The manipulation game: Psychology’s uncomfortable partnership with advertising

An industry intent on controlling your mind, a scientific discipline tasked with understanding it. This match made in heaven may result in an inescapable manipulation hell. The utilization of psychological research has resulted in advertising becoming a powerful manipulation machine. As psychological research grants further insights into methods of manipulation, should we sit idly by as the last remnants of our already scarce attention are viciously fought over by advertising behemoths?

A history of psychology in advertising

Advertising wasn’t always aimed at manipulating consumers. Originally, the focus of advertising was to provide the potential customer with information about the product of interest. Eventually, by enlisting applied psychologists, advertising shifted instead to take advantage of emotions to effectively entice consumerism. Two applied psychologists are considered the pioneers of guiding advertising through psychology. The first, John B. Watson, recommended that advertisers tell consumers “something that will tie him up with fear, something that will stir up a mild rage, that will call out an affectionate or love response, or strike at a deep psychological or habit need.” This quote indicates the role that applied psychology recommended of emotional manipulation in advertising. Watson was not alone in this belief.

The second pioneer of psychological advertising was Walter D. Scott. In 1904, Scott published a story illustrating the psychology behind advertising. Within this publication, Scott quoted a speaker at the Atlas Club in Chicago as saying, “In passing to the psychological aspect of our subject, advertising might properly be defined as the art of determining the will of possible customers”, further reinforcing the view that advertising has historically been unabashed in its self-recognition as a manipulation machine. At the time of Scott’s publication, there was awareness of the increasing quantity of advertising present in magazines. Scott lists the numbers of pages dedicated to advertising space in each October edition of Harper’s Magazine, increasing from 3.25 in 1864, to 141 in 1903. This increase in advertising changed the revenue model for Harper’s magazine, shifting from a reliance on subscriptions to a dependency on ad revenue. These notions of abundant advertising and a media landscape funded by ad revenue have not lost relevance, and are currently reflected by the copious amounts of content that cost only your attention.

Advertising, the attention economy, and social media today

The pace of advertising’s expanding reach has continued to increase dramatically. It is estimated that we experience around 5,000 advertisements per day, each benefiting from novel insights in psychology research. These ads are inescapable; we bring them with us wherever we go. These engineered manipulation tactics spread beyond the advertising industry, playing a profound role in the expanding social media presence in our society. Even main contributors of this ‘Attention Economy’ have begun to question the effects that being perpetually surrounded by intentionally addictive ads have had on our attention. Justin Rosenstein, the ex-Facebook software engineer who designed the ‘like’ button, has publicly stated that he actively restricts his use of several social media platforms, going so far as to instruct his assistant to block his ability to install new applications. Rosenstein is not the only Silicon-Valley software engineer recognizing the need to reduce the grip of media on society. Tristan Harris, an ex-Googler, has become a vocal critic of the effects of the attention economy, going so far as to start a campaign called ‘time well spent’ to aid in combating compulsive computing. Although there are attempts to counteract the attention economy, the competition trying to capture our attention remains, further reinforcing the use of psychological tactics in advertising and social media.

In fact, entire conferences are now being held with the intention of teaching engineers how to make their products as addicting as possible. One such conference, organized by Nir Eyal, the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, charges $1,700 to anyone who hopes to learn how to entice consumers to become habitual users of their products. At what point do we put a line in the sand and decide that psychological theory has developed to a point at which its application is manipulative to a degree of concern? For me, that point is nearing reality. I believe that the young field of Neurocinematics is another step in the direction of developing knowledge sufficiently manipulative to warrant action.

The latest step in manipulation research: Neurocinematics

Neurocinematics is a young field within Neuroscience whose aim is to understand the effects that cinematics has on neural activation. To do this, the subject will sit in a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine and view the cinematic content of interest. Subsequently, the researcher will perform various statistical analyses to investigate what kind of firing patterns this elicited in the viewer’s brain. One pioneering study in Neurocinematics aimed to measure the degree of control that various pieces of film had on viewers’ minds. Subjects viewed several films, including “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” and a video recording of patrons in a park, while inside an fMRI machine. It was found that the more engaging the piece of film was, the more control was exerted on the viewers’ minds. The researchers argued that the more similar subjects’ fMRI patterns were, the more engaged (controlled) their minds were. This was particularly true in cases of emotional content. The authors then go on to argue that this could be a crucial tool for understanding and guiding cinematography, allowing for film makers to truly understand which aspects of film result in increased engagement (control). Is this a tool that we wish for content producers and advertisers to have unbounded access to?

I have already noted that there is an abundance of advertisers, viciously competing for every remaining morsel of our attention. This competition is fierce, cutthroat, and will take advantage of every available technological opportunity afforded to it. Neurocinematics will allow for the optimization of manipulation tactics, resulting in a hyper-competitive battle to the bottom for our attention. Neurocinematics allows media producers to have an accurate understanding of the effect that miniscule changes can have on the degree to which our attention is controlled. The guidance provided by Neurocinematics research, paired with this hyper-competition, will result in the survival of only the most manipulative, engaging advertisers. This begs the question, should we place restrictions on Neuroscience? Is the pursuit of knowledge satisfactorily noble to justify inquiry regardless of its implications?

The responsibilities of researchers

We must recognize that scientists and innovators are not absolved from their moral responsibilities because of the supposedly noble goal of knowledge pursuit. Indeed, Heather Douglas has convincingly argued that when scientists perform work that is knowingly detrimental to others, they can be considered reckless. When engineers are provided with guidance on how to be manipulative to the point where phone and internet addiction have become cause for concern, providing these engineers with additional guidance is irresponsible. Douglas continues to argue that this responsibility to society is not lost due to the perceived moral neutrality of science. This belief hinges on the notion that science is and can be fully objective; that science is separated from the broader cultural and sociopolitical landscape surrounding it. We must consider regulatory options to prevent an uncontrollable enterprise of consumer manipulation. David Guston notes that through declaring our values in advance, and by incorporating the public in deliberation, we can govern developing technologies in anticipation of their potential negative outcomes. Neuroscience should be guided towards research projects that have less potential to be utilized to manipulate consumers – focusing instead on challenges with more immediate benefits to the broader public.

While the history of psychology and advertising is long, the public can sever this tie. The unrestricted manipulation of consumers through tactics provided by academia is unsustainable. Let us make our voices heard and reclaim our attention.

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