Blink, Hypnotism, Hidden Persuaders and Your Future As a Robot

Posted: February 24th, 2006 under journalism, television.
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OK, most of the time I’m pretty strongly skeptical of conspiracy-theory nuttiness.  Working in close proximity to actual Men in Black, I have observed that most of them are lucky if they can all agree on where to get the morning donuts.

This is not to say that Deep, Dark & Deadly things do not happen.  But the plotting for them is mostly spur of the moment.  And they stay out of the public eye not because of some conspiracy to kidnap, intimidate and silence the press, but because most reporters are pretty overworked and don’t really have the time to spend on some ‘investigative reporter chasing the Hulk’ obsession.

*[As an aside, I have to wonder if there ever was a time wherein a reporter could, like Jack McGee in the cheesy old 70s TV drama, devote every waking hour to chasing down some pet project. Back in the days when newspapers had huge staffs, did this actually happen?  I mean, back when I arrived in L.A. back in ’89, reporters muttered about staffers in the L.A. Times that produced maybe three stories a year… this quite obviously DOES NOT HAPPEN ANYMORE. OK, pointless aside over.]*

Anyway, Malcolm Gladwell has now joined the blogosphere, where he will no doubt quickly find that the signal/noise ratio is somewhat higher than it is at the New Yorker.  But reading through the first couple of postings on his blog led me down some strange thought patterns and hyperlinks – all kicked off by what he wrote in Blink and the way that I have seen those lessons either applied or ignored.

As I wrote on Gladwell’s board, there is a significant story that keeps surfacing now&again about how researchers are using CAT/MRI scans to study the electrochemical changes in our brains that occur when we are going through our decision-making tree.  Basically, they are mapping out what stimuli make us do what – the hidden neurological/biological hardwiring that is common to all of us.

It’s as if there is a secret combination in our heads – if this were a late 60s sci-fi movie influenced by too many acid trips, the evil genius would be blathering on about how colors, musical tones, smells and other sensory input directed at a person in the right combination can turn us from logical thinking beings into doing Whatever They Say (ooo-eee-ooo).

Of course, there are some things that we have discovered over centuries, nay millennia, of trial-and-error experimentation.  Such as religious experiences.  I went to a Buddhist prayer meeting years ago in a big hall filled with about 5,000 people on Sunset Blvd.  I later learned that what they do is something that can be deconstructed – but at the time, it made me feel like I was having a transcendant experience.

Apparently, if you walk out of a brightly lit room through a narrow passageway andIraqi_underground_temple come out into a large, cavernous space – where there’s a big stage that’s the only illuminated area – and there is steady, deep, rhythmic, thrumming tones (like a big gong) … this whole process relaxes you and puts you into some kind of pre-hypnotic state.  Maybe it’s like some kind of recapitulation of the birth process.  I dunno. I’ll have to look into that one a bit more and maybe post about it again later.

So today, I started thinking about that in relation to Blink – and about how that book’s message is a somewhat fractured and conflicting one. Basically, it says that we all make our decisions based on sensory input that we don’t realize we’re taking in – and that that input amounts to so much more information than our conscious brain can process.  And that those snap decisions are sometimes very very useful.  Except in those cases when our subconscious gets fooled, in which case they aren’t.

One poster pointed out this dichotomy and it got me thinking.  So I poked around a bit and read about how advertisers were (and presumably are) doing things like hypnotizing their test-market research subjects so the people won’t lie to them … and so they can better figure out what our sub/unconscious is prompting us to do … so they can sell us cereal, airline travel, Air Jordan sneakers and presidential candidates without us ever really getting to engage those pesky conscious evaluative parts of our brains.

Where I’m going with this is to pose a question: is this something to be at all alarmed about? Because when you take the kind of power over a person’s thinking process and combine it with the "behavioral/personality modeling" stuff that we’ve been hearing about (i.e. you combine a person’s phone calls, shopping habits, magazine subscriptions, web searches, zip code and car registration to build a predictive model as to what the person is like) … and it’s starting to make me a little uneasy. 

Perhaps I’m worrying over nothing – but it would seem to me that this potentially has the ability to really allow the holder of this information to be able to target specific audience blocs to convince them to perform the desired action (watch NBC on Thursday! Support our troops! Vote Republican!)…
Is there a dark side to the questions that people like Gladwell or these researchers are asking?

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