The Persuasion Machine of Silicon Valley. On The Passionate Eye. Fascinating – and scary – stuff.

Did  you know your on-line behaviour reflects your Big 5 Personality traits, interests, preferences, occupation, intelligence, hobbies,  political preferences, religiosity? Really, all about you.

The show includes an interview with psychologist Dr. Michal Kosinski (PhD in Psychology, MPhil in Psychometrics, MS in Social Psychology). His profile is at:

His myPersonality project, with over 200 researchers, analyzes profiles of millions of Facebook users. Advertisers and political campaigns then use these profiles to send you (and others like you) targeted ads or “news” to manipulate your shopping or your voting. Without you realizing you are being manipulated to such a subtle degree.

Of course, we’ve always known behaviour reflects personality, to some degree. And we do make personal judgements about others based on their appearance and clothes. Gosling et al. (2002) found that strangers could often diagnose your Big 5 personality traits based on a photo of your house, your bedroom or office. (And by the way, he and his research team have also found strangers can diagnose a dog’s personality traits from their behaviour playing in a dog park).

In a way, this is adaptive for us. Being able to quickly assess another’s personality traits, interests and competencies helps us form and maintain harmonious social relationships, as our ancestors could within their tribe of familiar family members. If we can predict what the other person is likely to do in specific situations, it helps our relationships, at work, in emergencies, in dealing with strangers.

But unfortunately, these assessments are often pre-reflective, so they can also lead to unconscious – or conscious – prejudice and discrimination, as when two quiet men waiting for a business meeting in Starbucks are arrested simply because they are black.

The difference with the Facebook data on you is the mass amount of data that has been compiled from millions of people, from their Facebook and on-line presence, purchases and internet history, without their  knowledge or permission, and the way it can be used to subtly manipulate you. Without your knowledge or permission. To buy – or vote – or believe a certain way.

Are there any defenses against this manipulation?

Many would say “No”. This influence is just too subtle and pre-reflective for us to resist, just as many of us can’t resist checking our phones or off-task laptopping in class. Our reactions to the ad for a product or politician that is full of sunshine and soft fluffy puppies are “irresistable” automatic processes. Daniel Kahneman (2011), in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, explains this mode of thinking as “System 1” thinking. It includes our pre-reflective immediate reactions and feelings, our intuitions. It is rapid, automatic, and takes little effort or control (also called automatic processes).

But I do believe that knowledge can bring freedom. Knowing the psychology of manipulation and advertising, we can consciously and critically “fact-check” the information we are being given, investigate the empirical evidence, question our own biases, make sure the source is legitimate and question the source’s agenda, look for alternative explanations, monitor our own reasoning and resist the positive – or negative – emotional flooding the ad may be trying to evoke.

Even children can see through manipulation. A nine-year-old once told me he didn’t like it when teachers and coaches (and I) complimented him because it was done to make him do what we wanted. (Thus re-discovering the psychological principle of reinforcement through approval).

Daniel Kahneman (2011) called this “System 2” thinking. It is the thinking we do that is conscious, uses reasoning and logic, takes mental effort and concentration. You need to focus your attention (a controlled process), be thoughtful and “Think Slow”.

Resistance is not futile. Awareness, reasoning, and critical thinking are key.