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Seduced by the glib: the power (and risks) of inspirational quotes …

Lisa Fraser has come to the conclusion that basing the big decisions of life on ‘inspirational quotes’ is a mug’s game.


I wasn’t keen on joining Instagram but I created a profile to stay connected to my friends – my only reason to log in was (I confess!) to see their pictures. 


On the first day, a few sponsored links promoting well-being and personal development caught my attention, and I might have liked some of them without overthinking it. A few days later, my feed was flooded with advice on how to become my best self, what food supplements to purchase, what my next career move should be and even, how a loving partner should treat me. 


Initially I enjoyed the gentle encouragement. I found emotional support which I didn’t have in daily life – not to that level anyway! But soon, the time I was spending on social media spiralled out of control. I even started feeling a bit confused about how to live my life – am I doing things the wrong way? Am I walking into a dead end? Should I make big life decisions? When I noticed the confusion that was creeping in, I decided to step back and reflect on the situation.


In 2021, the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company assessed that the global wellness market had ballooned to a colossal $1.5 trillion. The double-digit growth was partly fuelled by online networks, with 10 to 15% of consumers worldwide (and 45 to 55% in countries like China and Brazil) saying that they made a purchase based on an influencer’s recommendation. No wonder social media has become the realm of wellness gurus over the last few years.


At first, I wasn’t concerned about the volume of inspirational quotes popping up on my screen. I assumed that as a grown-up, fairly satisfied with my life, I wasn’t the right target for this kind of manipulation. I also prided myself on the fact that I had common sense and strong will. And yet …


I began to notice I was paying  too much attention to recommendations on relationships or lifestyles.


Whether we admit it or not, we’re at a time when we’re collectively vulnerable: life has changed dramatically due to the global pandemic and we’ve lost some of our landmarks; health anxiety is higher than ever before and the human brain hates uncertainty.

While the NHS provides free health care for all who need it in the UK, there is little quality, affordable support available for mental health or to help us make good life decisions. The customer base is ripe.


For a while, I thought I was quietly resisting the marketing flood. I was not even remotely tempted to spend a penny on any product recommended by influencers. Also, I was only paying attention to inspirational quotes – as opposed to influencers telling me to buy products. 


Yet, the volume of posts posted by professionals, which didn’t appear to ask me to make any purchase, made me wonder about the economic business model being followed. I started to realise that my value as a customer was not only my debit card, but also something more essential: my presence, my attention, my aspirations. 


Prioritising social media and liking posts, rather than doing other activities like reading or sports, was already a consumer choice. The cost was not monetary, but by my own free will. I was paying an ‘opportunity cost’ – the loss of other alternatives when one alternative is chosen. Did I really want to give my main value (brain space, attention) to a social media company…?


The idea made me feel uncomfortable, but at this stage, my presence online was still feeling like a personal gain, rather than a loss. In a world of uncertainty, I enjoyed finding guidelines on life issues. For instance, when I was struggling with a relationship, I could scroll down endlessly and learn how a respectful relationship should look. Having such deep discussions with friends was tricky because I had to make myself vulnerable, whereas online, anonymity was offering a safe space to think about big life issues.


For some people, the online world also makes it easier to connect with qualified experts. Mental health services in the UK are notoriously overwhelmed; online inspirational quotes can give useful tips on how to build a healthy sense of self-esteem and confidence. 


In the context of family breakdown and loss of community, social media can give scrollers a chance to learn life lessons that we haven’t learnt from our direct environment. There’s also the amazing opportunity to access peer support, for instance, for people who have illnesses or niche interests which leave them feeling isolated. 


At first, finding online, anonymous support can give a sense of emotional security … and this is precisely why we’re at risk of falling into the trap of endless scrolling.


Online addictions don’t happen because some people are weak: they happen because there is a gigantic market, investing colossal amounts of money to catch our attention, and making us believe they have the answer to our existential problems.

It is a war of attrition. We are right to keep believing there are solutions to our problems, but we need to seek help in the right place. 


The temptation to seek easy answers is human – do I need to repeat how much human brains dislike uncertainty and complexity? Finding common-sense relationship advice feels good to everyone. Yet, it becomes confusing when we come across dozens of contradictory (and often banal) quotes like: “Keep loving, love requires effort.” Or: “If you have to work so much on a relationship, it means your partner is not right for you.” 


I noticed that the more confused I became, the more time I spent on social media. I was looking for the next piece of advice, secretly hoping the one I wanted to read would appear on the screen and validate my hopes. If it didn’t, I would continue scrolling down until a ‘better’ nugget of advice came up.


Social media plays on a cognitive bias called ‘subjective validation’, whereby we will grant more weight to views that are similar to ours, and to our values. Instead of letting ourselves be challenged by online advice, we turn to the answer that makes us feel right. It’s like an emotional security blanket. Does it feel good? Yes. Is it always helpful to live a good life…? Here I am less sure.


The feeling of reassurance experienced by many also comes from the fact that inspirational quotes make us believe there is a clear answer to our problems. The reality is that life is rarely obvious and straightforward. Problems usually require us to try something, make a mistake, learn, and hopefully, do better next time.


If we limit ourselves to the perfect choices only, with perfect relationships, and perfect career moves, we might become stuck in our online bubble, for fear of failure or imperfection. 

The risk of relying on inspirational quotes is also that we fail to acknowledge  distressing situations. More often than not, we will fail at one point or another: we might accept the wrong job, or build a relationship that is not fulfilling. Making wrong decisions is part of life, and that’s often not said by online gurus. Experience – good and bad – will build us, and sharpen our ability to make good decisions, in a way that theoretical online posts cannot.


I wonder whether wellbeing gurus – even well-meaning ones – realise how much they can influence people’s lives, feed imaginations and shape social norms. We look at pictures of self-professed inspirational wellbeing champions, and our brain will believe that this yoga pose is attached to happiness … so we take up yoga. We don’t hand over our credit cards, but we let our lives be shaped by these images.


The risk is that this influence is happening in isolation, when we’re in our bubble – whether it’s a physical bubble, as when we’re scrolling at home, or a mental one, as when we’re taking refuge on our phones even when surrounded by real people in an amphitheatre, on the train, or in a bar. These posts do not encourage debates and collective thinking. 


Notice that most of the time, the posts make us believe that the baddies (the ‘emotional vampire’, the ‘toxic person’, the ‘abusive relationship’) are failures of the other, and I am the goodie who needs to be empowered, to shine, to cope or to be freed. It’s pleasant to read. It’s reassuring. But is it always true? 


No social media life coach will ever ask us to question our degree of responsibility in our relationship problems, career failures, or family tensions.

The them versus me, or the world against me mentality that we find on some trending self-development feeds can make life together challenging – and unreal.


This experience of being flooded with inspirational quotes on Instagram  taught me a lot about human psychology – we’re more vulnerable, and more easily influenced, than we think. Although losing control for a while was scary, I also enjoyed learning, and I’ve drawn some lessons from the experience.


It triggered useful discussions with friends working in IT, especially on how algorithms, cookies, and dynamic ads (the ones that are tailored to your profile) work. Although I can’t stop ads giants reaching me, knowledge of how the web works helps me be more cautious.


I also try to avoid being passive when I’m online. Whenever my attention is caught by an interesting inspirational quote, I try to think about it critically, matching it to what I have personally learnt from experience. I compare it to other valid sources, such as health service guidelines; or to my own values system. 


Looking back, I am grateful that this online flirtation with lifestyle ‘experts’ has forced me to question and assert my beliefs: What do I see as right or wrong? What are my life priorities? Who do I trust the most as a source of expertise?


The experience also reminded me of the power of turning to friends for advice. Turning to strangers for counsel on sensitive topics is tempting, because it’s fast, convenient and anonymous. Turning to friends is hard, as it requires admitting to them that we need support. Also, we might not receive the advice we want to hear, and accepting contradiction is challenging. Humility is more difficult than doom scrolling.


Yet, tailored, practical advice from friends who are able to speak the truth to us is probably the most powerful source of growth. 

Over the last few months on this form of social media, I didn’t become my most wonderful self. Perhaps I was tempted to believe that online inspiration could help me grow. But I have really  grown by admitting my need for real-life connections. 


The flood of oversimplifying, positive advice forced me to embrace complexity, and to ask myself the right questions. I am glad I was old enough to draw these conclusions on my own; but I wonder how children who haven’t known anything else than a life with social media will navigate this flood of information. 


Some schools have started teaching the importance of checking sources and cross referencing. While I support this step, I doubt it will be enough. Most of the sources of inspirational quotes I came across were valid, when taken individually, with critical thinking. They became confusing and unhelpful due to the volume of contradicting, oversimplified advice. 


It is essential that parents and teachers help children build their own values system and a healthy sense of self (including self-esteem, confidence, and humility). Children should be encouraged also to develop their own decision-making processes when facing complexity: to turn to friends; know which sources to consult; and learn how to navigate complexity and contradictory information.


Only then will the flourishing world of online inspirational quotes remain inconsequential posts, rather than feed a global market seeking to exploit people’s natural vulnerabilities.


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Lisa Fraser is a writer for Adamah Media. She has worked as a political Special Adviser, in lobbying and as a consultant, before joining the Civil Service. She loves having long walks, visual arts, and reading books about history and politics.

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