Monday, October 21, 2013

Sanctioned Manipulation

We live in an extrovert-positive world. That shouldn't be too hard of a claim to believe. After all, is it Steve Jobs or some guy called Woz who really made Apple famous? Why do we have a compulsion to share everything we do, especially if we're having alone private time? Why do we remember the advertised items, sales, and coupons over the baseline prices? We are attracted to extroverted actions. We respond to the positive stimuli of someone taking an interest in us. We like the flashing lights and movements vying for our attention. We are heavily biased towards positive signals.

It's a simple result of how our society is structured. We interact with a lot of people and a lot of things every day. We need ways to differentiate who we should care about and trust. So we filter out the background noise. We filter out the mundane and absent. What is left is the colorful and active and bursting sparkles and rainbows. And this bias is only getting stronger. As we are connected to more and more people via the Internet and social media the stronger we select for the "best" and strongest signals. We also have a limited amount of resources to keep track of others, so we try to squeeze in particular people while shoving out others who don't measure up.

We know that is how we respond. And so it is natural to assume that others respond the same way.[1]

Thus, we are masters of manipulation.

It's almost too easy. We know that if we act a certain way we will tend to get certain responses. If we signal that we are smart, our reputation will increase and others may seek our advice. If we signal we are fun-loving partiers, we will attract partiers. If we reveal something special and secret, people will think we are being frank and vulnerable and act accordingly. We intentionally craft an image of happiness and success on Facebook. Or, even better, we craft an image of bitter pain; hoping someone reaches down to help and sympathize with us.

Mentalism is this taken to an art form. You pick up on subtle cues about a person, then weave a narrative around them that you know something special about them or have unique powers. Most importantly they play up their successful guesses and minimize the flops. They create the image that they have supernatural powers. They are master manipulators.

But you don't have to take special training to do it yourself. It's something we are trained to do from an early age. Around the age of two the concept of Crocodile Tears appears. The child will fake crying, check if there's a response, then commence crying again. We quickly make connections between what we do (crying) and what the response will be (comfort, attention). As we get older, we just figure out how to be more subtle about it and the different avenues we have available.

As we get older, we also develop very good bullshit detectors. If someone is too overt, we pick up on it and it undermines their credibility. We don't like being "manipulated." It's an interesting model to think of these interactions as a constant struggle of bullshit versus bullshit detectors, but I digress. Still, many times even if we detect it we graciously allow it. There are certain bounds within which we have approved manipulations. And these are what are interesting.

Easiest example to pull out is on Facebook. Thinking way, way back originally Facebook was only about individual pages. You manually navigated to someone's page to see what they were up to. Now Facebook provides a nice curated stream of posts, pictures, and Life Events to your Newsfeed. Note I said curated. An important part of the algorithm is figuring out if something should be shown to you. My post about pooping that no one comments on? Probably not important for my olde buddy from college to know about. If I get married? Maybe a bit more important!!! One of the sneaky systems in place is Facebook figures out what is important by how many Likes and Comments something has. The more that show up, the more it shows up in your social network. This used to be a little opaque, but now Facebook creates an entry for when your friends Comment or Like someone's status. Even if you already saw it and buried it several days ago!

So, how does this all matter? If people want attention[2] -- and Likes and Comments are attention, and thus push the rewards systems in your brain (thus why FB has the notifications when someone does it. They are tapping into your rewards system!) -- then you begin to tailor your posts to maximize Likes. And how do you do that? You already make connections about what you post in the past and what has garnered more, or less, Likes and Comments. Grabby things about OMG MY LIFE IS AWESOME or woe-is-me or Behold How Clever I Am are commonplace. And we happily add our thumbs-up. Because we feel like we are engaging with the poster. We feel like we are promoting, celebrating, and showing we are there with them.[3]

But this isn't confined to Facebook. Facebook just provides it in black-and-white. Think about your daily conversations. What is the tone? For me, I often joke with people, teasing boundaries and showing how agile my mind is. I can figure out the reference and the underlying absurdity, hurray! Or I interject with a piece of trivia or a story about what's going on in the world. Look how well-versed and knowledgeable I am! I analyze things and think big thoughts!

We aren't completely to blame though. Much of what we are is dependent on who we are around and our environment. In my college experience it was highly valued to be smart, a little sarcastic, and supremely overworked. So people played to that value structure, showing off their smart wits, and peppering their walls with the battle scars of loaded schedules and massive works of endurance. Pecking order was developed based on achievements. So you strove to play those up. In my church circles you are often scored by your faith, insight, vulnerability, and empathy. So it's not surprising when a lot of people show off their humility and what they've done for others (as perhaps contradictory that seems in writing). One of my common interest groups is purely social, so much of the discussion centers around catching up with what's going on and planning for the next event. Considering the amount of time we've spent together, no one talks about feelings or troubles. We just stay at arms length.

It all comes down to signalling really. I signal interest, you choose to respond somehow which provides me with more information. Arriving promptly or being late sends a signal of your values. We then work within the bounds of social norms to optimize our signals. We don't have time to throw around half-signals. Remember, we are in a packed world and if I don't send out good, strong signals that others will pick up, I'll be lost in the noise!

And thus a new arms race is born. Everyone is rushing to signal as fast and as strong as possible to make themselves stand out from the noise. Do it too much and you're "manipulative," or "needy," or "whiny." Too little, and you fall into the noise; you're forgotten and ignored. But toe the line just right and you're an empathetic, novel, unique, interesting human being (and I want to be your friend and/or date you).

I am not saying these things are bad. Gathering information about those around us helps us make informed decisions. So finding the proper boundary is appropriate. As is the act of acknowledging and responding to a signal. Subtly exploiting these mechanisms allow us to promote the good attributes in people. Much of it comes down to positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement applied to social interactions. I think people should ask questions of others instead of waiting for proffered vignettes, so I pay more attention to people who ask me questions.

Going back to the FB like/comment-farming behavior I described above, someone mentioned that if we assume this is a cry for help and attention, then we should be concerned and try to help them. Figure out a stronger, deeper method to fix the underlying attention debt that they feel they can only fill via FB. This is a perfect example of how a "bad" signal should cause us to pause and refrain from condemnation and instead turn to figuring out how we can help.

Interestingly other cultures have a similar balance of signal-to-noise, but at differing points. Us Westerners like to toe the line being both passionate, emphatic, but also composed. We adore motivational speakers who get riled up and elect leaders who are passionate but also controlled. The Middle East's balance point tends to be tilted further towards passion. The silent person in the conversation is losing. Asian culture it is about controlling yourself and withstanding blows with hidden inner strength[4]. A friend of mine is a missionary in Japan and has been having trouble getting people to open up since they keep their thoughts very private instead of blasting them out into the world. The Joy Luck Club's quote "strongest wind cannot be seen" comes to mind.

So what does this all mean? On one hand, I would like to advocate that we should stop trying so hard with our image crafting. Ideally your first impulse when something exciting happens isn't to post about it on Facebook and Twitter. It's to call those you care about, or to try to remember it for later. You shouldn't take time crafting perfect moments and perfect presentations of those moments for mass consumption. They are to be valued and treasured. Firing into the void depersonalizes it, and we will pick up on bullshit. On the other hand, image control is super important! We all play the game. To not play the game is to lose in this instance. No one is going to walk up to a blank wall and start tapping it in the hopes they find the sequence to Diagon Alley. Be interesting and proactive! Do crazy stuff, share it, and celebrate with everyone! Wait, I just advocated you to do polar opposites.

So really my point is pay attention. We are all being manipulated and manipulating those around us. Try not to use that power for Evil.

[1] This is actually a horrible assumption. See The Usual Error.
[2] Beautiful comic about this.
[3] Weird item, how come changing your profile picture is such a big deal? I can understand if it shows off something awesome, like one of my friends crossing the Finish Line. Or if it's extra witty, like several of my other friends. I only swapped out my picture with a more up-to-date one and I garnered more Likes than any of my other posts in recent history. *mind blown*
[4] This article on cultural differences between US and Japan makes a stark contrast of imposing control versus stoicism. I also see it played out in Chinese culture. Remember, you have to ask at least three times to get the full answer. Thanks Camilo.

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