Many of the world’s most powerful brands are doubling down on Facebook, from President Obama to The New Yorker. The powerful, hidden psychology of a fan page might just make this a worthwhile bet. Psychologists have long known that tiny, voluntary actions can cause sweeping changes in our opinions, transforming luke-warm attitudes into concrete beliefs. In other cases, the mere perception of a name or idea in the news can cause us to wildly exaggerate its importance. Here we’ll take a deep dive into the social psychology of manipulation and how the simple act of a Facebook ‘like’ could have the exact intended outcome that these messaging brands, like politicians and newspapers, are seeking.
Rationalization, arguably social psychology’s most powerful known cognitive force, predicts that a user will unwittingly feel much more positively about brand after they click ‘like’ than before–namely, because our actions secretly influence our opinions.
The academic term for rationalization, “Cognitive Dissonance,” was popularized by social science great Leon Festinger, who discovered how to manipulate undergraduates into enjoying an exceedingly boring game. After a painful hour of play, one group was offered $1 to lie to a fellow student about how enjoyable the game was, and the other group was offered $20. The academically earth-shattering result was that the group paid $1 was far more likely to say they enjoyed the game in a post-experiment survey.
Why? Participants in the high-reward group easily rationalized their decision as greed-driven, whereas the low-reward group needed a justification, and end up convincing themselves how much they actually enjoyed the game, rather than believe their integrity could be purchased for a $1. Dissonance/rationalization has been replicated countless times since: appliances are rated higher post-decision, smokers who fail to quit downplay the dangers of their habit, and students who cheat have less ethical qualms after doing it once.
Every opportunity to reflect on our choices is an opportunity to reconstruct a past view of ourselves as flawless decision-makers.
The New Yorker laid out a perfect dissonance bear trap by requiring readers to like their Facebook page in order to read Jonathan Franzen’s 12,000 word story about the island in Robinson Crusoe; everyone but die-hard fans needed to rationalize why he was worth so much more effort than other articles on the Internet, likely turning many luke-warm spectators into full-fledged fans.
Even if the effect is small, it’s all many messaging brands need: a handful of highly active users spreading buzz, creating viral videos, and recruiting friends.
Exaggerated Importance and Laziness
One of the simplest ways to seem more influential in a conversation is to angle participants so that they are looking at you more often than anyone else. Perception hijacks our opinions, and unwittingly assigns credit (and blame) to whatever we’re looking at. In one deliciously simple experiment, psychology professors Shelley Taylor and Susan Fiske put six participants in conversation so that they could either see both discussants equally, or placed behind a discussant, so that they were able to only view one speaker. As expected, those who could see both rated each almost identically important in the conversation, while the others vastly overrated the importance of the speaker they saw.
However, the relatively neutral value of “importance” is impotent without another psychological accomplice: laziness–it’s cognitively easier to attribute kudos to someone who seems influential, rather than actually think about what is being said. For instance, highly informed and engaged listeners are immune to celebrity endorsements of candidates, cheesy campaign videos, and bumper sticker politics. As well, the most political ignorant citizens are also immune, since they likely won’t be engaged at all. The sweet spot for campaigners is a moderately informed citizen, just ignorant enough to want non-information cues to help them make up there mind (such as good looks or college background), but still engaged enough to listen in the first place.
This is why some academics freaked out when CNN decided to overlay a political debate with a crawling “worm” that dipped and spiked with the approval of a small focus group watching the live debate. Follow up studies show that citizens were unwittingly influenced by their estranged focus-group peers on TV.
Thus, seeing a lightly peppered stream of “Barack Obama” or “The New Yorker” in a newsfeed not only influences how moderately informed citizens feel about the candidate or media outlet, but might influences how persuasive they will find future speeches or essays. Seeing friends endorse a candidate or website constructs a rose-flecked prism of optimism through which we evaluate the world.
The writers of pledges and oaths were aware of speech-induced manipulation far before psychologists discovered that asking an individuals to say something, even if it contradicts their own opinions, could secretly twist their beliefs into favoring what they’re saying.
For instance, in the eerily titled “Generalization of Dissonance Reduction: Decreasing Prejudice Through Induced Compliance,” participants were tricked into becoming more favorable towards African Americans by being asked to write an essay in support of more minority scholarship funds (at the expense of white students). As expected, those participants who were led to believe they had a choice in what position to advocate (but were encouraged to help the researchers out by writing a pro-minority essay) had even greater gains in pro-African American beliefs.
“Liking” a brand is a public act, one that involves both a declaration of one’s own endorsement and taking up valuable space on a friend’s newsfeed. Knowing this, moderately interested readers of The New Yorker are forced to justify either believing that they are callous to spamming a friend’s wall with mediocre brands, or that The New Yorker is actually something their friends would enjoy. Heck, according to this research, users might think they’re friends should be happy such a wonderful article was brought to their attention.
Placing content behind a ‘like wall’ is a difficult decision. For those brands seeking an elusive and unquantifiable sense of influence, the hypnotic pull of a Facebook page might just do the trick.
[Listing Image: Flickr user Dierk Schaefer]
[Top image: Flickr user maltman23]