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The “Burden” of the Good Life

Dichter concludes The Strategy of Desire with a chapter on what he calls the “burden” of living a good life. His studies have shown, he tells us, that many people are anxious and worried about leading the good life and the problems that affluence causes. He points out that we tend to react with feelings of suspicion and guilt about every new convenience product that is created, and then, after a while, fully accept them. He offers as examples instant coffee, detergents, and washing machines.

The function of discovering people’s motivations, Dichter says, is not to manipulate people or talk them into buying things they don’t need by “twisting their unconscious.” What motivation research does is provide a bridge between the consumer and the manufacturer, exerting more influence on the manufacturer than on the consumer. As he explains (1960:262):

Very many of the new developments that appear year after year could have been possible decades ago. They were not introduced because the designer, the manufacturer, did not have enough imagination, not enough acceptance of a “why not” kind of philosophy.

Dichter says that his role as a student of motivations is not to manipulate people but is best seen as an attempt to help our economic system move forward. He argues, furthermore, that satisfying people’s basic instincts does not debase them. People do not buy things for crass, materialistic reasons but because they help them achieve various deep- seated psychological goals and support their often unconscious needs and values.

We have to cast off our Puritanical concepts about saving and work as being the essence of morality and we have to learn to live in a society that is increasingly technological in which our lives are continually being made easier. We must learn, he tells us, to “accept the morality of the good life.”

He concludes this chapter by making an argument that seems to contradict some of the things he had put forth earlier. He writes (1960:269):

We must use the modern techniques of motivational thinking and social science to make people constructively discontented by chasing them out of the false paradise of knowledge-less animal happiness into the real paradise of the life of change and progress. Only in this way can we assure truly human survival. The techniques of persuasion represent the forces which can teach us to resolve the misery of choice between a fearful, cave man, animalistic way of life and the decision in favour of really human, self-assured thinking in a new and changing world.

Making people discontented is not always constructive, of course. Creating discontent is one of the basic methods used by advertisers to convince them to purchase new goods and services. The life of “change and progress” Dichter writes about may be the one that leads to the consumer culture that so many critics feel has become obsessive and destructive. The progress Dichter writes about here, as a marketing theorist, may not be what most people would define as progress.

We should give Dichter the benefit ofthe doubt, I believe, and assume that The Strategy of Desire represents an honest attempt by Dichter to help people learn to be able to function in the new society that was being born when he wrote. We must remember that this book was written in 1960, more than fifty years ago. His advice, many would say, still makes sense.

There is little doubt, I would conclude, that Dichter’s argument that motivation research is a tool that can be used in positive ways for socially constructive goals is convincing. The power to persuade, the ability to engineer consent, is something that can be used, with varying degrees of effectiveness, to get young people hooked on smoking cigarettes or to induce then not to smoke cigarettes. There is, of course, something scary and anxiety provoking about the ability of researchers to probe our innermost thoughts and attitudes, the hidden realms of our psyches, since there is always the threat that someone might use this knowledge in ways that are not conducive to our wellbeing.

Dichter has provided us a valuable service in demonstrating to us the degree to which motivation research can uncover incredible things about people and provide information to corporations or other entities about what it is that makes people think and act the way they do. This knowledge may help up fight against attempts by those using motivation research to get us to buy things we don’t need or do things we shouldn’t do.

There is also the fact that human beings are, in some ways, mulish, stubborn creatures and all the information that motivation researchers gather may not, for one reason or another, be able to generate desires and engineer consent in us, the members of our families, or our societies. And now, thanks to Dichter, we are aware of how motivation researchers work. and this knowledge may arm us, to some degree, and help us avoid being manipulated by those who would use the findings of motivation researchers for their own purposes. This, too, gives us hope.

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