In 2011 Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky suggested that human irrationality can be understood and predicted because we make systematic errors. They identified a dozen ways we predictably violate rational decision making.

In Invisible Manipulators of Your Mind, Tamsin Shaw reviews Michael Lewis' book on the work of Kahneman and Tversky (pictured below in the 1970's), The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, then delves into current darker uses of their original work.

That research eventually yielded heuristics, or rules of thumb, that have now become well-known shorthand expressions for specific flaws in our intuitive thinking. Some of these seem to be linked by a shared emotional basis: the “endowment effect” (overvaluation of what we already have), “status quo bias” (an emotional preference for maintaining the status quo), and “loss aversion” (the tendency to attribute much more weight to potential losses than potential gains when assessing risk) are all related to an innate conservatism about what we feel we have already invested in.

Many of these heuristics are easy to recognize in ourselves. The “availability heuristic” describes our tendency to think that something is much more likely to occur if we happen to be, for contingent reasons, strongly aware of the phenomenon. 

If the availability heuristic encourages people to ensure against very unlikely occurrences, “nudges” such as providing vivid reminders of more likely bad outcomes can be used to make their judgments of probability more realistic. If a bias toward the status quo means that people tend not to make changes that would benefit them, for instance by refusing to choose between retirement plans, we can make the more beneficial option available by automatically enrolling people in a plan with the option to withdraw if they choose.

Sunstein and Thaler have described the political philosophy of such interventions as Libertarian Paternalism. It is “libertarian” because they do not impose mandates to narrow people’s choice, but merely frame choices or provide incentives that tend to make people “better off, as judged by themselves.” Their claim is that this form of influence, albeit often unconscious, is not manipulative or coercive because the possibility of a person choosing differently is not closed down.

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Lewis does not discuss the ways in which the same behavioral science can be used quite deliberately for the purposes of deception and manipulation, though this has been one of its most important applications.

The deeper concern that Lewis’s happy narrative omits entirely is that behavioral scientists claim to have developed the capacity to manipulate people’s emotional lives in ways that shape their fundamental preferences, values, and desires. In Kahneman’s recent work he has developed the idea, originally set out in one of his papers with Tversky (who died in 1996), that we are not good judges of our own well-being. Our intuitions are unstable and conflicting. 

Kahneman, working with others in the field of positive psychology, has helped to establish a new subfield, hedonic psychology, which measures not just pleasure but well-being in a broader sense, in order to establish a more objective account of our condition than our subjective reflection can afford us.

This new subfield has led the way in combining research in behavioral science with “big data,”... if those studying behavioral influence are targeting the form of well-being that we value and the kind of happiness we seek, then it is harder to see how people’s being “better off, as judged by themselves” genuinely preserves their freedom. And this concern is not a purely academic one. The manipulation of preferences has driven the commercialization of behavioral insights and is now fundamental to the digital economy that shapes so much of our lives.

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... he describes choice architectures that guide people toward specific behaviors but that can be reversed with one click if the subject doesn’t like the outcome. In Kahneman’s talk, however, he tells his assembled audience of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that “priming”—picking a suitable atmosphere—is one of the most important areas of psychological research, a technique that involves offering people cues unconsciously (for instance flashing smiley faces on a screen at a speed that makes them undetectable) in order to influence their mood and behavior. He insists that there are predictable and coherent associations that can be exploited by this sort of priming. If subjects are unaware of this unconscious influence, the freedom to resist it begins to look more theoretical than real.

... John Kenny, of the Institute of Decision Making, ... says: “You can’t understand the success of digital platforms like Amazon, Facebook, Farmville, Nike Plus, and Groupon if you don’t understand behavioral economic principles…. Behavioral economics will increasingly be providing the behavioral insight that drives digital strategy.” And Jeff Bezos of Amazon, in a letter to shareholders in April 2015, declared that Amazon sellers have a significant business advantage because “through our Selling Coach program, we generate a steady stream of automated machine-learned ‘nudges’ (more than 70 million in a typical week).” It is hard to imagine that these 70 million nudges leave Amazon customers with the full freedom to reverse, after conscious reflection, the direction in which they are being nudged.

In conjunction with big data, behavioral science has become an extraordinarily powerful tool in the world of business and finance, …

How much have I been "nudged" to change my mood, behavior, and choices? The form of well-being that I value? What I imagine makes me happy? I feel like clay. Am I clay?

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Replies to This Discussion

Thanks, Ruth.

As I read your OP I recalled the efforts Catholicism made to replace heuristics favorable to me with heuristics favorable to it. Some of its efforts succeeded and others failed. The reasons differ. I'm in a memoir writing class; I may write one on this theme. 

Ride share companies now use similar mind manipulation on their drivers.

How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push Its Drivers’ Buttons

... even as Uber talks up its determination to treat drivers more humanely, it is engaged in an extraordinary behind-the-scenes experiment in behavioral science to manipulate them in the service of its corporate growth — an effort whose dimensions became evident in interviews with several dozen current and former Uber officials, drivers and social scientists, as well as a review of behavioral research.

Uber’s innovations reflect the changing ways companies are managing workers amid the rise of the freelance-based “gig economy.”

Employing hundreds of social scientists and data scientists, Uber has experimented with video game techniques, graphics and noncash rewards of little value that can prod drivers into working longer and harder — and sometimes at hours and locations that are less lucrative for them. [emphasis mine]

To keep drivers on the road, the company has exploited some people’s tendency to set earnings goals — alerting them that they are ever so close to hitting a precious target when they try to log off. It has even concocted an algorithm similar to a Netflix feature that automatically loads the next program, which many experts believe encourages binge-watching. In Uber’s case, this means sending drivers their next fare opportunity before their current ride is even over.

And most of this happens without giving off a whiff of coercion.

… the company’s example illustrates that pulling psychological levers may eventually become the reigning approach to managing the American worker.

Uber’s main competitor, Lyft, and popular delivery services like Postmates rely on similar approaches. So do companies and individuals posting assignments on crowdsourcing sites like Amazon Mechanical Turk, where hundreds of thousands of workers earn piece-rate wages by completing discrete tasks.

Of course, many companies try to nudge consumers into buying their products and services using psychological tricks. But extending these efforts to the work force is potentially transformative.

 Some of the most addictive games ever made, like the 1980s and ’90s hit Tetris, rely on a feeling of progress toward a goal that is always just beyond the player’s grasp. … this mental state has a name: the “ludic loop.”

Uber, for its part, appears to be aware of the ludic loop. In its messages to drivers, it included a graphic of an engine gauge with a needle that came tantalizingly close to, but was still short of, a dollar sign. [emphasis mine]

Sometimes the so-called gamification is quite literal. Like players on video game platforms such as Xbox, PlayStation and Pogo, Uber drivers can earn badges for achievements…

But Uber can go much further. Because it mediates its drivers’ entire work experience through an app, there are few limits to the elements it can gamify. Uber collects staggering amounts of data that allow it to discard game features that do not work and refine those that do. And because its workers are contractors, the gamification strategies are not hemmed in by employment law.

… ‘We’ve found a cheap way to get you to do work without paying you for it, we’ll pay you in badges that don’t cost anything,’ …

Scott Weber said he drove full time most weeks last year, picking up passengers in the Tampa area for both Uber and Lyft, yet made less than $20,000 before expenses like gas and maintenance. “I was a business that had a loss,” said Mr. Weber, who is looking for another job.

Still, when asked about the badges he earns while driving for Uber, Mr. Weber practically gushed. “I’ve got currently 12 excellent-service and nine great-conversation badges,” he said in an interview in early March. “It tells me where I’m at.”

I can't understand how people can fall for that manipulation.  I've never fallen for any kind of a con in my life (unless you count my ex-wife).

...never fallen for any kind of con...?

Spud, you vote, don't you?

Voting for someone doesn't mean that you fell for a con they were selling.  You could have been voting for the lesser of two evils.

Now, the Trump supporters who are bitching about what he's doing in office fell for a con, yes.  I've seen so many clips of Trump supporters saying that he needs to get off the golf course and get to work.  We could tell during the election that he didn't have the stomach for the 60+ hour work-weeks that come with the job.

Then there's this woman, who is just fundamentally stupid:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/03/25/she-t....

Joseph, the lesser of two evils can be pulling a con.
The reason?
People who bribe will bribe whoever wants a bribe.

And if you're aware of the problem, then how are you being conned?  Being fucked by the system ≠ being conned.  Words have meanings.

Take this past year.  We had two options.  There were a lot of liberals who thought there was a third or fourth option ... or chose neither option ... and look what happened.

 If like Humpty Dumpty you define the words, this exchange has ended.

Yes, shame on me for my linguistic precision.

You know, you're establishing a real pattern of running scared, any time you're challenged.  I've been informed, by several different sources, that this has been a long-established pattern, long before I encountered it.

Don't you have anything to say, in the defense of your ideas?

Joseph, when you say "Being fucked by the system" is linguistic precision you present no challenge worthy of a reply.

As a broad category, into which 'being conned' can fall, it's pretty descriptive, actually.  Conning someone involves deception.  You can get fucked over by means other than trickery, and you can get fucked over as a result of a con, without being conned, yourself.

I was clear; you're just being deliberately obtuse.

No ad hominem, Joseph. That's beneath you.

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