care about – power, fuel efficiency, speed, luxury, reliability? You’ll buy something that fills those values and marketing’s job is to make you think (often factually, lest you think that all marketing is a lie) that their product is the best in those categories.

It should be noted that the associations we form are important here as well.  For example, people tend to think of green products as less powerful/effective.  As such selling green cleaning agents or hybrid trucks has been a challenge.  People who are buying cleaning agents or trucks want power and/or effectiveness and if the perception is that they will be less powerful or effective they will be harder to sell – even when consumers want greater fuel efficiency or to be environmentally conscious.

Lastly, the values that we care about are also influenced by marketing.  Although there is debate about whether marketing simply reflects current cultural values or actually creates them, it does at least perpetuate them.  Not only does marketing make certain products more accessible – it makes the values we care about more accessible too.  Accessibility (or availability) refers to the idea that whatever can be easily recalled must be more important than information that is less easily recalled and people tend to weigh judgements towards this more available information.  This tends to bias us in terms of risk – such as not opting for any Samsung phone when information that a few of the Note 7s were catching fire.  Similarly, if we are consistently inundated with pictures of models and ways to look like them, it serves to consistently keep that motivation at the front of the brain.

Some Criticisms about ‘Ads Don’t Work that Way’ 


As noted, the motivation for this post was a response to the he Ads Don’t Work That Way article. although The Ads Don’t Work That Way article was generally well-done, there were a few areas that the author made some arguments that were at best, too extreme. The evidence reflects cherry-picked examples, while counter-examples (and counter-evidence) are readily apparent.

First, the author argued that these associations will only work for conspicuous products – and that all associations are meant as signals to other people.  While the motivations for personal consumption may be different, it does not mean the associations are non-existent. As in the Dyson or Old Spice examples show – we care about how the product makes us feel, regardless of who sees them.

The author even talks about drinking coke and compares it to gas stations, suggesting the former is a social activity while the latter is not.  One can definitely drink coke in the company of others but also by themselves.  Similarly, individuals often go to gas stations with friends and family – not to mention that other people see you getting gas too. Further, given his argument, one would expect toilet paper, types of soap, or underwear* to virtually never be advertised.  Or consider make-up, that which once applied, has no explicit brand-message, shouldn’t be advertised since no-one needs to know what you are wearing.  Clearly, this isn’t the case.

Relatedly, motivations for how we want to be seen by others and how we want to see ourselves can differ and be in conflict. Our motivations can shift from buying products in-line with how we see ourselves now, buying products in-line with how we’d like to see ourselves, and buying products to signal some attribute to others.   For example, a colleague of mine is a Harley Davidson Biker and on weekends he loves getting on his bike. Being a Harley rider is a huge part of his life and his identity.  However, he’s also an academic and is aware of the associations connected to being a Harley Rider.  As such, he generally hides this part of his life at the office, rarely riding his bike to his school (but still opts to sometimes wear a Harley shirt underneath his suit/work-clothes).

Second, the author argues that an ad should scale even more than linearly with the size of the audience.  However, this is not necessarily true (and arguably the opposite is true as will be discussed next), at least not for the reasons specified.  It may be true, in that mass advertising conveys some information simply by being mass advertised.  That is, large scale advertising says something positive about the firm’s size, popularity, success, and subsequent quality.  As alluded to in the phone example, Samsung’s dominance is due, in large part, to conveying that they are the best and most popular Android phone.  People assume it’s the best because it’s the one they see the most advertised.

However, the most effective/efficient way to advertise is to target the specific people who care about those associations.  The ads during the commercial break of ‘The Bachelor’ are different compared to ads during an average NFL game.  Fox News shows different ads than the ads during Saturday morning children’s cartoons. Marketers have learned to shift from ‘broadcasting’ to ‘narrowcasting’ and ‘targeted advertising’ – where ads are specifically targeted to people with specific values and preferences.  As noted earlier, we are exposed to so many different pieces of information and in order to break through this clutter, the message has to resonate with the consumer.  As such, a lot of market research is designed to understand what the target customer values and where they will be exposed to media.  By understanding what a customer values, messaging can be crafted to build the specific association and value proposition that will motivate a consumer to buy it.

The lack of being two-faced as described by the author (e.g. creating multiple associations for multiple targets) is a function of needing to form clear and consistent associations. This is important regardless of whether the product is conspicuous or not and thus is not simply a function of cultural imprinting.  Brands often either completely or partially mask products they wish to convey different associations for.  For example, Unilever owns both Axe and Dove but purposefully hides this fact. While Dove has built its brand focusing on body-positivity for women, Axe has traditionally focused on sexualizing women.  Could you imagine if both were both prominently branded under the umbrella of Unilever?

That being said, some companies that have very broad and abstract associations can pull this off, adjusting their targeting slightly, but still remaining consistent.  Apple for example can target the youth, selling the association of creativity, status, and/or independence while targeting parents and the elderly with associations of family and/or simplicity.

Lastly, it isn’t entirely clear what point the author is trying to make with his ‘personalized selling’ section at the end of the post.  Indeed, people do attempt to motivate themselves by cutting out models and posting them on their mirror in an attempt to motivate them towards more healthy goals.  Further the idea of Pavlovian-style stimulus-response marketing that the author suggests in this section is clearly just a strawman of how marketing works – a point he makes earlier in the post. A “personalized ad with the slogan “Be more social” imposed next to a supermodel or private jet” would not make one more social – but it might make the ‘be more social’ goal more accessible and motivate one to buy some luxury goods to help achieve that goal.


Final thoughts on Marketing


As noted, there is debate about whether marketing simply reflects current cultural values or actually creates them.  However, at the very least, it effects our culture by keeping certain values more or less accessible and creating the associations we think will help achieve them.  Thus, like any science or technology, it is a tool that can be used for good, such as informing and motivating individuals to donate to a charity or to a hurricane relief fund, or for ‘evil’ – motivating people to smoke because it’s cool.



Although I don’t share the view that specific brands need to create cultural imprint to be successful, I share a somewhat related view that marketing (and media in general) help to establish a generalized cultural imprint that establishes our normative values.  A UCLA longitudinal study since 1967 has found a significant change in our primary values.  Whereas in 1967, community and benevolence ranked as the most important values – fame and achievement became the most important values in 2007.  While many things have likely contributed to this shift, surely marketing with it’s focus on individualism, independence, and the importance of status have been a factor.

UCLA Study.png

These norms are extremely important, but we are often completely oblivious to their effects.  They shape what we care about and how we go about achieving them.  I pointed out the shift in values with the intention of elucidating how misguided we have come, barely realizing the irony that I only feel that way because the value of community and benevolence are my norm.  Had you taken this survey and assigned fame and achievement as your most important values, you likely would have not seen an issue.  Rather you’d feel that we have moved in the right direction.

Questions about what we ought to care about go beyond this post. However, I think it’s important to realise that values we have and the things we think we want are influenced by the marketing around us. There’s so much information that we often fail to stop and really think about what it is we want and why.  We would do well as a society to take a step back and reflect on where we want to go and how we want to get there.


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*One may say that underwear is sometimes seen and thus ought to be advertised under this view.   However, if advertisements were meant to imprint some cultural value and signal some form of status/identity, it would follow that underwear advertisements should focus on some status/identity component.  While some obviously do (e.g. Victoria Secret, or Versace for men), others tend to focus comfort or durability.




In Search of Meaning: Nationalism, Identity, and Well-being



Friedrich Nietzsche is famously remembered for having stated that “God is Dead’.  However, while many take this as a triumphant assertion, the remainder of this quote demonstrates that this was not a celebratory exclamation, but one of fear; fear that this eventual realisation by others would lead to despair and nihilism.  Nietzsche was not alone in worrying about what the death of god would mean to people.  Hegel, for example, wrote about how the death of god left an abyss in man; while Kierkegaard, considered by some to be the father of existentialism, found his meaning in faith[1].

This is not to say that god or religion are necessary or sufficient for meaning.  However, a sense of connectedness to others – the idea that you are more than just an individual but part of a larger whole seems to be vital.  Indeed, people find meaning in things like their family, community, country, or their jobs. But these too have been crumbling. People rarely get to know those that live on their street, opting instead for online communities.  Good and meaningful jobs are becoming more difficult to come by, but even those that exist, still lack the security they once had.   Families have become more spread out, with individuals often moving away for school or to find work.

I recall listening to Richard Dawkins answer a question about how one is to find meaning without god and he laughed at the query, detailing the beauty that life has to offer and the wonder that comes from exploring it scientifically.  However, Dawkins, who for over 40 years, has been a well-respected, highly published author and scientist, has clearly not had to face the dread that comes with worrying about whether you matter[2].  Adding to the culmination of knowledge in such a significant way, clearly imbues one with a feeling of purpose and connectedness. Although one may be able to draw meaning from the beauty and wonder of nature, it is not something that comes inherently.

The underlying motivation for meaning is that[3] knowledge of our mortality causes an ultimate sense of psychological conflict and terror. Knowing we are going to die, and not wanting to die motivates us to either avoid this thought (e.g. we don’t actually die, we go to heaven) or to make some significance of our life.  We create art and monuments.  We also build meaning systems, identities, and cultures, connecting ourselves as important pieces in some greater path.  We need to feel as if our existence is meaningful, that the beliefs we hold are the right ones, and that our goals have inherent value. ‘Democracy vs. Communism’ or ‘Axis Vs. Allies’. Ultimately, we get our sense of self and our sense of meaning from connecting ourselves to some greater cultural whole, believing in the superiority of that cultural worldview, and by living up to or excelling within the standards of that culture.


This universal search for meaning helps to explain the large cultural shifts we’ve seen across the globe.  Small communities may be gone, but large nation states remain.  Cultural and religious identities may be waning, but ethnic and gender identities have endured.  Individuals may not get the sense of success that comes with a hard day’s work, but they can undergo a 10-hour grinding session to level up their online characters.

Consider the rise of the alternative-right (alt-right), characterized as right-wing individuals who reject mainstream conservatism, while supporting nationalism, anti-immigration, and men’s right advocacy.  Economist Jeffrey Tucker has argued that to the alt-right “identity is everything and the loss of identity is the greatest crime against self anyone can imagine” In a time, where globalization has moved towards a more relativistic view of culture, feminism has advocated for greater equality between genders, while we’ve also seen the diminished importance of religion, family, community, and the feeling of being a useful member of society, it is no wonder that there is pushback.  Many people need a sense of order, hierarchy, and the sense that they are on top.  It’s not just us vs. them; it’s ‘us’ are better than them.

The great irony is that the largest antagonist to the alt-right, the so-called, ‘social-justice warrior’ (SJW) liberal, is the other side of the same coin. While the right is clearly equally concerned about their identity, social-justice warriors are often attacked for their identity politics.  However, whereas the alt-right have sought meaning by doubling down on their national, gender, or their religious/cultural identity, SJWs have focused on a belief system of multiculturalism, diversity, and an emphasis of vindictive protectiveness.  These extreme-left individuals draw their meaning and identity from this shared system of beliefs. This organizing set of beliefs becomes akin to a religion and failure to pay homage to it, or worse, challenge it, leads one to be shamed as a bigot or racist. It’s not just us vs. them; it’s ‘us’ are better than them.


Louis C.K. once joked that everything is amazing and no-one is happy. Indeed, suicide rates have surged in the past 20 years – with an average of 121 suicides per day in the United States (and white males making up about 70% of that). While the joke resonated with many, it failed to take into account the importance of meaning on an individual’s well-being. In the West, we have had been told to focus on happiness – that things or experiences can satisfy these needs.  However, not only does attempting to be happier, typically make us less happy, but being happy does not necessarily correspond with being psychologically well.

People need more than just fleeting hedonic happiness.  Rather, the feeling that one is living up to their potential or that they are living in accordance with some true nature is vital for human flourishing.  For example, the enjoyment I receive writing this blog post is fundamentally different from the enjoyment from a delicious meal.  Similarly, it would be silly to compare the happiness one gets from raising a child to the happiness of an orgasm.  While the latter may lead to a fleeting hedonic happiness, the former typically results in a greater well-being as a function of a greater sense of purpose, connectedness, and meaning.

We now live in a world where many of the simple pleasures of the past are hard to come by.  Rarely do neighbours stop by simply to lounge around with friends and family, share a meal, or tell stories.  Religious and cultural rituals which often help connect us have also taken a backseat.  For example, in the Jewish tradition, not only are you required to pray three times a day, but that you ought to do it communally with at least ten men. Regardless of your religious beliefs, meeting up and sharing an experience with at least nine other individuals, three times a day, would ostensibly help alleviate feelings of a lack of connectedness and thus provide a greater sense of meaning. One time I was in a situation where I was needed to come be the tenth person.  Although I’m not at all religious or even a believer, simply being needed to achieve this silly goal provided a small sense of purpose and subsequent wellbeing.

It is no secret that many individuals feel disconnected.  Take a ride on a bus or a subway and you’ll see a group of individuals sitting as far away as possible, not talking, or even making eye contact.  Even the thought of striking up a conversation fills us with dread.  Rather, it is easy to fall back into the security of our cell-phones and our belief that our solitude makes us happy.  However, this assumption is wrong – People feel happier after talking to a stranger compared to sitting by themselves. 

We live in a world where despite a constant search for meaning, we seem to continue losing it.  Those that haven’t relegated themselves into a new community of shared beliefs, like the alt-right or the SJW-left, tend to feel lost with no obvious path out.  It is ironic that in a world with technology that is more connected than ever we feel more alone. Rather, we use this technology to temporarily avoid and distract from our feelings of meaningless and connectedness, rather than by deeply satisfying it.  The steps we need to take may feel awkward but they are not challenging. Invite a friend over for dinner and talk to a stranger on the street.  Find a shared interest: join a sports team or an art-club or go to the dog park with your dog.  Or Find a passion: Learn a skill, study a subject, go back to school.  Ultimately, we need to change this societal norm of individualistic solitude and banality and redefine what it means to be part of a collectivistic group with goals.  By feeling like an important part of a whole we can find our sense of meaning.


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[1] Kierkegaard’s view of faith argued that faith was not a dogmatic regurgitation of religious doctrine, but rather a subjective passion that could not be taught by a priest.

[2] Although one can’t fault Dawkins too much, he is not a psychologist, and so understanding why the wonderment of life would not suffice for the average person may not be something he has thought about to deeply.

[3] The main and most validated hypothesis

The True Cost of Political Polarization

After World War II, aid provided to Europe, helped these countries recover and develop into the prosperous union they are today.  However, despite over a trillion dollars of aid to Africa over the past 60 years, many African countries and their citizens remain in deep poverty.  There are a number of reasons for this discrepancy, but one of the primary drivers is their instability and the ubiquity of civil clashes. Over the past 20 years, 11 countries have been involved in civil war, but even this is an improvement from its peak in the 1980s and 1990s.

However, even within the peaceful countries, for example Ethiopia, which hasn’t experienced a civil war since 1991, competition breeds instability.  This competition is motivated not just by leaders vying for power, but by a fragmented and polarized population.  Subsequently political parties are unable to mobilize their citizens to achieve a common good.  According to Merera Gudina, an associate professor in Political Science and International Relations at Addis Ababa University:

“Conspiracy and political intrigues have become the hallmark of the Ethiopian political parties and their leaders with the resultant effect of frustration, disillusionment and demobilization of the common folks across the country. To put differently, political leaders are more active in undermining coalitions than alliance building while their vision is blurred to aggregate societal interests for a broader national development goals”

The above quote could just as easily be written about the current state of U.S. politics (and also to Canadian and European Politics).  A cursory glance at the news reveals dozens of cases of hypocrisy where Republicans fight against Democrats (and vice-versa), only to reverse or ignore their own demands when it serves them.  For instance, just recently, Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, who requested a complete ethics vetting and financial disclosures of cabinet nominees, only to dismiss the same concerns when applied to Trump’s cabinet.

The debt ceiling, blocking the supreme court nomination, the list could go on and on. Perhaps the most stressing example was the response to the Affordable Health Care act.  The U.S. suffered (and continues to suffer) from ballooning costs, uninsured Americans, and a general inefficient system of health care. However, the reluctance and general lackadaisical motivation to join the rest of the first world in developing a universal health care system could have worked in their ultimate benefit.  By studying the numerous systems in place, the U.S. could have learned from other countries’ mistakes and built a well-oiled health care system.

And yet, at every turn, the Republicans sabotaged the ACA. From refusing to expand Medicaid, to declining to create state insurance exchanges, and even blocking improvements when weaknesses were exposed, the Republicans have invested a great deal of time and money in an attempt to publicize misinformation and ensure a disastrous implantation, even comparing the ACA to slavery and suggesting that it allows patients to come to doctors’ houses and conscript them.  A much needed system that could have been a bipartisan olive branch to a hurting population became so polarized that even those who benefited demonized it.  In an attempt to damage the reputation of Barack Obama and the Democrats, the Republicans made millions of Americans suffer.

Or consider the complete lack of concern by Republicans with regards to Putin and Russia’s involvement in the election.  Just imagine for a moment, particularly if you are a Republican reading this, what one would have thought, said, and done, if Hillary had won the election and the same information came out suggesting that Putin had been helping her? Would Republicans have been so easily dismissive? Or would they have subjugated Clinton and the Democrats to dozens of hearings, as they had done with Benghazzi?

As I was writing this, a new bombshell was released, which has suggested that Russia has compromising and salacious personal information about Trump and subsequently may have been using this information to influence or blackmail him.  These reports remain unsubstantiated and so the only thing we should do is to remain vigilante and wait for more information.

Yet the polarization is already in full swing, with Trump opponents confident in their assertion of Trump as Putin’s puppet, while Trump supporters denying these allegations as a political witch hunt. No matter the outcome, this hurts the U.S. democracy.  If the allegations turn out to be untrue,  Trump supporters will have more reason to dismiss future concerns, regardless of how legitimate, while Trump opponents will likely hold some residual belief of Trump as a Russian co-opted President. On the other hand, If the allegations are verified, Trump opponents will have even greater reason for dismissing the concerns and preferences of rural America, while Trump supporters will have to somehow come to terms with the fact that they have been duped by an obvious con-man.  It is frightening that in light of unsubstantiated allegations, Trump opponents were willing to immediately disavow the leadership of their country, while Trump supporters were completely unwilling to consider them.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Indeed, for many years, it was not. In 1964, 27 Republicans joined 44 Democrats to help pass the Civil Rights Act.  Bipartisanship collaboration allowed the creation of NASA, which led to Neil Armstrong landing on the moon in 1969.  Democrats joined Richard Nixon and the Republicans to develop the Endangered Species Act in 1973.  When bipartisan support cannot be reached, there can at least be compromise.  For example, in 1986 Democrats favored simplifying the system and eliminating loopholes, Republicans favored treating capital gains and investment income the same as regular income (which was changed in 2003).

Congress polarization images adapted from here

Almost everyone wants the same thing.  They want a life of liberty, security, and justice. There may be different paths to achieve them and trade-offs or compromises are sometimes required.  But there are better and worse solutions, and those solutions rarely exist polarized on one end of the political spectrum.

During last night’s Farewell speech by President Obama, he echoed these ideas, far more eloquently than I could:

“Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity – the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”

“None of this is easy.  For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions.  The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste – all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.  And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.

“How do we excuse ethical lapses in our own party, but pounce when the other party does the same thing?  It’s not just dishonest, this selective sorting of the facts; it’s self-defeating.  Because as my mother used to tell me, reality has a way of catching up with you.”

Ultimately, the path forward is not always straight. The movement and progress of a society are like settlers exploring new terrain. Sometimes there will be arguments on the best path to take and sometimes you’ll take the wrong one.  But as long as the ultimate goals are the same, everyone moving together will always be better than some people holding the others back.


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Gender Identity and Free Speech: How Extreme Views Shape the Debate


On Saturday November 19th, University of Toronto professor, Ms. Jordan Peterson will participate in a debate surrounding gender identity and free speech. Her general argument is that there should be no legislation that enforces another person’s right to determine what pronouns you use to address them.

Ms. Peterson’s ultimate point is that this type of legislation is qualitatively different from current restrictions of free speech.  Whereas there are certain contexts where certain words should not be used, the current proposal is to enforce types of words that must be used.  While I agree with her with respect to the legal issues, I think both sides here are taking this problem to an extreme.

You may have noticed that I used the wrong pronouns in the opening two paragraphs, referring to Jordan as she, her, and Ms.  If Dr. Peterson had read that paragraph, I’m sure he would have been annoyed.  While he may have acknowledged my right to do it, he wouldn’t be happy with it.  If I was applying to be a graduate student of his and continuously called him by the wrong pronoun, I’m sure it would be a strike against me.

Two things must be acknowledged at this point.

The first is that my use of the wrong pronouns here is not illegal, but it is disrespectful.  By failing to call Dr. Peterson by his preferred pronoun, I am, at-best, being rude.  People are well within their right to ask others to call them by a preferred pronoun and dislike those that don’t.  Of course, mutual respect should be granted on both sides.  Mistakenly calling someone the wrong pronoun need not be grounds for immediate condemnation.  Just as I would expect someone to politely correct me if I pronounced their name imperfectly, I would expect the same for erroneously using the wrong pronoun.  We should strive to be respectful of one another and purposefully using the wrong pronoun or refusing to learn the correct one is the antithesis of that.  Ultimately, people are well within their right to want the use of proper pronouns – but they are not well within their right to demand it.

However, although we should strive to be respectful of one another, there is a difference between correctly categorizing people and creating a variety of new categories; especially when it seems that the plethora of growing gender pronouns does not map onto any sense of reality.  The use of multiple types of non-binary gender pronouns appears to be the product of different linguists, Campuses, Newspapers, or Countries, all proposing their own versions and then never settling on one

While there is some research that suggests that some people do not identify strongly with either male or female and therefore identifying as not male nor female is as psychologically valid as identifying as either of them.  Lucky for us, English has already invented a pronoun for just this occasion: They, them, their, themself.  However, I recognize that they may be less than ideal because it has other connotations (e.g. referring to multiple people) and thus the creation of one new set of pronouns may be in order.

And yet a list of dozen iterations have been proposed.   If you prefer an academic piece see here or for a proposal by a University see here


Preference of one set of pronouns such as e/ey, ve, xe, ze, or the overabundance of others seems to be the product of personal choice and not due to some real concern over mental health.  Demanding others learn and use your specific pronoun then corresponds with selfishness and self-absorption[1]. Can I make up my own pronouns and demand to be called by that? To draw this ridiculousness to an extreme, what if I want my pronoun to be Lord God Savior King of the Seven seas. I can’t demand to be called whatever I want, can I?

The fight now has seemingly been taken to an extreme where very few are actually planting a flag. On the one side, you have people like Peterson who seemingly refuse to call people by the pronoun they want, even if it is a standard he, she, or they[2].  As noted, I can agree with the legal argument, but who really is fighting for the right to be offensive? When we know that certain people do not identify with their biological sex, isn’t this just common courtesy and basic respect?

However, on the other hand, you have some people who are seeking the legal enforcement of being called by their proper gender pronouns.  Further, they are seemingly seeking not just the addition of a single non-binary category but many, despite there not being any real difference between them[2].  It is fair to ask to be treated with respect, but to make it not only difficult, but illegal to not do so, is clearly overkill.

Peterson’s push-back on the legal and functional issues are completely justified but unfortunately it swings the pendulum too far. It positions the response as an over-correction, in which it is not just legal to use the wrong pronouns, but also completely appropriate. I imagine that Peterson would have been very content calling people by their preferred pronoun of he, she, or they – if it was just a friendly request and not a legal threat.

I’d wager that most people fall in the middle and would agree with a simple solution: Choose a single set of non-binary pronouns, treat everyone with respect, don’t legislate it.

Giving voice to those most extreme causes everyone to drift into their own respective corner. By allowing those with the most extreme views to shape the debate, we unnecessarily divide ourselves.


Author Note: If you enjoyed this post, feel free to share it and/or subscribe.  You can also email me personally at



[1]. As far as I can tell.  I’m open to learning that there are psychological differences between them, but currently that doesn’t seem to be the case.  Further, while not trying to learn someone’s preferred pronouns can be viewed as similarly selfish, it is unclear whether reinforcing this sense of extreme individuation is healthy for a person.  Lastly, while learning one set of pronouns for one person may be doable, the problem becomes much more difficult if one engages with dozens of non-binary individuals, each with their own preferred set of pronouns.

[2] It’s actually hard to know exactly where Peterson stands on this issue.  More often than not he seems quite reasonable, but occasionally he presents himself as an ideologue.  Does Peterson categorically reject calling people their preferred pronoun – even if it just a switch of he to she? or is his concern more about the legal and functional aspects?  I’ve read a few interviews and it is still not entirely clear.   In an interview with the CBC, Peterson was asked: “Professor Peet would like to be addressed by the pronoun “they” — do you accept that?” to which he replied: “The mere fact that professor Peet would like to be addressed by a particular pronoun does not mean that I am required to address him by that pronoun. That doesn’t mean that I deny his existence or the existence of people who don’t fit neatly in binary gender categories. I reserve the right to use my own language and I’m perfectly willing to take that to its conclusion. If it’s the case that I can’t use my language the way that I see fit, because I’m using my language to formulate and articulate the truth in the clearest manner I can possibly manage and if that lands me in legal trouble — well, so be it.”   It’s unclear whether Peterson is arguing solely against the legal aspects, or against the functional aspects.  What’s odd is that although Peterson admits to the existence of ‘people who don’t fit neatly in binary gender categories’, minutes later he responds with “I don’t believe that it’s reasonable for our society to undermine the entire concept of binary gender in order to hypothetically accommodate a tiny minority of people.”


Black Lives Matter Isn’t Just About Race.  It’s About Trust in Police and the Justice System.




Imagine having a conversation with someone who felt that doctors were quacks and the entire medical field was dishonest.  When a failed surgery that resulted in a death made the news, this person would use this as evidence of the underlying problems in the medical field. They would probably argue for solutions like better training and better oversight; solutions you probably agree with.  But then they would point out that the doctor was not punished and argue that at the very least, they should lose their medical licence and maybe even imprisoned.

You might try to reason with them about how being a doctor is difficult and sometimes mistakes are made but that nothing they did was grossly negligent. You might even become irritated, trying to explain that doctors are extremely important to keeping our society safe and healthy.  It wouldn’t matter: Doctors are quacks and when they screw up, they need to be punished.

I’ve recently engaged in a number of discussions about the need to hold police to a higher standard.  Although, I stayed away from the issue of race in my arguments, virtually all of the responses have been very similar to the ones made against advocates of the Black Lives Matter movement.  People would agree with my solutions like the need for better training and oversight, but wouldn’t agree with the notion that when the police screwed up, they needed to be punished.  I couldn’t understand where the disconnect was, until I realised that it was an underlying difference in how we trusted police and the justice system.  Returning to the doctor analogy; To me – Police are corrupt and when they screw up, they need to be punished.

A recent Gallup Poll puts trust in police at about 52%.  While that’s not abysmal – it means that half the population isn’t too trusting of the police.  I fall into that latter half, even though I’m a law-abiding white PhD student.  When I see a police officer, I become more frightened. If I’m driving and a police car pulls up behind me, I start worrying.  If I’m outside and police officer walks by, their presence makes me uneasy.

Differences in trust cause differences in perception.  When situations are ambiguous, people will selectively interpret what they see.

These intuitions come from a number of statistics and events that are highly accessible to me.  Things like a 4.1% false conviction for capital punishment or that an estimated 10,000 people are falsely convicted every year.  Events of police corruption and police misconduct become salient evidence in support of my intuitions.  Criminal acts, even when on duty, are just another strike.  Couple all of this with my disagreement with many drug laws, of which tens of thousands of people are incarcerated, costing people their lives and the state billions of dollars – one might be able to understand at least why these intuitions persist.

And that’s also why Black people are the most vocal about the police.  The same Gallup poll, finds black people’s trust at 30%; and for good reasons.  Although white kids are more likely to use drugs, black individuals are 10 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes.  Black people are also more likely to be convicted for the same crime and also more likely to serve harsher penalties.  I’m a white PhD student and I am uneasy when I see a police officer.  I can only imagine the fear and distrust that must surround black individuals.

Differences in trust cause differences in perception.  When situations are ambiguous, people will selectively interpret what they see.  Was the person acting dangerously? Did the police act negligently or were they justified in their actions? In many police shootings, especially those caught on tape, defenders of police argue that they were justified while opponents argue they were not.  How can people watching the same video have such wildly different opinions?

These differences in perceptions not only become reality, they reinforce it. Police that are seen as almost always justified in their shootings just provide more evidence for how difficult and challenging a job they have, while police shootings that are seen as unjustified, breed more distrust and contempt. Try to have an honest conversation about a police shooting with someone who doesn’t share your level of trust and it feels like you are watching two different videos or talking about two different events. Virtually any video of a police shooting will simply serve to polarize the two sides of the debate.

One of the earliest truths uncovered in psychology is how instinctively we obey and submit to authority.  But people only do so when that authority is trusted, legitimate, and respected. When the population is split on the legitimacy of police authority, it is no wonder that individuals disagree so vehemently on the actions of police.

These differences in perceptions not only become reality, they reinforce it. Police that are seen as almost always justified in their shootings just provide more evidence for how difficult and challenging a job they have, while police shootings that are seen as unjustified, breed more distrust and contempt

Race and racism obviously matter – insofar as they affect trust and perception.  Individuals may explicitly condemn racism, but they likely still hold implicit biases.  We know that even black people hold some implicit biases about their own race, and these implicit biases can lead to things like misjudging a cellphone for a gun or perceiving black people as more violent for the same actions.  It’s no wonder why people might feel that the police were more justified in their response of a black person or why police are quicker to shoot in those cases.

A solution to this problem is not simple.  Intuitions underlying the trust of police and the justice system are not going to be undone in a couple days or even a couple years.  Police are public servants, sworn to uphold our laws. That position of power cannot be overstated.  As cliché as it may sound, with great power comes great responsibility, and police need to be held to a higher standard.  Any instances of unethical behavior, no matter how inconsequential, needs to be dealt with swiftly and harshly.  On the other hand, people need to understand that the risk of danger that comes with the job leads police to be on red-alert. While being on red-alert cannot be a justifiable reason to shoot someone who doesn’t pose a threat, people need to understand that perception is reality and that failing to comply or moving quickly is likely to be perceived as one.

Trust in our justice system is fundamental to a healthy, stable, and safe society.  Societies that lose faith in their justice system devolve.  To paraphrase John Adams, when people lose faith in the justice system, they also begin to believe that it doesn’t matter how they behave, ‘for virtue itself is no security’

The Black Lives Matter movement is a signal that many people have begun to lose faith in the justice system – but it’s also an attempt to restore it.  You may not agree with the rhetoric, the actions, or even that there is a problem related to race, but what can’t be denied is that the perception of injustice is strong and growing.  Our justice system is not perfect.  Innocent people are jailed and guilty people are free.  Some laws are unjust and many immoral acts are not illegal.  We can argue about identity politics and whether #AllLivesMatter, or we can come together, admit there are injustices, and work to improve the sense of trust in our police and justice system.

Author Note 1:  This post isn’t really about Black Lives Matter and the title may be a bit of a red herring.  Although the BLM movement motivated me to think about this issue – the focus of the post is about trust in the justice system. I added the word ‘just’ to the title to hopefully clarify this concern.

Author Note 2: If you enjoyed (or hated) this post, feel free to share it, leave a comment, and/or subscribe.  You can also email me personally at



















Identity Politics and The Illusion of Progress


Anyone who has paid any attention to the cultural climate of the last few years has seen a shift in our discourse. Inclusiveness, political correctness, equity, social justice, regressive leftism, call it what you want.  A culture that is fixated on identity, diversity, and the equitable treatment of different groups of people.  In many ways, this change is extremely laudable.  Marginalized individuals, who for centuries, have been stereotyped, discriminated and experienced prejudice are finally being given a voice.  Because they are voices that society has often ignored or downplayed, I would argue that their voices are ones that we need to pay more attention to.

But there is a difference between paying more attention to a voice and automatically agreeing with it. Marginalized groups often have something new and important to say, but that doesn’t mean everything they say is right. Similarly, the voices of those who have not been historically marginalized, still have a right to their voice and may have important things to say.  Two things can be true at the same time: We can acknowledge that individuals of power and privilege may not fully understand or appreciate the difficulties that others face, while at the same time acknowledge that those same people of power and privilege may also have something worthwhile to say. To paraphrase MLK Jr., it’s important to judge the content of one’s ideas and not the identity of the person saying it.

According to a new poll, Canadians think that a gay Prime Minister is likely in the next 10 years [1] .  Not only is it not beneficial, but it is counterproductive to use the identity of the Prime Minister as a reason to vote for him/her. That’s not to say that having a gay Prime Minister would not be a testament to the progressiveness of our culture, but there is a fundamental and important difference between a society that elects a gay Prime Minister and a society that elects a Prime Minister because they are gay.  Electing a gay Prime Minister because they are gay would not be symbolic of a progressive culture, but rather, symbolic of a culture that wants to appear progressive.

There is a fundamental and important difference between a society that elects a gay Prime Minister and a society that elects a Prime Minister because they are gay. Electing a gay Prime Minister because they are gay would not be symbolic of a progressive culture, but rather, symbolic of a culture that wants to appear progressive.

People should not treat identity like Pokemon.  When electing or hiring individuals for positions, it’s not required that you ‘catch them all.’  Of course, if we see cases of either explicit, implicit, or systematic racism, steps should be taken to try and mitigate these effects, but that doesn’t mean that diversity must be guaranteed.  Once again, two things can be true at the same time: Diversity can be important for generating new, different, and important insights but that doesn’t mean that more diversity is always better.

Canada likes to pat itself on the back for having had a female Prime Minister, Kim Campbell.  Even President Obama has lauded Canada for having a female Prime Minister.  However, Kim Campbell only had the position for four months and wasn’t elected, she received the job after the previous Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, stepped down.

Having had a female Prime Minister has only provided the illusion of progressiveness, but at least we, as Canadians, are now able to check off that box and be proud that we’re so inclusive.  This is why basing decisions on identity can be counterproductive. It provides a license for us to think we’ve achieved equality, when in reality, we’ve only achieved the appearance of it. That’s not to say, we should now go out of our way to elect a female (or gay or black) Prime Minister, but rather we need to continue working on building a system that encourages that the best person for the job rises to the top, regardless of their gender, race, or sexual orientation.

When Barack Obama became President of the United States, some people suggested that there was clearly no more racism in America. If Hilary Clinton wins, it should be despite her being a woman, not because of it.

The great irony of promoting equality is that in order to ensure that people aren’t being treated differently because of their identity, you have to focus and treat people differently based on their identity.  But there is middle ground, between completely ignoring or accepting systemic discrimination and systematically regulating and promoting diversity. In many ways the pendulum has swung too far. On both ends, the group you belong to has becomes more important than who you are.

The great irony of promoting equality is that in order to ensure that people aren’t being treated differently because of their identity, you have to focus and treat people differently based on their identity.

To many, it feels that if you aren’t openly advocating for one extreme position, then you are promoting the other.  For example, Madeline Albright has implied that if you do not want to vote for Hilary Clinton because she’s a woman, then ‘there is a special place in hell for you.’[2]  Surely, people might not want to vote for Hilary Clinton because of her policies or character. I do wonder, did Madeline Albright vote for Sarah Palin?

A culture that promotes discourse like this, may get some people to pay lip-service to diversity and it likely encourages some people to act differently in public.  But it also can result in backlash and the backlash seems to be growing. If individuals are forced into these groups of us vs. them, it unnecessarily promotes division.  Returning to the Canadian Prime Minister poll, people seemingly feel the need to express that it’s likely to see a gay prime minister in the next 10 years, for fear of feeling or appearing homophobic, even if mathematically, it is unlikely.  To be fair, one may interpret the poll more positively, noting that it demonstrates that Canadians are not only willing, but anticipating a gay person to run for office, which I would argue is good social change.  But what concerns me is what happens when these same people are faced with the situation of voting for a gay person that they don’t like? How might they react if they are told that not voting for this person makes them homophobic? People don’t take kindly to having their character threatened and are subsequently likely to polarize in the opposite direction. I do wonder how many people are now motivated to vote for Trump, because they were told that they ‘had’ to vote for Hilary.

To deny the continued existence of racism, sexism, and homophobia – both overt and systemic would be ludicrous.  However, the solution to inhibit the thoughts and actions of anything that might be perceived as bigoted is also not ideal, and is often counterproductive.  There is a fine line when establishing norms of equality – too little and the systemic and explicit racism will continue, too much and individuals will further polarize into their respective groups.  We should be moving to a society where everyone is willing to vote, hire, listen, or interact with a person, regardless of their identity not because of their identity.  The goal should never be to act a certain way because of one’s identity, but rather to always act in a certain way, despite it.


Author Note 2: If you enjoyed (or hated) this post, feel free to share it, leave a comment, and/or subscribe.  You can also email me personally at


[1] I am likely reading way too much into this poll.  It is more than likely simply symbolizes one’s allowance of a gay Prime Minister, not whether people actually think it is likely. Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter whether the prime minister is gay and the poll may simply reflect that. But if taken at face value, the odds of a gay prime minister in the next ten years are extremely unlikely (gay people make up a small percentage of the population and Currently, only 6 of the 338 MPs are openly gay (1.7%)).  And if people truly believe that it is likely, they believe that people will vote for one, regardless of their qualifications.

[2] She has apologized for the remark – although not for the content, just the context.

The Free Will Debate

The belief in free will is a foundation of our society. The idea that we don’t have it challenges our view of the world and tests everything that we value.  Our understanding of law, relationships, morality, success, and failure, all change based on whether we have free will.

I’ve long viewed myself as an incompatibilist – That is, that the truth about determinism, precludes the possibility of free will.  Because “everything that happens is determined by antecedent conditions[1] together with the natural laws,” behavior must also be determined by all the antecedent conditions.  That is, my successes, my failures, my thoughts and feelings, my writing of this post, are all the product of the near infinite series of causes and effects that led to this my point.

Which is why the compatibilist view has been so confusing to me and I’ve spent a good amount of time trying to understand that view. Although I think I now have a full understanding of that view, I still think, at best, it obfuscates the point.

The compatibilist agrees with determinism but still holds free will to be possible. However, this view obscures the concept of free will.  In essence, free will to the compatibilist is the possibility of choice. To elucidate the difference, imagine you are presented with a choice between a plate of vegetables and a plate of cookies and you choose the cookies.  To the incompatibilist, there was no free will in this choice: you chose the cookies because of a near infinite series of causes and effects. To the compatibilist, however, while they wouldn’t disagree with this point, they still argue that one has free will because a choice was possible. You chose the cookies freely (e.g. not under duress). You are responsible for that choice. Therefore you have free will.

Now, the compatibilist’s view has some important points.  Specifically, the general, if not overly simplified, argument, is that we need some form of free will to correspond to some form of responsibility.  For example, if one flips a coin, hoping for heads, and it lands on tails, we don’t hold the coin responsible for the outcome – because the coin obviously had no choice in the matter. It was simply the product of billions of interactions.  Similarly, if we truly believe that people don’t have free will, we can’t logically hold them responsible either. If we hold determinism to be true, is there a difference between someone who purposefully punches you in the face vs. someone who slips and accidentally hits you in the face? After-all, neither can be said to be truly responsible.

And it is for this reason that there must be free will to a compatibilist.  What else could explain how we conclude that the first person is responsible for their act but the second is not? Free will to a compatibilist is simply the fact that someone had a choice and acted on it. If we hold anyone responsible, it’s because we assume they acted with free will.

But there’s obvious functional differences between someone who purposefully punches you in the face vs. someone who slips and accidentally hits you in the face.  The former person is more likely to dislike you, be quick to violence, and do it again in the future.  In a related post, I talked about the differences and importance of varying degrees of responsibility, but to quickly summarize those thoughts – responsibility is important insofar as it predicts one’s character and their future behavior.  Indeed, if we learned that the person who purposefully punched you in the face had been slipped a drug that made him excessively aggressive – we would be less likely to hold them responsible.  But note that in both examples, it is product of a series of causes and effects leading to neurological changes that eventually conclude in a punch in the face. The only difference is that in the drug example, we think that it’s unlikely to be representative of one’s character and thus not likely to predict future behavior.

And here is the main reasons the compatibilist view misses the point of the free will debate.  While there may seem like a difference between punching someone and slipping and hitting someone, there isn’t.  The fact that we ascribe agency to ourselves and to others is ultimately a mistake[2].  It is a useful one, insofar as it helps us manage a society, but it is a mistake nonetheless. In both cases, the events are solely the response of a long chain of causes and effects.

To be fair, I tend to agree that the compatibilists are right when they argue that their concept of free will is the one we generally use in our everyday life.  When we ascribe responsibility[3] to anyone for anything, it is because we have implicitly acknowledged that they have ‘free will’ – that is they had the possibility of choice and acted on it.  When we learn that contracts were signed under duress or that an action was a complete unforeseen accident, we tend to acknowledge that the decision wasn’t made ‘freely’ and respond accordingly.

While the compatibilists might be right that this type of free will the one we generally talk about in everyday life, they are wrong in that it is the important one, both philosophically and psychologically. Arguing the compatibilist type of free will is a strawman.  No-one seriously thinks that the people don’t differ in their volitions and subsequent actions. Everyone can agree that the person who purposefully punches you in the face made that decision ‘freely’, while the person who slipped and hit you in the face, did not. While there may be some important nuances regarding when someone can and is acting freely (e.g. mental health, insanity plea, children), and these questions do deserve some attention, the idea that people differ in their relative freedom is seemingly a self-evident fact. Arguing in favor for free will in this context is like arguing whether water molecules are actually wet. Like the compatibilist of free will, everyone agrees that the subjective experience of water is wet, but the real question is whether the individual H20 molecules feel wet.

On the other hand, free will to the incompatibilist leads to a number of much more interesting and important questions. First, it calls into doubt the self-evident claim of relative freedom. For example, other than the practical reasons already laid out above, why exactly should we hold the person who punches someone in the face as responsible but not the person who slipped? And what should we do about the person who was drugged?

Consider the case of leaded fuel exposure and violent crime in the USA.




Although the research has been mainly correlational, let us assume that we’ve determined that there is a definitive biological reason that exposure to lead results in greater violence. Should someone who worked in lead fuel plant be held responsible for a violent act? My intuition says no – or at the very least he/she should be held less responsible. If anything, the ‘punishment’ should be treatment – detoxifying from the lead as best as possible. And yet, what if we never learned of this link? That same person, the person who had very obvious and realistic reasons for acting violently would be held just as responsible as anyone else who hadn’t been exposed to the lead.  But similar processes are happening to everyone at every second of the day – it’s just that the links are not very obvious or as direct. How then can we truly blame people for their actions?

Secondly, the idea that I am not the author of my thoughts is one that can result in serious existential angst. What am I as a person, if I am solely the product of near infinite series of causes and effects.  Anyone with exactly the same genetics and experiences would do exactly as I’m doing.  Why bother writing this post? Why bother with anything at all? To be fair, I don’t have a good answer to these questions, but these are important philosophical questions that must be addressed, and could be addressed if we could get past the compatibilist strawman view of free will.

Lastly, the incompatibilist view of free will makes us redefine the structure of our society. In an earlier post, I wrote about the Myth of the American Dream, in which I laid out a number of the reasons that the common belief that we are all free to prosper and succeed has some important limitations. I noted then that “each and every one of us is equally the result of a vast array of seemingly random, or at least unpredictable, processes that shape our lives from the moment we are born.  Circumstances that we do not choose shape our lives in drastic ways and result in vast inequalities before we ever begin.”

While writing it, I couldn’t help but also want to touch on the elephant in the room – free will. Not only is a child born into an abusive family, stricken with poverty, negligent parents, and bad schools, etc. clearly in a worse spot than those born into supportive, wealthy families, with good schools – but that even controlling for all of that, we still have to contend that our thoughts and are actions are not our own, at least not really.

What determines whether someone is going to be Bill Gates or a homeless person is the near infinite series of causes and effects. In other words, why is Bill Gates who he is? Could you have been a billionaire if you just worked harder? Maybe, but if you didn’t work harder then is it because ‘chose’ not to work harder?

Now, I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea.  As I said earlier, a system of rewards and punishments is quite necessary. Compatibilists like to think that if we acknowledge that there is no free will than we can’t have responsibility and then we’ll do whatever we want – but that’s asinine.  It’s similar to arguing that if there is no god, then we would just go around raping, killing, and doing whatever we want. The logic does not follow. We can build a system that rewards and punishes people based on successes and failures that most benefit society even if we ultimately acknowledge that whether we succeed or fail is not really a function of ourselves.

What does logically follow though is that our understanding of fairness changes.  Rewards and punishments are no longer as extreme. In a world concerned about huge gaps of inequality, the lack of free will is the checkmate. The lack of free will lays out that your successes and failures are not really your own. Rather, they are the product of every experience before us. Systems and societies need to be redesigned to try and ensure that people don’t feel the need to seek out crime. For those that do, punishment serves as a deterrence, protection from society, and rehabilitation.  Notions of retribution and vengeance become barbaric ideas of the past.

Ultimately, a true acknowledgement in our lack of free will changes everything we think we know. Even while acknowledging this truth, we can still accept that there are relative levels of ‘freedom’ that coincide with individual character, volitions, and its predictive nature of future behaviors and subsequently responsibility. By understanding these differences, we can grapple with what a world without free will means and begin to develop a society that embraces it.

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[1]The notion that some events are random or probabilistically determined does not change my view of determinism or incompatibilism.  If it’s true that certain atomic properties behave randomly or stochastically then all that logically follows is that some of my thoughts/actions are random or probabilistically determined. It does not follow that randomness = the ability to choose. All that follows is that choices may be in part influenced by some level of randomness.  Ultimately, I may not be an incompatabilist in the formal sense, but I find the logic easier to explain and subsequently grasp if one begins with determinism as a premise.

[2] ‘Mistake’ may not be the most operative word.  The main argument is that if we truly understood all the causes that led to an action, we would see little difference (aside from the obvious pragamatic reasons outlined), between the two actions.  Because we don’t see all the causes the led to the action, we assign responsibility differently. As an analogy, imagine that a person was under duress to make a decision, but you didn’t know that. Subsequently, you would think he made his decision freely, despite him not having free will, and subsequently would hold him responsible. Now consider the example of the man with the tumor that makes him violent and if/when removed made him not violent. In that case, until we learned about the tumor, we held him responsible for his violent actions, but then once we learned about the tumor, we stopped holding him responsible. Well, if everything is just ‘tumors,’ (billions, trillions of them, all interacting with each other – random or deterministic) but we just don’t know about them, then you can see how we make ‘mistakes’ by holding people responsible.

[3] I don’t know if responsibility is necessary predicated on free will.  One can think of examples in which people are responsible, despite not having any free will in the matter. Consider a driver who slips on black ice and gets into an accident – he is responsible, despite not really having free will in the matter.  Perhaps, one might think that choosing to drive comes with the inherent risks like slipping on black ice.  So consider another example – sitting on a chair at a friends house which breaks.  We might still hold the person responsible to replace it.