Cambridge Analytica: A Case Study In Behaviorism Run Amok
Using information about people to manipulate them is nothing new. Psychologists refer to theory of mind as the capacity to attribute various mental states to others. Once we begin developing a theory of mind, using information we’ve acquired on others to our advantage follows very quickly. While this isn’t a uniquely human ability, our capacity for language and large brains have enabled us to take far greater advantage of it than any other species on the planet.
One indicator of a theory of mind is the ability to deceive. Animals do it all the time. In some cases deception is actually hardwired into a creature’s biology by evolution. Even in insects and plants we can find examples of false signals intended to convey the message to potential predators that they are poisonous when in fact they are not. But when it comes to skullduggery humanity can reach levels of sophistication other species couldn’t even begin to imagine, let alone implement.
The latest example of the use of information mined from our social environment and exploited for nefarious purposes involves the use of data gathered on around 50 million Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica, a company specializing in targeting voters and consumers on behalf of clients in order to “move them to action.”
If you had just arrived from Mars you might be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the London based data firm with academic ties to one of England’s best known universities was the first to ever seriously undertake an effort to intentionally manipulate millions of people without either their knowledge or consent. However, such manipulation has been playing an increasingly overt role in our society since the early 20th century.
From Madison Avenue to political capitals around the world, psychology’s latest ideas regarding why people believe and behave the way they do have been a source of increasing fascination since at least World War I. After all, nothing requires a good sales pitch more than a war being fought for reasons that are as opaque as the blood tinged mud of the Somme and Verdun.