Ready Player One — we’re about to read your mind

Just how rational do you think you are? You’re fully in control of what you do, you’ll say. Industry and commerce are built on determining how we think, how audiences form behaviours around products, how as students you learn in a classroom, how you choose to decorate your house and indeed how you vote.

We’ve known for a long while about how unconscious thoughts influence behaviour from the likes of Gustave Le Bon, including irrational behaviour, and that people might often want to mask these, or not even know what they’re doing when asked.

Here’s a slew of books I’ve gathered that cover this domain. No doubt you’ll have your own favourites.

We’ve witnessed this phenomenon in elections in the UK and US as the electorate tell pollsters conflicting truths, but now with social media analytics Ready Player One they are about to drill further into your mind to read your true intentions.

Behaviour sits at the high chair in this relationship. Work by psychologists such as Dr Fogg, Director of Persuasive Technologies at Stanford University observes a relationship between behaviour, actions, motivation and trigger points.

Facebook’s ‘Like” button was genius when first introduced. Triggered by a story that catches our eye, we’re motivated to the ‘Like” button and take action. By repeating this action we strengthen the dopamine hit each time, become addicted and behaviour is formed.

We swipe our phones more than 2000 times a day and that’s an average user.

Triggers come in something pithy a politician, or business might say, such as: “Get government off your back’- Ronald Reagan, that motivates our actions to vote for a candidate.

Talking at the BFI

I’m a journalist, a cinema journalist who has worked in the media for thirty years; I started at the BBC in my first year in grad school, and I’m deeply fascinated with how we think.

I give talks such as the one above to secondary school/ high school teachers at the British Film Institute, and I firmly believe journalists in particular must be trained to understand unconscious forces at play, firstly for accuracy, but also because marketeers, politicians and PRs use these psychological tools as weapons.

How many of us, for instance, conform to behaviour when it’s irrational. The video on the left is a variation on the social experiment called Five Monkeys.

I ask this question all the time in training and lectures and its surprising how many people deny they would fall for this, until I refer them to an earlier experiment I conducted on them, without them knowing.

A couple of empty cups placed in the most popular spot of the class is quite te deterrent from sitting in that spot, until there were no more spaces available.

In the 1920s onwards, with spikes around the 1950s and 60s, psychologists put in a lot of work into the unconscious mind. There were forces lurking beneath us that we could not control. It’s gone by many names Jung and the animus, Freud and the Id etc. Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays who was a propagandist and invented the word PR felt people were largely gullible. In the 1950s, corporate America used depth manipulating to understand the unconscious mind and target consumers.

When sales of a ready cake mix failed to take off, Ernest Dichter, one of the key motivators and consumer psychologists determined through indepth interviews that women felt inadequate serving something that was akin to giving birth ( bun in the oven) because they were puting no work into the cake. Dichter asked the cake manufacturers to allow for an egg to be added and that fixed the problem.

The 60s represented an interesting time. Consumers were the hamsters in the wheel and needed liberating. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which took off in the 1960s captured people’s new found freedom along the lines of their values. It didn’t matter whether you were black or white, young or old, what mattered was your values.

Maslow’s assessment has pretty much held firm and surprisingly can be observed in several media, new media, and in particular their journalism. If you’re unsure log onto Buzzfeed and compare the triangle with articles you read.

The question I’m usually asked is that if people know how to target your needs, where’s the ethics in cinema journalism in that? Conversely if you can’t see how others are targeting you, how do you insulate yourself? Knowing how to use the force makes you Luke Skywalker rather than Darth Vader, but the mistake we make is ignoring how social psychology is being integrated into media, none more so on a gargantuan scale than in social. We need to learn about this new alphabet

If depth interviews was about getting to the sub conscious often by asking ‘Why’ again and again and again, until the interviewee reveals personal reasons why they like a product, your social habits and journey is your digital genetic fingerprint.

It can’t be fooled, but you can consciously minimise your footprint. Your phone can be tracked by its leaking of data and cell site, even when it’s off. Apps on your phone aren’t sandboxed and hence won’t necessarily adhere to the same permissions a browser would comply with to access your data. And since increasingly we access data via apps you can see the problem.

If you haven’t done this already, go to Facebook and download your personal data. Don’t be surprised to see inserts that link with private telephone conversations. Two years ago this video caused a fuss when a couple without a cat started conversations about cat litter around their phone. They made no phone calls or browsed the web, but two days later had cat litter ads in their Facebook feed. Other anecdotal evidence suggest SM is eavesdropping on conversations.

By running your social feed through a social sentiment analyser: a tool that measures your emotional states, you can begin to form a picture of how you’re viewed. Some experts minimise their profiles by using different browsers for different social agencies, hence there is no contamination. Otherwise many give false names and details online to social media groups. There’s no law that says you have to give correct details.

The combination of these and depth interviews is how companies like Cambridge Analytica can legally determine who you are, and they are just one of several companies. Several Social media companies are developing AIs and we’ll soon become nothing more than barcodes. The subconscious will matter, alongside analytics and algorithms. So Ready Player One, how much are you prepared to play?

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.