There are people in the world whose sole mission is to consciously engineer, direct and influence every decision our kids make, from the time they get up each morning, to whom they associate with, to what they manipulate us to buy for them, to what college they go to, or if they go to college at all. These “missionaries” operate as society’s “Choice Architects.” The best of them are considered by University of Chicago Economist Richard Thaler and Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein as paternalistic libertarians who only wish to Nudge us and our kids in directions they deem good for our mental and physical health. The worst of them are Ponzi-cons like Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford who deliberately design choices that optimally benefit them and theirs and severely damage you and me and our kids.

Short of living in a cave on bread made from wheat we’ve grown ourselves and water collected from condensation on the walls, we are all subject to the manipulative efforts of society’s Choice Architects. And the Choice Architects are avidly at work learning precisely how the brain works, all in the hopes of designing earlier and more powerful brand obsessions, while increasing the number of Americans who buy things we don’t need and become dysfunctional hoarders (currently 6 million), and positioning candidates to win political elections by a landslide. Since we can’t beat the Choice Architects, one option is to learn a bit about how they work and pass that learning on to our kids.

The Most Interesting Man in the World

Martin Lindstrom is such an architect. The author of Buy-Ology, and one ofTime Magazine’s 100 most influential people, he travels the globe 300 days a year on the corporate dole designing experiments to look precisely inside the consumer’s brain. His goal is to become the Choice Architect who ultimately succeeds in turning consumerism into a religion, which won’t be such a tough challenge – our brains already display the same activity when viewing familiar brands as when we view religious images! Jesus on the Cross and a Dos Equis Beer – to brain neurons they both represent “the most interesting man in the world.”

The Ten Pillars of Spirit

To strengthen that brain brand response even further, Lindstrom has identified The Ten Pillars Common to All Religions. He is busily at work trying to get corporations to design them into their ad campaigns. Briefly, those Ten Pillars are: a sense of belonging; a clear vision; power over enemies; sensory appeal; storytelling; grandeur; evangelism; symbols; mystery and rituals. More and more you can expect to see Choice Architects incorporating these elements into their pitches. All those along with one more … fear.

Seeing is Disbelieving

Why fear? Because the amygdala in the brain is prewired and on constant Red Alert to pay attention to threats in the environment, real and imagined. And Choice Architects know that one of the greatest threats we fear is social ostracism, to which we are especially vulnerable as teenagers. But adults are vulnerable as well. Take this experiment performed in the 1950s by Solomon Asch: which of the lines A, B, or C on the right is the same length as X? Anybody in their right mind can see it’s B. But suppose a group of experimenter confederates working with the Chief Choice Architect all said line C was the closest match? You’d still say line B, right? Except for one thing: Gregory Berns and his colleagues at Emory University replicated this famous Asch experiment and scanned people’s brains while they performed it. The result: for many people social pressure actually caused the visual and parietal cortex in the brain to change the information that the eyes took in. The stress of social pressure literally changed how the brain processed what was seen. Under even minor stress – which many police detectives know from long experience – seeing is not always believing.

Turning Beautiful Ugly

These and other limitations of the brain are something that the Choice Architects over at the website Beautiful People apparently have little clue about, since they are now offering sperm and eggs for in vitro fertilization to people who don’t qualify to be listed on their beauteous website. Isn’t that special? What these architects fail to realize, of course, is that true beauty is in the brain and heart of the beholder, and only superficially in the eye.

So, we need to teach our children that the decisions and choices we are tempted to make in response to fear in our lives, really needs to be respected – respected in the sense of the original meaning of the word: to look once again. Kids need to learn to trust in fear as a signal calling them to pay closer attention, and that it’s probably best to delay fear-based decisions and get other people’s perspectives to help us manage our own limbic system and beat the Choice Architects at their own game.