"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Operant Conditioning–Smartphones As Skinner Boxes

Bill Davidow writing in The Atlantic (6.11.13) reports on how savvy marketers are using psychological techniques similar to B.F. Skinner’s reward systems to entice us to buy their products.  Thanks to Big Data, GPS, smartphone technology, McDonald’s can know when an obese, trying-to-lose-weight, but always hungry consumer is in the neighborhood.  The company can then beam an alluring ad directly to the fat person’s I-Phone: “Fifty percent off on all Big Macs if you come in NOW!!!”. 

Davidow suggests that this marketing technique is pernicious and hearkens back to the early fears of thought control engendered by Skinner’s earliest experiments to control the behavior of rats.

Skinner's techniques of operant conditioning and his notorious theory of behavior modification were denounced by his critics 70 years ago as fascist, manipulative vehicles that could be used for government control.

Skinner's critics were prescient. They were right about control but wrong about the controllers. Our Internet handlers, not government, are using operant conditioning to modify our behavior today.

This, however, is a very disingenuous statement given our century-old history of advertising and marketing.

“There’s a sucker born every minute” has been the guiding principle of commercial transactions ever since Gog sold Blecch a magic cowrie shell.  Con men, hucksters, and snake oil salesmen were part of the American landscape in the 19th century and they are still around.  

The Brooklyn Bridge has been sold 10,344,223 times since it was built in 1883, millions of homeowners bought shaky mortgages in 2007, investors up and down the line bought worthless securitized credit swap bundles, and every single one of us has given in to our deepest desires and bought something that would enhance our appearance, allure, and sex appeal even if we couldn’t afford it.

Even tire valve caps, of all things, were sold using sex appeal in 1921:

My favorite is this one for Hoover:


What pleasure she is going to take from her vacuum cleaner!

The point is that nothing has changed except the technology. Marketers are now able to take advantage of the most sophisticated technology available to develop accurate profiles of potential consumers.  In one of the most ingenious marketing techniques of the past few years, Target determined which female customers were pregnant without asking them:

Lotions, for example. Lots of people buy lotion, but one of Pole’s [Target marketing expert] colleagues noticed that women on the baby registry were buying larger quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester. Another analyst noted that sometime in the first 20 weeks, pregnant women loaded up on supplements like calcium, magnesium and zinc. Many shoppers purchase soap and cotton balls, but when someone suddenly starts buying lots of scent-free soap and extra-big bags of cotton balls, in addition to hand sanitizers and washcloths, it signals they could be getting close to their delivery date.

As Pole’s computers crawled through the data, he was able to identify about 25 products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to assign each shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score. More important, he could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy. http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2012/04/target-knows-youre-pregnantand-you.html

The advent of virtual reality has been a boon to advertisers, and Davidow recounts the story of the video game industry. It is making games so realistic and compelling that the distinction between the virtual and real world becomes indistinct.  Canny advertisers can put up ads for real guns on shoot-‘em-up gaming websites

Advertisers will be able to engineer these gaming experiences in ways that are so compelling that they go from suggesting behavior to programming it? As virtual experiences become more real and behavioral targeting more precise, will consumer marketers be able to create BMW and Victoria Secret buying compulsions?

Once again, it is the marketer who is demonized for his manipulative, unethical, and even immoral behavior; and the consumer gets off scot-free.  It is as though we all are protoplasmic blobs that can be nudged and shaped by external forces with no force or will to resist, and no intelligence to figure out who and what is behind them.  If the mortgage brokers are to blame for the spate of sub-prime mortgages a few years ago, so are the consumers who were suckered in just like their forbearers of a century ago who bought snake oil.  If we buy fancy cars we cannot really afford because we want a boost to our prestige and sex appeal, is it the fault of Porsche for portraying its new Carrera in the most appealing, macho, sexy way?

Of course not.  Most of us know that we are spending for our dreams, passions, desires, and addictions and do it anyway.  Marketers now and forever have understood this, and have developed the most sophisticated means of tapping into our fantasies using the best techniques available.

Davidow suggests that there is something more powerful and insidious going on now.  Even the most enlightened consumer cannot withstand the subtle manipulation that goes on in this media-saturated world.  We no longer have time to think.  The McDonald’s offer is good only at the franchise across the street.  Advertising hits us personally rather than generally.  We are happy when our cookies enable Amazon to offer us exactly the new CD we have been thinking about.  Amazon knows us and cares about us, the thinking goes.

However just as marketing has become more sophisticated, so has the consumer – at least in principle.  Caveat emptor was never more true.  The 19th century rube who fell for the snake oil routine had very little data to go on, but was not so stupid that he couldn’t look around, gather empirical data from the village, tap into the collective history of snake oil salesmen’s visits, and conclude that the product was worthless.  Today’s consumer knows – or should know – how the little pop up window got there, and should be able to make an informed purchase decision.  “Yes, I am hungry, but I am trying to lose weight, and I will pass up McDonald’s offer”.  Too much has been made of addictive behavior and our inability to exert will and choice.  While nicotine is certainly addictive, millions of smokers have quit.  A combination of fat, salt, and sugar is a deadly combination, but millions of consumers pass up the Fritos on their way down the supermarket aisle.

Will, intelligence, reflection, and circumspection – good, old traditional values – are still around for the asking.  It is time to end the culture of victimhood, stop blaming the marketer, and lay the blame directly where it belongs – on the consumer.


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