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It should be obvious why behaviorism has considerable appeal to the advertising industry and certain professional political campaigners eager to find a short cut to the hearts and minds of the voting public. If we can in fact be conditioned to respond to a particular message or signal by buying a specific product or voting a certain way, the person or firm finding the best means for conditioning the most people will literally make themselves rich selling this service to the highest bidder.
What gets consistently overlooked to this day is the fact that “Little Albert” didn’t just develop a phobia of rats, but of other things as well. In poor Albert’s mind harmless rabbits and benevolent if fictitious characters like Santa had enough similar fuzzy qualities to induce anxiety. In other words, Watson didn’t so much prove that conditioning works on people — or at least people in the very early stages of emotional and cognitive development — as demonstrate that conditioning produces all sorts of unintended responses in addition to the intended one. This potentially leaves behaviorism’s predictive power as watered down and ineffectual as a homeopathic remedy. It also raises a number of thorny ethical questions regarding its application to both individuals and large groups.
That all behaviorism ultimately demonstrates is that under the “right” circumstances people will begin to associate two or more otherwise unrelated things with each other hasn’t kept it from having a powerful placebo effect on corporations and candidates convinced by the appeal of simplistic formulaic approaches to human complexity. It is precisely this kind of appeal that Cambridge Analytica was able to take advantage of.
Give me a dozen healthy infants, well formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select — doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and yes, even beggar-man thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. ~ John Watson
Cambridge Analytica’s work on the Trump campaign is a clear example of how data-driven marketing techniques can change behavior in target populations. Applied to the commercial sector, these techniques can strategically engage your key audiences, improving conversion rates and boosting sales. ~ Cambridge Analytica’s website
For quite some time the news has been full of stories about social media’s ability to provide insights into the human condition we otherwise wouldn’t have. By now we’ve all heard or read about the potential for Google search trends to reveal everything from pending flu pandemics to our secret sexual desires and hangups.These stories have convinced much of the public as well as industry, governments, and other institutions of social media’s power as an analytical tool.
It’s not that Google searches don’t say something about us. It’s just that virtually everything we do says something about us. To really get to the heart of the matter we must address salience and context in addition to correlation. That requires real research and that kind of effort requires money. That’s why so few are willing to engage in truly meaningful ways with the data social media captures.
Here are just a few of the questions that we should be asking:
- What exactly does a particular data point reveal and how should it be weighed against all the other actions a person takes in the course of their day?
- To what extent is two or more people clicking the thumbs up icon under the same story an indication that these individuals share the same or similar personality traits?
- To the degree people could arguably have been conditioned to “like” (or dislike) something in either the more traditional sense or in a social media context, to what extent have the same environmental and social influences conditioned them to do so?
As with the rest of an individual’s life, the list of variables that influence a person’s choices online gets long quickly. To find out what they are will necessarily involve more than just searching the data for patterns. It will involve follow up interviews or other forms of direct outreach with a significant number of the people providing the data in the first place. The “like” icon on Facebook doesn’t allow a person to indicate how much, on a scale of 1 to 10, the person liked the post in question. Nor does Facebook provide a dropdown menu people can use to select what motivated them to like it in the first place. Maybe they had a stronger connection to the person sharing it than they did the content itself. Who knows? Certainly not any of the firms out there pitching themselves as the one with the magic algorithm that reveals the answers to these questions.
But neither scientific integrity in particular or ethical standards in general were high on Cambridge Analytica’s priority list when they gained access to the Facebook habits of 50 million users and began searching the data for patterns. As is usually the case when it comes to the use of big data, the focus is almost entirely on correlation with little to no effort being put into the follow up research necessary to determine what, if anything, the correlations found in the data actually mean.
Both the crime rate and ice cream consumption go up in the summer, but it doesn’t follow that criminals like ice cream or that ice cream consumptions causes crime. In addition, piracy has dropped as global temperatures have risen. Should we conclude that climate change is therefore linked to a decline in piracy? These are silly examples, but no more silly than many of the ones actually being offered as proof of concept by some data analytics firms. Cambridge Analytica’s website actually briefly references a correlation they found between car ownership and voting history, boasting that this is the kind of information a candidate can expect to find in their massive database. That there’s no reason to believe that knowledge of what a person drives will tell us anything meaningful about their concerns as a citizen seems not to have even occurred to Cambridge Analytica, or apparently to their clients.
Regardless, wouldn’t we much rather have candidates looking at files that describe how we actually feel about education, healthcare, and the environment instead of analyzing our car ownership records and driving habits for clues about how we’re inclined to vote in the next election? Unfortunately for us, neither Cambridge Analytica or other targeting firms care much about the science behind what they do. They seem to care even less, if that’s possible, about civics. Like John Watson before them, they genuinely believe human beings truly are programmable machines that can be made to behave in particular ways if only they can identify the right correlating buttons to push. To them we’re not citizens, spouses, parents, siblings, or friends. We’re all just their Little Alberts.