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.
WOW!! California attorney general investigating Wells Fargo on allegations of criminal identity theft
James Rufus Koren reports in the LA Times:
The California Department of Justice is investigating Wells Fargo & Co. on allegations of criminal identity theft over its creation of millions of unauthorized accounts, according to a search warrant sent to the bank’s San Francisco headquarters this month.
The warrant and related documents, served Oct. 5 and obtained by The Times through a public records request, confirm that California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, in the final weeks of a run for U.S. Senate, has joined the growing list of public officials and agencies investigating the bank in connection with the accounts scandal.
Harris’ office demanded the bank turn over a trove of information, including the identities of California customers who had unauthorized accounts opened in their names, information about fees related to those accounts, the names of the Wells Fargo employees who opened the accounts, the names of those employees’ managers and emails or other communication related to those accounts.
Her office is also requesting the same information about accounts opened by Wells Fargo workers in California for customers in other states.
Kristin Ford, a spokeswoman for Harris’ office, said she could not comment on an ongoing investigation. Wells Fargo spokesman Mark Folk said the bank is “cooperating in providing the requested information,” but would not comment further. . .
In the Washington Post Jonathan Capeheart has a very thought-provoking audio interview, accompanied by a report that includes an interesting quotation from the interview. That reportbegins:
“We’re in a period analogous, truly analogous, to the time in Europe just after Gutenberg mechanized the Chinese invention of the printing press,”Alberto Ibargüen, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, told me. “After Gutenberg, any Tom, Dick or Martin Luthercould print whatever they want, and it took a hundred years to figure out, to sort it all out.”
The 11th episode of “Cape Up” is all about the state of journalism in the age of social media. “Confused,” is how Ibargüen describes it. The former publisher of the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald pointed out that while two Supreme Court decisions have shaped our present-day understanding of the First Amendment as it pertains to newspapers and broadcast television, “The law of First Amendment as to Internet … simply isn’t settled.”
In an effort to “help shape First Amendment law” in the digital age, the Knight Foundation and Columbia University announced in May the creation of the Knight First Amendment Institute at the Ivy League school in New York. Ibargüen told me that when such cases come before the court, “I want somebody at the table, somebody at the courthouse that is saying, ‘Let’s err on the side of transparency. Let’s err on the side of free speech.’ ” But what he said next highlighted the unanswered legal questions facing all of us: Congress, companies, courts and consumers.
That’s not to say that everything is black-and-white. We know it isn’t. The First Amendment itself isn’t. Although, the First Amendment is fairly clear. It says, “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly, a redress of grievance.” Five phenomenal rights. But they also don’t say, well, what happens if it is not Congress? What happens if it’s Google? … Think about it. Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook have more ability to control what we know or think we know than anything in history. Than anyone in history. Than any government has ever had.
We talked about the power of search-engine programmers to mold what we accept as facts. “Even algorithms have parents,” Ibargüen said, “and the parents, the programmers, imbue the algorithm, consciously or not consciously, with some kind of values.” He went on to talk about what happened when you typed “thug” into Google. The ensuing controversy forced changes, so now when you type the word in you get an array of “thug” choices to search. “Somehow that algorithm knows what it is supposed to present,” Ibargüen told me, “and that affects what we think and what we think we know.”
And read this as well: how corporations are programming you—that sounds like corny science-fiction, but it’s behavioral design: it’s here now and it works. On you, and me.
Full list is here. A few:
- Maricopa County, Ariz., prosecutor Bill Montgomery has won more death sentences than 99.5 percent of the country. He’s up for reelection next month.
- How Chicago police persuaded judges to let them track cellphones without a warrant.
- The California Attorney General’s Office continues to run interference for the massive informant scandal in Orange County.
- Georgia deputy who ran stop sign, caused nasty crash won’t face any charges.
UPDATE: Titled updated so that it makes sense.
Tom Miller, in an article to which James Fallows linked, writes of what Trump is going through:
. . . The death march to an inevitable political loss is an emotionally taxing slog that is harder to psychologically deal with than I think many people appreciate. Having been on the losing end of a number of races (seriously, check my LinkedIn — ouch), I have seen the many different ways that candidates and staff handle these losses. It is one of the great tests of character that I have seen up close.
Every utterance is judged for signs that you are acknowledging defeat, every supporter you talk to either needs a pick-me-up or wants to offer advice, every tweet or article you read about yourself or your campaign is caked with the stink of impending defeat.
In some ways, it must be akin to being the quarterback for the 0–6 Browns and having to suit up for 10 more games knowing that there is no hope for the playoffs, let alone a Super Bowl title. Except there are no days — or even moments — off, no chance to get meaningless wins to spare your bruised ego, no next season to look ahead to. Or maybe it is more like being dumped by your significant other, but having it broadcast on every channel in the country, with commentators dissecting all the things you did to deserve public humiliation.
The first losing candidate I worked for was a Marine vet, and he compared the final losing stretch to boot camp. He said to me, “Tim, I thought when I signed up for boot camp that I could handle anything for 12 weeks. But I never realized how long 12 weeks could be until I lived them one second at a time.” . . .
But that’s just an extract. Read the whole thing.
I’m not sure Trump has the wherewithal to withstand that sort of psychological toll, narcissist or no. Counseling would be a good idea, but his narcissistic nature blocks him from admitting a problem, much less seeking help. I cannot imagine how he is going to resolve this and how it will affect what he does in the future.
It raises a pool-ready point: When (date and, if possible, time) will his self-denial crumble? When will he finally see it for what it is? With a narcissist like Trump, one might say “Never,” but (as Miller points out so well) the pressures of a death-march presidential campaign are the quintessence of psychological pressure. So we have an irresistible force (the daily constant impact of the death march) meeting an immovable object (the narcissistic self-denial that consists of thinking he’s the greatest, he’s always a winner, never a loser, and if he did lose somehow, it certainly would not be to a WOMAN! So he cannot be losing, and all those polls are wrong.
As the song says, “Something’s gotta give.” I would say the odds favor the immovable object in this case.
James Fallows has an excellent column with some very interesting links, well worth reading in its (and their) entirety. From it, let me just quote this story, slightly edited:
After his 1984 landslide loss to Ronald Reagan, Walter Mondale asked George McGovern “when does it stop hurting?”, referring to McGovern’s landslide loss to Richard Nixon 12 years earlier. “I’ll let you know,” McGovern replied.
When a politician loses a race, most of all for the presidency, it is all-out public failure on the biggest possible stage, leaving a mark that never really goes away. … And in a race for the White House, it’s an all-or-nothing outcome. On one side, four years with Air Force One and the attention of the world. On the other, four years of working off campaign debts and traversing the country for second-tier forums.
Bearing defeat is all the harder when you can see it coming, as McGovern and Mondale did, and as now seems very likely for Trump. And hardest of all if you have the emotional maturity of a child.
And from the Max Boot column that Fallows linked to:
. . . Their stance is as incoherent as that of Sen. Marco Rubio, who said Trump could not be trusted with the nuclear arsenal and then, without retracting that grave (and accurate) accusation, endorsed Trump anyway. So now Rubio thinks that the nuclear codes should be given to a man who cannot be trusted with them?
Rubio is part of the vast majority of Republican officeholders who have refused to abandon Trump even as disturbing details of his behavior toward women have come to light, on top of his already well-known racism and xenophobia and his ignorance, avarice, and dishonesty. Those still endorsing Trump include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, though the latter has tried to have it both ways bysaying he would not campaign for Trump. Long known as the champion of principled conservatism, Ryan looks increasingly opportunistic. . .
It’s fair to note that Max Boot is a conservative columnist, who I’d say is pretty far right.