A year or so ago I read an article on Vox — one of my favorite sources of news and information — about persuasive technology and how tech companies use it to ensnare us in electronic games and social media and other online click-baited traps. It was intriguing. It was concerning. It was… vague? I’ll explain all that in a second, but here’s the thing:
After having dug through all the “literature” on persuasive design, relating it to the underlying theories that explain why it works, and contemplating it introspectively in my own experience and stuff, I realized that persuasive design is what Fox News is using to enthrall our parents and turn them into ranting, fuming, spewing angry curmudgeonous old folks shouting about people on their lawns and not doing it like in the old days from their sensible, calm, even liberal selves that they were in our youths. A phenomena all too many of us have experienced, the so-called Fox News brain.
I’ll divide the post into three parts so you can chose the part or parts you wanna read. We’ll have the deep dive, the shallow dive, and the quick dip. The deep dive is your Sunday news magazine read. We’ll take you all the way through the whole enchilada and see what’s in the sausage. The quick dip is a summary of persuasive design, which is then followed by the shallow dive, the explanation of Fox News.
So we’ll start with the quick dip, transition into the shallow dive, and finish off with a satisfying deep dive for those few of us who like that sort of thing. What do you think of that? In some ways, dividing the post into these three parts is a type of persuasive design. Whoa!
The QUICK DIP
Persuasive design is a design practice that uses the way a product or service is set-up to encourage people to use it. In other words, the design of the product encourages people to change their behavior so that the product or service is utilized. Designers use psychological findings to manipulate the characteristics of the product or service so that potential users are more likely to be engaged. It appears in online and e-commerce products and services, but it can be used anywhere a routine can be established.
The Fogg Behavioral Model
BJ Fogg developed the concept of persuasive design as an extension of the psychological work on persuasion so that it took greater advantage of digital and internet-based innovations like social media and electronic games. He has developed a formula for explaining behavior. Behavior needs three component parts, motivation, ability, and prompts.
The beauty part of the model is that motivation and ability interact. As motivation increases, the easiness of the behavior can decrease, or as the easiness of the activity increases, the motivation to do it can decrease, and you’ll still get the action or behavior.
Reflect on your own life and the things you do. Rate your motivation and the difficulty of the activity. Do you think it fits the predictions of the model? Let us know in the comments!
Also, the more often you do something, the more routine it becomes, the easier it is to do. When you do something automatically, your motivation to do it can be very very low, but you’ll still do it. Seriously, how many times have you told yourself just one more episode and then I’ll go to bed, but you aren’t asleep before 3:00 AM. Or, the number of times you say to yourself, it’s late, so I shouldn’t open Netflix, but I’ll watch one episode… It’s so easy to stumble into Netflix because it is such a routine. It’s a habit. Let us know your experience in the comments.
Motivation gets short-shift in Fogg’s explanations as far as I can tell, but he gives a lot of shift to ability. Ability is described as simplicity as in Keep It Simple, Stupid! Here you can watch this video of ol’ BJ explaining it all himself, or you can read my brief summary with application to Fox News, or you can do both!
- Definition of simplicity: It is the minimally satisfying solution at the lowest cost. What is considered satisfying and a cost differs by person and context. One thing conservatives and Fox News offers is the easiest explanation: your life is miserable because of immigrants, PoCs, and liberals. It’s THAT easy!
- Simplicity lives outside of the product. Simplicity is the perception of the experience we have as we accomplish the task. It is not built into the product. This concept reminds me of peak-end experience. If you accomplish the task, presumably the end of the experience, you feel satisfied and get a shot of dopamine in the mesolimbic dopamine reward system. Woo-hoo! But, the peak is the most intense emotional moment which in the case of Fox News is the intensity of the righteous indignation aroused by the righteous indignation expressed by the hosts of the shows in their diatribes. The diatribe is designed to arouse these strong negative emotions and then arrive at the solution: your life is miserable because of immigrants, Muslims, PoCs, and liberals. It’s THAT easy!
Fogg describes six factors that make up simplicity:
- Time. The more time a task requires, the less simple it is perceived to be. I experience this every freaking evening. I like to catch up on MSNBC, but with each show, more utility is lost. I don’t like spending all of that time just watching the computer. The same with writing this blog. Each post takes time, which makes it more difficult to do. Here’s the thing with Fox News. They appeal to retirees, right? Retirees have time. They can watch all that crap on the TV. My late mother had Fox News on 24/7 — literally. Literally. Even while she was asleep. She never turned the TV off. And, in the car, she listened to conservative talk radio.
- Money. The more money a task costs, the more difficult the task is perceived to be. But, time and money are often traded off. Adults have more money than time. Teenagers have more time than money. And retirees have both! For strapped retirees, watching Fox News doesn’t cost a lot, does it? So far, Fox News ranks pretty high on the simplicity, read that ability scale, so it takes very little motivation to get people to watch it.
- Physical effort. The more physical effort a task requires the more difficult it is perceived as being. Retirees are often losing their abilities, especially physical abilities, so for my mom sitting in her recliner watching Fox News did not take much effort.
- Brain cycles. Lots of thinking or over a long period is not necessarily simple. For the minority of people who like to think hard, thinking does not make a task more difficult. It can make it more attractive. However, most people do not like thinking hard. In fact, we evolved to avoid thinking. One thing I like about watching The Rachel Maddow Show and The Beat is that they make me think. They are fact filled and use critical thinking skills. Compare and contrast Rachel Maddow and Ari Melber with Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingram. Ain’t no thought processes involved in the latter.
- Social deviance. If a task violates social norms, then it is going to be perceived as difficult. Going against the norm and breaking the rules of society makes something seem much more difficult. A solution might be simple but not if it violates social norms. Grabbing a woman by her pussy is a very easy way to achieve some kind of sexual gratification, I guess. But, because the risks of social condemnation is so high, most people won’t seek sexual gratification that way and will condemn anyone engaging in such behavior. What about Fox News? Their righteous indignation and loud admonitions as to their own purity and correctness reinforce the rightness of their opinions and beliefs. Even though most of the country condemns racism, the racial animus on Fox News programs create a social correctness that makes it simple and easy.
- Non-routine. Routine tasks equal simplicity. Things done over and over again become routine making them easy. Consequently, breaking the routine is not simple; it is difficult.
It should come as no surprise that watching TV is easy. It ain’t difficult. You turn on the boob tube, plop yourself down, and open your peepers and there you go. It doesn’t require much money, physical effort, or brain cycles, and it is a social norm. It does require time, but prime-time programming tries to make itself worth the time. Regularly scheduled programming helps establish routines. These things are a constant for all TV. So, what makes Fox News so special?
The SHALLOW DIVE
The older you get the more concerned you are for safety. You recognize the fragility of life, how easily injured people are, how easily killed. You recognize how easily disaster can visit a family. You’re concerned for your physical and economic safety. Concern for safety is the chief characteristic of conservative thinking. You want things to stay the same. Sameness is safe. Change is dangerous. Ergo, change is to be resisted. Old folks play it safe.
Watch any episode of Fox and Friends, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, or Laura Ingram and you get a big heaping helping of fear. It appeals to old white people. When you long for the good old days, you long for racism whether you like it or not, that’s what you’re longing for because the US of the ’30’s, ’40’s, ’50’s, ’60’s, ’70’s, ’80’s, ’90’s, ’00’s, and ’10’s was racist. The further back you go, the more explicit the racism was. To appeal to white America’s past is to appeal to racism.
That’s Fox News’ business model. They make racism the norm. So, to feel that rise of righteous indignation about those damn liberals tearing down America by promoting those lazy brown people without making them experience the hardships that good god-fearing white Americans did, well can you blame them for being resentful? It ain’t “racism.” It ain’t. They just hate lazy black takers like the Welfare Queen! FFS.
All TV shows offer teasers for upcoming shows and segments for the current show. It works. It sparks your curiosity. Click bait. But, if you make people afraid, then they seek comfort. The comfort of their group.
I know my mom felt misunderstood and no-longer accepted by her world. The more the nation’s values changed — feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, an increase in the number of PoC’s in white spaces — the less understood and accepted she felt. She was afraid of our Latinx and black neighbors. It used to be that she could talk over her fence with her Latinx and black neighbors, but after a while there were too many of them for her to get to know. How could she trust them? She could trust her new white neighbors. They were white. They shared her values. She knew that without ever talking to them, but she couldn’t know that with her neighbors of color.
The other piece of the Fox News-conservative talk radio business model is the world is too complex to understand point-of-view. They use a perverse reductionist approach by reducing the world to these simplistic terms: immigration is bad, government is inept, all politicians are corrupt, black people are criminals, Latinx are lazy, Muslims are terrorists, and if you erect a police state, you’ll be protected from them and your white privilege will continue unabated. The reinforcement of the easiness, simplicity, no-ability-needed-ness of their world-view is the cocaine in coffee that keeps them coming back for more.
The Mesolimbic Dopamine Reward System
And, that is also what is missing from the persuasive design formulation. There is no mention of the affects of dopamine and the mesolimbic dopamine reward system that cocaine and anything that motivates behavior. Lucky for you, I have covered all of this before in one of my earliest and favoritest blog posts, The Dopamine of Social Media. Let me summarize how this all works, apply it to Fogg’s Behavioral Model, and Fox News and we’ll be done with our shallow dive!
The Wanting & Liking Systems
The popular media and literature would have you believe that there is only one system in the mesolimbic dopamine reward system and that is the reward system, but it is more than that. There are actually TWO systems: the wanting and the liking systems. The wanting system is dopamine based, the liking system, opioid! Whoa! They interact, but they also are independent. So, even though the liking system is sated, the wanting system just keeps going! Have you ever had the experience of being tired of doing something like scrolling you social media or binge-watching a Netflix series or cruising porn or whatever, but just can’t seem to stop even though you really want to? No? It’s just me? Okay. It’s only me. But, not the porn thing, okay?
Those pesky dopamine neurons are anticipating rewards and, of course, they are excited by larger than predicted or expected rewards and are inhibited by smaller than predicted or expected rewards. When larger than expected rewards come rolling in, we do more of what got us the big payoff and smaller rewards we do less of what got us the tiny rewards! (emphasis added) (Hikosaka in National Review of Neuroscience).
That damned dopamine loop can keep you wanting wanting wanting more more more, so checking your social media for likes, comments, notifications, or whatever your particular platform does. Couple this with the variable reward schedule, meaning an unpredictable frequency of reward, and boy you are as good as hooked!
The Fogg Behavior Model & Dopamine
Fogg’s Behavioral Model says that behavior is a combination of motivation, ability, and prompts. That wanting system is a big part of your motivation. When you do something, you get to where you’re doing it well. Part of that enjoyment is your ability to predict what is going to happen. The more I watched sissy football, i.e. soccer — it’s a flopping thing — the more I liked it. The more I watched, the more of the rules I understood and could apply, and the more I could predict what would happen. Successful prediction stimulates the liking system. The wanting system wants more of that and looks for situations where you can make those predictions.
If you’ve gotten to where Tucker Carlson’s or Laura Ingram’s open naked racist ranting stimulates your liking system instead of your revolting system like it does for most of us, then you get to where you can predict when they’re going to rant on this shit. You want more of it. It keeps you coming back.
It turns into this vicious system that results in your soul being sold to the Repubes to be used by global corporate interests as if it were a cheap natural resources.
The DEEP DIVE
My introduction to persuasive design was the Vox article, Tech Companies use “Persuasive Design” to get us Hooked. Psychologists say it is Unethical. It sounded GREAT. There was some super secret psychologically-based awesome form of manipulation that kept people coming back for more more more! With dreams of dopamine-induced cocaine-like highs dancing in my imagination, I eagerly read on:
A group of psychologists say kids are suffering from “hidden manipulation techniques” that companies like Facebook and Twitter use.
Man, now that’s evil… but a cool kinda evil, amirite? What could those hidden manipulation techniques be? Read on, dear reader, for a taste of the article. Then click the link and see for yourself how… disappointing(?) it is. Then, come back to this post to get the dripping bloody read meat!
The article began well enough:
As much as adults are now constantly inundated with technology — those constant Facebook notifications and that next episode on Netflix already cued up — children today are even more primed to become hooked on their devices. Kids have 10 times the amount of screen time they did in 2011, and spend an average of six hours and 40 minutes using technology, according to Common Sense Media.
Behind the screens of the games we play and digital communities we interact with are psychologists and other behavioral science experts, who are hired to create products that we want to use more and more. Big tech now employs mental health experts to use persuasive technology, a new field of research that looks at how computers can change the way humans think and act. This technique, also known as persuasive design, is built into thousands of games and apps, and companies like Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft rely on it to encourage specific human behavior starting from a very young age.
While defenders of persuasive tech will say it can have positive effects, like training people to take medicine on time or develop weight loss habits, some health professionals believe children’s behaviors are being exploited in the name of the tech world’s profit. On Wednesday, a letter signed by 50 psychologists was sent to the American Psychological Association accusing psychologists working at tech companies of using “hidden manipulation techniques” and asks the APA to take an ethical stand on behalf of kids.
Seriously, a letter signed by 50 — FIFTY!! — psychologists warning of the ethical challenges of aiding and abetting tech companies of zombizing our children? Is there anything better than that? This has got to be something amazing! Jaw-dropping, toe-curling, hair-whitening, teeth-straightening I mean, man! How does it work? How? How? How? Tell me how!
It’s actually quite simple, although studied at length, it is sophisticated. The formula is that in order to have behavioral change, you need motivation, ability, and triggers. In the case of social media, the motivation is people’s cravings for social connection; it can also be the fear of social rejection. For video games, it’s the desire to gain skills and accomplishments. Ability basically means making sure that the product is remarkably easy to use.
What? That’s it? You’re addicted to social media because you want social connection? And, it is easy to use? And, there are triggers? Seriously, lunch-bag letdown. Maybe the triggers will do it, though. Being triggered is a thing among the kids, right?
Remember, you just read about the Fogg Behavioral Model and the three components of a behavior and all of it explained, but I hadn’t before I read the article. I think this is super important because (a) I’m embarrassed that I hadn’t done more with it for a year now that I know more about it and (b) it’s weird how the article just completely misses the passion and awesomeness of the phenomenon.
Finally, you add triggers, which keeps people coming back. So those videos you can’t look away from, the rewards you get inside an app when you use it longer, or the hidden treasure boxes in games once you reach a certain level — these are all triggers, put there as part of the persuasive design.
See what I mean? FFS. That’s it? I knew that the first time I used Facebook and played Tetris. And, this guy BJ Fogg has made millions off of it? Built an academic career out of it? Is a Silicon Valley guru because of it? It’s like looking at a Picasso and realizing that you could’ve done that. That you did do that and you didn’t make no millions, get laid repeatedly, and become famous afterward. How is that even fair?
So, now that we have the basics down from the quick dip and shallow dive, let’s go further.
Each individual has a different simplicity profile and vary by context. The profile always consists of the six factors, but shift around based on what is pertinent at the moment (context or situational factors) and the make-up of the person (individual or dispositional factors). Simplicity is a function of your scarcest resource at that moment.
True vs. perceived simplicity. A task is simple until it requires resources that a person does not have. A task is perceived as simple if it is completed with fewer resources than expected. Manipulate perceived simplicity by setting expectations high and delivering low. Wow, this is just behavioral economics and Kahneman’s associative network building a model of the world.
With our model of the world safely stowed in our hip pocket, we wamble around the world. When a behavior is needed, we estimate the difficulty of completing it. If it is too easy, we figure we’ll be bored and just not do it. If it is too difficult, we figure there’s no reason to try, and just don’t do it. We have to have that Goldilocks sweet spot of just right. To put it in ol’ BJ’s terms: if it violates one or more of the factors of simplicity, we need a heckva lot more motivation to try.
I used to do subscribe to the New York Times back in the ’90’s when it went nationwide. I did the crossword puzzle every day. After a while, Monday’s puzzle became almost too easy. I did it, but it wasn’t as much fun and it didn’t fill quite as much of my evening as the puzzles later in the week did. By the time we got to Friday’s puzzle, it was verging on too difficult to try, but I did it anyway. But, if I had other plans — which didn’t happen nearly as often as I’d imply — it was no big deal. The same for Saturday. Sunday’s was forget about it, but if I were bored, meaning had a lot of time and nothing much else to do or something I wanted to avoid, I’d give it a go.
So here, if you want to apply the Fogg Behavioral Model to your life, he suggests these handy-dandy steps, and, bonus, we’ll apply it to Fox News:
- Choose a behavior to change or affect. Fox News doesn’t just want people to watch, they want to change their political views and voting behavior. They want people to be more conservative and more motivated to vote because those conservative politicians will support the transfer of wealth from the middle class to the richest 1%. Seriously, if you judge them by their behavior and not their words, that’s what they want.
- Determine what is preventing the behavior: motivation, ability, trigger. What is preventing people from having consistently conservative political views and beliefs and voting on them? Their lack of fear. The Repubes have fear-mongered communism, socialism, civil rights, feminism, the deficit, terrorism, and now that most of those have been quelled, immigrants. Once people are feeling sufficiently afraid, they will (a) watch Fox News, (b) consistently hold conservative political views, and (c) vote. State governments make it easier for old white people to vote than anyone else — and are working on making it easier for them and harder for everyone else. Repube politicians demagogue the issue or group du jour pushing viewers to Fox and Fox News demagogues the issue or group du jour pushing voters to Repube politicians and roping in a viewing audience.
- Choose the right tech channel. Roger Ailes was right in choosing cable TV as his tech channel when he started Fox. The internet, cable news, and social media have all been effectively exploited by him and conservative politicians. Don’t think for a minute that any of this was an accident. It’s just worked better than they ever thought possible.
- Start small & refine through iteration. Fogg’s point here is that the internet and social media means that our development cycle has changed significantly. It has allowed us to try innovations without significant investment of time or money or effort. Writing an app is easy. You just keep trying until it does what you want it to. Fox News has been refining it’s demagoguery over the years. They’ve gone through personalities and the issues they emphasize. They’ve gotten better at sowing fear and chaos.
- Expand. Get people to repeat the behavior on a fixed schedule, creating a routine: old white people watch Fox News and they vote. Voting occurs on a fixed schedule. TV shows are broadcast on a fixed schedule. What’s changed is the distance from reality that their claims have gotten. It’s one thing to claim that tax cuts for the wealthy will stimulate enough economic growth that taxing the middle class will make up for the short fall the first time, okay the second time, and probably a third time, but by now, it is difficult to accept. Other claims that up is down, blue is green, Russians are our friends, though are really freaking crazy, but people are accepting. They are now trying to reach a larger audience because old white people have a pesky habit of dying in spite of the better healthcare they make the rest of us pay for (that is how insurance works, you know). Now they want people to be more vocal about their conservative views. That was the Tea Party. Now they want people act upon their racist views. That was Charlottesville. Next, will they want people to assassinate a Congressional representative? Can they expand their audience?These are our fights right here.
That’s it right there. It has been an odyssey to write and I’m sure a marathon to read. Your patience is much appreciated. Let this information percolate and then we’ll start on how to use it in the #Resistance for 2020.