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STAFF NEWS & ANALYSIS
Why No Information Should Be Off Limits
By Joe Jarvis - July 27, 2018

Is it wrong to teach people how to manipulate others?

The information is out there. Someone is going to learn how to sway the minds of others, for good or bad.

Isn’t it irresponsible to keep this information from those who it might be used against?

For instance, some people were outraged over Robert Greene’s book, The 48 Laws of Power. In it, he uses historical examples to teach the reader lessons about gaining and maintaining power.

But much like Machiavelli’s The Prince, the book did not make judgment calls about whether using these tactics was right or wrong. It simply laid it out: here is what has worked for people looking for power, and here is where they failed.

Do not commit to anyone, reads one law of power, only fools rush to pick a side. This might seem sinful to a principled person, who says you should pick the side of right, regardless of who is likely to win.

Greene uses the famous French statesman Talleyrand to demonstrate his point. Talleyrand stayed in high positions of power during the shift in power from the monarchy to the revolutionaries, then through Napoleon’s rise to power, his fall, and back to a constitutional monarchy.

During one great skirmish for power, one of his aides asked which side they were on. Talleyrand replied he would know which side he was on when he knew who had won. He once said that “Treason is a matter of dates.”

But this can be read in two ways. Surely you could be the manipulator, and work every angle. Or you could still fight for the side that you view as right, and be aware of the Tallyrands in your midst.

How can you protect yourself from conniving foxes if you are unaware of their tactics and trickery?

Marketing and advertising are the same. You could use these skills to manipulate, or you could use them to understand the manipulators.

But even more importantly, selling is not evil. Convincing people to buy your product should not be seen as inherently manipulative, even if you use certain psychological tricks.

And if everyone was aware of these tricks, it would be that much harder to trick them into buying something they don’t want.

I’ve seen myself drawn in by various sales tactics. People are more likely to buy something after receiving a free sample. Cultural customs dictate that if you receive a gift, you respond in kind, even going well above and beyond the value of the original gift in order to pay off your “debt.” Salespeople use this piece of our psychology for their own gain.

Do I sometimes buy something I have sampled? Sure. But I am now aware of the voice inside my head telling me it’s polite to do so. And realizing what’s happening, I can free myself from the feeling of obligation, and make the decision rationally. Do I really want this, or am I simply following cultural norms?

Even the boy scouts use these tactics. In Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini, he recounts how a boy scout once tried to sell him a ticket to some event he didn’t want to attend. When he declined, the kid asked if instead, he would like to purchase a chocolate bar, which Cialdini did.

The only problem is that Cialdini does not like chocolate. So why did he buy the chocolate bar?

Whether or not the boy scout knew it, he was using a sales tactic known as rejection then retreat. By declining his first proposition, Cialdini felt like he owed the boy scout something. But the boy scout probably doesn’t expect to sell tickets to most people. The real sale is for the $1 chocolate bar, which almost everyone will take after refusing the $5 tickets.

Cialdini actually says he wrote the book because he was tired of always being the sucker. In another case, a pretty woman came to his door with a short survey. How many times do you go to the movies each month? she asked, And how many times do you go out to eat?

Subconsciously trying to impress the pretty woman, Cialdini overstated how often he goes out on the town. Great! She said, Then you will save tons of money when you purchase this coupon booklet. He had fallen for the oldest trick in the book, where men seek to impress pretty women.

Being aware of these tactics can actually make interacting with salespeople fun. It certainly puts them on the defensive when you do not fall into the same patterns as the typical clueless consumer.

Nothing Should be Off Limits

There’s this dangerous attitude that certain knowledge should be off limits. People act like it is wrong to teach certain unfavorable facts of history and life. Implicit in this attitude is that information must be censored so as not to fall into the wrong hands.

That is especially stupid in 2018 when you have any information you like at your fingertips. Anyone who wants to manipulate others, learn how to pick locks, or learn to hack into a computer system will be able to do so.

Wouldn’t it be better to make sure everyone knows how other will try to manipulate them? Shouldn’t security experts–or even every homeowner–know how others might pick their locks? And aren’t we safer knowing how hackers operate?

Ignorance is not bliss in these scenarios. Ignorance makes you an easy victim.

This is the same principle behind why some people hate guns. They imagine a world without violence, and say, wouldn’t it be better if no one had a gun?

But whether or not this would be desirable, is a fantasy. Anyone with a machine shop can make a gun. 3D printed guns are already available. But you can level the playing field by getting your own gun.

Understanding power, psychology, marketing, and advertising is like arming up against outside threats.

Of course this knowledge, just like a gun, can be misused. And that’s the whole point.

You don’t want the bad guys to be the only ones with guns. And you don’t want the bad guys to be the only ones who understand the human psychology behind psychological manipulation. Trying to keep these tools out of everyone’s hands is a futile and misguided effort.

Here’s an Idea for Facebook

You are probably aware that Facebook’s stock tanked after the last conference call with investors.

With the Cambridge Analytica scandal fresh, Facebook is more on the Machiavellian side of the scale.

What could they do to refresh interest in the platform, while actually helping people learn a useful skill?

Open up their advertising platform to regular users. Give every user access to analytics and targeting information. Let teens do an A/B tests with two different profile photos to see which one their friends like better. Let them target particular demographics on their friends’ list.

In the end, this would make Facebook more money. After understanding the system from playing around with their friends’ list, more people would be comfortable moving on to targeting outside groups with advertising.

But at the same time, it would make people aware of how Facebook advertisers operate.

Don’t bury the tools that Facebook (and apparently Russia) have been using to manipulate users. Give the tools to everyone. You know someone is going to use them. Let everyone have the same knowledge and understanding of how the system works.

This empowers people instead of keeping them unwitting victims.

This is the age of information. If you hold nostalgic ideas about what kind of knowledge should be off limits because of its seemingly sinister nature, prepare to fall prey to those who harbor no such quaint sentiments.


 

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