14 October 2011

Beliefs we don't notice we believe in:
an introduction to metaprogramming

by Nia

A recent internet search on melatonin landed me on erowid.com, a website about psychoactive drugs, where I came across this article about a concept I'd never heard of before: metaprogramming.

(Before you start snickering, let me point out that 1) technically, many perfumes can be classified as psychoactive, and 2) the site features careful observations by articulate people about how various substances affect their minds. Most of those substances just happen to be the type that will create a lot of work for your attorney if they are found on your person.)

The basic idea of metaprogramming is that we are all operating under a set of almost-invisible beliefs which are not necessarily the most efficient guidelines for moving through life. Once you recognize what they are, you can eliminate them and replace them with your own. Some writers refer to it as "creative reality selection." In KGB-talk, it's like de-programming yourself and then brainwashing yourself the way you want.

The author, James Kent, says that the metaprogram he is most conscious of is "work hard; buy more stuff." I started trying to think of other examples and came up with this list. Feel free to add to it.

1. "Work hard; buy more stuff." (James Kent)
2. Live in a residence you own.
3. Have a partner.
4. Don't be alone a lot.
5. Be happy.
6. Show how different or individual you are.
7. Show how smart you are.
8. Have strong opinions.
9. Show that you are sophisticated.
10. Rebel / question authority (James Kent)
11. Be the one who is right.
12. Appear wealthy.
13. Earn a profit.
14. Look young. Or maybe, Don't be easily identifiable with a specific age group (once you're past a certain age).
15. Live in the same place for a long time.
16. Socialize often and with lots of people.

I tried to phrase the entries as neutrally as possible and to find ideas that change over time or from culture to culture. For example, nos. 6, 7, and 8 would be strange to my parents and grandparents but normal to twenty- and thirty-somethings. In my family at least, older generations were raised not to talk about or draw attention to themselves, never mind brag.

They were also raised not to mention recent purchases or how much they spent on something. Back then people simply didn't shop as much as we do now, but you also didn't want to make people feel bad if you had more money to spend than they did. In the age before easy credit, people had finite spending limits.

Their strong belief in 2 and 3 often causes friction with the younger generations, who feel pressured to do something they don't value as much and/or simply can't afford.

I started thinking about 4 when I realized that my mental state improved my senior year in college when for the first time in my life I was able to be completely alone, for days at a time, in a nearly-empty dorm wing.

No. 5 might make me sound like a wet blanket but I think of "happy" as a very American idea and a sort of transitory giddiness. Sustaining it all the time takes a lot of energy. What about the other options: being content, at peace, joyful, calm . . . ?

In much of China, 6, 7, and 8 would not be on the list, but 3 and 4 would be. From what I've heard from my Bangalore coworkers, in India being alone (no. 4) is rarely even an option.

No. 10 is only, what, 60 years old? Or maybe it started in the 1920s with the flappers?

Those are the deepest thoughts I've managed in a long time. I need a Pepsi.

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Illustration by M. Rhea.