“The Pharmaceutical Company that Invented Headaches”


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So, this happened …

Did you know that headaches did not exist before the year 1911?

(Of course, this is absolutely not true. But forget the truth for a minute and go with me on a mental journey.)

So yes, 1911. That’s when headaches were invented. And the weird thing is, they were actually invented by a pharmaceutical company!

Back in 1899, Aspirin was first released by the Bayer company to the world, and it proved to be a very effective pain killer. Broken bones, sprained joints, torn muscles, all were eased by this amazing product that was based on willow bark.

But . . . there was another pharmaceutical company that believed that pain relief medicine could be selling in much higher volumes, if only they weren’t relying on only external injuries to get people to buy the product.

So they asked themselves . . . what if the pain was internal? What if it began spontaneously, without any injuries? What if the pain just . . . happened? And not just anywhere, what if the pain appeared in the head? Genius!

A pain in the head for no apparent reason? That would be scary! People would want to get rid of the pain as quickly as possible, and sales would increase substantially for whatever drug was effective in relieving such pain.

And so, headaches were invented.

And they proved a massive success for the pharmaceutical industry. There was a huge increase in pain relief medicine sold around the world, as headaches began to spread globally.

Naturally, not everyone agrees with the claim that headaches were invented by a pharmaceutical company. In response, there are normally two arguments that are presented against the above version of what happened in 1911.

  1. Some people have tried to argue that headaches have existed for thousands of years. But scientists have gone back to written records all the way back to the ancient Egyptians, and have found no mention of headaches in any text before 1911.
  2. It has been suggested that headaches are a natural phenomenon, and they weren’t “invented” by anyone. But think about it – does that even make sense? After all, who is the biggest beneficiary of the existence of headaches? Correct! It’s the pharmaceutical industry. They make a fortune off headache tablets, so it’s obvious they must have been the ones to invent them. After all, who else would have bothered?

So there you have it. Headaches were invented by a pharmaceutical company.

Does it make your head hurt, just thinking about it?

Simple Definition

The pharmaceutical company that invented headaches: This fictionalized history sounds ridiculous, but it’s actually a perfect template for how many people see the world. They build a scenario (based on facts and assumptions) which seems plausible, and then they adopt that explanation as 100% certain, even though other plausible explanations exist.

Summarizing what it means

Even though the pharmaceutical industry benefits more from headaches than does any other industry, that doesn’t prove they invented headaches in order to boost sales.

Yet, most ideas can be made to sound logical in a well-designed story. And with a few genuine facts thrown in (for example, Aspirin really was launched in 1899 as a product of the Bayer company), the story can be made to sound very plausible.

But just because it sounds reasonable, and even though it might be possible, doesn’t mean it is true.

You’ll see this “inventing headaches” concept play out in many different ways, so it’s important to be able to spot it (and tag it!) accordingly.

Generally, I have noticed two primary contexts where this gets used.

One application is in discussions where you are trying to explain how or why something happened, for example:

  • “Pharmaceutical companies benefit from all these Covid19 vaccines, which proves they actually manufactured this virus.”  (I’m not saying it is or is not true, but the argument is merely circumstantial, not proof.)

The other application is where people are guessing at someone’s motivation for doing something, for example:

  • “We’ve been together for 5 years and you forgot my birthday? Clearly, you are trying to send me a strong, explicit message that you don’t love me.”  (Again, maybe that sounds believable and indeed it might be true, but this alone doesn’t prove it is true, since the person might genuinely have forgotten. Accidents happen.)

When you are the one jumping to conclusions about “inventing headaches”, remind yourself that no matter how sensible your way of thinking feels, that doesn’t prove anything.) There is nothing stopping you from beginning a debate on the assumption that you might be right, but be cautious of arguing with 100% conviction, simply on the basis that one idea sounds feasible to you.

If someone else is insistent about “inventing headaches”, it’s important to make the point to them that while it could be true, it doesn’t mean it is true. In my experience, if you start arguing directly about that specific point before they have acknowledged that it is just one possible correct scenario, I’ve found that the arguments generally go nowhere. I know you’re annoyed they did something bad, but the real explanation might be different to whatever your mind invented on the spur of the moment:

  • He might have bumped into you because he’s an asshole. Or he might have been distracted because he’s late for a meeting, or worrying about a sick child. (He might actually be an asshole, but at least acknowledge there are many other explanations for what happened.)
  • She might not have done her homework as a statement of defiance, or because she just doesn’t care. Or maybe she’s like any young child who sometimes lives in a fantasy world and so forgets things.
  • She might have been promoted simply as a token female, or she might have been promoted because she really deserves it. Just because you can think of one scenario that could be true, doesn’t mean it is definitely the correct explanation.

While you might believe what you conceive, don’t be deceived that it’s what was achieved.

Remember to label this “The pharmaceutical company that invented headaches”, when you notice it happening.

Discussing what it means

In most situations, it’s not difficult to invent several possible paths that could have led to a specified outcome.

As a first example, let’s apply this “inventing headaches” concept to Covid19. If you’re sick of reading about Covid19, then you’re welcome to jump ahead to the section about Jack the Ripper 🙂

The Covid19 scenario – don’t believe everything you think

For example, let’s take a moment to make up explanations as to how Covid19 might have begun.

  • It could just be a disease that unfortunately jumped from animals (bats? pangolin?) to humans
  • It could be an accidental leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology
  • It could be a bioweapon designed by the Chinese to destroy the rest of the world
  • It could be a bioweapon designed by the rest of the world to destroy the Chinese
  • The disease might have been created by the pharmaceutical industry to ultimately make them rich by selling vaccines
  • Or perhaps Covid19 is a hoax, and it doesn’t even exist.

Of course, I don’t believe that all of the above items are likely to be true, but they can all be made to sound plausible. Let’s see how …

Skip the logic

Even the last one, which sounds ridiculous, could be made to sound reasonable by pointing to hundreds of dubious websites that claim to have evidence to support the hoax theory. And if those are the only websites you read, then it could indeed sound solid.

Further, logic tells me that using a fast-spreading viral infection as a bioweapon is a dumb idea – the likelihood is that it will spread so that even the attacker will eventually get attacked, therefore I can’t imagine how that would be the strategy of anyone intelligent. Nevertheless, there is no end of websites that are pushing this theory.

But when people cast aspersions, when they make claims, it doesn’t have to be logical. Conspiracy theorists are famous for spouting illogical nonsense, so logic doesn’t have to get in the way of fantastic claims.

Now add Outrage

If we claim that Covid19 came from an accidental cross-species jump, for example, then where’s the outrage? Who should we be angry at, who should we blame? There’s no conspiracy here, so these theories quickly fade.

But bioweapons, pharmaceutical inventions? That’s outrageous, that’s viral (pun intended), that’s excellent click-bait.

Then add facts (whether true or not)

The reason we even care about “facts” for this chapter is that, once people have a theory, all they need is some support that they might be right, and then they switch to being 100% committed to that theory as the definitive explanation.

The facts don’t have to be true – as long as it supports their theory.

At the same time, people will ignore the facts that support the other theories, and also skip over any facts that weaken their own argument.

So coming back to Covid19, here are some facts to support each of the above theories, although naturally not all these theories can be true (in spite of the fact that each is casually defensible).

  • Ebola came from bats, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease came from cows, Lyme Disease comes from ticks. So it’s not impossible that Covid19 might have come from a pangolin.
  • There is (genuinely!) a 1981 book by Dean Koontz called The Eyes of Darkness where a viral disease breaks out from a Wuhan virus laboratory. So this leak theory clearly isn’t impossible to imagine being true, if it was already conceived in a book some 40 years ago, actually involving the city of Wuhan.
  • China seems to have controlled Covid19 very well. Fact. But some people will ignore how fast they responded and how strict their lockdown was, and instead will claim it was because the Chinese have inside information about the disease, and that’s why it was controlled.
  • Or the fact that it broke out inside China is proof – to some people – that it might have been planted within China by another country.
  • Yes, Covid19 tests produce false positives. Yes, there are people who died of TB but whose death certificate says Covid19. Now as long as you pretend that all test results are false positives and that all Covid19 deaths are actually just misclassified “other” deaths, then you can insist that you’ve got pure facts that support the argument.

And while some facts can be true, they don’t have to be. As long as they sound true, as long as there is at least one other website that claims the same thing, they can be referenced to support any theory that you want.

For example, in the #hashtag-story above, I wrote, “But scientists have gone back to written records all the way back to the ancient Egyptians, and have found no mention of headaches in any text before 1911.” That’s not true, but I stated it so categorically, that there will be people out there who might accept it without thinking or without checking. (And even if there are archaeology websites that talk about references to headaches thousands of years ago, all you have to do is claim that the website is owned by the pharmaceutical industry, in order to immediately discredit the information.)

I’m not teaching you here how to create false theories. I’m explaining the thinking that happens in the minds of people who commit 100% to a theory that is merely ‘possible’, even through many other options exist (and are even more reasonable).

(To dig into more detail about how to think critically about what you are told, read the chapter called #[The field that became a black hole].)

Covid19 – conclusion

It’s clearly easy to have six possible explanations, yet end up insisting that only one in particular is absolutely true, without disproving the other five.

As the title of this chapter says, “Just because you thought it through, doesn’t mean it must be true”.

The message of this chapter serves two purposes:

  • It’s a reminder that you shouldn’t necessarily believe everything you think, even if it’s perfectly sensible.
  • And if someone is trying to suck you into their theory, this chapter gives you a tool for fighting back at their misinformation – by quoting the story about “The pharmaceutical company that invented headaches”.

Most importantly, I have not tried to insist that the various theories about Covid19 are or are not true. My goal was to point out how people are selective in picking one favorite theory, and then cling to that as if it were the only possible explanation.

There is nothing wrong with having a preferred theory, but just be honest that it’s not 100% proven, it’s just your preferred choice out of several possible options (which themselves are at least as plausible).

(Remember also that two people can have different perspectives and both be right, see for example #[Tomatoes – fruit or veg? Yes].)

Jack the Ripper

In 1888, five women were killed in London in a series of grisly murders by a person who became known as “Jack the Ripper”. And no one has proven beyond doubt who that person really was. (Nor are they likely to ever produce conclusive evidence after 130+ years.)

There have been many theories put forward, and after I moved to London, I became really interested in the story, and read several of the books.

What is interesting is that every one of the books was written in the tone of:

  • The killer was definitely Mr X
  • This is true because of fact Y.

For example, one book (whose title I can’t remember) had the theory that the only reason that Jack the Ripper wasn’t caught at the time was because:

  • There must have been a major cover-up (otherwise they would have caught him)
  • Only a person with power and money could achieve a cover-up as effective as that
  • Of the 100 suspects, the most powerful of them was Prince Albert Victor
  • Therefore he must have been Jack the Ripper.

Can you see the problem with this? Just because there is a theory, and just because there is one small shred of (claimed) evidence, therefore it must be true. And yet, you don’t have to be a genius to find flaws in the logic of every one of the above bullet points, but that didn’t stop the author insisting that Prince Albert Victor was Jack the Ripper.

In my case, I remember a lot of press from 2019 when they “proved” who Jack the Ripper was, based on DNA evidence. I glanced at some of the news articles, accepted the explanation, and took it as a closed case.

But I’m always open to being proven wrong, so when I saw this article, I realized that – while it was an interesting theory – it’s clearly far from irrefutable.

You can tell a lot about a person when you present them with apparent facts that disprove their theories! Do they take the new information on board and adapt their theory? Or do they go into defensive denial mode, and attack the new message (and messenger)?

It’s people in the latter group who are most likely to adopt the “inventing headaches” approach.

Murder in the Movies

Perhaps a good analogy for this “inventing headaches” idea is the collection of American courtroom dramas, where the movie often revolves around the key contributors of Method, Motive, and Opportunity.

It’s easy to accuse someone of murder simply because they had a strong motive, or because they had the opportunity, or because were capable of the method used to kill. But that could be circumstantial, representing merely a suggestion of who might be investigated. If the lawyers aren’t able to prove method, motive, and opportunity, the case is at risk of collapsing. We need more than just a theory and a little bit of support.

In the non-courtroom Real World(TM), we aren’t subject to such rigorous standards, so it’s easy to make accusations and to insist on certain beliefs, without having to defend them other than by citing just the facts which support your argument.

Yes, the pharmaceutical industry makes a lot of money by selling pain relief medicine, moreso than any other industry, but that still doesn’t mean they invented headaches.

Using this knowledge in practice

Here is an example of a dialogue that might happen between you and someone who tries to use this flawed logic on you. The idea is to demonstrate how easy it is to apply.

     You: Hey, it has been a while. Are you free to meet for a coffee next week?

     Them: Coffee? Are you serious?

     You: Yeah sure, let’s meet up.

     Them: I’ve told you more than once that I don’t drink coffee. Why do you keep suggesting coffee?

     You: Whoops, I forgot. That’s OK, the coffee shop sells tea and juice too.

     Them: It’s like you’re trying to tell me my preferences don’t matter.

     You: What? No – I just forgot you don’t drink coffee. You can drink anything you want.

     Them: You’re giving me permission not to drink coffee? Like you’re forgiving me for not drinking coffee?

     You: No, I just forgot. When I say “coffee” I mean let’s meet at a coffee shop – we’ll both order whatever we want.

     Them: No, you’re just making your choices take priority.

     You: OK wait, let me try explain it this way … Did you know that pharmaceutical companies invented headaches?

     Them: What? That’s rubbish.

     You: Seriously, think about it – who benefits financially from headaches more than anyone else? It’s the pharmaceutical industry!

     Them: Headaches have been around forever!

     You: You’d think that, right? But I checked – I couldn’t find any evidence that headaches existed before the twentieth century. None whatsoever.

     Them: It’s still rubbish – it doesn’t matter who benefits from headaches, that’s false logic. That’s not a good enough reason to deduce that they invented headaches.

     You: Yes, actually I agree. And although you have convinced yourself that my suggesting coffee must be because I disrespect your choices – that’s not a good enough reason to deduce that I really don’t respect your choices.

     Them: <thinking>

     You: There are many reasons I might have suggested coffee. Perhaps it’s just what I always say. Perhaps I forgot you don’t drink coffee. Perhaps I disrespect your choices. I’m sorry that you felt it was the ‘disrespect’ one – but, like the headaches – that’s just not true.

Part of the reason this technique works is because you stopped talking about coffee, and started talking about headaches. This is not something they are currently upset about, and therefore don’t have as vested an interest in the outcome as they do with coffee. Shifting the discussion to a parallel topic to make your point, and only then coming back to the debate, is the key to an effective rebuttal.

That is why #HashtagYourLife techniques are so powerful,  because you’re making your point to the side where they can agree with you. Only then do you return to the discussion to show it’s the same idea.

Some closing thoughts

The three behaviors you will likely see

Now that you are aware of the concept of “The pharmaceutical company that invented headaches”, you will notice it more often when it happens, regardless of whether it’s you or someone else doing it.

I’ve found that usually when someone has picked one possible explanation and vehemently insists it must be true, you are likely to see three behaviors from them:

  • They will refuse to accept that any other explanations exist
  • And even if they do accept that there are other possibilities, they will not give a single argument in support of any alternative explanation
  • When you try to raise additional explanations or defend any that come up, they will often attack you directly (“You’re dumb to believe …”, “Are you calling me stupid?”, “You’re being defensive …”, “You’ve been brainwashed!”, etc.)

That’s why it’s important to argue your point using a completely different scenario (headaches) before coming back to the main point of contention.

I know what *I* was thinking!

What I find frustrating is when the person is insisting that my reason for doing or saying something was malicious, and yet I know they are wrong. No matter how many times I say, “Trust me, I know what my own motivation was when I said that,” it doesn’t help because they have convinced themselves otherwise. They are sure I’m just in denial or being defensive.

Again, that’s exactly why you need to move away from this emotional discussion, to something else – like headaches.

And, if the word “defensive” ever comes up in these arguments, make sure you’ve read #[Defensive about defensiveness] in advance, so you handle it appropriately. There is a wrong way of responding!

Cognitive Bias

In psychology, there is the concept of the Actor-Observer Bias, which basically says that when people judge themselves then they are more likely to take mitigating circumstances into account to justify their behavior. Whereas when they judge others’ actions, they are more likely to deem them to be as a result of that person’s flawed personality.

More specifically, if they do something that isn’t very nice (like losing their temper, bumping into someone, being late), they usually believe they have a good reason for doing it. But when someone else does the same, it must be because they are bad people.

Can you see this is just another example of the “inventing headaches” concept? Good job!

Making it personal

Here are some quick questions for you to think through:

  • How guilty are you of insisting that (notionally) pharmaceutical companies invented headaches, without giving any credibility to other theories?
  • Who are the people around you (home, friends, work, elsewhere) who are most likely to make the flawed “inventing headaches” argument?
  • If you get dragged into arguments like this often with the same people, it’s worth casually telling them the story of “inventing headaches” a couple of times so they get the basic idea. Then, when it happens again, they will be open to the key message when you say, “Remember that ‘inventing headaches’ story I told you before?”
  • Over the next week or two, try spot all the times when someone (including yourself) uses the “inventing headaches” logic in a discussion. It doesn’t have to be a militant and angry discussion, even just a casual discussion between friends. But notice that they lock in a single sensible explanation without allowing for the possibility of any other explanation.

This chapter will help you have a calmer life where you feel (and are) more in control.

  • Get good at using the label in your mind, so you notice what’s actually happening
  • Become skilled in telling the “inventing headaches” story to get around these pointless discussion dead-ends.


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Related Stories

#[The field that became a black hole]

#[Tomatoes – fruit or veg? Yes]

#[Defensive about defensiveness]

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