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The morality of manipulation

Nir Eyal

Expert Where Behavior, Business & The Brain Meet

Lessons Learned

Today the question is not can we influence user behavior, it is should we.

Dopamine helps the brain cement importance.

Variability spikes activity in the reward center of the brain.


Lesson: Hooked with Nir Eyal

Step #9 Morality: The morality of manipulation

When it comes to the morality of manipulation, I think this is a very important question, and one I spend a lot of time thinking about. And in the book, I give a matrix that is meant for the maker of a habit-forming technology to think about how they're going to use this power to change user behavior. Because I think we're approaching this age where the question isn't can we influence user behavior. Should we, and how should we?

The matrix idea of it is pretty simple. It's basically a two-by-two that asks the maker to ask themselves, am I making something that I would use myself. Yes or no? So you can think about that along the x-axis of do I use it or do I not use it? And then along the other axis is, is this something that I believe materially improves people's lives or not? So does it materially improve people's lives or not?

And if you fall into that top right quadrant of making something that you use, that you believe materially improves people's lives, you're what I call a facilitator. And that, I think, puts you in a very good moral position because you're making something that you believe materially improves people's lives. And what I'm forcing you to do is to break the number one rule of drug trafficking. Do you know the number one of drug trafficking? Never get high on your own supply.

I'm forcing you to break that rule. So that if you make something that's actually dangerously addictive, you'll be the first to know about it. That's why I put you in that category. You have to use it. It's not good enough if you say, “Oh, it's for someone else.”

Now the truth of the matter is that it's very, very hard to get people habituated to a product. It's not as easy as it sounds. There's a lot of work to it. And many people are not susceptible to addiction or habituation. It's quite a hard thing to struggle with getting people to engage in a product. And that's kind of what I help people walk through in the book.

But by being in that upper right quadrant, not only are you in a good moral position, it turns out you also meet the profile of the most successful entrepreneurs out there. When we look at the stories of the founding of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and all these companies that have become our day-to-day habits, they're all founded by facilitators. People who built something that they wanted, but they also believed materially improved people's lives.

Now this matrix isn't about judging other people and telling them what they shouldn't be building, it's about asking yourself as a maker what is worth expending my human capital on. There's an old joke that goes, “What's the role of dopamine? It's to confuse neuroscientists.” Because there's a lot of conflicting research out there about what exactly the role of dopamine is. In popular culture, people think dopamine makes you feel good. It's actually not the case. It doesn't make you happy. That's not the role of dopamine.

What we do seem to know about dopamine is that it helps us cement importance. That it tells the brain, “This is something you should focus on. This is something you should remember and that this is important information.” We also see some very peculiar aspects of dopamine that, for example, one of the popular treatments for Parkinson's disease is to give people increased amounts of dopamine.

There's been a lot of evidence that shows that people who take dopamine who are suffering from Parkinson's disease have a higher likelihood of developing addictions; that people who take dopamine for Parkinson's tend to have a propensity to gamble more. And there have been lots of documented cases of people all of a sudden taking up gambling habits that they didn't use to have with these elevated dopamine levels.

So there's a lot of peculiar traits around this neurotransmitter, dopamine. But I don't go too far into that realm other than realizing that part of the reward system that helps us learn new behaviors activates this dopamine pathway. It activates part of what runs through the nucleus accumbens. And the nucleus accumbens becomes active, we know, in anticipation of a reward, which is a very important point. That it's actually not activated when we get the thing that supposed to make us happy. It becomes activated in anticipation of the thing that we think is going to bring us pleasure or the thing we want.

And the second point is that variability spikes activity in the nucleus accumbens, this reward center of the brain. So that when we see what's endemic to many habit-forming products is some element of variability.

And, of course, this work is very old work done by B. F. Skinner, the author of operant conditioning, who showed that when he introduced a variable reward, some kind of variable reinforcement, it increased the rate of response. The behavior that he was testing for, in this case, it was pigeons clicking on a little disk, occurred more frequently when the reward was given on an intermittent schedule.

There's a lot of research still being done about the effects of social media and these products. Do they make us happier? Do they make us less happy? The studies that I've seen have shown that there are actually two types of conditions that are elicited from using a product like Facebook. One study shows that people are less happy when they use Facebook. And one study shows that they're more happy when they use Facebook. And the difference is what they do. So if you just check Facebook as a consumer of information, it turns out you're less happy.

But if you participate, if you connect with people, if you send messages to folks and you feel connected to them, you actually become more happy. So I think that's actually a design opportunity for a company like Facebook, and I know this is a priority for them, how do they get more people to participate.

Because big picture here, let's admit it, people are not as easily manipulatable as perhaps people think. It's actually quite hard to get people to engage. That's why I wrote this book. If getting people to form habits was easy, you wouldn't need this book.

So to think that we can create a product and, poof, people are going to be addicted to it, that's just not reality. Which is why, when we see products that make people unhappy, they stop using them. They say, “This isn't helping my life,” and they quit. So a product like Facebook, when it does make people unhappy, it's an opportunity for them to make the product better. And I would bet you that the products that Facebook has acquired recently, like Instagram and WhatsApp, look at those products. They have a much higher proportion of people participating than just observing and consuming.

And I would bet you those products make people pretty darn happy. I mean, big picture, we can't get people to do things they don't want to do. I don't know how to do that, at least. That's the difference between manipulation and coercion. Manipulation, I think, is okay. If you're helping people do something they want to do, that's a form of manipulation. That's okay. Weight Watchers is a form of manipulation. We are changing user's behavior. Alcoholics Anonymous is a form of user manipulation. They submit to it. We want our behavior to be manipulated.

When we're watching a magic show we want our perception to be manipulated. We know it's magic. We know it's a trick, but it's fun. When we go to the movies, we want to be manipulated. We want our emotions to be changed. That's the whole point. That's what makes it fun.

Coercion is a different story. Coercion is when we do things to people that they don't want themselves to do. That's a whole different story. That's unethical, whereas, manipulation, if it's used responsibly, and it's something that the user wants, I don't think that's a bad thing. I think that can help people live happier, healthier, more connected lives.

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