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Elena Blanco-Suarez Ph.D.
Elena Blanco-Suarez Ph.D.

The Art of Brainwashing

What’s in a “like”? What we share in social media can be used to coax us.

Have you ever tried to convince someone of something?

Or have you ever been convinced of something?

Of course you have.

Everyone has. We are constantly bombarded with commercials for products to buy, and exposed to people’s rants, in real life or online, about how we should be voting, and what we should be eating, reading, angry about… The fact is that nowadays “convincing” is a business. The art of persuasion – or “brainwashing” if you prefer – is very profitable, and we are all subjected to it on a daily basis.

Before social media, advertisements were on our TV, on billboards, on newspapers. They would appeal to you only if you were part of their target audience. Otherwise, they would just be ignored and forgotten. For instance, you wouldn’t have payed much attention to the following Polly Pocket commercial unless you were a 10-year-old girl, or someone who needed to get a gift for a 10-year-old girl. It was 1994, and gender roles were acceptable and fair game.

However, we have been #blessed with social media and its personalized advertising tailored just for us – see the terms and conditions from Facebook below. They’re committed to showing us relevant advertising, based on the information we provide, sometimes inadvertently. Our likes, comments, status updates,… are all used to design a perfect strategy of persuasion. But does it really work?

Screen shot from Facebook Terms and Conditions.

Facebooks wants their “advertising to be as relevant and interesting as the other information you find in their Services. With this in mind, they use all of the information they have about you to show you relevant ads”.

Source: Screen shot from Facebook Terms and Conditions.

The right ad, just for you

In a study recently published in PNAS, researchers from Columbia, Stanford, Pennsylvania and Cambridge, looked into the effectiveness of advertising campaigns within social media. They studied different psychological traits from digital footprints. These are characteristics that we show online through our Facebook profiles, Instagram pictures, tweets, blog posts or personal websites. Those traces of ourselves can be used to assess our psychological profile, to some extent.

CC0 Creative Commons
Source: CC0 Creative Commons

In their study, they used Facebook “likes” as a version of digital footprints, and focused on two personality traits: extraversion and introversion. Looking into the “likes” of over 25,000 users, they classified those said Facebook users who liked “Parties” or “Slightly Stoopid” as extroverts, and those who liked “Stargate-SG1” or “Computers” as introverts (apparently the researchers believe that stereotypes are a valid starting point for these studies). They designed different versions of a beauty ad aimed at women based on the psychological trait of extraversion versus introversion. Slogans such as “Dance like no one’s watching (but they totally are)” or “Love the spotlight and feel the moment” were designed to attract extroverts, whereas the introvert-targeting ads stated that “Beauty doesn’t have to shout” or “Beauty isn’t always about being on show”. When the extrovert-targeted beauty ads were shown to the extravert audience, those subjects were more likely to purchase the product than when the introvert-targeted ad was displayed on their Facebook page, in spite of the fact that the product was exactly the same.

This online surveillance leading to persuading us to buy more things that we don’t need, might seem innocuous when compared to brainwashing and persuasion aimed at political and war gains.

Mind control and brainwashing have been long-lasting goals for governments all around the world. Imagine if you could manipulate your enemies’ will with a simple injection. Isn’t that the dream of a government? It may sound like I’m describing some sort of political thriller, but truth is stranger than fiction.

When brainwashing is a political interest

MK-Ultra was a CIA series of experiments that were run in subjects that, at times, were unaware that they were in fact guinea pigs. Others, like Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or Rob Hunter, lyricist of the Grateful Dead, volunteered for this human experiment. Fueled by the CIA’s desire to find the key to brainwashing – and even psychological torture – to use against the US enemies, the MK-Ultra project was active between 1953 and 1973. In the words of the CIA’s director at the time, Richard Helms, MK-Ultra aimed at studying a drug that could "[...] aid in discrediting individuals, eliciting information, and implanting suggestions and other forms of mental control.” MK-Ultra focused on the use of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) as mind controller, but before that, other substances such as MDMA (or ecstasy), were also objects of study.

Other trials aimed at identifying personalities that would be easier to manipulate and prone to succumb to the drug-induced mind control. From 1946 until at least 1953, unwitting patients of the New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI) were administered drugs in order to find out which personality types were easier to manipulate under the influence of a particular substance. It goes without saying that these experiments were highly irregular, and they even cost a few lives due to lack of rigor (or common sense).

As far as we know, social media platforms are not trying to inject us with any mind-controlling substances, but as users we are most certainly part of an ongoing experiment. In the PNAS article, Matz highlights the importance of well-defined policies, as mass persuasion using psychological assessment through digital footprints could be used for “good or evil”. This means of persuasion may help people to lead healthier and happier lives, as well as prompt them to gamble or any other self-harming behavior. Or they could even be used for “discrediting individuals, eliciting information, and implanting suggestions and other forms of mental control”, just like the CIA tried before.

We are not in the midst of the Cold War anymore, but brainwashing – or persuasion if you will – it’s still enthralling and even lucrative for some. Whether it’s through online ads, Russian bots, or super-secret governmental projects, manipulation and mind malleability are a matter of interest, and we are all potential subjects. Think about it next time you give a “like”. Big Brother is watching you.

This post was originally published in NeuWrite San Diego.


S. C. Matz, M. Kosinski, G. Nave, D. J. Stillwell. Psychological targeting in digital mass persuasion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Nov 2017, 114 (48) 12714-12719; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1710966114

Passie, T., and Benzenhöfer, U. MDA, MDMA, and other “mescaline-like” substances in the US military's search for a truth drug (1940s to 1960s). Drug Testing and Analysis. December 5, 2017. doi:10.1002/dta.2292

About the Author
Elena Blanco-Suarez Ph.D.

Elena Blanco-Suarez, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in biochemistry and has been working in the field of neuroscience since 2010. She collaborates in several science communication and education projects.

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