This is the second post in a series called Commercialism and Faith, in which I will explore the relationship between the language of our culture (commercialism) and how we view and relate to God.
Advertisers often play on something psychologists call Loss Aversion. Loss Aversion is an aspect of Prospect Theory, a theory that seeks to determine why people make certain decisions. Loss Aversion suggests people are more motivated to avoid losing something than they are to acquire something new. For instance, in a study done on a street in Las Vegas, passers by were given a twenty-dollar bill and then given the opportunity to double their money by betting on a single card. They could walk away with the twenty, or double their money. Most participants chose to walk away from the game, keeping the twenty-dollar bill they had just been given. But when the game was changed and the participants were given forty dollars, only to have twenty taken back a moment later and then given a chance to win back the twenty taken from them, nearly all participants decided to take the same risk and get back what they had lost. In other words, when they had something and lost it, they were more inclined to try to get it back.
It isn’t only advertisers who play on this psychological phenomenon, it’s politicians and talk-show hosts and nearly anybody trying to convince anybody of anything. How many times have you heard the phrase “take back our country” or, within the church “take a stand for Biblical theology” or this kind of language. The idea is to convince a group of people they are losing ground. This creates a powerful response in whatever demographic feels like they are losing something. Environmentalist motivate us by emphasizing the loss of physical paradise, and the conservative right motivates us by emphasizing a loss of freedom. Regardless of where you stand, we can all agree these are powerful motivating forces.
Loss Aversion is the reason we keep the gym membership even though we don’t use it, it’s probably the reason you voted the way you did in the last election, it’s the reason people hoard material possessions and stay in bad relationships. The idea is that losing something costs you more happiness than gaining something gives you.
What I am curious about, though, is where the psychological phenomenon comes from in the first place.
What if Loss Aversion comes from actual events in human history? What if there was once a paradise where man and woman, who were designed to interact with God, actually did interact with God, and that paradise has been lost. What if intuitively every human knows, not only that life isn’t what it is supposed to be, but that it was actually once something completely different and great? What if this is where the psychological phenomenon of Loss Aversion comes from?
So this begs certain questions. What are we really missing in life? And can politicians deliver that something to us? Are political ideas causing us to lose paradise? Are goods and services actually going to return us to paradise? What is it that will bring us internal paradise?
If you think my answer is Jesus, you’ll be surprised to know it isn’t. Not really, anyway. I’ll get to my answer on Wednesday. Wednesday’s topic will discuss how we think of Jesus as a product, rather than a living being.
But for now, I’m hoping to show how our theology actually explains why it is that advertising is so effective. By that I mean, Christian theology helps make sense of why we think and feel the way we do, and why we are all longing for something different and better, and why it is that a suggestion we are losing or have lost paradise, and must get back to it, is a powerful human sentiment that advertisers as well as leaders use, to sell products and ideas.
Ideas for reflection:
- Do you find yourself believing that certain political ideas are threatening paradise? If not, what is really, truly being threatened? What should an appropriate emotional reaction be in light of what is really being threatened?
- Do you intuitively believe there is a paradise out there that you are missing out on?
- Would you be more happy, or more sad, to know with absolute certainty you will never find paradise on earth, not in products, money, or relationships? Is this a frightening thought?
The next article in this series will post on Wednesday. When the series is complete, we will compile the series into a downloadable booklet you can use for your small group.
Several years ago, the BBC ran a series called The Century of the Self. In a particular episode, they address the effect of marketing and advertising on the way we live. I found it interesting as it relates to our series. I’ve posted it on this site as supplemental material. You can find it here.