Google and Facebook Have Found Psychology’s Holy Grail

They’ve turned it into a predictive science that can be used to manipulate your behavior.

Image for post
Image for post

Google and Facebook began their lives with simple and laudable business models. Google wanted to access and mine the world’s information for the benefit of the public, using its remarkable web crawler. Facebook wanted to connect college students to help them to hook-up. As we know, both brilliant innovations were scalable to encompass the whole world. At the beginning, the business plan was not to charge users for the service. For the time being, the start-ups were to be sustained with venture capital. However, as the ventures acquired more and more users and matching capacity, and achieved a higher cash burn rate, the investors demanded that the services be monetized. So, decisions were made to seek revenue through advertising on the platforms. Both companies realized that they were in possession of valuable behavioral data on their users, which they had retained on their servers. This gave them the opportunity to predict the likelihood of individual users purchasing goods that advertisers could display on the platforms. Google and Facebook then sold these tailored predictions to the advertisers. We all know what happened after that: both companies became unbelievably successful and made their shareholders and founders filthy rich.

But Google and Facebook also achieved something else. They attained the elusive goal of making behavioral psychology a predictive science like physics and chemistry. This achievement has far-reaching implications for the future of humanity, as we shall see.

In the first few decades of the 20th C tremendous strides were made in physics, including publication of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Bohr’s model of atomic structure, both of which subsequently proved to have remarkable predictive powers. Many prominent psychologists and psychiatrists sought to achieve the same lofty goals for psychology: to raise it to a predictive science, where cause and effect followed definite laws. This movement reached its apotheosis in the middle decades of the century with B. F. Skinner, a Harvard behavioral psychologist. He taught that all behaviors are learned through interaction with the environment in a process called conditioning, without appeal to thoughts or feelings. Distinctive behavior patterns are repetitive for the individual unless re-aligned by new conditioning through a program of reward and punishment .

Skinner maintained that psychology could only match the physical sciences by observing and measuring behavior, which is the outward sign of what is going on inside the body and brain, and is all that really matters to society. Introspection could never be a science because it is subjective: no one else can read your mind. You think you know what is happening in there, and you can report what it is, but this cannot be verified by an independent observer, as in the case of behaviorism and the physical sciences.

Skinner did not believe in free will: rather, he claimed that all human action is determined by a causal chain. We only feel we have free will because we do not yet understand all the causes which are operative upon us.

Skinner’s ideas gradually fell out of favor in the second half of the 20th C, and gave rise to many jokes, such as:

Two behaviorists meet on campus. One says to the other: “You seem OK. What about me?”

In fact, serious objections were raised against Skinner’s claim that behaviorism could be a predictive science: it did not follow hard and fast laws like physics; it ignored the internal subjective world of the mind, which you and I as humans believe to be real; and it was not built on a sound foundation regarding the structure and functioning of the brain, but treated it as a black box. Yet, even today, with the leaps and bounds being made by cognitive neuroscience, we still do not know exactly how the brain functions and how it interacts with the mind. Admittedly, specific thoughts, actions and emotions correlate with electrical activity in corresponding parts of the brain, but the causal chain is not fully understood; nor is the role of human consciousness.

Enter Google and Facebook. According to Shoshana Zuboff, in her 2019 book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”, they have made behavioral psychology predictive through leveraging the sheer volume of behavioral data, collected from you and your friends during your online use of their services, and hoarded on their servers. This could never have been possible in Skinner’s day, as the online vehicles for collecting such a data windfall had not yet been invented.

Based on the data, Google and Facebook have been able to predict your future behavior when presented with certain purchasing choices, and selling these predictions to advertisers on their platforms. You tacitly agree to this use of your behavioral data because you get to use their services for free. You are giving up ownership of your data, which you consider to have no value to you, in exchange for gaining a something of value. What’s more, you are just one of billions of users in the same boat, whom Google and Facebook can introduce to their advertisers.

Their accurate predictions rely on the awesome statistical power of clever machine algorithms used to analyze oodles of your data, and thence to model your future behavior. They do not need to understand the underlying processes within your brain.

So, what significance does all this have for you and me? In my case, on the face of it, I couldn’t care less. Since I buy only one pair of sneakers and the occasional book and airline ticket online every year, I do not feel exploited. I never see, or at least never respond to, any ads on Google or Facebook. I guess they have marked me down as a lost cause. That shows their prediction system works. Why waste their advertisers’ time and money on me? For those of you who do buy lots online, I suppose your attitude will depend on whether you were going to buy that item anyway; and whether you were merely pushed to one supplier rather than another. Of course, helping Google and Facebook to make obscene profits on your dime, without your express permission, is another matter, which touches on whether or not we live in an equitable world.

But, let’s take this enquiry a little further. What if Google and Facebook were to profile the totality of your behavior, derived from multiple online sources, including Amazon, Twitter and companies marketing cell phones with sensors that spy on you every minute of the day? Google and Facebook would indeed be capable of doing this through pooling information derived from business alliances or takeovers. They have virtually unlimited financial, computing and algorithmic power and server capacity at their disposal to accomplish this. If they did so, how would you feel if they then sold your profile to your boss, your recruiter, your spouse’s divorce attorney, your business rival, your insurance company, the credit agencies, the IRS, the FBI, your landlord, your girlfriend or your boyfriend? Believe me, if there is a penny in it, then Google and Facebook will do it; and there is nothing to stop them.

But it gets worse. This could just be the thin edge of the wedge. Facebook is already designing its platform to condition young users to want to be on it obsessively, compulsively and addictively. What if other actors such as your Government, employer or banker were to purchase your behavior profile in order to figure you out? Then they would be equipped to clandestinely re-align your behavior (through reward and punishment) so that you would act in a way that they wanted. They could use machine intelligence to do this. The result would affect the way you vote, your driving habits, the way you work, the financial risks you take, the way you treat other people, the type of marriage partner you choose, etc. If this were to transpire, could you still claim that you have free will, that you have control over your own destiny?

Surely this is a kind of mind control, not as in Orwell’s “1984”, but rather by screwing you softly, using behavioral data you have inadvertently provided to Google, Facebook and others. Of course it could be claimed that your behavioral re-alignment could be designed for the good of society as a whole, but who (or what) would be the designer?.

So, this is the brave new world into which we are headed. Do we continue to sell our souls to the devil by accepting these free services from the surveillance capitalists, as a quid pro quo for letting them do as they please with our behavioral data? Is our privacy to be eroded as we continue with our lives in blissful ignorance of what is happening? Should we still assist Facebook and Google to make obscene profits on our dime; or will we demand a share in their windfall? Are we in an inevitable downward spiral in which machine intelligence is able to modify our behavior through psychological conditioning? Will we be soon living in a dystopia in which we lose our free will, but do not know it?

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store