How Addictive Technology Weaponizes Psychology of Persuasion

Last Updated on April 30, 2024

It is possible to manipulate people with precision with a well-calibrated algorithm that takes advantage of predictable patterns in the human brain. Psychology of persuasion has been an art that helped merchants sell their products for millennia, and shady persuasion tricks are still in the arsenal of used car salesmen. In the 20th century marketing became a science. In short, humans have always manipulated each other, but it usually took lengthy face-to-face interactions so it did not scale well. Today, the algorithms of attention engineering are faster and cheaper.

In the field of influence and persuasion the most famous social psychologist in the world today is Dr. Robert Cialdini. The central idea in his bestselling book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion is that we are all vulnerable to influence and behave in predictable ways that algorithms can monetize. Automatic response is our downfall.

When weapons of influence are automated and unleashed on billions of unsuspecting users online, their compliance is not of their own free will but is carefully designed by attention engineers who profit from it.

Cialdini’s 7 Principles of Influence are: Reciprocity, Commitment and Consistency, Social Proof, Authority, Liking, Scarcity, and Unity.

Let’s investigate how the principles of influence are used for attention engineering in the digital age, and how addictive technology weaponizes psychology of persuasion.

Weapon of Influence #1: Reciprocity

Reciprocity is a sense of mutual obligation, essential to the functioning of society. It’s give and take. A favor needs to be returned, and we keep accounts of mutually beneficial favors. How did this evolutionary advantage become a weapon of digital manipulation?

We reciprocate to each other on social media all day long. I gave you a like, you give me one in return. I followed you, emailed you, texted you, tagged you, commented on your post – you better reciprocate, and immediately. A double check mark next to the message that’s been read but left without a reply feels awful.

Reciprocity is powerful. It works even if we do not like the person and do not wish to comply with an online request. Who really benefits here? Digital media exploits reciprocity to keep our eyes on ads positioned alongside back and forth interactions. Personal data for both the giver and the receiver is collected, and both are glued to their screens, driving traffic.

Weapon of Influence #2: Commitment and Consistency

People believe in the correctness of their choice once the choice is made. Commitment is valued in our culture – as it should be. But when consistency takes the form of automatic response, we can act in ways contrary to our interests. If you think of yourself as the kind of person who always replies to emails right away, you keep it up even at the cost of productivity.

Our desire to look consistent is a powerful weapon of social influence. We made a commitment to use a particular social media platform, we must keep using it. We made a commitment to a political party, so to appear consistent to ourselves and others we have to follow the “party line” of its media, even if it is pure nonsense to generate attention and outrage.

Joining an online community is a public commitment. Once a commitment is made, consistency pressure kicks in, and we keep scrolling and gaming.

Our public commitments to social media groups, gaming guilds, Snapstreaks, Instagram stories, people and media we follow, are a tool to keep us coming back. The longer and more reliable your “user engagement” with the platform, the more money it makes.

Weapon of Influence #3: Social Proof

But Mom, everyone is doing it! If all my friends are on TikTok, I should be too, and who cares about the scandals and my data being sold to China! Herd mentality applies to us as much as to other animals. We look to others for cues of appropriate behavior. The greater the number of people who act a certain way online, the more we see it as the norm.

An important condition of social proof is similarity: we are powerfully influenced by the behavior of people just like us. I am on Facebook because all the moms are on Facebook. Teens conform to peer culture, and if their friends are all using Instagram, they feel they should be using it as well, even if it makes them miserable.

We inadvertently push each other to use these “digital utilities”, assisting their creators in forming life-long digital addictions, sending mixed messages to our kids. How can Instagram be bad for me if my school uses it to post updates? How can TikTok be bad if my PE teacher encourages me to make exercise TikTok videos?

Principle of social proof is all over the Internet: we leave reviews on our purchases, we give out likes, we share and forward content – by and large, it’s a great collective system of discernment. In a sea of endless options, it helps us decide what is valuable and worth our attention. But if we spend all our time online following the crowd, we hand over our attention to clever behind-the-scenes manipulators who create the illusion of social proof to lure us in.

A well-known Amazon banner “customers who viewed this item also viewed” is social proof in action. Amazon uses its recommendation algorithm to maximize sales, and takes a 15% cut from every sale.

Social proof drives anything that goes viral, misinformation often replacing truth because everyone is talking about it. Manipulative content can sway public opinion, purchasing behavior, elections, even incite riots.

The principle of social proof is so powerful that it works in life or death situations. Social proof is behind the grim phenomenon of copycat suicides – if so many people have done it and posted about it on the Internet, it becomes a socially acceptable option in the broken mind.

Weapon of Influence #4: Authority

We obey authority because it saves us from costly mistakes. We follow the experts. They know better. Until they don’t: nurses’ blind obedience to doctors’ authority contributes to 12% of medical errors.

It is very easy to create an illusion of authority online, with made up experts who may not even be human but generated by AI. Symbols of authority can be faked. “Highly sought after” product endorsed by “MD, PhD” who is “an expert in the field” is just an ad in disguise.

Instead of automatically trusting online authority, we should really be asking: “What’s in it for them?”

When content contains product links, it may or may not be a genuine expert opinion, but the conflict of interest is always there. Content creators may honestly believe in what they promote, but the temptation is clear: sell what you have been paid to sell.

A conflict of interest is a signal to question online authority. Especially when the seller of the product and the “expert” giving an opinion is the same company: since Amazon now owns iMDB, can we really trust their movie reviews or are they biased in favor of Amazon-made movies?

Here is the Entertainment Software Association: “From education to family game night, parents know that video games have a positive impact on their lives and their families”. Wait, what?! Video games are good for kids?! Look for a small print disclosure: The ESA represents the U.S. video game industry.

Weapon of Influence #5: Liking

We buy books our friends wrote, and post glowing reviews on Amazon, quite sincerely – because we like our friends and want to reward them for their hard work. Same for endorsing professional skills for friends and former (likable) colleagues on LinkedIn. It’s not that they do not possess those skills – they do. But our motivation is liking them as people, not the needs of their future employer.

We engage with people on social media that we like. They might be physically attractive, interesting and smart. Or they may be similar to us – we like to hang out with friends who share our views and opinions. Those who give us praise and compliments make us want to “friend” them online. “I like you!” is enough to get people to like you back. The Like button makes billions for Facebook.

What makes liking easier to automate is that physical presence is no longer required – we all regularly receive requests to “like” business pages, post positive reviews, or buy something from a friend.

A Facebook group can be a sales engine: we say yes to the request of somebody we know and like. Like the Tupperware parties of old: if the request to purchase comes from a friend, it’s hard to refuse. You risk coming across as selfish. That’s how the principle of liking works: the selling point is our love for our friends, not the merits of what they are selling.

Liking works unconsciously through physical attractiveness, familiarity, association – we are not aware that we are being influenced. Celebrities lend their likable qualities to the products and ideas they promote.

Most of us follow the work of some online personalities we admire: we listen to their podcasts, subscribe to their newsletters, and read their blogs. They have our attention and can recommend products to their audience, making a living from sponsorships. Nothing is wrong with that, but it might be hard to separate their genuine life advice from product endorsements within the same content. Utility of the product and our liking for the person who recommends it are two different things.

Weapon of Influence #6: Scarcity & Urgency

Amazon: Only 5 left in stock!
Shutterfly: 50% off, ends Sunday!
Ticketmaster: 14 minutes left to complete your purchase!
Airlines, rental cars, hotels: Only 3 left at this price!

Creating an artificial sense of scarcity (limited quantity) and urgency (scarcity of time – act now or lose the deal) are classic manipulative tools to make a quick sale. Every day online is Black Friday. People rush to buy when they think the deal will not be available tomorrow.

Scarcity makes us assume that things that are hard to get are better, and the prospect of losing something valuable that is in short supply makes us act quickly before others do. The feeling of being in competition for scarce resources is a red flag: online shopping sprees resemble a feeding frenzy of sharks. A combination of scarcity and rivalry is a very common scenario in predatory online auctions.

Platforms like Snapchat and Instagram exploit the sense of urgency with expiring messages and “streaks” to create the habit of compulsive use. Without constant checking, updates from friends will disappear and valuable “streaks” will be lost.

When the choice is limited or threatened, we hate to lose our control of the situation, and rush to obtain the scarce item – losing our money, time, and peace of mind in the process.

Weapon of Influence #7: Unity

The principle of unity is about shared identity. Dr. Cialdini describes it this way: “It’s about the categories that individuals use to define themselves and their groups, such as race, ethnicity, nationality, and family, as well as political and religious affiliations.”

There is not enough space here to describe every instance of tribalism online. Suffice to say that unity can be used both for good (online communities, positive social action, fitness groups, fundraisers, etc.) and for bad (identity politics of “us vs them”). When someone from outside of our “unit” challenges our beliefs, it feels like an assault on our identity. Unfortunately, this type of “unity” drives profitable online traffic of division we experience in our society today.

Is Resistance Futile?

So what is there to do for a human user facing algorithmically weaponized psychology of persuasion? Cialdini warns that: “When we are rushed, stressed, uncertain, indifferent, distracted, or fatigued, we tend to focus on less of the information available to us. When making decisions under these circumstances, we often revert to a rather primitive but necessary single piece of good evidence approach”.

The only solution is to switch our rational reasoning back on: as soon as we become aware that the principles of social influence are being used for attention engineering to manipulate us, we should stop relying on these valuable shortcuts in our unconscious brain, and engage in the hard work of mental effort.

Take Back Control
Sign up for our monthly newsletter to receive latest digital wellbeing research and screen time management solutions. We never share your email with third parties.

Leave a Reply