Spin and doctors

The new field of “behavioural linguistics” is very similar to the more well known behavioural economics; in that they are both are part of the same discipline of persuasion, essentially looking at behavioural science principles and how you can apply various ‘behavioural nudges’ to help guide people in specific directions towards particular goals and outcomes; only behavioural linguistics focuses on langue, medium and message rather than outright carrots and sticks as the nudge mechanism. 

The sort of “libertarian paternalism” ideology inherent in both behavioural linguistics and behavioural economics is the same: they theoretically allow the subject to retain some degree of “freedom of choice” – but guided to that choice by the friendly nudger, who believes there is some sort of “moral” (or profit) reason why the particular nudged option is to be preferred to the subject’s natural (or autopilot) inclinations. The theory is that the policy maker (or advertiser, or propagandist) knows the best or “most moral” choice the subject “should” be making and is able to use their ides to help the feckless subject override their inherent behavioural biases that hold them back from realising their “true potential” or maximising social well-being (or the advertiser’s profits).

The nudger’s job then is to identify these biases and friction points in their subject and then overcome them with linguistics, language, and cognitive psychology.

Behavioural linguistics, like its predecessor behavioural economics came from an intersection of psychology and economics, which suggested that economic models are perhaps a bit flawed because they assume people to be a bit more rational than they really are in practice. 

Like “libertarian paternalism”, “behavioural economics” is a bit of an oxymoron in itself. In reality, economists actually do deal with biases and preferences quite well, even in models that existed hundreds of years ago. But the term is a useful as a frame to talk about hacking human psychology – or, more bluntly, propaganda.

However, the point still stands that humans do have behavioural biases, shortcuts that work out well for us most of the time but not all of the time. Sometimes in the ‘not all of the time’ compartments are things that are quite important. Things like getting us to act in the interest of our future selves not just our present selves, or the interests perhaps of others rather than just ourself. Or when we have two different somewhat mutual exclusive outcomes that we’re trying to achieve, whether they’re physical objectives in terms of getting in shape or financial objectives such as growing rich, sometimes there’s a bit of a conflict in the things we think we want, so we don’t necessarily make choices that deliver the best overall instrumental results for our own lives – or for that of society at large. If I know how to override my own biases, I can start to notice when I’m making bad decisions or relying on instinct rather than on my own brain’s autopilot. If we are then able to hack those unhelpful heuristics, we can make better choices for ourselves and for our communities. However, if we’re able to hack those biases for ourselves, businesses are also able to nudge us to buy more of their products and services- even when those things are directly against our own best interests. (Otherwise known as advertising.) And, policymakers at a government level are also able to nudge us citizens – change their behaviour -to make choices and swallow policy measures that better suit the objective of the policymaker, even if those choices cause an individual to to sacrifice his or her own best interests for the greater good. (Otherwise known as propaganda.)

As we start to zoom out on the applications of behavioural nudges from the individual to the brand, to society, of course, the ethical stakes roll up with it. We can’t really begrudge a business using whatever behavioural hacks they like in their advert that they’ve just paid for in the Sunday Times, because that’s just marketing, right? We understand corporations are set up in order to achieve a profit and if they are able to increase your response on their advert, or pay-per-click campaign  on Google, by changing a headline from x to y, that’s fair game. By all means, go ahead and do it. Buyer beware! That’s par for the course when it comes to doing business in the free market. But the ethics get a bit more fuzzy as we move up the scale.

The next layer to that is when it’s not just a brand selling you a product but rather it’s a big tech company, for example, that is nudging you or has designed their ecosystem to essentially hijack your attention to keep you scrolling through Twitter or keep you angrily typing on Facebook. By playing on those same biases, by setting up certain words and certain dark patterns in the way those sites are designed, they obviously have a bigger impact on society than a lone advertising campaign. But we can roll it up even further when we get to governmental level and mass national communications campaigns (paid for with the subject’s own money).

There, of course, nudge tactics can be used for good or for bad but the tactics work either way. 

Edward Bernays (“what a fucker that guy was” ~ Jim O’Shaughnessy) was talking about this over 100 years ago in his expose on the dark art of propaganda (which was also sold back in his day not as a negative thing but as a way for governments to achieve better results). Of course, that whole little word of what is ‘better’ and better for who is where it gets quite complicated. As soon as you start rolling out a policy at now a national or even an international level, as we can start to see with some of the propaganda campaigns coming out of multinational unelected institutions that have very consolidated targeted communications campaigns that use a lot of these techniques in order to influence, not just consumer behaviour but international citizen behaviour according to a particular direction.  (Again, whether that’s good or bad is a different story, from international organisations.)

This outlines the big picture of how these “libertarian” paternalistic tactics can be used: We’re really talking about ways to nudge people to do things more the way that we want them to do it than the way they would have done for themselves.

Now behavioural linguistics deals with changing behaviour through language and words, rather than through a lot of the other programs that would use, say, incentives or physical hacks. (Incentives could include the the sort offered to my dad from his medical insurance company which encouraged him to keep his little Fitbit on his wrist, in order to earn points if he got his heart rate over a certain level. In my dad’s case, he got too fit and so he had to run faster and faster to get his heart rate up to that magic level that paid out his bonus points. He ended up tripping over his own feet running too fast, which resulted in a trip to the ER which cost both himself and his insurer — both of whom were trying to actually improve his health — a lot of money and caused them both a lot of pain in the process, which is a sort of an ironic nudge. But that’s not the sort of nudge that behavioural linguists employ, neither are the more occupational nudges involving placing the salad at eye level or taking the chocolates out of the snack aisle in order to get us eating better. Rather behavioural linguistics deals with the world of words.

The overlap between behavioural linguistics and the good old fashioned propaganda is obvious.

What we’re really talking about is using words to change behaviour.

And words – and stories – are incredibly powerful in shifting society.

“With great power comes great responsibility.”  

The 3 C’s of behavioural linguistics Content, Contacts and Context are the primary weapons practitioners use to shift sentiments and ideologies.  Using these psychological and sentimental levers, practitioners can compel people – rightfully or wrongfully – to believe in things – and then to actually act on those incepted beliefs.

Ironically practitioners state that message-framing – particularly framing that emphasises you, the subject, have agency and choice, makes subjects more likely to actually do what the nudger wants them to end up doing.

Behavioural linguists also increasing rely on visual language to persuade people. For example, choosing “contextually relevant” stock imagery that looks like their subjects, matching their demography, is supposed to be more persuasive than images using models that do not look like the subject. Fake and misleading mages that show subjects looking happy who have done the “right” action or made the “right choice” – smiling while having (an obviously painful in real life) vaccination for example, are also effective tools. Persuasive images showing authority figures dressed in “trust colours” – blues, greens, and greys – and showcasing direct eye contact with the camera are also known tricks for winning trust and effective persuasion.

Other biases are not so much over-ridden as enhanced by behavioural linguists. For example, take the “unit bias” which taps into our inbuilt desire to know how many “steps” or phases a task or process will have (5 year plan, 7 step programme, just 2 weeks to flatten the curve, etc) to secure easier buy in from the target market). These sort of linguistic tricks both persuade and reassure people what they can expect from whatever it is they are buying into. 

Another weird psychological linguistic trick to be aware of is that by explaining the expected potential negative outcomes (or side effects) of a policy or a product upfront decreases the likelihood the subject will claim experience that side effect after purchase – or committing to the process/ treatment. This phenomena applies to medical treatments too – highlighting the real placebo effect words can have on physical phenomena.

Keeping language simple, very simple, is yet another key linguistic tactic. A good example here is the linguistics used in Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s pre-election campaigns. Trump always aimed at a much lower reading level and instead of this patronising people, it made his messages more sticky; people didn’t have to process cognitively too much of what he was saying so his messaging became an emotional reaction rather than a theoretical intelligent response to what he was saying – a successful tactic of many populist politicians which grabs hearts which then grabs minds, which then grabs actions. Sounding stupid is smart, actually.

Using personal pronouns (“claim your place”, “do your part”, and any other personalised allusion towards fake or real scarcity of the object/ service on offer, etc) so that the subject feels ownership over whatever they are being sold and builds intimacy with the target; and personalising messages by using the subjects name or common names of people they care about (“your mother”, “your children” ,  and other “identifiable victims”, etc) or desires they have are also common tricks to make communication more persuasive.

The most powerful communications campaigns are very personal – centred on real human beings. Raw numbers are often meaningless to people. If a million people die in a war on the other side of the world it’s a statistic, but if one person dies next to you it’s a tragedy, we just can’t comprehend the size and scale of tragedy. As such, often an anecdote is much more powerful at persuading than robust scientific data, not least because trust in science has diminished due to overuse of the exact phrase ‘trust the science’, particularly when the science was caught with its pants down, many, many times over the course of the last few years.

Storytelling is a central part of behavioural linguistics, especially where the subject can relate to the person who’s delivering a message, and we end up feeling a lot more empathy, not just sympathy, but empathy for the content we are receiving. We are far more likely to have more of an emotional connection (and trust) with a first person story teller, and as such we are far more likely to be persuaded by what that message is. Real testimonials, real life first personal stories sell ideas far faster than facts.

Behavioural linguistics is, therefore, all all about exploiting the connotation of words to sell stories. And, although practitioners take pains to say they are not in the business of ‘manipulation’ or ‘hacking’, but rather in the business of  ‘nudging’ and ‘driving adoption’ they are effectively proving my point by carefully choosing their own words to change our perspectives of their work.

The whole point of terming the art of nudging as ‘behavioural linguistics’ instead of ‘propaganda specialists’ is in itself an example of behavioural linguistics. How the words used to present ideas change the way you approach that idea, and if you’re more likely to adopt the suggested process or not.

For those of us with backgrounds in marketing and/or economics the whole nudge industry is both amusing and a bit depressing. From a marketing perspective, a lot of these tactics are and were very well known and used by 19th century advertisers and state propagandists. From an economic point of view, economists have known, understood and incorporated personal utility and risk preferences – and even biases – into models long before “nudge” was a word .

The more recent rebranding of basic human psychology and manipulative marketing techniques as ‘behavioural linguistics’, and now ‘neuroliberalism’ is simply combining the classic techniques that are (and have been) used by marketers to sell us stuff, and propagandists to push political ideas through the ages, to new target markets using new mediums and technologies – and, increasingly, by adding incentives to the mix under the same benign labels. Which takes us, in reality, across the very short step from libertarian paternalism to plain old paternalism.

A “nudge”, according to its own theory, changes the frame of an offer or removes some friction but does not change the actual offer’s utility trade-off equation. Incentives, by definition change the offer by loading one side of the equation. And when you change the offer you are no longer persuading (or nudging) but coercing your audience. 

Incentives work but not the same way that a good marketing campaign works if you want to get someone to buy something. Incentives decrease your relative cost. Marketing increases your perceived value. As soon as you have a competition, or a prize that you can win or a buy-one-get-one-free, or a discount, what you end up doing is devaluing your core offer. Incentivised deals are a short term strategy, as opposed to a long term strategy, and often a race to the bottom. If you give your subject x to get them to buy y (which they don’t really want to buy on its own merits), next time you may have to give them something even bigger to get them to swallow your offer – or resort to negative incentives (punishments) for refusal to bite, by tilting the scale in the other direction. 

The other thing that incentives and bribes do is decrease trust in the actual underlying product. “If it is any good, why are you bribing me to get it with this other thing?” .

As such incentives – carrots and sticks – work both for and against the seller in the persuasion game. It works in the short term to get a certain bunch of people do something, but it doesn’t work to change the minds of someone who already has a bias against the trustworthiness or value of your offer. In other words coercion by incentive or negative incentive – or indeed any fear-based advertising – can work in the short term but only at the cost of undermining your long-run trust (and, somewhat poetically, the effectiveness of your future behavioural linguistics gymnastics). Which means you likely have to double down on coercion to get your desired result. Take cigarette advertising. Marketers can tell you all about fear fatigue. We’ve had garish pictures and scary warnings on cigarette boxes for decades, which and failed to stop people smoking. What stopped people is taxes and exclusionary physical rules – when the pain got too great then they stopped consuming it. Coercive “linguistics” was swiftly replaced by straight up coercion.

As any marketer knows, if you’re selling cheese, or selling Smarties, or selling a book, (or a political party) the first thing you learn as a marketer is to focus on the benefit to the client. You don’t say, “If you don’t buy my book, you’re an idiot.” You don’t say to your client, “If you don’t buy my book you’re going to harm someone,” you don’t say, “If you buy my cheese, it’ll be good for someone else somewhere else in the world.” You focus on the core benefit to the actual person. You focus on “What’s in it for me?” – not condescension, bribery or blackmail, all of which undermine the message that you’re really trying to get through.

You certainly don’t say, “if you buy my Smarties you can have back your children who I’m holding hostage”. That sort of message says nothing about the benefits of Smarties and everything about your (lack of) ethics.

Which is why, when media and politicians resort to this sort of language they are engaging in full-blown coercive propaganda, (even if they call it benign libertarian paternalistic linguistics). When you change the offer, and add a bribe, incentive, or threat, you are engaging in coercion

That’s the line. That’s behavioural manipulation, not behavioural “persuasion”. That’s a bribe. It takes away personal agency.

That said, once a company (or a country) has burned through it’s trust surplus, coercion often becomes the only (or at least easiest) option left on the table.

For example, the ‘trust the science’ story has done irreversible damage to deferring to experts to society. That’s a massive lever of population control and persuasion gone to waste. We will not easily be able to claw that back for another generation. Any well-intentioned public or private sector intervention in the health and in the economics sphere is going to have to contend with the climate of distrust and mockery over the ‘trust the science’ claims that have been debunked time and time again over the last few years.

Trust is essential to persuade anyone to do anything. Whether you are, selling a consumer good, dealing in a B2B space, or the public sector space, if you don’t have the trust of the people that you are trying to influence, you’ve already lost the game coming out of the gates. Trust is incredibly difficult to claw back once it’s gone. Just like it’s much easier to not get fat than it is to try and lose weight again once you put on a few pounds.

So, now, how do we go back building that trust back? Is it as simple as changing the label like the cunning linguists did for themselves by rebranding their art from ‘propaganda’ to ‘behavioural linguistics’? The whole point of behavioural linguistics is to hack into and nudge those biases, past and present. But once people are aware they are being hacked, what happens when a message has been caught out as a lie, and the messenger as manipulator? 

By exposing their backstage, nudgers lose tools in their behavioural linguistics toolbox, because subjects are now looking for that sort of ‘hack’ in the future again. Suddenly, the ‘deferring to experts’ heuristic is not as powerful as it used to be, and not just for that one word, for everything

Once trust is gone, the usual tactic is to shift the message, but if the messenger is also tainted – not just the individual messenger, but the profession, the class, the institutions behind the messenger, and the medium – the position for policy makers may well have to shift from persuasion (a dead end) to propaganda as a show of power – in other words towards entrenching power through coercion –or persuading the population of the power of the presenter that can (and will) be employed to bend rather than nugde them towards his will.

A dangerous idea indeed. 

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