Archive for August, 2010

Why We Want What We Can’t Have, and Can’t Have What We Want

August 31, 2010 2 comments

I was walking a friend of mine home the other day, and she was telling me about the kinds of men she had been meeting recently. We started talking about whether you could be into somebody just because they were “off-limits” to you in some way: already attached, emotionally unavailable, constantly busy, runs in high social circles, borderline-inappropriate age difference, etc.

She was pretty sure that she wasn’t affected by any of these considerations, or at least, not consciously. My gut, on the other hand, was telling me that the “off-limits” factor might be pretty significant. I once staged a live adaptation of the book, “He’s Just Not That Into You,” and I remember a lot the reprinted letters in the book were sent by women in some of these very situations.

One was sent by a woman who talked with a lot of enthusiasm about how busy her “boyfriend” was in the filmmaking business, and how “important” that made him…so important in fact, that she hadn’t heard from him in forever. Another talked about how secretive her boyfriend was, and how his unwillingness to tell her anything substantive made him “intriguing.”

While researching, I found the blog Miss Adventures in L.A., in which the author goes into great detail about her obsession with a man who makes himself very unavailable.

Many of these writers openly admit that their obsessions make them sound perhaps a little pathetic, but I don’t think they are pathetic. I think there’s something inescapably attractive about that which is inaccessible. agrees. Their dating advice columns say flat out that “Women don’t feel attraction for men that are pushover wuss bags. Women feel attraction for men who are a challenge.” Read more…


Making Difficult Things Look Effortless

August 27, 2010 4 comments

Historians have finally identified the inventor of “cool.” Back, way back before the Fonz, before James Dean or Brando, before Clark Gable, almost before Columbus even landed, there was the originator of cool: Baldassare Castiglione.

How can you not be cool with a name that rolls off the tongue like that?

Back in the days of the Italian courts of the early Renaissance, writers and artists were rediscovering the Aristotelian notion of the ideal form. When you set about creating something, you aspired to make it as close to the theoretical ideal form as you possibly could. In this way, you could approach perfection.

Baldassare Castiglione, The Originator of Cool – Can’t you tell just by looking at him?

Right about the same time Machiavelli published his work on the ideal form of a ruler, our friend Baldassare published The Book of the Courtier. In it, he laid out the ideal for the new Renaissance Man – the man who could master many diverse talents and areas of expertise. We get the modern idea of the Renaissance Man from Castiglione’s work, just as much as we do from examples of the famous polymaths of the day: Leonardo da Vinci, Leone Battista Alberti, Matteo Ricci and others.

Castiglione thought that it was improper for gentlemen to refine all these talents only to show off at court, and become immodest scene-stealers. In the time of Machiavelli and palace intrigue, influence itself became the coin of the realm. If you were a gentleman of the court, and you wanted to do the most good, you had to influence the royalty to act in virtuous ways. Talent and refinement were useless if they kept you from holding sway over the actions of the court.

So Castiglione coined the term sprezzatura. There is no direct translation, but now we would call it “coolness,” “smoothness,” “intrigue,” or “nonchalance.” The idea behind sprezzatura is that when you exercise your talent in any way – in their case things like poetry, recitation, classical mastery, sports, intellectual gaming, etc. – you do it without any affectation or pretense. You don’t call attention to the effort you put into it and don’t come across as showing off. Read more…

-Your Ads Don’t Work on Me. -Oh, Yes They Do…

August 19, 2010 2 comments

Advertising is more effective than you think

Some fascinating information coming from Psyblog this week on the effectiveness of persuasion.

In an entry called, “The Third Person Effect,” Psyblog author and University College researcher Jeremy Dean shows us how we are not as invulnerable to advertising messaging as we think we are.

Ever since advertising became truly popular, consumers have generally maintained that while they can understand how advertising would have an effect on others, it cannot possibly have an effect on them. They are too savvy, and too in-control of their mental faculties to be influenced by such ham-handed messaging.

Dean reviewed work by Richard M. Perloff and Bryant Paul (et. al.), who themselves reviewed over thirty studies on people’s attitudes on advertising influence. He found that:

… participants thought others would be influenced by the message, but that they themselves would remain unaffected. When psychologists looked at the results, though, it was clear that participants were just as influenced as other people. This was dubbed the ‘third-person effect’. Read more…

Know Your Audience: The Desires and Insecurities of the 21st Century

August 4, 2010 1 comment

I’ve wanted to write this article for a long time, but it took me finding a brilliant essay called “The Rise of the Caring Industry,” by Ronald W. Dworkin, to fill in the last piece of the puzzle.

Our whole culture and self-image shifted in the 60's. Is it still shifting, and where is it going?

I’m a great fan of the show Mad Men, in part because they portray the seismic societal shifts in the late fifties and early sixties – the rise of the aggressive individualism that ushered in our modern culture. The protagonist of the show, Don Draper, is a very flawed individual but has an excellent sense of where 60’s society is trending, and what people will want as a result.

So I wonder, what conclusions would someone of his excellent understanding of people and culture draw about the self-concept of the 21st century man or woman? How can we lesser observers cultivate a clear vision of society’s dreams and desires, so as to better inform our literature, plays, and messaging?

After reading the essay I mentioned above, I got a handle on a concept that had been eluding me for a while:

Dr. Mark Leary of Duke University has established that our concept of self-esteem is actually a self-perception system, feeding us back an idea of our own value to others. I believe this is one of the chief psychological insights of our time, because it pinpoints the true source of our waxing mass insecurity. We cannot feel secure about our own identity without receiving feedback from others acknowledging our social value.

Enter Dr. Ronald W. Dworkin, an M.D. and Ph.D. who writes on the dangers of society’s over-reliance on psychological care, and psychoactive drugs. He sees the uncontrolled rise in professional psychological care-taking as a result of the “mass loneliness and mass unhappiness” resulting from the societal changes in the Mad Men era. Read more…