A clear example of meme evolution: Making apps addictive
Ian Leslie writes in the Economist:
In 1930, a psychologist at Harvard University called B.F. Skinner made a box and placed a hungry rat inside it. The box had a lever on one side. As the rat moved about it would accidentally knock the lever and, when it did so, a food pellet would drop into the box. After a rat had been put in the box a few times, it learned to go straight to the lever and press it: the reward reinforced the behaviour. Skinner proposed that the same principle applied to any “operant”, rat or man. He called his device the “operant conditioning chamber”. It became known as the Skinner box.
Skinner was the most prominent exponent of a school of psychology called behaviourism, the premise of which was that human behaviour is best understood as a function of incentives and rewards. Let’s not get distracted by the nebulous and impossible to observe stuff of thoughts and feelings, said the behaviourists, but focus simply on how the operant’s environment shapes what it does. Understand the box and you understand the behaviour. Design the right box and you can control behaviour.
Skinner turned out to be the last of the pure behaviourists. From the late 1950s onwards, a new generation of scholars redirected the field of psychology back towards internal mental processes, like memory and emotion. But behaviourism never went away completely, and in recent years it has re-emerged in a new form, as an applied discipline deployed by businesses and governments to influence the choices you make every day: what you buy, who you talk to, what you do at work. Its practitioners are particularly interested in how the digital interface – the box in which we spend most of our time today – can shape human decisions. The name of this young discipline is “behaviour design”. Its founding father is B.J. Fogg. [Note that the tools used are memes, and the memes control the humans hosting the meme. It’s like the fungus that affects ants and changes their behavior, except memes instead of fungus. – LG]
Earlier this year I travelled to Palo Alto to attend a workshop on behaviour design run by Fogg on behalf of his employer, Stanford University. Roaming charges being what they are, I spent a lot of time hooking onto Wi-Fi in coffee bars. The phrase “accept and connect” became so familiar that I started to think of it as a Californian mantra. Accept and connect, accept and connect, accept and connect.
I had never used Uber before, and since I figured there is no better place on Earth to try it out, I opened the app in Starbucks one morning and summoned a driver to take me to Stanford’s campus. Within two minutes, my car pulled up, and an engineering student from Oakland whisked me to my destination. I paid without paying. It felt magical. The workshop was attended by 20 or so executives from America, Brazil and Japan, charged with bringing the secrets of behaviour design home to their employers.
Fogg is 53. He travels everywhere with two cuddly toys, a frog and a monkey, which he introduced to the room at the start of the day. Fogg dings a toy xylophone to signal the end of a break or group exercise. Tall, energetic and tirelessly amiable, he frequently punctuates his speech with peppy exclamations such as “awesome” and “amazing”. As an Englishman, I found this full-beam enthusiasm a little disconcerting at first, but after a while, I learned to appreciate it, just as Europeans who move to California eventually cease missing the seasons and become addicted to sunshine. Besides, Fogg was likeable. His toothy grin and nasal delivery made him endearingly nerdy.
In a phone conversation prior to the workshop, Fogg told me that he read the classics in the course of a master’s degree in the humanities. He never found much in Plato, but strongly identified with Aristotle’s drive to organise and catalogue the world, to see systems and patterns behind the confusion of phenomena. He says that when he read Aristotle’s “Rhetoric”, a treatise on the art of persuasion, “It just struck me, oh my gosh, this stuff is going to be rolled out in tech one day!”
In 1997, during his final year as a doctoral student, Fogg spoke at a conference in Atlanta on the topic of how computers might be used to influence the behaviour of their users. He noted that “interactive technologies” were no longer just tools for work, but had become part of people’s everyday lives: used to manage finances, study and stay healthy. Yet technologists were still focused on the machines they were making rather than on the humans using those machines. What, asked Fogg, if we could design educational software that persuaded students to study for longer or a financial-management programme that encouraged users to save more? Answering such questions, he argued, required the application of insights from psychology.
Fogg presented the results of a simple experiment he had run at Stanford, which showed that people spent longer on a task if they were working on a computer which they felt had previously been helpful to them. In other words, their interaction with the machine followed the same “rule of reciprocity” that psychologists had identified in social life. The experiment was significant, said Fogg, not so much for its specific finding as for what it implied: that computer applications could be methodically designed to exploit the rules of psychology in order to get people to do things they might not otherwise do. In the paper itself, he added a qualification: “Exactly when and where such persuasion is beneficial and ethical should be the topic of further research and debate.”
Fogg called for a new field, sitting at the intersection of computer science and psychology, and proposed a name for it: “captology” (Computers as Persuasive Technologies). Captology later became behaviour design, which is now embedded into the invisible operating system of our everyday lives. The emails that induce you to buy right away, the apps and games that rivet your attention, the online forms that nudge you towards one decision over another: all are designed to hack the human brain and capitalise on its instincts, quirks and flaws. The techniques they use are often crude and blatantly manipulative, but they are getting steadily more refined, and, as they do so, less noticeable. . .
Weaponizing memes, in effect: tailoring them to produce the desired effect.