Are we all being manipulated all of the time?

05 February 2019

Interview with

Philipe Bujold, University of Cambridge


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Are you being manipulated without even realising it? Georgia Mills got the low down from Philipe Bujold, who studies decision making at Cambridge University...

Philipe - Yeah. So actually I thought I'd give you an example of how easy you are to manipulate. So I'll ask you a quick question which is a very famous question. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who won the Nobel Prize in 2003 in economics, did this test and so I'll ask you two sets of questions. Let's say we have 600 people that are infected with a specific disease and I give you the choice of two programmes that you can apply to try and save a few people. So programme A you know for a fact that about 200 people will be saved. Programme B about one third probability everyone will survive, everyone will be saved but then two thirds probability no one will be saved. Which one would you pick? Programme A or programme B?

Georgia - A I think, yeah.

Philipe - Yes. So that's what most people would pick. So you pick the safe option so you try to save 200 people for sure. If I'd asked the question a bit differently and instead basically give you two programmes that are about dying instead of saving. So we say programme C 400 people will die for sure or programme D there is a one third probability that no one will die or two thirds probability that everyone will die.

Georgia - That's trickier, D sounds better in that one, but they're the same.

Philipe - So you follow basically the average. So most people if you present an option as a gain would go with the risk-less option so you go for it the certain the sure options or saving 200 people. But here 400 people will die for sure is considered a loss. And people tend to be a lot more risk seeking when it comes to losses. So you prefer testing tense and so you can imagine this kind of question when you ask this a million times to different people, people have different patterns but everyone seems to follow this type of behaviour.

Georgia - Does this mean governments can use this to try and change our behaviour?

Philipe - Yes so these kinds of tests have actually started a whole new subfield of science called behavioural sciences. Within this we have behavioural insights which are different choice biases that we can use to try and modify people's behaviour. And most of this is actually for good, so I don't want to scare everyone. It's also been happening most of your lives we're just aware of it now. But sometimes it's not as good. And so with the advent of data science there's a lot of different things you can do, and alot of corporations, shops, companies are using that to maximise profit. But then on the other hand you have governments that are really trying to use that, to try and make society better if you want, according to the government that is.

Georgia - Hit me hit me with some examples then.

Philipe - Some examples, well actually I was talking to a group in Canada, my home countries. So their behavioural insights group in British Columbia, were asking question recently which was, how do you reduce the rate of human caused wildfires? For example you've probably heard about California last year very difficult. So that's a really good question and you don't want to force people to stop making fires. You just want to try and nudge them, which we call to try and reduce this risk. So they were asking a bunch of different questions and it seems like low cost messaging which is just reminding people, texting people about it, seems to influence their decision. And so what you want to do is still leave the decision there for people, so they still have the same choices, but the way you asked the choice is basically biasing the choice one way or another. So that's a great example. Another one that we probably all experience is on Netflix, and when you're watching TV on any streaming device really, when they start playing the next episode automatically this is a huge framing effect because if you had to choose that's a little gain. So you're choosing to watch the next episode you're winning, but if you have to stop the next episode automatically that's a loss. So it's a lot harder for people and you just keep watching, you binge watch and that's a very good example of what's happening.

Georgia - And what about sort of out and about in the street. So there are things there that we might come across on a daily basis?

Philipe - Yes actually in London there's a very good example. And that would be the buttons you have to press to cross the intersection. A lot of these actually in a lot of major cities don't do anything. They give you the impression of control which gives people the idea that oh they've pressed so they will wait. But most of the time they don't actually do anything. Now in most villages or smaller towns they actually have some measure of importance. But you can try next time in London or in New York a lot of these things don't do anything.

Georgia - We've been tricked. So what does that mean, it makes us less likely to just run across the road?

Philipe - Exactly so it reduces jaywalking. And there's another great example that would target men specifically if you've been to a urinal recently where you saw a bee or a fly in the urinal, that's people taking advantage of your psyche really to make you aim there so that you don't have spillover.

Georgia - Making it fun I guess as well. Is there a way to you know, shield yourself from this kind of stuff.

Philipe -  So unfortunately like a lot of behavioural effects you can't really shield yourself. So this takes advantage of how our brain is wired and so we're very very efficient at being flexible. That's a key trait of humans, but all this flexibility comes at a price. And it's that we take a lot of shortcuts in our decision making and a lot of what we do is going to be subjective, so relative. So I was talking about gains and losses earlier, a lot of this will be based off what you're seeing in your direct environment. So what's considered a win right now might be a loss tomorrow. And so that's a key symptom if you want of our flexibility of our humanness, but unfortunately it also makes us very risk prone for these kinds of behaviours.


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