Persuasion Beneath the Radar

I find it interesting that the below video promotes manipulation of people as ethical. At no point is one advised to reason with vulnerability and openness; to provide people with more than one side of an argument; or to rely on evidence and critical thinking to get people to think, do, or say what you want.

Instead, it’s all about targeting people’s heuristic shortcuts, sneaking beneath their conscious awareness, and seizing the steering wheel of their behavior.

I’m not trying to be utopian. I understand that we’re evolved social animals and that the rational parts of our brains are latecomers to the game. But combining persuasion with behavioral science to target the unconscious strikes me as ultimately pessimistic–even contemptuous–of the broad human capacity for rationality. It takes for granted that autonomy, democracy, and even friendship are notions suffused with idealistic innocence and readily subverted and directed by behavioral science.

And perhaps they are. But who wants the spell and hope of these ideals and goals broken and replaced with a theatre of behavioral manipulation? In such a theatre, there are those in the know and those who are suckers (even as everyone is smiling at one another).

I get it. It’s capitalism; the advertising and propaganda age; the world we’ve lived in for the better part of a century. Where have I been?

It still seems wrong to me. And it’s getting worse. “Come, let us reason together” has been replaced with naked manipulative power, with “Whatever works.”

Is this really what the Enlightenment project–the application of reason–has come to?

Beneath the sunny chirpiness of this video is a darkness. See if you agree.


A more sobering take on behavioral science can be found in this BBC produced documentary, The Century of the Self:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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One Response to Persuasion Beneath the Radar

  1. In keeping with my thinking that we are meat machines, there are only so many things that our brains are capable of doing at any one time. We will happily relegate a decision to someone in authority if it means we don’t have to change modes and begin gathering evidence for yet one more decision or group of decisions. Given that we decided that way we tend to support that decision whether it is wrong or not since we won’t do the investigation to make the decision we need not do it to support the decision.

    This is, in the end, a simple trick of understanding how to trick the machine between our ears into doing something which benefits us. For all the wonderous things that our brains are capable of, it has serious limitations in many respects. Education is the best answer for any social problem, even if it is not the only answer or even if it is only one aspect of a complete answer. It should always be part of the answer. Only through education are we able to make better decisions… including the decision to not let others make decisions for us.

    In line with this post, most of the people that know me would be able to complete the following sentences:

    If it’s advertised on television ……………………… you probably don’t need it and you can get it cheaper somewhere else.

    If you have to buy it right now……………………………….. don’t

    If it seems too good to be true………………………………………. it is

    If it really did all that, the government………………………………….. would be using it to train soldiers, but they are not.

    There are others, but these directly relate to social manipulation. For a very long time humans have been aware of this and it has been passed down by adage and folk story for many generations.

    I’m famous for arguing with the free wine sample lady at the grocery store:

    WSL: would you like to try a sample of xxxxx wine?
    Me: What does it do?
    WSL: well, it’s wine.
    Me: Why is it special and why should I try it?
    WSL: blah blah blah blah
    Me: is it better than that $60/bottle over there on the shelf?
    WSL: Well, no, I don’t know, but ….
    Me: Ok, thank you, I’ll pass

    I don’t even drink wine, but the sales pitch was difficult to pass up. The idea is that you taste it and then spend the few dollars to buy a bottle because you were coached into thinking it tastes good and costs so little.

    There are very few people on this planet that are trying to help YOU. They are always trying to help someone, but it is extremely rare that it is you. Think very carefully about what people say. If it was honest advice for you, you would have to ask for it. If it was just news/information you’d have to go to the library for it. If it is presented to you gratis, be very wary of it. People suck and they are not here to help you… no matter who they work for.

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