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The line between persuasion and manipulation.


As this year's ScienceOnline Together conference approaches, I've been thinking about the ethical dimensions of using empirical findings from psychological research to inform effective science communication (or really any communication). Melanie Tannenbaum will be co-facilitating a session about using such research findings to guide communication strategies, and this year's session is nicely connected to a session Melanie led with Cara Santa Maria at last year's conference called "Persuading the Unpersuadable: Communicating Science to Deniers, Cynics, and Trolls."

In that session last year, the strategy of using empirical results from psychology to help achieve success in a communicative goal was fancifully described as deploying "Jedi mind tricks". Achieving success in communication was cast in terms of getting your audience to accept your claims (or at least getting them not to reject your claims out of hand because they don't trust you, or don't trust the way you're engaging with them, or whatever). But if you have the cognitive launch codes, as it were, you can short-circuit distrust, cultivate trust, help them end up where you want them to end up when you're done communicating what you're trying to communicate.

Jason Goldman pointed out to me that these "tricks" aren't really that tricky -- it's not like you flash the Queen of Diamonds and suddenly the person you're talking to votes for your ballot initiative or buys your product. As Jason put it to me via email, "From a practical perspective, we know that presenting reasons is usually ineffective, and so we wrap our reasons in narrative - because we know, from psychology research, that storytelling is an effective device for communication and behavior change."

Still, using a "trick" to get your audience to end up where you want them to end up -- even if that "trick" is simply empirical knowledge that you have and your audience doesn't -- sounds less like persuasion than manipulation. People aren't generally happy about the prospect of being manipulated. Intuitively, manipulating someone else gets us into ethically dicey territory.

As a philosopher, I'm in a discipline whose ideal is that you persuade by presenting reasons for your interlocutor to examine, arguments whose logical structure can be assessed, premises whose truth (or at least likelihood) can be evaluated. I daresay scientists have something like the same ideal in mind when they present their findings or try to evaluate the scientific claims of others. In both cases, there's the idea than we should be making a concerted effort not to let tempting cognitive shortcuts get in the way of reasoning well. We want to know about the tempting shortcuts (some of which are often catalogued as "informal fallacies") so we can avoid falling into them. Generally, it's considered sloppy argumentation (or worse) to try to tempt our audience with those shortcuts.

How much space is there between the tempting cognitive shortcuts we try to avoid in our own reasoning and the "Jedi mind tricks" offered to us to help us communicate, or persuade, or manipulate more effectively? If we're taking advantage of cognitive shortcuts (or switches, or whatever the more accurate metaphor would be) to increase the chances that people will accept our factual claims, our recommendations, our credibility, etc., can we tell when we've crossed the line between persuasion and manipulation? Can we tell when it's the cognitive switch that's doing the work rather than the sharing of reasons?

It strikes me as even more ethically problematic if we're using these Jedi mind tricks while concealing the fact that we're using them from the audience we're using them on. There's a clear element of deception in doing that.

Now, possibly the Jedi mind tricks work equally well if we disclose to our audience that we're using them and how they work. In that case, we might be able to use them to persuade without being deceptive -- and it would be clear to our audience that we were availing ourselves of these tricks, and that our goal was to get them to end up in a particular place. It would be kind of weird, though, perhaps akin to going to see a magician knowing full well that she would be performing illusions and that your being fooled by those illusions is a likely outcome. (Wouldn't this make us more distrustful in our communicative interactions, though? If you know about the switches and it's still the case that they can be used against you, isn't that the kind of thing that might make you want to block lots of communication before it can even happen?)

As a side note, I acknowledge that there might be some compelling extreme cases in which the goal of getting the audience to end up in a particular place -- e.g., revealing to you the location of the ticking bomb -- is so urgent that we're prepared to swallow our qualms about manipulating the audience to get the job done. I don't think that the normal stakes of our communications are like this, though. But there may be some cases where how high the stakes really are is one of the places we disagree. Jason suggests vaccine acceptance or refusal might be important enough that the Jedi mind tricks shouldn't set off any ethical alarms. I'll note that vaccine advocates using a just-the-empirical-facts approach to communication are often accused or suspected of having some undisclosed financial conflict of interest that is motivating them to try to get everyone vaccinated -- that is, they're not using the Jedi mind trick social psychologists think could help them persuade their target audience and yet that audience thinks they're up to something sneaky. That's a pretty weird situation.

Does our cognitive make-up as humans make it possible to get closer to exchanging and evaluating reasons rather than just pushing each other's cognitive buttons? If so, can we achieve better communication without the Jedi mind tricks?

Maybe it would require some work to change the features of our communicative environment (or of the environment in which we learn how to reason about the world and how to communicate and otherwise interact with others) to help our minds more reliably work this way. Is there any empirical data on that? (If not, is this a research question psychologists are asking?)

Some of these questions tread dangerously close to the question of whether we humans can actually have free will -- and that's a big bucket of metaphysical worms that I'm not sure I want to dig into right now. I just want to know how to engage my fellow human beings as ethically as possible when we communicate.

These are some of the questions swirling around my head. Maybe next week at ScienceOnline some of them will be answered -- although there's a good chance some more questions will be added to the pile!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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