The Insidious Manipulation Of Your Beliefs

20 Aug


Ever wonder where those annoying pop up ads that litter the margins and sidebars of your favorite websites come from? And why they’re so ubiquitous? And who would fall for clicking on those things anyway? Well, an article over at Slate gives us a little insight:

“Research on persuasion shows the more arguments you list in favor of something, regardless of the quality of those arguments, the more that people tend to believe it,” Norton says. “Mainstream ads sometimes use long lists of bullet points—people don’t read them, but it’s persuasive to know there are so many reasons to buy.” OK, but if more is better, then why only one trick? “People want a simple solution that has a ton of support.”

Reminds me of the Gish Gallop. It’s a lot easier to spout off a flurry of bad arguments against evolution than it is to correct each and every one of them. Moreover, just by the nature of things, there are a lot more ways to be wrong about something than there are to be right about it. How many wrong answers are there for 2 + 2? Literally infinite. So it seems like one aspect of the science of persuasion is to offer a multitude of arguments for something, regardless of the quality of the argument. This is quite obviously hijacking the brain’s mental algorithms to fabricate the feeling of certainty in someone without much effort.

It makes a little bit of sense though. Most people operate under the assumption of confirmation bias, so they might automatically assume an argument is true before assuming it’s false (especially if they have an emotional investment in it being true). Moreover, we seem to have a bit of intuitive understanding of Bayesian updates so combining them it would make sense that unleashing a torrent of arguments in favor of something (even if those arguments are bad if looked at rationally) would default someone into “updating” their prior about the belief in question towards being more probable.

Also, more on the intuitive probability front, people prefer simple solutions to complex ones. That’s actually rational, but the brain has no quick (i.e. intuitive) way of distinguishing between simple and simplistic. A simple explanation is just following Occam’s Razor. A simplistic explanation functions more like a cognitive stop sign. So for many people, “god” is a simple explanation but if you ask yourself how many things need to be true in order for “god” to be the correct explanation, it turns out that it functions more like a simplistic answer. You can tell that an answer is simplistic if the crucial point of finding out how many things need to be true in order for the explanation to be correct is purposefully avoided.

What about all the weirdness? “A word like ‘weird’ is not so negative, and kind of intriguing,” says Oleg Urminsky of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “There’s this foot-in-the-door model. If you lead with a strong, unbelievable claim it may turn people off. But if you start with ‘isn’t this kind of weird?’ it lowers the stakes.” The model also explains why some ads ask you to click on your age first. “Giving your age is low-stakes but it begins the dialogue. The hard sell comes later.”

There was a post over at Epiphenom that explains the allure of religious belief in this aspect. Religious beliefs are only slightly counterintuitive, not completely nonsense. Blurb: “There’s a particular brain wave that gets triggered when you hear stuff that doesn’t make sense. It’s called the N400, and it’s triggered by sentences like “I like my coffee with cream and socks”. Although each individual word makes sense, and although the grammar is fine, the semantics is screwy – the meaning of those words is pretty unexpected… the size of the N400 wave was largest for the pure nonsense, and smallest for the sensible sentences. The religious statements were in-between.”

I would actually further hypothesize that the particular N400 wave that represented religion would be somewhat pleasing depending on the person’s thinking style (I’m not aware of any evidence for that conjecture, though).

Also, referring to the “foot-in-the-door” model, this actually seems like The Benjamin Franklin Effect, or what Less Wrong calls Cached Selves. I’ve actually seen this happen at bars/clubs: A guy will ask a girl to do an inocuous favor (e.g. watch my drink) and then she’s more likely to do other favors for him (e.g. come to this other bar with me / come home with me). Insidiousness level: 99; you doing a favor for someone makes you more likely to like them!

“People tend to think something is important if it’s secret,” says Michael Norton, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School. “Studies find that we give greater credence to information if we’ve been told it was once ‘classified.’ Ads like this often purport to be the work of one man, telling you something ‘they’ don’t want you to know.” The knocks on Big Pharma not only offered a tempting needle-free fantasy; they also had a whiff of secret knowledge, bolstering the ad’s credibility

Mystery and inside secrets seem to be one of the reasons why Christianity became so popular almost 2,000 years ago. So the trick is, if you want to increase the draw of some idea you’re selling, try to make it seem like it’s secret knowledge. This way if you are imparting it to someone it makes them feel special and individualized.

Though “one weird trick” ads may not be aimed at the average consumer, they show how deftly marketers have learned to manipulate our beliefs. There may be little daylight between the temptation of learning a weird trick at the behest of a sketchy mail-order outfit and the provocative headlines of mainstream news outlets like BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, or—indeed!—Slate. The science of grabbing and directing your attention advances each time you click a link on your Facebook feed.

Of course, a reader “Adrian” posted in the comments “It sounds like all the elements needed to start a cult”. Exactly.

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Posted by on August 20, 2013 in cognitive science


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