My undergraduate degree is in psychology. It was an eye-opening experience I relished. I learned a couple of very important lessons that served me well as a journalist:
- Everything has a rig.
- Sometimes what seems to be a coincidence or a spate of good/bad luck is actually a choreographed rig of which you are unaware.
The second one is easier to discuss. As a psych student, I learned about experiments where subjects were unaware of the true nature of the experiment. There were confederates pretending to be unaffiliated with the experimenter, for instance. Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram’s experiments both hinged on using confederates as they lied about the true nature of their experiment.
This got me thinking that psychology is not the best discipline to study if you are skittish and paranoid by nature.
I also understood that there could easily be a professor or grad student who could very easily be conducting preliminary experiments on students to get some sort of idea of how workable and experiment would be and gauge what they were likely to encounter.
Like, for instance, adding something on a test that was promised not to be there, or by “inadvertently” giving away the right answers on a test.
It could be a coincidence, or it could be an experiment of sorts. Perhaps effusive praise or cutting putdowns were real…or maybe just a way for someone to see how different people react to random putdowns or plaudits.
I had not heard of MKUltra at the time of my initial musing, let alone how Henry Murray had played with the mind of future Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.
But studying psychology did give me the discipline not to take either praise — or putdowns to heart. Someone may be buttering me up, or weakening me to get something from me. It’s nothing personal. It’s a feint.
We often talk about situations not being “fair.” What we mean is that a rig isn’t working in our favour. Often, you can get a slew of rejections, and think your work is bad.
But it may be a rig.
I am not necessarily talking a conspiracy theory rig of getting blacklisted, but someone may decide that books from authors from a particular area should be promoted over others, and there are incentives for publishers to take those authors on.
It’s a rig.
Other times, the rig is more insidious: you turned down a date from an abusive person who has clout, and then they retaliate by bad-mouthing you behind your back. You are not imagining your unlucky streak — what you are lacking is critical information to know it’s not you, but a concerted effort on a weakling to undermine you because someone stood up to them.
But it could be less personal: sexism and racism ensure rigged outcomes. Sometimes someone has a financial interest in a project and pushes it through at the expense of better proposals.
Nepotism is a rig. Pandering to trends is also a rig. Habits also are a form of a rig.
It’s not a paranoid conspiracy theory: whistleblowers are often the victims of a rigged system. They speak out, and then no one is willing to take a chance on them.
Journalism should have been about examine society’s various rigs: not dismissing them outright. Not believing every theory, either.
But by taking a closer look at why some people and groups come up on top, while others are perpetually stymied.
Often, looking at the pattern of rejections reveals who is behind a covert campaign and why.
Some people are very good at using rigs to their advantage. Donald Trump is a prime example: the political system was rigged to favour those who have been part of the political machine, and he, despite being the underdog, knew how to turn over the rules and beat the rig-makers at their own game.
We often call rigs “rules”, and they are, as they guide the outcome of events. When the rigs are disclosed honestly, it is one thing. We get a passing or failing grade based on rigs in the educational system. They are not nefarious.
But it is the hidden rigs that cause problems. Price fixing bread, for instance, was a prime example of a dishonest rig.
If a society has a healthy press, they have a press that exposes rigs: they show where certain groups of people have hijacked a system and reap the rewards as they punish and dissuade worthy people.
But when a press is inept, they ignore rigs, ridicule those who see them, but lack the tools and resources to expose them, and in many cases, participate in various rigs themselves.
People have rigged everything from elections to lotteries: and when we have a healthy press, those rigs are removed for a system to function as it was intended.
But right now, we don’t have a press that does it, and we need to know that reality more than ever.