How the Forces of Persuasion Rule Our Lives

It's 2018 and none of us can take persuasion for granted. Even though we're a float community, we still live in the world. And the forces of persuasion are working on us, whether we know it or not. In past times we didn't have to think much about the persuasive forces around us. But no longer. We must be intentional about how we allow ourselves to be persuaded.

Persuasion in the World

The most powerful people in any organization or society are almost without fail the greatest persuaders. 

We love and laud those who persuade well (and ethically). Unethical persuaders are a negative force on society. Scammers, spammers, cult-leaders, greasy salesmen, and crooked politicians fit this category.

A persuasive person whose message connects with our deep psyche in a time of great need... that's a hero. Such a hero may be valiant in action, but they will also move others to action. Like Winston Churchill, they will persuade others to do what is right even (and especially) when it's difficult. And we thank them for it. Whether we know it or not, we need persuasive heroes.

But persuasion has traditionally been a community affair. Growing up in small homogeneous groups, the truth came from the communal story. In traditional society, persuasion starts at birth and continues until death in the form of a communal story. And most everyone bought in. Those who didn't would either be heroic trailblazers or outcasts.

Today, times are different. Face-to-face community still plays a dominant role in persuasion. But our society is not so simple now. There are multiple, competing stories, and the persuasive landscape enables multiple forms of persuasion.

Today's Persuasion Landscape

Now more than ever, our psyches are the plaything of powerful persuasive elements. Social media is a *great* way to connect. But, we're more than a decade into this experiment now. With the benefit of hindsight, we can reflect on its drawbacks, too.

Traditional media was an powerful tool of persuasion. But, social media has exposed us to ever newer, ever more weaponized types of persuasion.

None of us can afford to be naive about social media persuasion today. To protect ourselves, we must put up strong filters between our mind and the social media firehose. Without a defensive strategy, we're at the whim of others' agendas.

Let's take a look at three social media weapons of persuasion.

Social Media Influencers

For the first time, regular people have the platform to reach millions.

But social media platforms don't have gatekeepers. No higher authority vets these 'thought leaders' before they join Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat. Without the need for any competence test, image-crafting and persuasion dominate. Charlatans of bygone eras lectured in the town square to earn attention. Charlatans of today do it on social media.

But charlatan is a strong word. Not ever social media influencer is a charlatan. But most of us, when we take a careful look at it, will admit that even those selling real solutions probably have way too much influence in our lives. Those best at image-crafting win. So, ask yourself: Are these the people I want to influence me?

Storytelling is the social media influencer's method of persuasion.

We're easily influenced by stories that move us. Historically, this was a good thing. Stories teach us ethical truths in a way facts, numbers, or studies can't. Stories get into our deep psyche and help guide us through life. This is why honest stories are so vital. We should be able to engage with real, raw and honest stories. They should move us. They should make us want to be better.

Stories reiterate the values of our society. And they point out where society is in need of updating. We have deep, biological programming to grasp stories and let them move us. Our ancestors gathered around campfires telling stories of heroes and enemies -- the flickering fire light bouncing off cave walls as listeners sit rapt.

Today, TV and film watchers sit in darkened rooms, unable to move their eyes from the screen --the flickering light of the movie bouncing off the theatre walls.

Stories inform our lives more than most anything. Few of us remember a single lecture from university. But we never forget the plot of our favorite movie. There's much learning packed into stories.

Our story addiction should be healthy. Stories are the source of wisdom as we face difficulty and struggle, attempting to do the right thing.

Heroes act a certain way. Antiheroes another. Mentors another. Mothers act one way. Fathers another. All story archetypes have ways of being. So, we're given a choice. What to do? Most of us strive to fulfill positive archetypal behaviors.

Our brains have a huge capacity to consume stories. But social media has altered this fundamental human activity. Today, we have an unlimited story device in our pocket. But now, instead of just watching the story, we take part.

Our likes, shares, and comments become part of the story. It feels like we're involved in something important. We may be sitting on the couch with Cheetos dust on our shirt. But it feels like we're part of a movement.

"Hit like, hit share, and leave a comment," the influencers say.

Because we take part with these influencers, it feels like it matters. Why? Because they have 5 or 10 or 100 thousand followers on Instagram. Keep in mind that Jersey Shore was once a popular TV show. Popularity is a terrible guide for what's worthwhile.

For every one of the stories a social media influencer tells us, we get their agenda with it. Typically the story is that they are living an incredible life. How do you get from where you are to where they are? You buy whatever they're selling, naturally.

We've reached peak social media. And what we've discovered in 2018 is that we need social media temperance. As consumers, we need to treat social media like the aforementioned Cheetos. Once in a while, in small doses, it's a healthy 'cheat' from real life and real mental health.

Nobody is trying to emulate the cast of Jersey Shore. We should do the same with social media influencers. For optimal mental health, we must filter out their attempts at persuasion.

But social media 'influencers' don't just persuade with story. The use powerful platforms, which are weapons of influence unto themselves.

Hacking Human Psychology via Algorithm

This conversation is the cornerstone to understanding the psychology and algorithms of the Internet giants. You've probably heard the term 'algorithm' in the news lately. It's usually associated with social media, in particular Facebook.

But it's not just Facebook. Google, Amazon, and other Internet giants run powerful algorithms, too.

What is an algorithm? Technically, it's a set of rules in a calculation. Practically, it means that the Internet giants have developed powerful programs that make decisions for you about what you'll see and how you'll experience the Internet.

It's all predicted and promoted. You're funneled in certain directions. This isn't some hit-and-miss game perpetuated by amateurs.

To understand algorithms we need to think in reverse. These companies allow us to use their services for free. Yet they earn massive profits. So, who's paying? What are they paying for?

So far the only answer Facebook and Google have come up with is attention. They make their billions almost exclusively by selling your attention (and your data, but more on that below) to ad buyers. The more they keep your attention locked on the screen, the more ads they sell.

The tech geniuses that run Silicon Valley (and the world?) have thrown everything into the science of keeping your attention, and they've hacked human psychology in the process. In other words, they know what keeps you addicted to the screen. Keeping you addicted to your screen is their goal.

We believe we're 'free agents' making our own decisions for our own life. But the truth is much more complex than that. We actually experience life largely through our brain chemistry. Most of the time we avoid what makes us feel bad and turn towards what makes us feel good. What feels bad good and bad are mediated by the release of chemicals.

The expectation of something pleasant is addicting. Our minds flood with dopamine whenever we see a new notification, for example. "Something exciting is about to happen," our chemically-mediated psyche screams. And when others express their support and love, oxytocin is released.

The constancy and immediate availability of these chemicals makes social media irresistible. Instead of having to do healthy things like moving and talking to people to release these chemicals, we just take out our phones and get the same 'high.'

But legions of people are waking up to this addiction. One day we look at your social media feed and ask: "Who are these people? Do I even respect them? Why do I want their approval? Why do I keep doing this?"

We keep doing it because of the constant drip of feel-good brain chemicals. And we receive this drip because of the algorithms that decide what we should see. But why is it so tailor made for us? How does it 'know' what we'll be addicted to? 

Psychographic Data (AKA: Facebook Knows You Better Than Your Spouse)

The word 'data' sounds so neutral. It's just information, right? Wrong. The new data is anything but neutral, it forms a picture of our deepest desires and exposes our personality. In essence, we have trained the algorithm how we think. In a sense, it 'knows' what will cause us outrage and bring us joy.

Our deepest desires are then sold to advertisers who pull the levers. The machine knows what we're thinking and what we're likely to do next.

In a bygone era, advertisers gathered demographic data. Knowing their audience's age, gender, profession, and geographic location were all powerful tools for advertisers. But that was a dim shadow of the psychographic data available today.

How much do they know? 

Well, in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers were able to predict users' personality. And what the researchers found was that, given enough information, they could predict users personalities to an alarming degree. All they had to do was analyze the pages that Facebook users 'like.'

How did they analyze your 'likes?' By developing an algorithm, of course.

Liking only 10 pages enabled the algorithm to predict users' personalities better than co-worker could. That number goes up to 70 for a roommate. 150 for a parent or sibling. And 300 for a spouse.

It's shocking to think that something as benign as a Facebook 'like' conveys that much information. But here's what's truly frightening: the researchers reached their findings by developing their own algorithm. Imagine how much more powerful Facebook's own algorithms are.

Our minds struggle to comprehend this level of behavior analysis. So, let's discuss a very real example. Imagine you're from a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania. The industry has passed your town by. You and everyone you know has joined Facebook over the past decade.

When something upsetting and enraging happens, you post and comment on Facebook. Facebook catalogues all of your micro actions on the platform. The pages you 'like' are just the beginning. What this means it that, rather than being part of a broad conversation, you inhabit a social media niche.

In past times, you might accept that your industry's time was up. You might move on. But, in your bubble, powerful narratives have arisen. Anger and outrage are viral emotions. And your actions have identified you as a prime target for persuasion. In your state of outrage, you are likely to make real world decisions about things like who you vote for and what groups you support.

Facebook keeps a vast catalogue of these emotions. You're not the only one having them. You share a psychographic profile with millions of others. Each of these people is from a region where industry has changed.

This becomes a virtual community. And advertisers can buy the data about you. They can then craft messages that deepen your outrage. This is exactly what the psychographic data enables. If that's not Orwellian, nothing is. You can be, in a sense, controlled, via your psychographic profile.

But you're likely not a disgruntled coal-miner from Pennsylvania.

You're probably a normal citizen who's recently heard about data leaks at Facebook. You might have seen recent video footage of Mark Zuckerberg testifying before congress. Yes, these data breaches are terrible. If an unauthorized company receives your data, that's a scandal.

But the illegal activity is a drop in the ocean of data we've willingly handed over. Most data mining and selling is completely legal. This describes every social media company. They mine your data and sell it. Seems like a fair trade for access to the free social media platform, right?

It might be a good deal for some individuals, but for society it's a mess. Advertisers can be legitimately dangerous. If they have big ad budgets and sophisticated data analysis they know what moves you. Now add in the world's most persuasive copywriters and creatives. We're reduced to puppets.

To this cocktail of persuasion, add hyper-sophisticated testing. We're not talking about focus groups and questionnaires. While powerful, these are old technology. They are a Ford Pinto compared to the Lamborghini testing methods of today.

Testing in social media means learning about actual human behavior. The social media environment a real world laboratory. Social media advertisers understand what people actually do not what they say they do. There's a huge difference.

Every ad you see online has been tested ad nauseum. Advertisers know which images will move you, which words, the color, hue, shade, and tint. And because of the targeting based on your psychographic profile, they never waste a click. Every advertising seed is planted in warm, wet soil with plenty of sunshine.

The Ethics of Persuasion

This is persuasion in our time. Do you have any defense against it? Or should you?

We've always been and always will be subject to persuasion. This is how we get inline with our culture. The unpersuadable person is abnormal at best and might even be a psychopath.

Learning from others and consuming stories is part of human nature. But, in this weaponized environment of persuasion, is it still healthy?

Ask yourself this question. Then make intentional choices about your life based on the answer. This won't be easy. Going against the cultural zeitgeist and changing behavior takes time and effort.

But, for your own health, sanity, and safety it's worth it.