December 7, 2007    Psychology


The word “seduction” is not generally perceived positively. There is something dark and negative about the idea of seducing, yet, it is a key factor in achieving happiness. (It is difficult to feel content if nobody likes you.) We humans are social creatures; I believe we’ve evolved to crave social recognition and to fear isolation. In this sense, seduction has been a critical component of evolution and is an important survival skill. We therefore need to look at it pragmatically.

A friend of mine sent me a link to one of Robert Greene‘s articles on his website. I did not know who he was. The article was about his opinions of the Iraq war. I was impressed with what I read. To learn more about him, I decided to buy one of his books. Out of the three he published—The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, and The 33 Strategies of War—the one about seduction seemed most interesting because it is a concept that I’ve always felt was foreign to me. The book has much redundancy within it, and because of it, I lost interest after I read a bit more than half of it, but it has potential to become one of the most influential books I’ve read in my life. In the end, it is only one thing that I learned from the book, but it is a very big one for me. I suspect that most of you would say, “What!? You didn’t know that?”

All of my life, I struggled to be smart and appear smart, but in the end, the point of my struggle was to be liked, respected, and be noticed. In other words, I was trying to seduce people with my ability to reason. Although, reason has its own charm, for the most part, it is unattractive. Robert Greene explains this quite convincingly. Reason is too obvious. Once people figure out your way of thinking, you become too predictable and one-dimensional. Ironically, you become shallow. The fundamental nature of reason is binary, which means you will always have some people agreeing and some disagreeing with you. It divides people. Given enough opinions and theories, you would have pretty much everyone disagreeing with you about something. Reason is attractive only in its ability to trigger narcissism in people when they agree, so if your opinions and theories are unconventional or unpopular, naturally you will be unattractive to most people.

Incidentally, a recent issue of New Yorker had a cartoon where three philosophers were on strike. One of them was holding a sign that said, “We are RIGHT, and I can logically prove it.” He looks unattractive in a typical reclusive/geeky way. My wife brought the cartoon to my attention and told me that this man resembled me. After reading Greene’s book, I could see exactly what she meant.

Even before I read this book, I was already beginning to understand the unattractive nature of reason. In my business, I used to explain everything at length to my clients about my process of graphic design. I thought clarity, predictability, and transparency were all good things; the more, the better. At one point (this is before I read the book), I realized that many of my clients were hating my tendency to explain everything logically. They seemed threatened by my explanations. They thought it was my way of cornering them into agreeing with something. Not everyone is logically articulate, especially in the creative business, so a barrage of logical explanations can be scary in that they might not be able to argue back articulately if they happen to disagree. In the worst case scenario, they might not understand what I’m saying. Or, they might simply have no patience, time, or energy to understand it, but when I write down a long explanation about something, they cannot ignore, because they fear me saying later “I told you so.”

My tendency to explain everything is only one of many unattractive traits that I now realize I have. In retrospect, it’s actually amazing that I did not see this simple fact. Reason has so little power to seduce people. It only seduces others who think alike by feeding each other’s narcissism. But when I do meet someone who agrees with me about everything, I get bored. Ironically, for the same reason others find me unattractive, I find this agreeable person unattractive. This inevitably leads to loneliness, which I suffered greatly in my youth. The one and the only weapon I used to seduce people was one of the worst weapons to use for seduction; and I could not see it. Through reason, I thought I could logically prove my own attractiveness, just like the philosopher character in the cartoon. In other words, if I could prove myself right about something, others would be forced into accepting me as someone respectable and attractive. Seduction by coercion. Looking back now, it feels ridiculous I thought that.

Reading this, you might ask: “Does this mean we should do everything for the sake of seducing others?” Or, “Isn’t your desire to seduce others, a clear sign of your low self-esteem?” It depends. As I see it, life is a cycle, but not a circle; it’s more like a spiral. You start on one side, and as you grow older and wiser, you end up on the other side. But if you continue growing, you often come back to the same side you started from, but if it’s a spiral, you do not end up in the same spot. It’s the same side but you are closer towards the center. In my childhood, I was relatively honest about my desire to be recognized and liked. In my teens and twenties, I became more self-conscious, and the idea of seducing others became repulsive. I would look down on people who aspired to be popular and famous. I wanted to be the real thing; someone whose fame is based solely on his merits, not based on his charm, his inherited wealth or his connections. Young idealistic people typically think this way.

The question I ask now is: What are those “merits”? Suppose I am a world-class violin player, and have millions of fans all around the world. Suppose I achieved this status without charm, wealth, or connections. In the end, the only way that I can define my talent for playing violin as a “merit” is by looking at how popular or widely recognized my talent is. Without the popularity, we have no way of defining what a “merit” is. After all, what exactly is a merit that nobody appreciates?

Here, you might ask: “What about the people who were recognized for their greatness posthumously?” In some cases, there are delays in recognition, but in the end, it has to be recognized at some point. A “merit” that nobody appreciates ever is a contradiction in terms. In other words, “merit” too is a popularity contest like charm, looks, connection, wealth, etc.. It is dependent on other people recognizing it as such. No merits stand on their own independent of what other people think. This applies even to things like mathematical or scientific innovations and discoveries. Science and math too are only as good as our appreciation of them. Popularity contests are inescapable.

This leads to the next question: Why do we want to escape popularity contests in the first place? This is because we want to be recognized eternally, because we want to be immortal. People’s opinions change over time; so we want to be independent of such an ephemeral and temperamental thing as public opinions. We want to believe in something that is independent of people, something absolute and unchanging, something that remains great from all different perspectives eternally. Such is the vanity of human beings.

Where does this take us? It is pointless to argue or think about what a true “merit” is. If people appreciate what you are and what you do, you should put your judgment aside. If you climb up the social ladder using your charm, we do not have to question whether your charm constitutes a “merit”. There may be a good evolutionary reason why many people appreciate your charm, which means that it could be serving the human race in some unknown capacity. We have not identified all the qualities and traits that give us selective advantage (and they rapidly change over time). From the point of view of evolution, a talent for playing violin seems just as irrelevant and superficial as charm. If a good number of people appreciates what you do, who is to say it is merit-less?

And, more importantly, it feels good to be recognized by others. It feels good to contribute to our society. Just as we feel good when we eat or have sex, there must be an evolutionary reason why we feel good to be recognized. Our desire for recognition and fame must have an evolutionary function for our species. It is pointless to judge it, moralize it, or criticize it. Without the continuation of human species, absolutely everything we care about and value would disappear into ether. All the great people in our history, no matter how great they were, would simply vanish. No one else would care about Jesus, Mozart, Issac Newton, Shakespeare, Gandhi, or John F. Kennedy. Nobody in the rest of the universe would care that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett donated billions of dollars. Their achievements and contributions mean absolutely nothing outside of the human species. All the great things people strive for mean nothing if the human species did not survive. So, a “merit” can never be defined outside of it.

Getting back to our main topic: seduction. Any quality that can seduce others in great numbers must have some evolutionary function. As with anything that has a selective advantage, it’s just a matter of timing and circumstance. If the environment changes where having a long beak gives a bird a selective advantage, there isn’t any deeper meaning to the long beak than just sheer luck. If a particular quality of yours seduces a great number of people, it is rather pointless to dig deeper into the meaning of it. Seductive qualities, as Robert Greene outlines in his book, have not changed much in the last few thousands of years, which is a very short time in the evolutionary calendar. Certain qualities are seductive and certain qualities aren’t. By going against the grain of seduction, nobody gains. You don’t gain anything but loneliness, and the rest of us do not gain as a species either.

I bring up the question again: “Does this mean we should do everything for the sake of seducing others?” I would answer yes. Any other reason or purpose you come up with will inevitably be dependent on the recognition of its meaning and value by the human species. There is no way around it.

I bring up the second question again: “Isn’t your desire to seduce others, a clear sign of your low self-esteem?” This is where the spiral comes in. The same side, but different stage. At this new stage, our desire to seduce others is not driven by low self-esteem, but by our understanding that social recognition is mutually beneficial to ourselves and the society. At this stage, we are no longer trying to achieve immortality, but a simple feeling of content.

I think most people achieve this stage, though they may not be conscious of it. It took me a long time because my self-esteem was particularly low. As I was growing up, my family moved every year. Every year, I had to make new friends, only to leave them again in a year. I had no stable “home” where I felt secure in my own existence. I believe having a home where others, especially peers, recognize, respect, and love you, is critical in the development of self-esteem in young children. “Home” becomes the launching pad from which they can securely take off into the world. In my desperation, I used whatever I had at my disposal to be recognized and liked by others. Logic was my primary means to do so, but I can see now why it never worked. In fact, logic repels many people. Out of about a dozen seductive character types in Robert Greene’s book, I could not find one that I felt was my own type, even though I could easily identify many of my friends in them. Then I came across “anti-seducer” at the end of the list, and there I was; it described all of my typical behaviors. In my 30s and 40s, I changed a lot, but in my youth, these “anti-seducer” qualities were very strong. And, indeed as a proof, I was a very lonely man. I used to walk to Thomkins Square Park several times a day on weekends, and sit there for hours, because I had nothing to do, no one to be with or talk to.

I wish I could go back in time and deliver Greene’s book to myself 20 years ago, but sadly, that Dyske would not understand or appreciate it. He would simply disagree, and list a barrage of reasons why the book is all wrong. That is another problem with logic; it’s only as good as your assumptions on which your arguments are built. Dyske in his 20s would desperately try to prove himself right, in order to seduce others. All it did in reality was to alienate them. It did not serve anyone, especially himself.