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How your brain’s algorithms can be exploited to secretly influence you

The algorithms that guide our thought processes are often flawed and open to exploitation. To defend against them, you must know these attack vectors

If you’ve been reading our recent story series on what makes us tick, by now you should’ve got some understanding of the way the human mind works. In fact, you’d even know that the mind, the brain, the subconscious, the soul (?), consciousness, and awareness are all different things. They are interlinked of course, and they all contribute in equal measure toward making you… you!

Call it the hubris of being the dominant species on the planet, but we often think of ourselves as perfectly rational beings. We think our decisions are taken purely based on data or valid inputs, and processed through a seemingly dispassionate processor – the brain. Even if we aren’t dispassionate about a topic we tell ourselves that we are aware of our inherent biases and therefore unaffected by them. The truth is though, our decision-making heuristic models have been shaped over long periods of time through evolutionary processes and are meant to work properly as a shorthand in very peculiar or specific scenarios. Often these scenarios involved scarcity and matters of life and death. This “lizard brain” of ours has trouble when dealing with abundance of resources, large data sets, and the kind of one-step removed social interaction we have today in the digital realm.

In the language of computing, these are all attack vectors by which these vulnerabilities of our internal coding can be exploited. Here’s a look at some of them.

1. Illusion of choice

No one likes to be told what to like. Well, unless it’s Apple doing the dictating (we kid, we kid).

Those in the business of selling things have found that offering a couple of obviously wrong “options” pushes consumers to the option that they wanted to sell in the first place. Take subscription services offered by AV companies, cloud storage or even streaming services like Netflix. You’ll find that the middle plan is often always the best value for money. This isn’t a coincidence. The plans are structured in a way that the consumer feels they are getting the better of the service provider by making the right choice. We evolved to take as much advantage of a situation as possible. Reciprocal altruism only works when there are likely to be repeat encounters in the parties so when you see there are three choices, your lizard brain tells you to opt for the seemingly best one quickly. Almost urging you to jump at it.

A fun exercise to understand the concept of reciprocal altruism and the evolution of trust:

Choice can be “weaponised” in other ways too. Research suggests people are more likely to do something when they are offered a choice. For instance, a boss might tell you, “either do the data entry or file the field reports, the choice is upto you.” This would work far better than just telling you to “do the data entry”.

Choices, choices, choices

2. Fooled by “evidence”

Patterns are very interesting. We are programmed to find them. During the early evolutionary stages of our species, our survival depended on making sense of patterns, understanding them and making predictions based on them – it was a matter of life and death.

Patterns that have a causal relationship in their occurrence are very useful but often there is no such relationship. When we observe a set of data points and link them together to derive meaning we call it coincidence. Carl Jung went a bit further and coined a specific term for it – synchronicity. You know how if you read about a particular concept – say half life (not the game, the nuclear physics term) – you see it popping up all over. Is the universe conspiring to show it to you more? Or the frequency of the term is still the same you are just more likely to “catch” it? It’s most certainly the latter. The observer-expectancy effect and confirmation bias have been known to ruin many scientific experiments because our mental coding is a little too biased to catching patterns. In an experiment conducted by Whitman and Woodward, the researchers found that presenting evidence one after the other thereby creating a pattern, goes a long way towards convincing people about something. Brands often use this to influence consumers by establishing a false pattern. “In 2015 we released the amazing abc, in 2016 we followed up with an equally brilliant pqr, and now we in 2017 we have the xyz which is going to change…”

Check out a very related bias called the “Monte Carlo fallacy” in which people have a tendency to think that future probabilities are altered by past events. No wonder it’s called the gambler’s fallacy

3. Groupthink

Humans are a social species. We evolved in groups and largely depended on the ‘wisdom of the pack’ as a means to survive. Think about the last time you were at a railway ticket counter. Our instinct, strangely

, is to join the bigger line. The hard coded algorithm in our brain doesn’t wait to make a logical choice here (which is shorter line = quicker ticket), instead it assumes that if the group is clustered around a particular ticket window, it must be better. Inversely, there must be something wrong with other ticket window.

This is why even today we look at nonconformists with suspicion. We’re programmed to believe going with the crowd works. Brands like Apple have realised this long ago. The large scale flashy keynotes, the cult-like appeal of a figurehead all contribute to exploit the herd mentality that is inherent within us. Even those who call them sheeple are ironically conforming to a different groupthink, but a groupthink nonetheless.

4. Association through correlation

As much as we’d like to believe we are unique as individuals, humans are similar to each other in a lot of aspects; even in terms of the kinds of experiences they’ve had in their lives. Take for example things like summer vacations, the childhood joy of kicking around a ball with your mates, cycling downhill, the imagery and smells associated with rain, pictures of mountains – these are things that are universally liked and remembered. Further, we are even conditioned to have pleasant associations with those things. Like Pavlov’s dogs we are quick to get triggered when such imagery is shown to us. This is the reason why car manufacturers often use a certain kind of provocative imagery to market their cars. Our lizard brain (simple as it is) makes that instant association. Marketers can successfully use images of open fields, children playing etc to sort of hack your mind or program you into having the desired results.

cognitive bias
The cognitive biases codex, organises logical fallacies into four large categories: biases that arise from too much information, not enough meaning, the need to act quickly, and the limits of memory. Be sure to tap on the image and zoom in for the details. Credit: John Manoogian III (CC BY-SA 4.0)

5. False sense of scarcity

Perhaps the oldest trick in the book, this method of fooling you tries to prey on multiple fallacies in our thinking. The way our minds have evolved, we aren’t too good at estimating probabilistic outcomes. So what marketers do is create a sense of urgency coupled with an uncertainty for the future. The future today is far more certain than it was when evolutionary processes were shaping our day-to-day habits. Markets will keep coming up with seemingly attractive “just for you”, “limited stock”, and “one time only” offers. Just as our very own Booman fell for one of these when going for the Daydream View, so will you, no matter how logical you think you are. Hyperbolic discounting is a legit scientific term, look it up. It basically means our brains our hard-wired to pick the bird in hand over the two in the bush. Those who are trying to sell you things will always try to obscure the two in the bush and make the bird in hand appear to be more scarce and juicy all at once.

Apart from the ways listed above, there are literally dozen of such exploits available that can make us part with our hard-earned moola. Effects and biases such as the sunk cost fallacy, money illusion, status anxiety, irrational escalation of commitment are just some of them. We urge you to look these up and go down this fascinating rabbit hole. For when you emerge from the other end, you’ll be much smarter (or at least you can tell yourself that).


This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.

Siddharth Parwatay

Siddharth Parwatay

Vertically challenged geek. Interested in things like evolution, psychology, pc gaming, history, web culture... amongst other things.