Saturday, 20 May 2017

Hijacking minds

Last year Tristan Harris, a former Google Design Ethicist, wrote an interesting post about mass manipulation by social media. 'Hijacking minds' he calls it, comparing what is done to the tricks of misdirection magicians use. Harris is also a magician.

The techniques he describes are unlikely to be news to anyone, but it is worth reminding ourselves that global social media businesses know how to make their products appealing and even addictive. They also know how to narrow user options in their own interests.

Western Culture is built around ideals of individual choice and freedom. Millions of us fiercely defend our right to make “free” choices, while we ignore how we’re manipulated upstream by limited menus we didn’t choose.

This is exactly what magicians do. They give people the illusion of free choice while architecting the menu so that they win, no matter what you choose. I can’t emphasize how deep this insight is...

...For example, imagine you’re out with friends on a Tuesday night and want to keep the conversation going. You open Yelp to find nearby recommendations and see a list of bars. The group turns into a huddle of faces staring down at their phones comparing bars. They scrutinize the photos of each, comparing cocktail drinks. Is this menu still relevant to the original desire of the group?

It’s not that bars aren’t a good choice, it’s that Yelp substituted the group’s original question (“where can we go to keep talking?”) with a different question (“what’s a bar with good photos of cocktails?”) all by shaping the menu.

Moreover, the group falls for the illusion that Yelp’s menu represents a complete set of choices for where to go. While looking down at their phones, they don’t see the park across the street with a band playing live music. They miss the pop-up gallery on the other side of the street serving crepes and coffee. Neither of those show up on Yelp’s menu.

Harris goes on to list ten ways which he says are used to hijack the minds of social media users. Number seven is a good example. 

Hijack #7: Instant Interruption vs. “Respectful” Delivery

Companies know that messages that interrupt people immediately are more persuasive at getting people to respond than messages delivered asynchronously (like email or any deferred inbox).

Given the choice, Facebook Messenger (or WhatsApp, WeChat or SnapChat for that matter) would prefer to design their messaging system to interrupt recipients immediately (and show a chat box) instead of helping users respect each other’s attention.

In other words, interruption is good for business.

It’s also in their interest to heighten the feeling of urgency and social reciprocity. For example, Facebook automatically tells the sender when you “saw” their message, instead of letting you avoid disclosing whether you read it(“now that you know I’ve seen the message, I feel even more obligated to respond.”) By contrast, Apple more respectfully lets users toggle “Read Receipts” on or off.

The problem is, while messaging apps maximize interruptions in the name of business, it creates a tragedy of the commons that ruins global attention spans and causes billions of interruptions every day. This is a huge problem we need to fix with shared design standards (potentially, as part of Time Well Spent).

By now we are so familiar with it all that is isn't easy to be concerned about the trend. It has happened and the consequences are easy to see. Perhaps we could learn more about our own psychology and do something about it, but how likely is that? 


Sam Vega said...

"Perhaps we could learn more about our own psychology and do something about it, but how likely is that?"

For us as a collective (i.e. society, or consumers, etc.) it is practically impossible. Note the bit about choices made "upstream" which constrain us while giving the illusion of freedom. This was dealt with brilliantly in the 1970s by Bachrach and Baratz, who called it "nondecision-making" or "agenda-rigging". If there were any such insights into our psychology, far cleverer people would have packaged them and presented them to the masses in ways which lead us to make predetermined choices. We will never hear about such insights except through electronic media, so they will come to us "pre-packaged".

For us as individuals, though, we have everything to play for. We've already had the insight. Now we just need to say no to the next shiny bleepy thing that we didn't need in the first place.

wiggiatlarge said...

"I feel even more obligated to respond."

Some obviously do that is why they do it, the same applies to the "can I help" or "do you want to chat" boxes that come up incessantly on company web pages when appraising a product, for me it is a total turn off and when you get the box re appear after clicking it off, as some can be, I click off so no gain there.

Demetrius said...

My old Sergeant Major was very keen on free choice. His choice that is.

A K Haart said...

Sam - I agree, it is practically impossible and may even be undesirable except as a way to explore alternatives, but that is only possible where societies are tolerant. Setting an agenda seems to be basic to what we are, how we build any kind of collective activity. Stonehenge must have been the result of some kind of agenda.

Wiggia - yes, we who predate this kind of thing often resist it quite easily. It can be mildly enjoyable to do so.

Demetrius - at school we had a metalwork teacher like that. The lad opposite me actually trembled during lessons.