On Collective Fictions

Our life is given order, progression and structure by the fictions we create collectively. Karmic balance – do good and you will have good things done to you and vice-versa is an example of a fiction created to maintain order. By extension,  all religious doctrines are fictions created to allow people to function in a certain way and restrict them from other behaviors. Every Indian kid would have heard the familiar refrain while growing up – “Beta, do X and then your life is set”. This is also another, less dramatic example of a fiction.

To be successful, each fiction has to tap into a natural human instinct or value. The Karmic Balance taps into the reciprocity principle which is that humans universally  believe in the justness of giving something and getting something of a similar value in return. This is the same principle that made the free market concept so successful by enabling trade between complete strangers. Humans understand reciprocity at a basic level and so fictions leveraging it will be successful. Similarly, the Indian refrain leverages the attraction/lure of the sure thing – a little bit of effort now and bliss thereafter, which is also leveraged by religions that promise eternal bliss in heaven for some penance or sacrifice right now.

By far, the most dangerous fiction for ambitious people is the fiction of natural career progression. For most corporate workers, the work they do will be more or less similar throughout their work life, not counting the jump from an individual contributor role to a leadership role. To sweeten the deal between the owner of the firm and the employee, the fiction of career progression is peddled. This is the idea that a person will reach the top by steadily climbing rungs starting from the bottom. To be fair, there is some level of real progression in terms of skill development but most corporations stretch this and convert 2-3 levels into 10-12, tapping into the human desire for continuous feedback and rewards – ‘If I am making progress, however small,  I must be doing something right’

The three examples here are not exhaustive by any means. Two other examples I can think of are

  • Prestige jobs – sucky, soul crushing jobs that are made lucrative by assigning a fictitious, manufactured wrapper of prestige or glamour to them. Taps into the human need for social status and recognition.
  • Patriotism/Nationalism – A construct that asks adherence to show respect and deferment to an imagined entity called a nation. Taps into the human desire to belong to a tribe.

One last thing about these fictions is that they usually benefit the people who create them.

The karmic balance helps those on top maintain law and order and prevent anarchy.

The Indian refrain help parents nudge their kids into favorable decisions, one at a time resulting in good financial outcomes for the kid and social prestige for themselves.

The career progression helps firms keep employees happy and satisfied with their jobs and with the clearly inferior pact they have made – I will give away my time for money.


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