A scene from the battle of the tribal political “Right” and the moral political “Left” has been playing out in real time in Portland, Oregon this Summer. As the citizens head into their 90th straight day of peaceful protests against police brutality, it seems like a good time to take a look at the way neuroscience and politics intersect. By now, you have likely heard of the Cambridge Analytica scandal leading up to and during the election in 2016. You have also likely heard of the Russian troll farms that were paid to sabotage the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. The idea that your technophobic great aunt’s indiscriminate quiz-taking and social sharing could be part of a vast weaponization of not just our personal data, but of how we think and how we interact with the world, was a sobering one for many. We could posit that the disinformation campaigns, social media manipulation, and cloaked psychological appeals to the tribal nature of the morally ambiguous and morally corrupt have done more to divide (and perhaps conquer) the United States (U.S.) than anything else in its history.
Everything has a flip side, of course, and those same divisive social networks have been used to unify. In the case of the Portland protestors, storytelling in the form of memes, social sharing of live video feeds showing police brutality (directly countering the narrative of most police departments nationwide with irrefutable evidence of wrongdoing), and social planning for protests and events have all become an integral part of the activism and a large factor in why the protest has been sustainable. Seeing a Black man, crying for his mother, being murdered by a police officer via a nine-minute-long shaky cell phone video feed definitely serves as a nationwide (even global) catalyst that something needs to change.
What does this have to do with neuroscience and neuromarketing? Our brains are programmed to respond to stimuli in the form of strong, emotional stories. Paul Zak explored this in his research on oxytocin’s impact on trust, and again in his paper “The physiology of moral sentiments” (Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization). In the last year the average internet citizen’s brain has been flooded with emotional stories and imagery designed to align with (or to sway) the average internet reader’s personal identity, personal belief system, and existing biases (both unconscious and conscious). This constant onslaught of carefully designed marketing in the form of memes, disinformation, trolls, fake accounts, deep fakes, fake news, and emotional storytelling has had a vast impact on the fabric of society by eroding our prosocial behaviors (Zak, 2011).
The erosion of our interest in and desire for a “social contract” (in which behaviors that are less harmful to the larger group are agreed upon by most participating people in the society) can be directly traced back to social sites like Facebook. The developers at Facebook, with the typical Silicon Valley “we can so why stop and wonder if we should” mentality, built Facebook to be highly addictive to the average human brain. As Facebook grew, so did the instances where users could observe disconnects in their friends and family between what they say in real life and what they do online. Facebook basically figured out how to remove the friction associated with real life interactions and took over the emotional labor required for friendship maintenance, creating a perfect trap of consumer motivation (Ramzoy) being used against its own users. Add in paid ads, where troll farms could use the best learnings of neuroscience and neuromarketing to design fear-stoking memes aimed right at the minds of the everyday Facebook user, and you have a recipe for disaster and division, with little hope of any discourse that could lead to concession.
Let’s look at two different types of protestors momentarily as an example. The first group is an all-white group that is not holding a genuine protest – they have completely internalized the deepest, darkest conspiracy theories on social media and have come armed to the teeth to “protest” the perceived loss of their “freedom.” What freedom has this group lost? None. They are simply being asked to wear a light face mask during a pandemic, to protect their fellow man. However, the neuro-targeted memes* and ads they’ve seen all over the internet for the last few years have this group convinced this is a plot to destroy them, and they react completely out of proportion to what’s being asked of them, endangering others not just with the guns they carry but also the air they breathe. They are the hardest to convince of facts, to reach compromise or consensus with, because their brains are in “fixed mindset” mode (O’Keefe). They are exhibiting fear-based tribal behavior, not reasoned or moral behavior.
Protestor group two is a growth-mindset group. They are unarmed, and their protest involves marching, dancing in the street, and singing songs. They are protesting the disproportionate brutality against Black men and women of America by law enforcement. The catalyst for this protest was George Floyd, but as the protests continue the hundreds of other victims’ names are now being chanted, too. This protest has become a unifying force, where the other protest was a dividing one. While the peaceful protest continues to grow, it begins to attract new and unexpected people: suburban white moms, white suburban dads with tear-gas-repelling leaf blowers, people from the Amish community, witches in full regalia, grandmothers and grandfathers, indigenous people in full tribal dress, musicians, children, and so much more. They are on the same social networks (except the Amish, they were, admittedly, a surprise), and occasionally fall for some of the same neuro-manipulation, but because they believe that a person can change their mind without losing face or status, they more easily overcome it. These people are fighting for something that is a core value – equality. We’d argue that a core value has more power than a core fear. Values that endorse and expand the social contract are proactive, while fear is reactive.
As we head into Fall, we have a perfect triangle of significant events: a pandemic raging out of control in a nation that falls far short on healthcare and trust, a major election, and an economic crash. Toss in a crisis of disinformation created using the massive amounts of data available to neuromarketers and we run a real risk of seeing the collapse of society as we know it here in the U.S. Is there a way to combat the use of neuromarketing practices for nefarious purposes? Yes! If people who understand what’s at stake think more like a marketer or psychologist and less like a pedant, we could see some shift in attitudes and a slightly better outcomes going forward.
It’s imperative that we remember to appeal to emotion and not just spout soulless facts, to weave stories for people on the opposite side of the aisle from us that centers them in the story (the fixed mindset folks need to envision themselves being affected to have empathy and conform to requests to participate in activities designed for the greater benefit to society outside their ideological tribe), to reassure them that you understand where they are coming from (even if you don’t), and – when making memes of your own – remember to apply neuroscience to your memes and appeal to emotion, emotion, emotion.
Personal efforts to combat neuroscience-driven disinformation won’t be enough, however. It’s imperative that we begin educating people on media literacy and teaching more people outside of psychology the fundamentals of neuromarketing in high school and in college. Understanding how psychological practices like this can be both beneficial and harmful will help people understand how to protect themselves from manipulation.
*We’ll explore neuro-targeted memes in another post
O’Keefe, D. (2016) Persuasion: Theory and Research (Third Edition). Sage Publications. Thousand Oaks, CA.
Zak, P (2011) The physiology of moral sentiments (Vol 77, Issue 1, p. 53-65) Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization
Zak, P. (2011) Trust, morality–and oxytocin? (video) TEDGlobal https://www.ted.com/talks/paul_zak_trust_morality_and_oxytocin?language=en
Wong, JC (2019) The Cambridge Analytica scandal changed the world-but it didn’t change Facebook (website) The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/mar/17/the-cambridge-analytica-scandal-changed-the-world-but-it-didnt-change-facebook
Miller, M. (2020) Top federal official says more details coming on foreign election interference (website) The Hill https://thehill.com/policy/cybersecurity/510779-top-federal-official-says-more-details-coming-on-foreign-election
Haque, U. (2020) Why Zuck is betting on social collapse (website) Medium https://eand.co/why-zuck-is-betting-on-social-collapse-b9091b5aca74
Ramzoy, T. (2014) Intro to Neuromarketing and Consumer Neuroscience (Denmark)
Morin and Renvoise (2018) The Persuasion Code (1st). Wiley Publishing
Facebook reveals news feed experiment to control emotions. (2020). Retrieved 2 August 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jun/29/facebook-users-emotions-news-feeds
Javanbakht, A. (2019) The politics of fear: How it manipulates us to tribalism. The Conversation (website) https://theconversation.com/the-politics-of-fear-how-it-manipulates-us-to-tribalism-113815
Image: nearly 10,000 protesters in Portland, OR stage a die-in on Burnside Bridge in memory of George Floyd