Gerardo Mora/Getty Images for Pepsi
FROM Nir Eyal
DJ Khaled, the one-man internet meme, is known for warning his tens of millions of social media followers about a group of villains he calls “they.”
“They don’t want you motivated. They don’t want you inspired,” he blares on camera. “They don’t want you to win,” he warns. On Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show, Khaled urged the host, “Please, Ellen, stay away from them!”
The “they” Khaled invokes are clearly a sinister force. But who are they? Khaled offered clues when he told DeGeneres, “They are the people who don’t believe in you.…They is the person that told you you would never have an Ellen show.”
Although Khaled’s claims may seem outlandish, he is in fact leveraging a powerful psychological hack: scapegoating. The practice of imagining a villain that’s conspiring against us, scapegoating can be an effective way to motivate ourselves and change our behaviors. Of course, as history has shown, terrible things can happen when people act on baseless conspiracy theories. But sometimes the antidote is in the venom.
Khaled isn’t the first to use the technique. In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield uses an entity he calls “Resistance” to describe the force conspiring against creative output. “Most of us have two lives,” Pressfield writes. “The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.” Throughout his book Pressfield reminds readers, “Resistance is always plotting against you.”
The author and game designer Jane McGonigal described a similar conspiracy of bad guys in her book SuperBetter. McGonigal blames villains like “Mrs. Volcano” and “Snuff the Tragic Dragon” when she loses her temper with her kids or feels self-pity.
Khaled, Pressfield, and McGonigal know that “they,” “Resistance,” and the “bad guys” don’t actually exist. For Khaled, that’s the joke that powers the meme. If Khaled were to point a finger at a real group of people intent on sabotaging him, such as an ethnic group or a particular corporate entity, his scapegoating wouldn’t be funny — it would be malicious.
In order for productive scapegoating to work, it’s important not to assign blame to something or someone too specific; if we do so, we’ll shirk our responsibilities to change our own actions.
Instead, we need to find the underlying causes of our bad behaviors, which requires asking difficult questions — especially since our intuition is frequently wrong. Maybe we don’t binge on junk food or YouTube videos because of the pleasure in what we’re consuming, but because of deeper problems consuming us. Perhaps the true reason we allow our phones to interrupt dinner is not that we’re addicted to our phones, but that we’re addicted to work.
Once we’ve identified our own self-defeating behaviors, the next challenge is to implement a change, which can be difficult if we think what’s happening to us is beyond our control. In these situations it’s easy to feel powerless and to give up. It’s here that scapegoating can be used to our advantage. By directing our anger and anxieties at an invisible they, the forces working against us seem more tangible, so we feel like we have more power to fight them.
Powerless if you think you are
Several recent studies have observed a strong connection between the way we think about our ability to act and our follow-through. For example, to determine how in control people feel regarding their cravings for cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol, researchers administer a standard survey called the Craving Beliefs Questionnaire (CBQ). The assessment is modified for the participant’s drug of choice and presents statements like “Once the craving starts…I have no control over my behavior” and the cravings “are stronger than my willpower.” How people rate these statements tells researchers how powerful or powerless they feel in the face of temptation. Lower scores reveal that subjects believe they are more in control, while higher scores correlate with people who believe the drugs control them…