Are CX pros guilty of brain hacking?

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BrainHacking

Source: http://blog.meraevents.com/2015/01/12/brain-hack-psychology-workshop/

If you have a smartphone, laptop, tablet, or all of the above, it’s no longer a question if you’re addicted to being online, it’s a question if you recognize the problem and are in control of it. And if you don’t have any of these devices, I’d love to meet you and even shake your hand (since you’ll actually have one free) – before you become extinct that is, since your breed is already on the brink.

Why are we so addicted to technology? Perhaps there isn’t one simple answer, but an emerging hypothesis mainstreamed recently when CBS ran a segment on 60 minutes titled “Brain Hacking.” If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch. Not surprisingly, yet ironically, to get to the replay, CBS forces you to watch ads.

In the segment, Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, refers to our digital devices as slot machines, and in a recent blog claims, “…technology hijacks people’s minds.” Ramsey Brown, co-founder of Dopamine Labs, calls the developers responsible for making the apps we use everyday “brain hackers” – essentially meaning they employ techniques designed to get us hooked and to alter our behavior. Arguably, these ubiquitous methods have already succeeded in causing habitual behavior. And if you’re not convinced, unglue your eyes for a moment from your device du jour, peer up, and notice everyone else’s heads buried in digital appliances, and how antsy they’ll get when unplugged for only a few minutes.

Essentially in concept, it’s similar to a virus invading the body (hence the hacking metaphor), with its mission to reprogram us to crave constant online activity. Behind each antigen are hackers, engaged in a form of biological warfare, engineering their payloads to infect our brains to crave more activity – on their sites and apps. Though it’s debatable how much of the altered conduct can be directly attributed to just a few hackers, the pervasiveness of the behavior is indisputable.

Race to the bottom of the brain stem

Tristan refers to this battle as a “race to the bottom of the brain stem,” implying these cerebral hackers are sparring for our attention, and will do anything to get more of it by appealing to a range of our human needs, even the most primitive ones.

So, are all CX pros guilty of this practice, or just a select few in Silicon Valley? In terms of marketing techniques, is this something new or merely old methods with new names?

Perhaps guilty isn’t the fairest word (with its implication of wrongdoing), but I’ll posit the first answer is yes, most professionals tasked with generating demand are trying to do this – with the huge caveat that some think (operative word “think”) they are close to solving an ageless puzzle of how each human mind operates and how to manipulate it. Further, it’s not the impact of a few, but instead the collective efforts of many demand generators, as well as our growing dependence on technology, that’s contributing to our hyperactive online behavior.

Nevertheless, today only a few dominant firms enjoy the majority of the economic rewards, since users spend the majority of their online time in select applications such as Facebook and Google. Call this the tech titan factor, a few gargantuan companies controlling the vast majority of user interactions that attract eyeballs to digital advertisements.

As for the novelty of this approach, the core practice is actually as old as direct marketing itself. Like doctors, trained direct marketers learn early on that diagnosis, problem understanding, and treatments followed by continuous application of test & learn methodology, are time-honored principles proven to attract attention and optimize engagement. What’s changed are the tools CX pros have to administer continuous and tailored therapies (see my article on the use of Prescriptive AI in CX), and as consumers how we’ve unknowingly given up more data about ourselves and increased the quantity of our online intake. Further, this medication being administered to us comes with no warning labels or explicit documentation as to the harmful side effects.

In terms of affecting consumer consciousness and behavior, marketers have again followed long-standing hard and fast principles. Take Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

MaslowsNeeds

Source: https://i2.wp.com/vincejeffs.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/MaslowsNeeds.png

The reward consumers get from checking their devices depends on the individual’s specific needs. For instance, one person may be in the pursuit of self-actualization, and as such may be constantly using a gadget for educational discovery. Another may be in search of esteem, and becomes hooked on social media in a constant quest for recognition. No matter the reason for being online, advertisers track, analyze, and subsequently prescribe remedies squarely aimed at selling us goods and services they’ve ascertained we need.

Moreover, take the streaks tactic that Snapchat uses. This is simply age-old marketing gamification at work. It’s true today’s games are digital, more dynamic, mobile, and played by all ages, but S&H had consumers playing very similar marketing games in the 1930’s, with the goal of creating green stamp junkies.

Whether a modern game, or a game from the 1930’s, the basics of this approach are similar. Entice someone to play but don’t let them win out (making the game incremental – in this case the increment is days), luring them back in, and make the game length seemingly infinite (e.g., collect stamps; cash them in; collect more).

The persuasive fight for our attention

Have newly minted CX pros devised new sinister methods of mind control? Has a new economy suddenly emerged centered on getting attention at all costs, hooking people into using products? I don’t think so.

As far back as the 1950’s, fears about mind control perpetrated by marketers were already spreading, and various theories, many of them hoaxes, began to crop up. And the commercialization of everything, from historical sites to holidays, can be traced back to right after the American Civil War.

In the late 1950’s, rumors abounded such as stories of theaters lacing film with stealthily implanted single frames of subliminal messages such as “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coke” supposedly engineered to stimulate instantaneous demand for these products. In 1957, Vance Packard wrote a groundbreaking novel titled, “The Hidden Persuaders,” making an original argument that organizations are born to manipulate, and had moved from overt tactics to clandestine ones, with hired agencies as the evil genius behind it all. Quite possibly the only difference today is that we carry around in our pockets millions of commercials, and check in constantly, making us continuous targets for impressions. Unscrupulous marketers, as well as those with shreds of decency, have existed side by side since the dawn of time. They simply have more access (by virtue of over 150 years of marketing, commercial, and technological evolution) to more minutes of our waking attention, and will always vie for a slice of that bandwidth with newfangled material engineered to break through the clutter.

When you reflect on it, marketers seek attention and puff their wares – it’s what they do. How and where they’ve sought it and how much they’ve puffed has always defined the extent to which they further commercialize our environment and how far they push ethical and legal boundaries.

This fight to own a share of our precious attention itself contributes to a further lack of focus and increased distraction. I wrote a related piece on this (Contextual Incremental Marketing), from the point of view of the marketer, at the time not fully grasping that my tips about the phenomena were in fact recursive, that is, further reinforcing and encouraging the behaviors that I suggested were simply a facet of the modern world.

In a sense, it’s a vicious circle, but not a new one: CX pros stalking consumers, contending for their attention via an ever-exploding channel continuum, employing any means to engage their reptilian brain and interrupt them, persuade them, adding to attention deficit disorder. For consumers, the antidote is the same as it ever was – common sense, education (with reliable and readily available sources of accurate information), balance and moderation, free will, and self-control.

The surveillance economy

Like crime scene investigators (for more on this, read my blog: The CSI Guy – Customer Success Investigator), CX pros seek clues to solve the mysteries of making best guesses about the likely behavior, needs, and actions of customers.

Those involved in pure acquisition have little to go by, and as such, stretch for data and surveillance methods, test data privacy, ethical, and permission boundaries, and often still miss the relevance mark. In many respects, they are like matchmakers, casting a wide net, and hoping to bring in a few choice prospects. Those tasked with building on relationships, often called relationship or loyalty marketers, have it easier, with a treasure trove of owned media behavior data at their fingertips collected by modern digital tracking sensors. In either case, it should come as no surprise that gathering evidence is a top priority.

In 1992, Eric Lawson wrote a book called “The Naked Consumer.” It was an excellent account of the growing problem at the time of personal data sold as a commodity on the open market, and its lessons and conclusions are as germane as ever.

So what should we do?

Like any history, there always seems to be the appearance of it repeating itself, but invariably with evolving twists. In this case, some of the twists are:

* We can take devices with games and reinforcements anywhere, and often do. Mobility means more chances to be online. In contrast, when TVs first appeared, they were stationary. And radios were too bulky to carry, until transistors transformed them into the iPod of the 50’s.

* Because this digital drug is available constantly, and there are no official regulators, many of us are unconsciously overindulging. Like any addiction, step one is problem recognition, and for most of us, we haven’t admitted there’s a problem, let alone embarked on a recovery journey.

* For digital natives (those who have grown up with smartphones and social media), there are new pressures and social dynamics many of us that are older can’t fully appreciate. This has resulted in massive numbers of teens afflicted with anxiety and depression (see this Time Magazine article for an in-depth look). That’s sad. There’s no easy answers, as these issues are rooted not only in technological realities, but interwoven with deep seeded tribal sociological phenomena.

* Impatience thresholds are down to seconds, partly due to the availability of technology itself and our dependence on it, and on industrial productivity pressures.

What should CX pros do?

There’s no disputing that businesses need customers and have to make money to survive. How they play the game, the rules they follow, and the cultural approach they use defines both their character and destiny. When plotting how to engage customers with artificial intelligence and automation technology, consider the following:

* Those who play the long game win the long game. If the ultimate goal is improving customer experience, then factor customer quality of life into the long-term value equation. Depending on the definition and time horizon for winning, chances are good consumers will recognize (and reward) you for considering their best interests.

* Regulate, or be regulated. Incidentally, industry in general doesn’t have a great track record for self-regulation, so prepare eventually for some regulations in this area to emerge.

What should consumers do?

Throughout recorded history, hucksters have been selling unsuspecting consumers products they really didn’t need. That doesn’t mean every modern day CX pro inherits the label of huckster.

Quite the contrary, those who exchange value with consumers, and provide them with solid recommendations of products well suited to their requirements are effectively service providers. Those taking the easy path and simply pushing and deceiving others toward a clever sale, will rightfully earn the dubious timeworn label.

Consumers need to:

* Shop around. Although it can be a hassle, weigh the pros & cons of moving to another provider, versus amassing more points or transactions with a single provider. Be sure, nonetheless, to factor in all switching costs, including your time.

* When you shop, think outside the box to get a list of alternatives. The path of least resistance these days is to search on Google, but that list of both the paid results as well as the first page of organic ones is a limited (and often highly biased) set.

* Take occasional breaks from technology – Simply put, you don’t need to be online every minute. Don’t expect to completely kick the habit, same as you can’t stop eating food altogether. Research already shows, however, you should use technology in moderation or your long-term health may be at stake. A recent survey of 3500 adults shows stress levels likely rise when alerts go off, such as new emails or text messages. Like getting adequate sleep is necessary for good health, you’ll probably be more productive (and live a longer, heathier life) if you’re offline periodically.

6 COMMENTS

  1. CX pros are simply working within what serves as parameters of the evolving customer experience. Where technology is concerned – texting, tweeting, and the endless array of social media sites, apps and games – there is recognition that, today, value delivery is rather less about applying Maslow’s needs hierarchy and more about using Pavlov’s stimulus-response experiments. Think humans are not like dogs? Just watch the face of a device-holder when a message or an image comes through.

    In books like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2000), the increasing isolation of individuals, and the desire for community (through technological means) was thoroughly chronicled. Putnam identified this sense of loneliness as the decline of personal ‘social capital’ found through traditional offline community activities. The now-obsessive need for being connected, real-time and 24/7, can be observed on the street, in restaurants and theaters, and trains, planes, and automobiles.

    I kind of like the recent cartoon which said that, someday, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook will be conjoined; and the resulting portal will be called “YouTwitFace.” Pretty much defines where we seem to be going.

    While this may not be the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it, the device-centric life does reflect the growing ‘creeping meatballism’ of society. CX pros are just being pragmatic by recognizing, and leveraging, this trend. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em for fun and profit..

  2. Thanks Michael for the comments! I agree with the Pavlov’s analogy also, and when the “ding” goes off on phones, its been shown cortisol levels in the brain increase (flight or flight response…causing higher stress), and it seems most people would rather fight than switch (it off) 🙂

  3. Hi Vince: thanks for this thought-provoking column. One of the best that I’ve read. I got an inkling of the brain hacking problem several years ago when my kids were given Gameboys as gifts. Frustrated by the inordinate amount of time they were spending on these devices, I searched online for “Gameboy addiction” and instead of finding scholarly advice about how to address the issue, I received only links to more electronic gadgetry using the exact name as my search query! That spoke to me, loud and clear. Later, I discovered that by design, Gameboy games never end, one reason that kids were resistant to putting these plastic thingys down.

    Unless there is a cheap drug that suppresses human craving for dopamine, I don’t anticipate the problem will diminish. And marketers certainly won’t take up the banner to get people to drop their iPhones and Galaxies and head out into the woods. Mobile devices, IoT and the ubiquity of online connectedness have given marketers unprecedented surveillance capabilities. Insidiously, they spin it to consumers as personalization and great CX – and customers have an endless appetite for it. (see my article, Personalization: Gateway to Dystopia http://contrarydomino.com/2017/03/personalization-gateway-to-dystopia/).

    The Time Well Spent movement has positioned itself as an antidote for the tsunami of technologies designed to dominate our limited time. Expectedly, the movement has a website: http://www.timewellspent.io/. Check it out to learn their “four simple changes to take back control.”

    One point of difference regarding your mention that “consumers will recognize (and reward you) for considering their best interests.” I think this is a frustration for marketers because that doesn’t necessarily happen. Some research I cite in an article, A Contrarian View on Transparency describes the difficulties that some companies encounter (see http://customerthink.com/a-contrarian-view-on-transparency/)

  4. Hi Andrew, I’m glad you found some value in it. It’s a complex topic that needs equal attention on the negative effects, and advocates for common sense and moderation. As we know, there are strong economic forces at play here, not likely to be slowed or reversed any time soon. Thanks for pointing me to your pieces – I read them both and enjoyed your views, particularly those on the transparency dilemma.

  5. Hi Vince, understanding and driving the consumer behaviors was and will be a dream of all CX teams. Today we “only” added the next wave of machines. Having experienced the speed of life we feel trapped or supported by systems/gadgets/apps. In fact it is up to us how much space we leave to ourselves vs to be “managed” by those more and more sophisticated tools.
    I strongly believe there is no way out from this technology race, hopefully Maslow Hierarchy will still be valid and at the end we will find some time to make our OWN decisions. Which is not easy, but hopefully possible.
    I support last tip : “Take occasional breaks from technology” , sit down and think what is important to you and those you care about.

  6. Thanks Waldek for taking the time to respond. I agree there is no turning back, and technology in any form seems to always have its benefits and drawbacks. As long as we have freedom, choice, and education, consumers should not be trapped – yet it will become more crucial to put extra effort into assuring a balance is maintained.

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