What is the real reason for [X]?
July 25, 2009 11:40 PM   Subscribe

What is the real reason for [X]?

I read the following in a Paul Graham essay:
"…The stated purpose of Powerpoint is to present ideas. Its real role is to overcome people’s fear of public speaking. It allows you to give an impressive-looking talk about nothing, and it causes the audience to sit in a dark room looking at slides, instead of a bright one looking at you.”

I feel that adopting this general way of thinking about the hidden reasons things exist can help me gain a better understanding of human nature and society.

What are some examples of other things (products, institutions, traditions, protocols, etc.) that are known to exist for reasons other than those stated up front?
posted by lunchbox to Society & Culture (42 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
Prospectus for pretty much any financial product.

Purports to protect you, the purchaser of said product, from shady business practices.

Actually protects the the seller of said product from litigation, when they engage in shady business practices anyway.

How many folks purchasing shares actually read the prospectus anyway?
posted by Mutant at 11:47 PM on July 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Something about the 19th century acquisitions of land to US -- the Louisiana Purchase, the Gadsen Purchase, and Seward's Folly -- recently occurred to me; technically, we didn't need to buy off the respective French, Mexican, or Russian claims, we could have gone to war and just taken these territories instead.

But going to war costs money, so it was in both party's interests to reach an agreement that the eventual loser would get recompensated some fraction of the cost of the eventual victor's campaign. Win-win if you will.
posted by @troy at 12:05 AM on July 26, 2009


The quote you present does not say that to overcome people's fear of public speaking is the "real reason for" Powerpoint. It says that that is the real role of Powerpoint - which is independent of the purpose for which its creators made it. Are you asking for examples of things that have taken on roles other than those for which they were initially created, or for things whose creators had a motivation or purpose other than that which is presented to the public?

It the question is one of roles being different from stated objectives, I think that the Republican Party and the Democratic Party in the U.S. are good examples.

Another would be Marshall Amplifiers - high-wattage full stacks, specifically, whose stated purpose is to sound good, but which are, as a practical matter, way too loud to get good tone under modern stage amplification conditions. If you want to look good, play a Marshall stack. If you want to sound good, play through a small, low-wattage combo and crank it. So, the stated purpose of a giant Marshall Stack: To make you sound great. The actual role: To make you look like Hendrix when you are too insecure to just sound great. (I can't count how many times, after playing a gig in Hollywood, the guitarist for one of the other bands playing that night, and who uses a monster Marshall or Mesa rig, has approached me and expressed amazement that I could get such good tone out of such a small amp. They don't seem to get that, if you want good tone at usable volume, you have to use a small amp.)

Now, whether these things were actually created for or continue to exist for reasons other than their publicly stated purposes is a completely different question, and I think it would have, in most cases, different answers. Marshall stacks were not originally made just to look good - they came out at a time when stage amplification sucked and high-wattage guitar amps were the only way to play a big venue. Likewise, the leadership of both political parties in the U.S. do genuinely believe that they are working toward their stated goals, notwithstanding the true roles they play.
posted by The World Famous at 12:06 AM on July 26, 2009 [5 favorites]


Funerals are strictly for and about the living.

I think the whole "illusion of safety" on aircraft thing has been well discussed in the past.

Check your Mefimail.
posted by evil_esto at 12:08 AM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sex, which pretends to be pleasurable only to fool you into making babies. Don't kid yourself.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:23 AM on July 26, 2009 [15 favorites]


Pickup trucks. Most of which spend 98% of their existence hauling 1 human being to and fro, and 2% hauling any payload in their beds, anywhere.
posted by paulsc at 12:24 AM on July 26, 2009 [5 favorites]


Human communication, which is most often more of a way of knowing that your communication partner will not 'harm' you, than an exchange of information.

Counter question: which ones are things that are known to exist only for reasons stated up front?
posted by oxit at 12:31 AM on July 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


TV shows exist for commercials.

Magazines exist for ads and product endorsements within the articles.

Low-blood sugar moodiness exists so the caveman inside us will lose his temper, kill something, and eat it.

Fruit exists so a hungry animal will carry the plant's seeds around in its digestive tract, loosen up the seed coat with some digestive enzymes, then drop the seed ready to sprout in a pile of nutrient-rich dung some distance away from the parent plant.

Cuteness exists because organisms who find their own young endearing do a better job of caring for them. Cuteness is more a function of how we perceive certain features, rather than something dictating what the features will look like. It so happens that most baby animals have big eyes, big heads, big bellies, and big joints because those are the most complicated parts that have to develop more fully before birth or hatching or whatever. So we evolved to find those traits cute, because parent organisms that find those traits horrifying might abandon the offspring, stopping the spread of the "big headed babies are gross" trait.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:46 AM on July 26, 2009 [9 favorites]


Satire:
Makes you laugh because getting angry is dangerous.
posted by evil_esto at 12:53 AM on July 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


lunchbox: I feel that adopting this general way of thinking about the hidden reasons things exist can help me gain a better understanding of human nature and society.

What are some examples of other things (products, institutions, traditions, protocols, etc.) that are known to exist for reasons other than those stated up front?


You say you want examples, but I honestly don't see how that will help you. You'll just end up with a list of stuff that other people told you would follow this rule. You can walk around with that list, but you'll only understand it after you've thought about it and looked for the pattern in the world for yourself—and that's something you can (and should) do all by yourself.

So I'm going to assume that you didn't ask this question for the reason you gave up front but in order to explore this further. And on that point I'll give you two answers which don't conform to your rubric but which are more bits of advice than anything else:

(1) You ask for examples of things “that are known to exist for reasons other than those stated up front.” You are essentially asking for situations in which people are deceived about the true cause of things, and give an incorrect answer about them; generally, you're asking for situations where people are wrong about why things happen. The number of examples of this approaches the infinite. You're not going to encompass this phenomenon by listing example; the only way is to think about what it means and how it happens.

(2) The best way to do this is to talk to people. Wait until the next time you notice this; to use your Powerpoint example, say you watch a Powerpoint presentation at work. Call the presenter aside after the presentation and ask them discreetly: “Why do you use Powerpoint? Do you find it more effective than a simple speech?” If you are careful and effective in your questioning, you can learn some of the reasons behind this behavior we humans engage in. The point is: they know why they do things better than the rest of us; that's just the nature of the situation.
posted by koeselitz at 12:54 AM on July 26, 2009 [5 favorites]


Low-blood sugar moodiness exists so the caveman inside us will lose his temper, kill something, and eat it.

This is a some evo-psych nonsense. For one thing, younger people's blood sugar is moderated far better then older people, and most cavemen would be dead before their bodies had any trouble regulating glucose. For another thing it's just a 'just-so' story.
posted by delmoi at 1:07 AM on July 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


In Always Coming Home (a kind-of Utopian novel ) Ursula Le Guin describes a game with incredibly complicated rules, that the old folks enjoy playing. Because the scoring is so complex, they have to keep stopping the game for long grave discussions.

It's a trivial example, but perhaps it hit me at just the right time, because I suddenly grasped that idea encompassed by the phrase 'it's not a bug, it's a feature'. It made me notice how the rules of games set up events, which seem to be 'people coping with problems' or 'getting ready to play' (or whatever) but are actually important pay-offs or pleasures of the game.

And with spectator sports there is a further layer, which is that 'things going wrong' are what the spectator wants to see, or wants at least to agreeably fear he might see. Like motor racing crashes, or jockeys falling off their horses.
posted by communicator at 1:19 AM on July 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


"R" rated movies/explicit lyrics stickers tell kids what to buy.

"Parental Control" on cable boxes and television rating systems were created to increase the availability of porn and borderline programming, not to "protect children".

"Light cigarettes" are a marketing gimmick that smokers learn to smoke differently to get more of the product than is assumed.

"Personal massagers" that some companies sell are the exact same product as (sex toy) vibrators that are sold in "adult" catalogs.

Various subcultures exist (goths, skaters, etc) exist require much conformity to people that think they are expressing individuality.

Model airplane glue is sold intentionally to children in Third World counties as an intoxicant.

Small pillows on couches are often ornamental, and not meant to be used.

I have never seen a paper weight that is actually doing their job, that is keeping papers from flying off someones desk.

You never see people use smoking paraphernalia when it is labeled "for tobacco use only" in public.

NASA is not funded (primarily) by taxpayers but because we want to have spy satellites, space weapons and technology to feed the military.

American military is as expensive as it is not to protect our freedom, but rather maintain our standard of living.

Cosmetic changes to car model years are not necessarily to improve the appearance of a car but rather make the prior years models look old to stimulate sales.

"Dollar cost averaging" is not an investment strategy, it is a sales gimmick used by investment advisers for a steady stream of income. (It may be a good idea for many investors simply because they would not invest otherwise)
posted by santogold at 1:26 AM on July 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


The genes in your human body do not exist in order to make it possible to build another human body. Self-replicating genes existed before bodies. (Human) bodies exist as a vehicle for genes to make more genes. Somebody wrote a whole book about this.
posted by K.P. at 3:40 AM on July 26, 2009 [5 favorites]


Life is about the beautiful interpersonal journey.
vs.
Your purpose here is to work, consume and spend.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:39 AM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Dating/courtship. It's not about getting to know each other, it's about showing each other you can conform to social norms, while simultaneously making the path to the bedroom as short as possible.

Professional sports. They seem to be about everything except the game being played.
posted by Rykey at 5:13 AM on July 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


The genes in your human body do not exist in order to make it possible to build another human body.

The protons and electrons in your genes don't exist to make genes possible. Sub-atomic particles existed before genes. I don't think anybody's written about about that.
posted by mpls2 at 6:25 AM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Google (and similar outfits, such as Yahoo) -- you are not the customer. You are not the end user. You are the product.

Cable TV -- You are paying someone to advertise to you.

The concept of a "work ethic" exists chiefly to allow employers -- or rather, your employer's shareholders -- to lower and/or hide their costs.

Thinking there's a hidden reason or appropriate inverted perspective for everything -- deviously attractive but ultimately meaningless in a vast majority of cases.
posted by majick at 7:09 AM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


[Several comments removed. If you're just joking about the question or saying stuff without bothering to even try and explain why it's a good answer, please just refrain.]
posted by cortex at 7:43 AM on July 26, 2009


Advertising in general.

It's far cheaper to tell someone that your product is good, new, improved etc than it is to actually make that product good, improved etc.
posted by philip-random at 7:45 AM on July 26, 2009


Almost any historical fact or event is written about by the winner/controller of the concurrent media, but if you look deeply into the cultural and social reactions at the time the event happened, you'll find the picture to be very different.

Especially wars.
posted by kalessin at 8:08 AM on July 26, 2009


Online dating purports to be about finding a perfect match for your personality, but its real purpose is to help you find mates outside of your social group. This is called cultural exogamy, and there's really nothing wrong with it.
posted by Afroblanco at 8:57 AM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Counter question: which ones are things that are known to exist only for reasons stated up front?

Toilets
posted by SLC Mom at 9:36 AM on July 26, 2009


High technology-- especially in telecommunications-- is very often just spinoff from military R&D.
posted by Rykey at 9:56 AM on July 26, 2009



Low-blood sugar moodiness exists so the caveman inside us will lose his temper


True to this point. Loss of temper results in (and/or is due to) the release of adrenalin and other catecholamines:

Some typical effects are increases in heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and a general reaction of the sympathetic nervous system...

Language does all this great stuff like giving you ways of thinking, cooperating and communicating with other people, learning how to do stuff, etc. just to make sure it gets passed on from one person to another.

Or, as Burroughs put it so brilliantly, succinctly, and presciently,"language is a virus."

But what are the pathogenic features of this particular virus,?
posted by jamjam at 10:14 AM on July 26, 2009


WARNING: Coffee is hot / Disclaimer: this handbook does not alter the employment at will status . . . / Levitra may have certain side effects . . .

All of these have the stated or implied purpose of providing information to individuals; however, they are all actually designed for sole and express purpose of prevailing in litigation.
posted by ND¢ at 11:21 AM on July 26, 2009


Many of these and the others above are variations on placebo. All over the board:
Receipt checkers at the exit to Wal-Mart/Costco, etc. whose stated purpose is to prevent customers from shoplifting but whose real purpose is to catch dishonest cashiers.

Many people still don't realize or understand that Google is an advertising company.

Most airport security "theater" is there to make passengers feel safe and paranoid.

Relatedly, per Fight Club (and with a grain of salt), emergency oxygen in airplanes to calm passengers down and make them docile.

Scientology's "personality test" (or "stress test") as a recruitment tool to identify the best vict candidates.

Those "walk" buttons on some intersections that are connected to nothing, but they soothe you down by creating a false sense of control.

Brian Williams mentioned on TDS the other day that the White House (past and present) monitors whatever the lead story is on the networks each day, and if they don't like the message, they trot out the President at 3 or 4pm to say anything so that becomes the new lead and buries the undesireable element.

Invading Iraq was, just maybe, in some way related to oil revenues.
This is a fun exercise, by the way.
posted by rokusan at 12:51 PM on July 26, 2009


. . .you didn't ask this question for the reason you gave up front but in order to explore this further.

An interesting observation. The question that lunchbox posted is one answer to the question that lunchbox posted. Perhaps it's a candidate for best answer?
posted by Neiltupper at 1:00 PM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Lots of people seem to think that Human Resources departments exist to protect the employee... when their purpose is really to protect the company (FROM the employees!).
posted by FuzzyVerde at 1:48 PM on July 26, 2009


Interrogation is designed just as much to gather information as it is to stress out the interviewee. If they stress out in a *normal* way, they aren't nearly as suspect as someone who stresses out in an abnormal way.

Quibbles:
Those "walk" buttons on some intersections that are connected to nothing, but they soothe you down by creating a false sense of control.

Seems like an awfully expensive way to accomplish... nothing. They are connected (though they may be perpetually broken) to the timers and don't trigger a walk signal unless the button has been pressed. If the walk signal isn't triggered, traffic can be moved more quickly. But they aren't meant to instantly shut down traffic so you can cross the street NOW. They just insert a walk signal on the next go-round.

Relatedly, per Fight Club (and with a grain of salt), emergency oxygen in airplanes to calm passengers down and make them docile.

Again, a lot of expense for no real result. If the plane is going down in a firey mess, doesn't matter whether the folks are calm or not. The oxygen is there so people don't pass out if the cabin depressurizes. You don't want passed out people when you are trying to evacuate an aircraft.
posted by gjc at 3:35 PM on July 26, 2009




GJC. You can quibble all you want. They ain't connected:

More than 2,500 of the 3,250 walk buttons that still exist function essentially as mechanical placebos, city figures show. Any benefit from them is only imagined.

New York Times, February 27, 2004
posted by rokusan at 5:42 PM on July 26, 2009


(Or, you know, I could notice proj's response. That'd work too.)
posted by rokusan at 5:43 PM on July 26, 2009


"There's two reasons why a man does something:
The reason he says, and the real reason."
    -- Mark Twain
Those "walk" buttons on some intersections
or more often, the "Close Doors" button in American elevators
posted by Rash at 7:16 PM on July 26, 2009


Excel is not a spreadsheet, its a database.
posted by jasondigitized at 7:35 PM on July 26, 2009


or more often, the "Close Doors" button in American elevators

No, the close door buttons are perfectly functional and work exactly as intended: if an operator has overriden the automatic settings on the elevator (usually this involves using the elevator key), the doors will open when the "Open Doors" button is pushed and close when the "Close Doors" button is pushed. When the elevator is in its normal, day-to-day operation, "Close Doors" does nothing. But that's by design.
posted by graymouser at 7:38 PM on July 26, 2009


Those "walk" buttons on some intersections that are connected to nothing, but they soothe you down by creating a false sense of control.

GJC. You can quibble all you want. They ain't connected


The article you link to is about walk buttons in New York City. Your first comment didn't say anything about NYC, and many other places may have functioning walk buttons.

Also, along the lines of the distinction that The World Famous pointed out, even in NYC the walk buttons may no longer serve their stated purpose, but they weren't designed to serve a function other than their putative one.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:59 PM on July 26, 2009


Theme parks and sports venues charge high admissions to keep you in the park longer (no one's going to plan on spending only a couple of hours if it costs $50 to get in) so you'll end up buying more food. They're making their money off the $7 personal pizzas, not at the gate.
posted by clorox at 9:55 PM on July 26, 2009


Loud music and salty snacks in bars are there to make you drink more, by disrupting conversation and making you thirsty.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:14 AM on July 27, 2009


Thanks for the fantastic replies!

Here is a relevant article to this topic I found on Overcoming Bias.
posted by lunchbox at 8:24 AM on July 27, 2009


According to Thomas C. Schelling, The use of a professional collecting agency by a business firm for the collection of debts is a means of achieving unilateral rather than bilateral communication with its debtors and of being therefore unavailable to hear pleas or threats from the debtors.
posted by milestogo at 1:42 PM on July 28, 2009


Politicians pledge to "give America back to the people." but they're really only interested in growing their own power.

Business leaders preach free-market capitalism, but keeps stables of lobbyists in Washington, DC to keep them from having to face free-market competition.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:35 PM on July 28, 2009


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