03/27/2009 12:47 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Media's "Buy-Us" Bias - The Power of "Concentrated Attractors" in the Media and the Market

The media has a liberal bias, argue angry conservative talk show hosts, from their high-paid perches atop the nation's leading media companies.

Or, the media has a conservative bias, claim liberal Pacifica Radio commentators, pointing to what they claim is corporate control even of public broadcasting.

They are right - the media is biased. It's just not a left-right bias. The media has three distinct biases.

First, the media is biased to favor bad news. That's because bad things happen less frequently than good things. That's why we call them news. When the media starts focusing on good things, we'll be in trouble: it might mean things have really gone south.

Second, the media is biased against whoever is in power, at least after a generous honeymoon period - in government, business, and every institution. That's because, to appeal to the widest audience, they need to speak to us as individuals - something we all share - rather than as members of particular groups. Powerful leaders of big institutions are the "them" to a large audience of "us."

But third, and most important, the media is biased in favor of selling things. In an ad-supported media system, the media naturally, and mostly unconsciously, presents programming that keeps people in a mood to shop.

That's why the media mostly speaks to people's basic impulses, not their highest aspirations. Talk shows that cause people to think deeply, dramas that make them look introspectively at their lives, headlines that make them calm - these trigger not impulsiveness but awareness. They awaken people from their unconscious, auto-pilot lives. That's not always good for reflexive consumption.

Impulsiveness helps drive economic activity. People buy things when they are being impulsive - they let external triggers, rather than conscious choice, determine their behavior. It's not that being thoughtful makes one disdainful of material consumption - it's just that when people are thoughtful, they often make different choices, and material consumption becomes just one means, not the core purpose, in their lives.

In other words: we have a lot of freedom in our lives. When we're not conscious of this, we follow our instincts, to hunt, gather, and consume stuff. Our brain juices reward us with positive, but fleeting, satisfaction. But when we are aware of our freedom, we look around us, see the abundance we already have, and use what we already have. We do it by choice, because it is in our best interest. And we feel good about it, in a deeper and more sustained way.

Our impulses are fundamentally a positive force. Planted deep inside us, shaped by millions of years of evolution, impulses bias us toward actions that serve the interests of the species. Our genes "know" that sweet things come with energy and nutrients, that salty and fatty things contain proteins and vitamins, that large bosoms signal that a woman can bear and nourish a child, that muscles make a man stronger and better able to protect a family or a community.

The problem is, in a market economy, these signals can easily be hijacked, to trigger people to do things that are not - if they were to choose from a neutral starting point - exactly in their best interest.

Think of the number of products and services that are driven by what I call concentrated attractors - ingredients that, in nature, attract us to what is good for us, but in the economy, are often concentrated to such a degree that they squeeze out almost everything of real value.

Concentrated attractors are everywhere, and we are all dependent on them, and guilty of reinforcing them. So before you decide to demonize corporations, the media, government, or some other group for conspiring to force us to buy these things, look in a mirror. You'll find that you, too, use concentrated attractors to your own advantage.

Signaled by nature that foods rich in sugar and fat are good for us - because of the other things that fruits, vegetables, grains and meats contain - we are compellingly attracted to fast food, candies, cookies, and snacks that contain lots of attractors, but few nutrients.

But those are just the obvious examples. Sitcoms draw our primitive brains into fictional "relationships" that substitute for the time we might otherwise spend with real Friends and actual Housewives. Tabloids lure us by gossiping about prominent people in our society, as if they were actually relevant to our lives. Augmented body parts and oversized bank accounts often drive men and women, despite their better judgment, to partners who don't actually offer them the fecundity, security, or integrity that they truly crave.

We're unconscious of these drivers most of the time. When I'm on a writing binge, I sit here pounding my laptop while sipping a green tea latte and eating chocolate chips. I like these things, within reason. I don't want them taken away. I can make my own choices - but I'd like a little assistance from the culture, to awaken me from my impulses so that I can actually make a choice.

We're all smart enough to know the difference between an empty attractor and the good stuff it once attracted us to. And we all have free choice: we don't have to give in. But admit it: that doesn't always stop us. I love my chocolate, my energy drinks, and plenty of other things. So do you. But we love other things a lot more. We would not trade those things for all the chocolate in the world - at least not consciously. Yet sometimes we do.

Impulsive "choices" are made in a blink of an eye, before we are even aware of them. Suddenly I want chocolate - lots of it. I've made my choice, that's it. It takes a lot of work and will to drag myself back to a point of neutrality, from which I can actually decide whether I want it, and the hours of hard bicycling I'll need to burn it off.

In fact, most of us - even in the social cause and advocacy community - make our living in part by appealing to people's impulses, to cause them to do things that are not exactly healthy or wise. We raise money for good causes by finding "evil enemies" and fomenting fear that they are about to destroy us, "unless you help now." Maybe we're selling better stuff than some others. But often, we're not. Our actions become contorted by the rationales we have created in order to fund them. We begin to believe our myths about a uniformly evil enemy. We lose sight of our highest objectives.

The key is to take a systemic approach to this. Stop pretending that we are victims. Start realizing that the marketers - us and them - are all trapped by the same system we. They need to attract us - and we them - with concentrated attractors, or lose out - that's the only thing that reliably works.

Should we ban media advertising? Prohibit every product we don't like? Tax into submission whatever is politically vulnerable? Other products and practices will simply emerge to take their place. We need a wider net, a broader systemic approach.

An opportunity to harness one is at hand. The twin crises of economy and climate are the loudest indicators of change. What they tell us is that a fundamental shift is in the works. We are moving from three centuries of industrialization to the potential of a sustainable economy. The industrial economy cultivated the values of consumption, and carried these to a non-sustainable extreme. A sustainable economy cultivates new values that give rise to new choices.

By advancing a sustainable economy - breaking our dependence on fossil fuels, hyper-consumption, and hyper-waste - we can found our future on relationships, experiences, connections, engagement - and the information, communications, clean technologies, and smart agriculture and manufacturing practices that advance these healthy foundations.

Sustainability cultivates and grows a very different set of values than today's industrial culture. It provides a gentle, gradual, and compelling path to reward more conscious patterns of consumption, which will enrich both companies and "consumers" (the industrial era term for "people") when they do things that they actually choose.

If we reflexively condemn the old industrial "enemy" for manipulating "us" - government, business, activists of the right or left - we're once again being victimized by our impulses: to look around for the enemy, demonize it, and kill it. If we kill our target, but leave the system intact, then the next demon will slip right into their place, and our effort will have been utterly wasted.

Sustainability brings options and awareness that can help bring the market into better alignment with our interests. My colleague Tachi Kiuchi and I write about these in What We Learned in the Rainforest - Business Lessons from Nature ( I look forward to exploring with you some of the values of sustainability, and ways to cultivate them, in the months ahead.