A neuro marketing experiment
About our behaviour, influence and marketing
Cruijf’s phrase “You won’t see it until you get it” sounds laughable, but there is some truth to it. And yet there will be plenty of people who get it but don’t act on it. Where does this behaviour come from, what do we know about it, and why is it important?
First of all, it is important to realise that from an evolutionary point of view, we are not very good at processing statistical data. And that is of course remarkable given the “big data” era in which we live. But exactly why is this?
A well-known explanation of our psychology is that we are generally pattern thinkers because it helps us with the most essential thing we need to do: survive. After all, if we had to make a probability calculation in an emergency situation, we would have been eaten by a predator in a split second. So intuitively we are not very good at processing statistical information.
For example, events with a very low probability are perceived as more likely to happen. Ask any person if their behaviour is rational, and if they think they are making informed choices. The answer is: Yes. Or they hesitate because you are asking them the question. After all, many people believe they always make well thought out choices, but when you look at their behaviour it’s clear that they quickly forget them.
So every neuroscientist and good marketer will say: behaviour is contrary to what people say they do.
Marketers & Ethics
As marketers we sometimes feel a little guilty. We contribute to the consumer society by getting people to buy things they may not need immediately. This is one of the reasons that most neuromarketing agencies do not work with casinos, for example. But where are the boundaries and what about the ethics in marketing? The question we regularly ask ourselves is: Are we actually in one big Neuromarketing Experiment?
Neuromarketing at full scale
When you enter a simple search query in Google, a lot happens. Algorithms determine what you see based on thousands of factors. Elon Musk describes this contextual data as “a mirror of your limbic system”. In fact, this is correct. After all, Google takes into account your geographic location, your preferences, your history, what possible buying phase you are in, and what you most likely click on the fastest.
Your search behaviour also contributes to the learning phase of Google’s AI. Whether you click or not, whether you visit a website and leave immediately, and whether you buy something, download something, or look at something for a long time, etc. There are even rumours that some parties are secretly watching with you through the camera on your mobile phone. In this way they can also analyse your facial expressions. Just like a neuromarketeer would do. But then on a very large scale.
Are we being influenced?
But in addition to all the data that is collected openly or semi-openly (Facebook, for example, is once again under fire) for marketing and advertising purposes aimed at specific groups of people, a lot more data is collected to feed various algorithms. This big-data experiment takes place while we are in the middle of it, and few people seem to realise this. For example, could it be that our behaviour is being influenced to make us do more than just buy a product?
Slowly but surely it becomes clear that we are in a major neuromarketing experiment, but the realisation is only seeping through slowly. Major scandals such as the Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data scandal, received media attention, and Netflix even made a documentary about it. But what if this is just the tip of the iceberg? Could it be that our vulnerabilities are being used on a large scale to keep an eye on us more than we would like? Or to guide our behaviour?
Data in the “wrong” hands
Data in the “wrong” hands is highly undesirable. We have experienced this first-hand, especially in the Netherlands. It is one of the main reasons why many people are against capturing data such as ethnic backgrounds, even though this data can be useful in some cases.
But when does a party cross the line? What data are we willing to share and how can we see what organisations such as the government knows about us? For example the tax authorities secretly worked on an AI system to develop special blacklists and no one knows exactly why. And despite all the protests, the Intelligence and Security Services Act was passed. Fortunately many people say they have nothing to hide.
I can tell you that when our poor ability to process statistical data is combined with unreliable media parties, it’s a recipe for “success”. Is there anything strange going on? I say yes and no. For one thing algorithms provide a distorted picture of reality.
For example, if you adhere to extreme ideas, social media platforms will facilitate this in a way. After all, the algorithms are not there to give you a perfect picture of the world, but to let you click and scroll for as long as possible.
And yet sometimes something seems to be wrong. For example one of these cases is section 230. Social media companies have enforced this because they cannot be responsible for what is posted on their platforms. They are not publishers so they do not need to comply with the media legislation. But why do they still censor and why do they feel obliged to inform people that an unofficially elected president is already the president of the United States?
They rely (in vain) on their user policy and are happy to determine what is allowed. It’s quite funny as a lot of companies show little ethical awareness themselves when there is an opportunity to earn money. And yet they determine what you will see, what is right and wrong, which industries can advertise and which cannot, and when someone is silenced for good. As long as this seems to be in favour of the majority. However, there has been relatively little evidence of this going on so far. Or not?
Self-censorship is a fact
The consequences of censorship by powerful parties are slowly becoming visible. Where in the past you may have read Manufacturing Consent with surprise, you now experience it almost every day: Self-censorship. People are more careful with their expressions.
When YouTube is your source of income, when you do not want to be perceived as being “different”, or when you have doubts about something, you better express this in private circles. Otherwise you run the risk of being blocked or permanently banned. And that feels like being excluded from the group. Because let’s be honest, social media has long since replaced much of real social life. And here too our survival instinct comes to the fore.
We prefer to belong to a large group because it increases the chances of our survival. Self-censorship is therefore a fact. And as long as we accept censorship – in whatever form – we will have to live with it.
Face masks: The dream of Milgram and Asch
Many people are familiar with Milgram’s experiment. Maybe not immediately, but if you explain it to them they will understand what you mean. The experiment shows what authority does and is widely used in marketing to sell people something. Think of the famous toothpaste advertisement with an actor in a white coat. But don’t forget, too, that aspirants actually accomplish the same behaviour. For example, the Beats by Dre headphones were in great demand because Dre was smart to have his headphones used by many famous people. People with a lot of money normally also have a lot of regard and respect. However this person earned it.
But the Milgram experiment was not about buying, but about acting unethically. The study was to show whether ordinary people would obey orders that conflicted with their personal morality. The assignment was therefore simple: Listen to the doctor and give the person in the other room a dose of electricity. They had to continue until the dose was lethal. Remarkably, many people were willing to do this. Obedience, or more broadly, conformism, therefore plays an important role in our survival instinct here too.
We now see the same behaviour on a larger scale. When the government decided to make a face mask mandatory, people were more than happy to comply. In fact because other countries had made face masks mandatory, there was a demand for these measures. Even when the infections in neighboring countries did not seem to be getting better. After all, people don’t want to be left out. Even when they know that wearing the mask does not, or hardly contributes to the reduction of a virus. Conforming to the group, following instructions from authority, and not being left out always comes first.
Conformity and group pressure
But conformity goes even further. Because when the majority does something, even when it’s wrong, people will still conform because of peer pressure. Asch’s often repeated experiment in which a group deliberately had to give incorrect answers to determine whether the remainder of the group did the same, now seems to be happening on a large scale.So completely normal, rational people adopt non-rational behaviour.
In summary, you can say that we are in the middle of a mass Neuromarketing experiment. The question is whether we will ever realise this. Our survival instinct always comes first. Even when things are totally illogical.