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Who is the they in They say…, and just what do they know?

All our lives we have heard convincing advice beginning with the words They say… to help us make decisions, act in predictable ways, avoid perils or understand complicated subjects and events. Theres a lot of comfort in such undocumented but irrefutable authority from phantom experts. It may be common folklore, family tradition, company practice or just the way weve always understood it.

So they say. Now they tell us. They all do it. What were they thinking? What would they say? What do they know? Theyve always done it this way. Do people care who or why they say these things, or even if they are correct? Apparently not.

We know what they say: No two snowflakes are alike. You get what you pay for. Birds of a feather flock together. Opposites attract. He who hesitates is lost. People can be hypnotized to do anything. Older people are more conservative. You cant tell a book by its cover. The early bird gets the worm. Strange things happen during a full moon. You can earn $15,000 a week in your spare time.

Author and lecturer Alfie Kohn debunked many of these common beliefs in his 1990 book You Know What They Say… The Truth About Popular Beliefs, but most of these bits of wisdom continue on with a life of their own.

In his award-winning book Coercion: Why We Listen to What They Say, Douglas Rushkoff explains,

We each have our own theys – the bosses, experts and authorities (both real and imaginary) who seem to dictate our lives, decide our fates, and create our futures. In the best of circumstances they can make us feel safe, the way parents do. They make our decisions for us. They do our thinking for us. We dont have to worry about our next move – it has already been decided on our behalf, and in our best interests. Or so we hope.

But, Rushkoff points out, not every common belief or every person to whom we surrender ourselves deserves this trust. The coercive techniques of a retail clerk, the subtle influence of professional advice, the well-crafted advertisements, the misleading polls, the hidden persuasion of the Internet – all are designed to convince us to substitute someone elses judgment for our own. And as this manipulation grows more sophisticated, the less aware of it we become.

When we begin to recognize techniques designed to shape our wills, newer methods are already being developed. As Rushkoff says, Every effort we make to regain authority over our actions is met by an even greater effort to usurp it.

Rushkoffs comments about the methods pollsters use to generate their desired results are interesting. He says they stack the sampled group, arrange leading questions and find ways to make it difficult to register dissenting opinions. If the expected answers are not forthcoming, they simply take another, more carefully crafted poll. And yet we seem to trust such polls even more than eyewitness accounts.

Maybe we shouldnt believe everything they say, all the time at least.

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