Wednesday, November 02, 2005

pick-up artists, Shakespeare and the danger of romanticism

I just finished "The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists" by Neil Strauss, in which the author tells how he transformed himself from a nerd to a stud. He wanted to lose his shyness around women, so he latched on to self-styled pick-up artists and learned their craft. He learned quickly and became a pick-up artist himself. The book is a cautionary tale (well written and fun) about his rise and fall in the pick-up community (and the rise and fall of the community itself).

For those who don't know, there IS a pick-up community. It's composed of former (some would say still) nerds who have spent years studying women and trying out different approaches. They also study psychology, biology and any other field that might help them score. They've turned mating into a science (sometimes a pseudo-science, as with their reliance on Neuro-linguistic Programming).

I remember when this community first penetrated (no pun intended) the public eye. Pick-up gurus went on talk shows and explained that they were trying to empower men. Naturally, women (and some men) were deeply offended.

The pick-up artists ARE offensive. They are offensive because they are deceptive. They "befriend" women that they secretly loath, just so that they can sleep with them. They are deeply misogynisic and opportunistic.

But there's another reason they offend people. They offend people because they treat women (and sometimes men) as if they were machines -- machines which, if you push the right buttons, will have sex with you. Or they treat women like Pavlavian dogs: dangle the right treat in front of them and they will salivate. Women don't want to be machines or dogs; they want to be PEOPLE. In other words, they have romanticized people. They have framed people as being superior to machines and dogs.

Yet biology tells us that people ARE machines. People ARE dogs (animals). We are vastly complex machines (we are super-intelligent dogs), and it's hard to master our complexity. So if you push a button, you might not get what you expect. But that's just because you haven't fully read the manual. You don't completely understand what all the buttons do and how they are wired together inside us. Good pick-up artists HAVE read the manual -- at least as-much-of the manual as has been published. And they're continually experiementing to fill in manual's missing pages.

If people didn't have buttons, then con-artists would always fail. But they don't. They often succeed. We don't want to believe we can be fooled. But we CAN be fooled. And the con-artists will always have an edge over us, because they aren't romantic. They KNOW people are machines and they accept that fact. We don't want to accept it. We want to be mysterious and spiritual and unknowable. We think we can look deeply into someone's eyes and KNOW if he is honest and reliable. We think we can look deeply into someone's eyes and KNOW that he loves us and wants to be our friend. Con men (and pick-up artists, who are a kind of con men) realize that we think this, and so they manipulate their eyes -- letting us see what we want to see while they steal our wallets.

In "King Lear," Shakespeare pits the romantic view of human nature against the con man's more cynical view. Lear (and Cordelia) are the romantics; Edmund is the con man. In "Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human," Harold Bloom brilliantly points out that "It is part of Shakespeare's genius not to have Edmund and Lear address even a single word to each other in the entire play, because they are apocalyptic antithesis: the king is all feeling, and Edmund is bare of all affect." Edmund is also a superb pick-up artist. Before bedding both Goneril and Regan, he confidently asks himself, "Which of them shall I take / Both? one? or neither?"

After becoming a master pick-up artist, Neil Strauss meets his Edmund -- an aspiring pick-up artist named Tyler Durden. Strauss discovers that Durden and his friends are mocking him in front of girls (a violation of, believe it or not, the pick-up artist's code of ethics). He confronts Durden about it, and Durden freely admits it.
I stated at him in disbelief .... It was diabolical.

"You can get me," Tyler said. "You can say I look like the Pillsbury Doughboy."

... "But I don't want to get you, man," I replied, keeping my own council and giving him a big smile like I thought it was all very funny. "Here's the difference between you and me: I like to surround myself with people who are better than me because I enjoy being pushed and challenged. You, on the other hand, like to become the best person in the room by eliminating anyone who's better than you."

"Yeah, maybe you're right," he said.

Later, I would realize that I was only half right. Tyler Durden did like to eliminate competition. But not before he'd squeezed every piece of useful information out of them.

For the rest of the weekend, whenever I talked to a person, male or female, Tyler Durden was hovering behind me, listening to every word. I could see him thinking, trying to figure out the rules and patterns behind everything I said that kept me dominant in a group .... He was studying my personality. Soon, he would no doubt know more about me than I did."
Which is exactly the con man's job: to know more about the machine than the machine itself. And the machine is crippled, because it doesn't want to admit that it's a machine. That's a horrible mistake. While we resist being called a machine, someone could flip our off switch.

People have always resisted losing their mystery (one of the most successful pick-up artists nicknamed himself "Mystery.") The biggest battles science has fought have been about (and still are about) robbing Man of his mystery: the Earth is NOT at the center of the universe; people were NOT created by God -- they evolved from animals and ARE animals; the brain is a machine that can be modeled (and one day recreated or even surpassed) by a computer. Con men and pick-up artists bypass this resistance and embrace the cynical truth, which is how they gain control over the rest of us.

On the talk shows I watched, women swore that the pick-up techniques wouldn't work on them. Maybe not, but many women are attracted to confident, funny, somewhat cocky men. And so the pick-up artists learn how to appear confident; they study stand-up comedians; they memorize cocky patter and rehearse until they can deliver it naturally. Still, the women claim that they can tell the difference between a REAL confident man and a man who is just trying to act confident.

This is the crux of the matter. We MUST believe that we can tell the difference between honest behavior and playacting. Because if we can't, then who can we trust? Everyone we cherish may be lying to us -- trying to con us. And that thought is unbearable. So we don't think it. We simply believe and trust. Which makes us vulnerable. The con men know this. They are waiting for this. They see this vulnerability and they attack. With no romanticism, they look the world squarely in the eye and see it as a place where playacting does work -- where the fake passes as the real, as-long-as it's well rehearsed.

This is the secret behind theatre. It's a paradox. Theatre is a romantic art. It makes us feel deeply. It makes us laugh and cry and recognize ourselves. Yet under the hood, it's a great con. That actor isn't Hamlet -- he's Laurence Olivier. And even within the mind of the actor (and the con man), the paradox continues. What does Olivier think? Does he think he's Hamlet or Olivier. Both, or he wouldn't be able to convince us.

And herein lies the undoing of the con man and the pick-up artist. To fool us, he must fool himself. To fool himself, he must be vulnerable. And once he's vulnerable, the Tyler Durdens will swoop down and con the conner. Human mystery is a lie, but it's a lie that -- being human -- we all believe. And the con man is, though he resists it, as human as the rest of us. He is hoist in his own petard.

In "The Game," the pick-up artists believe that male friendships should come before male/female relationships -- "bros before hos." But after Mystery is betrayed by his "friends," he (being a vulnerable human) falls in love and announces, "Unlike the last girl, I will not make her public. This time I will start from scratch and not undermine my relationship by sharing it with you guys. I will be more loyal to her than to you because the bros before hos ethic only applies if you think the girl is a ho."

Edmund is killed by his more romantic brother, Edgar.


Anonymous said...

Great entry mate.

Icamefrommetafilter said...

XLENT writing ! (i came from Metafilter)

Nadine said...

I'm so happy I decided to see what people had written about "the game." I really like your writing and I will be back! Isn't it great (and rare) when you happen upon a blog that is 1) in English, 2) Not for commercial purposes, 3) not pornographic, and 4) well written?!

NightWalker said...

Pretty good - I like your comparison of Tyler Durden with a Shakespearean character. I'm sure Neil would be proud. But the logic breaks down around the "con the conner" section. For con men and PUA's are acutely aware of their own "machine-ness" and are therefore equipped to notice when they are being taken for a ride. Such awareness follows the spirit of the martial artist's golden rule: "when you learn a move, learn how to counter the move." As a martial artist manipulates physical reality, a PUA manipulates psychological reality. The basic building block of psychological reality is the frame*. To paraphrase RJ and Neil, "whoever has the strongest frame sets the plans of the group."

A con man elicits money by setting the frame.

A PUA elecits sex by setting the frame.

If you would like to see an example of con men working on each other, please stop by a Diplomacy tournament and observe the expert players. For intrigue and deception, it is a tempest in a teapot.

* http://www.
For those of you who don't know anything about "Frames," let me explain what I'm talking about briefly. "Frame" is short for "frame of mind." It's a set of rules, expectations, or beliefs that one accepts to be true or inevitable. When you "set a frame," you're creating rules, expectations, or beliefs that you are accepting to be true. You can then impose this frame of mind you've created on others, and they too will accept these rules, expectations, and beliefs to be true as well.

Anonymous said...

If someone spent years trying to learn how to please you and give you what you want, would you condemn them?

This is what we PUAs do. We are far from the picture you paint.

Anonymous said...

It's all about the ego. It is the reason why we, why I embraced this community.

It is unbearable to have to accept that you are not as good as the others, hence to make the pain go away, you try to change that fact.
And there is nothing wrong with that, afterall you just want to get the most of life and it's not something bad ? Is it ?

So then you embark on a adventure to become better, following the teachings of those who promise you that in the end, it will all be worth it.
Plus you get to make a whole lot of new friends who share the same ideals, exactly like you, encouraging your little mind to believe it all has to be true.

It must be. It has to be.

Whether it is genuine or not, this can be read as a masterful confidence trick, making you play against or for yourself, depends on your views of the community.

Although, there is something else I would like to address. Most men joined this masquarade because they believe they have something wrong with them and believe they will correct their flaws.
That's where it gets really good. These men learn the flaws of others, and how they work, in particular women. They learn that sending such signal will trigger such reaction, helping them to get the woman conned.

The main problem I came to realise as an ex-pickup artist was I didn't change who I was in any way, I thought I did. All I really did was to change the wrapping.
We all know women like shiny things, even women believe that. That's how it really works. Exploit the flaws of another.

But here is the kink in all see, what they actually teach you is the knowledge of the con artists...all these hours dedicated to the study of psychology, anthropology, psychiatry, pseudo-sciences, etc...eventually turned you into a certified con man, that is if you are smart enough to put your ego on the side.
Add the fact you've been beautifully conned yourself, you've got yourself a real good lesson.

So what happens next ?

Will you go back to school and become one of the con headmasters ?

Or will you take what you got from this experience, a lot more knowledgable person about yourself and the others and choose reality ?

I mean no offense to all you believe in this art, I say to you there is good you can get from it, but it won't make you a better person.
It will make you look better, to the eyes of others.

Afterall, the main reason people join the community is become they felt like worthless and weak individuals in the first place, and were promised that they will feel better by getting more women.
You're not in it for the betterment of mankind or humane relationships, you're only looking out for number one.
You already are a con artist yourself, to be trained by con artists at the simple price of being conned first.

Be careful, the industry might have been genuine at one point, but I doubt it will remain so forever.

Eventually, you may come to realise this.

But once again, don't worry, you can't con an honest man ? Can you ?

Jay Kay said...

Learn to Pick Up Attractive Women!