January 19, 2021

Making The Choices We Do

First written over six years ago, I have found new relevance in this post. Many of the problems we face today result from the same findings from my days in market research. The principles that radio stations used to build an audience back then are now used to create a narrative about what someone wants us to believe.

As the events of 2020 and the first few weeks of the new year make quite obvious, a properly targeted advertising, promotional, or marketing message still works. Whether on social media, television, print, or simply word of mouth, the psychological underpinnings are the same. 

See if you don't agree.




For many years before my satisfying journey through retirement began, I earned my living conducting market research for radio stations. The clients wanted to know which songs to play, what kind of contests would attract the most listeners, which advertising campaigns might be most effective, even whether a particular announcer should be hired or fired.

Over the course of hundreds of different studies all across the country, there were some obvious similarities in the results. It really didn't matter where the research was conducted; the key findings would be very much the same. Even knowing what the answers were likely to be, clients still believed their market and their situation would be different, they would be the exception to the rule. Of course, that didn't prove to be true. But, confirmation was important to them, so they still felt good about all the money being spent.

What does any of that have to do with retirement and the world we live in? Frankly, quite a lot.  Not surprisingly, the results gathered thirty years ago for radio stations apply to you and me today. Human psychology, our needs, and wants, and what motivates us hasn't changed.

One of the key findings remains the cornerstone of advertising today: Tell someone something often enough, and it is believed to be true. In radio, a station would simply declare itself #1, repeat the claim over and over for months and months, and then have listeners tell researchers like me that the station was #1.

Politicians are prime examples in today's world. Repeat a talking point or sound bite over and over until its truthfulness isn't even questioned. Repetition of an advertising message eventually convinces you that a certain laundry detergent really is better than all the others or that a brand of automobile is the one missing ingredient to make you happy and sexy.

This makes a difference to us in one significant way: it calls into question the validity of "experts" who tell you how to invest your money, what to do to protect your health, or how to be happy when you follow their five easy steps. The real answer is there is no simple answer. One size does not fit all. Saying it is so doesn't make it so. To build a satisfying retirement, you will ultimately be responsible for the decisions. You can't out-source your retirement and expect it to be a happy one.

That doesn't mean there isn't much to be learned from someone who has gathered experience along the way. After all, that is pretty much what this blog is all about: almost 15 years of retirement has taught me some things I'd like to share. But, it is important to understand that your life, your experiences, and your desires, are yours. Gather all in the input you can. Listen to what others say. Read extensively. Then make up your own plan. Take the road that is best for you.

The vast majority of us have no idea why we make the choices we do. No one really knew why they preferred a particular radio station over another that played the same music. They couldn't even remember which stations they listened to over a typical week. Something in the subconscious made one choice preferable over another, but verbalizing the reasons was often impossible.

For us, knowing that we operate on automatic pilot is important information. It is very easy to do something the same way without actually understanding why. It is challenging to break a bad habit for the same reason. You must recognize you live a certain way, not necessarily from a mindful choice, but from a lifetime of habit. When you understand that basic fact, it becomes easier to begin to change what you do.

Experience is a good teacher. Over time we learn some of the things that are best for us. The problem is we don't always follow those lessons, and we don't know why. That is OK. You will make mistakes. You will make choices that, when looking back, amaze you at their stupidity. All that proves is you are human. Accept that motivations are sometimes going to be unknown.

Peer pressure affects everyone, not just kids. Advertising depends on peer pressure. "Keeping up with the Jones" motivates a lot of people to aspire to a lifestyle they can't afford and may not even like. In radio, listeners want to report they listen to the most popular or "hottest" station in town, even if they don't. There is pressure to be part of the majority.

Maybe you believe you must spend part of each year on a cruise ship or biking through Europe. Maybe the people you aspire to copy own a luxurious RV or a vacation home in Aspen. You drive a giant SUV even though you and your spouse rarely leave town. Others in your social circle drive one, so it must be the right choice. Your house has three flat-screen TVs that you rarely turn on.

It is quite possible that your life has been shaped by peer pressure and not by what you really want. There is nothing wrong with any of the things listed above as long as you truly want them, use them, and can afford them. It is when you possess something to be like others that you can encounter serious problems.

Familiar always beats unfamiliar. This simple fact makes developing a new product, or in my case, creating a new radio station so difficult. No matter how often people claim to want new and different, it simply isn't true. Safe and familiar almost always trumps new and untested. Part of this is peer pressure, part of this is fear of the unknown, and part of this is laziness. We know what we get from product A. It may not be perfect, but who knows what product B will be like. Why take the risk?

This is a major stumbling block to a satisfying retirement. Rather than try a new lifestyle, a new hobby, a trip to a foreign country, a new friendship, or even a new way to manage our time, human nature will attempt to revert to the familiar. We are programmed to default to the known. We hate uncertainty, which is odd when you realize life is constant uncertainty.

Your creativity, happiness, and entire retirement experience can depend on understanding this core fact of life and rejecting it. Something familiar isn't better unless it is. Living life fully is knowing what you don't know and finding out if that is a mistake.
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Above is exactly what I wrote in 2014. Yet, the key points are just as relevant, just as on target today, just as responsible for the state we find ourselves in at the moment. Maybe by being more aware of how our opinions, desires, and motivations are shaped, we can be a little more discerning in our choices and actions. 

15 comments:

  1. Being true to ones self,KNOWING oneself, is truly the crux of an authentic life,isn’t it!? How many people take time,either in their youth, or their retirement planning, or their voting choices, to dig deep ?? When we finally had paychecks that could support traveling, we spent most of our travel time on beaches, in tropical places, and in Central America.I simply never had an urge to go to Europe.Our well traveled friends made fun of me (!) told me I was basically not fully educated if I did not see Europe, and that I was “MISSING OUT.” Well, we eventually did take a Northern European cruise and guess what — I STILL prefer beaches and scuba diving to cities and fine dining! I’d rather traipse through a jungle looking for Mayan ruins than walk down the Champs Elysee. So sue me. I have always been pretty secure in my self knowledge. Retirement: We looked into an RV, thoroughly. It DID seem like so many retirees had SO MUCH FUN ON THE ROAD. We finally figured out we don’t especially like driving! And with some introspective discussions, we also realized we both don’t want to be away from home for months on end! We like home!! Peer pressure?Advertising ?? We threw away the RV brochures. Politics: It’s beyond the pale for either Ken or I to fathom how ANYONE could be swayed by a vulgar TV reality star to make him a president. We did not have to dig deep to find this did not align with our values. Getting caught up in “the crowd” is not something Ken or I usually did.. we’ve always been individualists with a penchant for self improvement.. we do not live the “unexamined life.” IF ONLY we could teach kids,early on, to spend a good amount of time on discovering their values, their motivations, their CHOICES.. what a different world we’d live in.

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    1. Virtually every advertising message any of us se use the "rules" from the post. Once you figure out the message they are trying to get you to accept, it is both obvious and bothersome. "You mean, I was bamboozled that easily?"

      I have no interest in seeing Paris, although apparently that is a cardinal sin. It is a big, dirty, crowded city where residents don't pick up dog poop. Parts of The U.K. and Tuscany are more my taste, but if I didn't go back I wouldn't miss the hassles of International travel.

      Give me Hawaii any day.

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  2. "Tell someone something often enough, and it is believed to be true." Oh, yes, this is SO upfront and in our face relevance right now. Enough said.

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    1. Not only does history tend to repeat itself, but so do basic facts about human behavior.

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  3. Hi Bob:

    Isn't there a John Wayne movie about that line "Tell someone something often enough..." I think it's Who Shot Liberty Valance? If memory is correct, and that's a long-shot these days, the crux of the movie is about that very thing. Someone please correct me if I'm wrong. It's a lesson for all of us to keep in mind, no matter what's going on in the outside world. Too easy to believe the rumor than research the facts. Wonderful article again, Bob. Wishing our in-coming president the best in the world he's taking on.

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    1. He is being left a horrific mess. He and his administration will address all that they can, but it could be a four year slog to just put the basic parts of our society back together again.

      The line from the movie is, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

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  4. Great relevant post! And then we have to always remind ourselves that the "experts" usually have a vest interest in what they're telling us. So as they say, never ask an insurance salesman how much insurance to buy.

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    1. I remember a landscape designer once asking me what my budget was for a backyard facelift. I said between $4-$6,000. He told me, "Of course, when you say it like that I design for the $6,000 figure." Just like your insurance salesman idea.

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  5. Hi Bob! How very interesting that you wrote it six years ago and in so many ways it is as though it was written for us all today. I also believe we are motivated by these same "tendencies" yet when I talk about them (or write about them) I often can tell most people don't believe that it applies to them. We like to believe we are special and so self-aware but it takes a great deal of mindfulness to do that and most of us are just comfortable the way we are--regardless of whether we are retired or not. Surely so much of what we are seeing in politics and business is an example of it. While we might not be able to wake everyone up, it's critical that we stay "awake" ourselves. Thanks for the GREAT reminder. ~Kathy

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    1. We tend to process things and events in our life through a series of filters. One such filter is our belief that we are correct and others are wrong. Just this one tendency of our nature is responsible for so many problems our society is facing at the moment.

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  6. Yes, people can be talked into anything. You have done a magnificent job here!

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  7. What I really love about retirement is that my "ego" is gone and I no longer compare myself to other people. I no longer compete with others I only compete with myself these days and that is good enough for me.

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    1. That is an important observation, Mike. The days of "keeping up with the Joneses" is over. We are only concerned with our own (and key relationships') desires and interests.

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  8. Very good post Bob. I wonder if the brain washed people realize this is the second time in a row where a Democrat has been elected to come in and clean up the mess created by a Republican predecessor. And if we go back in history this has happened before, think 1932 and 1976.

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    1. I get your point, though I am sure the other side would say the same thing after Carter, Clinton, and Bush two!

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