Trust No One, Trust Nothing

In just one day last week looking at the headlines on MediaPost – two different articles mentioned a lack of trust – a lack of trust in contextual ad placement and a lack of trust in audience measurement data. But our industries trust issues go far deeper than just those two instances. Article after article cite an erosion of trust and the spreading of relational fault lines in every aspect of the industry.

The question of the day is “Where did the trust go? The follow up question then becomes, “What do we mean by trust?”

That is a difficult question. Trust is a word with many, many meanings. Over 20 years ago, University of Minnesota business professors D. Harrison McKnight and Norman L. Chervany wrote an extensive review to answer just that question. In it, across the many constructs of trust, they identified four dimensions: benevolence, integrity, competence and predictability. But not all these dimensions are required in all applications of trust.

First of all, there are two broad categories of trust: structural trust – trust in a system – and interpersonal trust – trust in a person. In their analysis, McKnight and Chervany looked at six constructs of trust that can apply in different situations. For the sake of this discussion, let’s focus on two of these:

“System trust: the extent to which one believes that proper impersonal structures are in place to enable one to anticipate a successful future endeavor.”


“Situational Trust – meaning that one has decided to trust without regard to the specific persons involved, because the benefits of trusting in this situation outweigh the possible negative outcomes of trusting.”

What trust that did exist in marketing what an outcome of these two constructs. Both tend to apply to the structure of marketing, not the people in marketing. The headlines I cited earlier both pointed to a breakdown of trust on the system level, not the personal level. Now, let’s look at those four dimensions as they apply to structural trust in marketing. No one has ever accused marketers of being overly benevolent, so let’s set that one aside. Also, I would argue – strenuously – that marketers today – including those at agencies – are more competent than ever before. They have been mostly successful at turning marketing from an arcane guessing game that paraded as art to an empirically backed science. So a lack of competency can’t be blamed for this trust breakdown. That leaves integrity and predictability. I suspect there’s a compound relationship between these two things.

The reason we’re losing structural trust is that marketing is no longer predictable. And this lack of predictability is triggering a suspicion that there has been a corresponding lack of integrity. But the unpredictability of marketing is no one’s fault.

Marketing today is analogous to physics at the turn of the last century. For 200 years the universe had been neatly ruled by Newton’s Laws. Then physicists started discovering things that couldn’t be so neatly explained and the Universe became a place of Uncertainty Principles, Schrödinger’s Cat and Strange Attractors. Everything we thought was predictable in all situations suddenly become part of a much bigger – and more complex – mystery.

Similarly, mass marketing could run by Newton-like laws because we were dealing with mass and weren’t looking too closely. Apply enough force to enough people with enough frequency and you could move the needle in what seemed like a predictable fashion. But today marketing is a vastly different beast. We market one-to-one and those “ones” are all inter-connected, which creates all types of feedback loops and network effects. This creates complexity – so predictability is as dead at the afore-mentioned Schrödinger’s Cat (or is it?)

I don’t think this comes as news to anyone reading this column. We all know we’re being disrupted. I think we’re all beginning to understand the challenges of complexity. So why don’t we just accept it as the new normal and continue to work together? Why are clients feeling personally betrayed by their agencies, market research firms and ad delivery platforms? It’s because our brains aren’t very nuanced when it comes to identifying trust and betrayal. Brains operate by the “when you’re a hammer – everything looks like a nail” principle.

Rationally, we understand the different between interpersonal trust and situational trust, but we have to remember that our rationality is reinforced by emotional rewards and cautions. When we’re in a trusting relationship – or system – our ventrial striatum, medial prefrontal cortex and caudate nucleus all perk happily along, priming our brains with oxytocin and pushing all the right reward buttons. But whether it’s a person or a situation that betrays our trust, the same neural mechanisms fire – the insula and amygdala – creating feelings of frustration, fear, anger and resentment.

Now, none of this is the fault of anyone in marketing. But humans work on cause and effect. If our marketing is not working, it’s easier to assign a human cause. And it’s much easier to feel betrayed by a human than by a system.


Together We Lie

Humans are social animals. We’ve become this way because – evolutionarily speaking – we do better as a group than individually. But there’s a caveat here. If you get a group of usually honest people together, they’re more likely to lie. Why is this?

Martin Kocher and his colleagues from LMU in Munich set up a study where participants had to watch a video of a single roll of a die and then report on the number that came up. Depending on what they reported, there was a payoff. Researchers asked both individuals and small groups who had the opportunity to chat anonymously with each other before reporting. The result,

“Our findings are unequivocal: People are less likely to lie if they decide on their own.”

Even individuals who answered honestly independently started lying when they got in a group.

The researchers called this a “dishonesty shift.” They blame it on a shifting weight placed on the norm of honesty. Norms are those patterns we have that guide us in our behaviors and beliefs. But those norms may be different individually than they are when we’re part of a group.

“Feedback is the decisive factor. Group-based decision-making involves an exchange of views that may alter the relative weight assigned to the relevant norm.”

Let’s look at how this may play out. Individually, we may default to honesty. We do so because we’re unsure of the consequences of not being honest. But when we get in a group, we start talking to others and it’s easier to rationalize not being honest – “Well, if everyone’s going to lie, I might as well too.”

Why is this important? Because marketing is done in groups, by groups, to groups. The dynamics of group-based ethics are important for us to understand. It could help to explain the most egregious breaches of ethics we see becoming more and more commonplace, either in corporations or in governments.

Four of the seminal studies in psychology and sociology shed further light on why groups tend to shift towards dishonesty. Let’s look at them individually.

In 1955, Solomon Asch showed that even if individually we believe something to be incorrect, if enough people around us have a different option, we’ll go with the group consensus rather than risk being the odd person out. In his famous study, he would surround a subject with “plants” who, when shown cards with three black lines of obviously differing lengths on it, would insist that three lines were equal. The subjects were then asked their opinion. In 75% of the cases, they’d go with the group rather than risk disagreement. As Asch said in his paper – quoting sociologist Gabriel Tarde – “Social man in a somnambulist.” We have about as much independent will as your average sleepwalker.

Now, let’s continue with Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority study, perhaps the most controversial and frightening of the group. When confronted with an authoritative demeanor, a white coat and a clipboard, 63% of the subjects meekly followed directions and delivered what were supposed to be lethal levels of electrical shock to a hapless individual. The results were so disheartening that we’ve been trying to debunk them ever since. But a follow up study by Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo – where subjects were arbitrarily assigned roles as guards and inmates in a mock prison scenario – was even more shocking. We’re more likely to become monsters and abandon our personal ethics when we’re in a group than when we act alone. Whether it’s obedience to authority – as Milgram was trying to prove – or whether it’s social conformity taken to the extreme, we tend to do very bad things when we’re in bad company.

But how do we slip so far so quickly from our own personal ethical baseline? Here’s where the last study I’ll cite can shed a little light. Sociologist Mark Granovetter – famous for his Strength of Weak Ties study – also looked at the viral spreading of behaviors in groups. I’ve talked about this in a previous column, but here’s the short version: If we have the choice between two options, with accompanying social consequences, which option we choose may be driven by social conformity. If we see enough other people around us picking the more disruptive option (i.e. starting a riot) we may follow suit. Even if we all have different thresholds – which we do – the nature of a crowd is such that those with the lowest threshold will pick the disruption option, setting into effect a bandwagon effect that eventually tips the entire group over the threshold.

These were all studied in isolation, because that’s how science works. We study variables in isolation. But it’s when factors combine that we get the complexity that typifies the real world – and the real marketplace. And there’s where predictability goes out the window. The group dynamics in play can create behavioral patterns that make no sense to the average person with the average degree of morality. But it’s happened before, it’s happening now, and it’s sure to happen again.



I, Robot….

Note: No Artificial Intelligence was involved in the creation of this column.

In the year 1942, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov introduced the 3 Rules of Robotics in his collection of short stories, I, Robot..

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Asimov had the rules as coming from the Handbook of Robotics, 56th Edition, 2058 A.D. What was once an unimaginably distant time in the future is now knocking with increasing intensity on the door of the present. And Elon Musk, for one, is worried. “AI is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.” Musk believes, Rules of Robotics or no, we won’t be able to control this genie once it gets out of its bottle.

Right now, the genie looks pretty benign. In the past year, the Washington Post has used robot reporters to write over 850 stories. The Post believes this is a win/win with their human reporters, because the robot, named Heliograf, can:

  • Cover stories that wouldn’t have been covered due to lack of human resources
  • Do the factual heavy lifting for human reporters
  • Alert humans to possible news stories in big data sets

So, should we fear or cheer robots? I think the Post’s experiment highlights two areas that AI excels at, and indicates how we might play nice with machines.

For AI to work effectively, the dots have to be pretty well sketched out. When they are, AI can be tireless in scouting out relevant facts and data where humans would tend to get bored easily. But humans are still much better at connecting those dots, especially when no obvious connection is apparent. We do it through something called intuition. It’s at least one area where we can still blow machines away.

Machines are also good at detecting patterns in overwhelming amounts of data. Humans tend to overfit…make the data fit our narratives. We’ll come back to this point in a minute, but for now, let’s go back to intuition. It’s still the trump card we humans hold. In 2008, Wired editor Chris Anderson prematurely (and, many believe, incorrectly) declared the Scientific Method dead, thanks to the massive data sets we now have available:

“We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.”

Anderson gets it partly right, but he also unfairly gives intuition short shrift. This is not a zero sum game. Intuition and A.I. can and should play nicely together. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, human intuition was found to boost the effectiveness of an optimization algorithm by 25%.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins recently came to the defense of intuition in Science, saying:

“Science proceeds by intuitive leaps of the imagination – building an idea of what might be true, and then testing it”

The very human problem comes when we let our imaginations run away from the facts, bending science to fit our hypotheses:

“It is important that scientists should not be so wedded to that intuition that they omit the very important testing stage.”

There is a kind of reciprocation here – an oscillation between phases. Humans are great at some stages – the ones that require intuition and imagination -and machines are better at others – where a cold and dispassionate analysis of the facts is required. Like most things in nature that pulse with a natural rhythm, the whole gains from the opposing forces at work here. It is a symphony with a beat and a counterbeat.

That’s why, for the immediate future anyway, machines should bend not to our will, but to our imagination.

Addicted to Tech

A few columns ago, I mentioned one of the aspects that is troubling me about technology – the shallowness of social media. I had mentioned at the time that there were other aspects that were equally troubling. Here’s one:

Technology is addictive – and it’s addictive by design.

Let’s begin by looking at the definition of addiction:

Persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful

So, let’s break it down. I don’t think you can quibble with the persistent, compulsive use part. When’s the last time you had your iPhone in your hand? We can simply swap out “substance” for “device” or “technology” So that leaves with the last qualifier “known by the user to be harmful” – and there’s two parts to this – is it harmful and does the user know it’s harmful?

First, let’s look at the neurobiology of addiction. What causes us to use something persistently and compulsively? Here, dopamine is the culprit. Our reward center uses dopamine and the pleasurable sensation it produces as a positive reinforcement to cause us to pursue activities which over many hundreds of generations have proven to be evolutionarily advantageous. But Dr. Gary Small, from the UCLA Brain Research Institute, warns us that this time could be different:

“The same neural pathways in the brain that reinforce dependence on substances can reinforce compulsive technology behaviors that are just as addictive and potentially destructive.”

We like to think of big tobacco as the most evil of all evil empires – guilty of promoting addiction to a harmful substance – but is there a lot separating them from the purveyors of tech – Facebook or Google, for instance? According to Tristan Harris, there may be a very slippery slope between the two. I’ve written about Tristan before. He’s the former Google Product Manager who’s launched the Time Well Spent non-profit, devoted to stopping “tech companies from hijacking our minds.” Harris points the finger squarely at the big Internet platforms for creating platforms that are intentionally designed to suck as much of our time as possible. There’s empirical evidence to back up Harris’s accusations. Researchers at Michigan State University and from two universities in the Netherlands found that even seeing the Facebook logo can trigger a conditioned response in a social media user that starts the dopamine cycle spinning. We start jonesing for a social media fix.

So, what if our smart phones and social media platforms seduce us into using them compulsively? What’s the harm, as long as it’s not hurting us? That’s the second part of the addiction equation – is whatever we’re using harmful? After all, it’s not like tobacco, where it was proven to cause lung cancer.

Ah, but that’s the thing, isn’t it? We were smoking cigarettes for almost a hundred years before we finally found out they were bad for us. Sometimes it takes awhile for the harmful effects of addiction to appear. The same could be true for our tech habit.

Tech addiction plays out at many different levels of cognition. This could potentially be much more sinister than just the simple waste of time that Tristan Harris is worried about. There’s mounting evidence that overuse of tech could dramatically alter our ability to socialize effectively with other humans. The debate, which I’ve talked about before, comes when we substitute screen-to-screen interaction for face-to-face. The supporters say that this is simply another type of social bonding – one that comes with additional benefits. The naysayers worry that we’re just not built to communicate through screen and that – sooner or later – there will be a price to be paid for our obsessive use of digital platforms.

Dr. Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, researches generational differences in behavior. It’s here where the full impact of the introduction of a disruptive environmental factor can be found. She found a seismic shift in behaviors between Millennials and the generation that followed them. It was a profound difference in how these generations viewed the world and where they spent their time. And it started in 2012 – the year when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent. She sums up her concern in unequivocal terms:

“The twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.”

Not only are we less happy, we may be becoming less smart. As we become more reliant on technology, we do something called cognitive off-loading. We rely on Google rather than our memories to retrieve facts. We trust our GPS more than our own wayfinding strategies to get us home. Cognitive off loading is a way to move beyond the limits of our own minds, but there may an unacceptable trade off here. Brains are like muscles – if we stop using them they begin to atrophy.

Let’s go back to that original definition and the three qualifying criteria:

  • Persistent, compulsive use
  • Harmful
  • We know it’s harmful

In the case of tech, let’s not wait a hundred years to put check marks after all of these.



The Assisted Reality of the New Marketer

Last week, MediaPost’s Laurie Sullivan warned us that the future of analytical number crunchers is not particularly rosy in the world of marketing. With cognitive technologies like IBM’s Watson coming on strong in more and more places, analytic skills are not that hot a commodity any more. Ironically, when it comes to marketing, the majority of companies have not planned to incorporate cognitive technologies in the near future. According to a report from IBM and Oxford Economics, only 24% of the organizations have a plan to incorporate CT in their own operations.

Another study, from Forrester, explored AI Marketing Readiness in Retail and eCommerce sectors. The state of readiness is a little better. In these typically forward thinking sectors, 72% are implementing AI marketing tech in the next year, but only 45% of those companies would consider themselves as excelling in at least 2 out of 3 dimensions of readiness.

If those numbers seem contradictory, we should understand what the difference between cognitive technology and artificial intelligence is. You’ll notice that IBM refers to Watson as “cognitive computing.” As Rob High, IBM’s CTO for Watson put it, “What it’s really about is involvement of a human in the loop,” and he described Watson as “augmented intelligence” rather than artificial intelligence.

That “human in the loop” is a critical difference between the two technologies. Whether we like it or not, machines are inevitable in the world of marketing, so we’d better start thinking about how to play nice with them.


I remember first seeing a video from the IBM Amplify summit at a MediaPost event last year. Although the presentation was a little stilted, the promise was intriguing. It showed a marketer musing about a potential campaign and throwing “what ifs” at Watson, who quickly responded with the almost instantly analyzed quantified answers. The premise of the video was to show how smart Watson was. But here’s a “what if” to consider. What if the real key to this was the hypotheticals that the human seemed to be pulling out of the blue? That doesn’t seem that impressive to us – certainly not as impressive as Watson’s corralling and crunching of relevant numbers in the blink of an eye. Musing is what we do. But this is just one example of something called Moravec’s Paradox.

Moravec’s Paradox, as stated by AI pioneer Marvin Minsky, is this: “In general, we’re least aware of what our minds do best. We’re more aware of simple processes that don’t work well than of complex ones that work flawlessly.” In other words, what we find difficult are the tasks that machines are well suited for, and the things we’re not even aware of are the things machines find notoriously hard to do. Things like intuition. And empathy. If we’re looking at the future of the human marketer, we’re probably looking at those two things.

In his book, Humans are Underrated, Geoff Colvin writes,

“Rather than ask what computers can’t do, it’s much more useful to ask what people are compelled to do—those things that a million years of evolution cause us to value and seek from other humans, maybe for a good reason, maybe for no reason, but it’s the way we are.”

We should be ensuring that both humans and machines are doing what they do best, essentially erasing Moravec’s Paradox. Humans focus on intuition and empathy and machines do the heavy lifting on the analyzing and number crunching. The optimal balance – at this point anyway – is a little bit of both.

In Descarte’s Error – neurologist Antonio Damasio showed that without human intuition and emotion – together with the corresponding physical cues he called somatic markers – we could rationalize ourselves into a never-ending spiral without ever coming to a conclusion. We need to be human to function effectively.

Researchers at MIT have even tried to include this into an algorithm. In 1954, Herbert Simon introduced a concept called bounded rationality. It may seem like this puts limits on the cognitive power of humans, but as programmers like to say, bounded rationality is a feature, not a bug. The researchers at MIT found that in an optimization challenge, such as finding the optimal routing strategy for an airline, humans have the advantage of being able to impose some intuitive limits on the number of options considered. For example, a human can say, “Planes should visit each city at the most once,” and thereby dramatically limit the number crunching required. When these intuitive strategies were converted to machine language and introduced into automated algorithms, those algorithms got 10 to 15% smarter.

When it comes right down to it, the essence of marketing is simply a conversation between two people. All the rest: the targeting, the automation, the segmentation, the media strategy – this is all just to add “mass” to marketing. And that’s all the stuff that machines are great at. For us humans, our future seems to rely on our past – and on our ability to connect with other humans.

Curmudgeon, Chicken Little or Cognoscenti?

Apparently I’m old and out of step. Curmudgeonly, even. And this is from people of my own generation. My previous column about the potential shallowness encouraged by social media drew a few comments that indicated I was just being a grumpy old man. One was from an old industry friend – Brett Tabke:

“The rest of the article is like out of the 70’s in that it is devoid of the reality that is the uber-me generation. The selfie is only a reflection of their inward focus.”

The other was from Monica Emrich, whom I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting:

” ’Social Media Is Barely Skin-Deep.’ ho hum. History shows: when new medium hits, civilization as we know it is over.”

These comments seem to telling me, “Relax. You just don’t understand because you’re too old. Everything will be great.” And, if that’s true, I’d be okay with that. I’m more than willing to be proven a doddering old fool if it means technology is ushering us into a new era of human greatness.

But what if this time is different? What if Monica’s facetious comment actually nailed it? Maybe civilization as we know it will be over. The important part of this is “as we know it.” Every technological disruption unleashes a wave of creative destruction that pushes civilization in a new direction. We seem to blindly assume it will always go in the right direction. And it is true that technology has generally elevated the human race. But not uniformly – and not consistently. What if this shift is different? What if we become less than what we were? It can happen. Brexit – Xenophobia – Trump – Populism, all these things are surfing on the tides of new technology.

Here’s the problem. There are some aspects of technology that we’ve never had to deal with before – at least, not at this scale. One these aspects (other aspects will no doubt be the topic of a future Media Insider) is that technology is now immersive and ubiquitous. It creates an alternate reality for us, and it has done in it in a few short decades. Why is this dangerous? It’s dangerous because evolution has not equipped us to deal with this new reality. In the past, when there has been a shift in our physical reality, it has taken place over several generations. Natural selection had the time to reshape the human genome to survive and eventually thrive in this new reality. Along the way, we acquired checks and balances that would allow us to deal with the potentially negative impacts of the environment.

But our new reality is different. It’s happen in the space of a single generation. There is no way we could have acquired natural defenses against it. We are operating in an environment we have been untested for. The consequences are yet to be discovered.

No, your response might be to say that, “Yes, evolution doesn’t move this quickly, but out brains can. They are elastic and malleable.” This is true, but there’s a big “but” that lies hidden in this approach. Our brains rewire to be a better match their environment. This is one of the things that humans excel at. But this rewiring happens on top of a primitive platform with some built in limitations. The assumption is that a better match with our environment provides a better chance for survival of the species.

But what if technology is throwing us a curve ball in this case? No matter what the environment we have adapted to, there has been one constant: The history of humans depends on our success in living together. We have evolved to be social animals but that evolution is predicated on the assumption that our socializing would take place face-to-face. Technology is artificially decoupling our social interactions from the very definition of society that we have evolved to be able to handle. A recent Wharton interview with Eden Collinsworth sounds the same alarm bells.

“The frontal lobes, which are the part of the brain that puts things in perspective and allows you to be empathetic, are constantly evolving. But it is less likely to evolve and develop those skills if you are in front of a screen. In other words, those skills come into play when you have a face-to-face interaction with someone. You can observe facial gestures. You can hear the intonation of a voice. You’re more likely to behave moderately in that exchange, unless it’s a just a knock-down, drag-out fight.”

Collinsworth’s premise – which is covered in her new book, Behaving Badly – is that this artificial reality is changing our concepts of morality and ethics. She reminds us the two are interlinked, but they are not the same thing. Morality is our own personal code of conduct. Ethics are a shared code that society depends on to instill a general sense of fairness. Collinsworth believes both are largely learned from the context of our culture. And she worries that a culture that is decoupled from the physical reality we have evolved to operate in may have dire consequences.

The fact is that if our morality and ethics are intended to keep us socially more cohesive, this works best in a face-to-face context. In an extreme example of this, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former paratrooper and professor of psychology at West Point, showed how our resistance to killing another human in combat is inversely related to our physical distance from them. The closer we are to them, the more resistant we are to the idea of killing them. This makes sense in an evolutionary environment where all combat was hand-to-hand. But today, the killer could be in a drone flight control center thousands of miles from his or her intended target.

This evolved constraint on unethical behavior – the social check and balance of being physically close to the people we’re engaging with – is important. And while the application of the two examples I’ve cited; One – the self-absorbed behavior on social networks – and Two – the moral landscape of a drone strike operator, may seem magnitudes apart in terms of culpability, the underlying neural machinery is related. What we believe is right and wrong is determined by a moral compass set to the bearings of our environment. The fundamental workings of that compass assumed we would be face-to-face with the people we have to deal with. But thanks to technology, that’s no longer the case.

Maybe Brett and Monica are right. Maybe I’m just being alarmist. But if not, we’d better start paying more attention. Because civilization “as we know it” may be ending.


Our Brain on Reviews

There’s an interesting new study that was just published about how our brain mathematically handles online reviews that I wanted to talk about today. But before I get to that, I wanted to talk about foraging a bit.

The story of how science discovered our foraging behaviors serves as a mini lesson in how humans tick. The economists of the 1940’s and 50’s discovered the world of micro-economics, based on the foundation that humans were perfectly rational – we were homo economicus. When making personal economic choices in a world of limited resources, we maximized utility. The economists of the time assumed this was a uniquely human property, bequeathed on us by virtue of the reasoning power of our superior brains.

In the 60’s, behavior ecologists knocked our egos down a peg or two. It wasn’t just humans that could do this. Foxes could do it. Starlings could do it. Pretty much any species had the same ability to seemingly make optimal choices when faced with scarcity. It was how animals kept from starving to death. This was the birth of foraging theory. This wasn’t some homo-sapien-exclusive behavior that was directed from the heights of rationality downwards. It was an evolved behavior that was built from the ground up. It’s just that humans had learned how to apply it to our abstract notion of economic utility.

Three decades later, two researchers at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center found another twist. Not only had our ability to forage been evolved all the way through our extensive family tree, but we seemed to borrow this strategy and apply it to entirely new situations. Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card found that when humans navigate content in online environments, the exact same patterns could be found. We foraged for information. Those same calculations determined whether we would stay in an information “patch” or move on to more promising territory.

This seemed to indicate three surprising discoveries about our behavior:

  • Much of what we think is rational behavior is actually driven by instincts that have evolved over millions of years
  • We borrow strategies from one context and apply them in another. We use the same basic instincts to find the FAQ section of a website that we used to find sustenance on the savannah.
  • Our brains seem to use Bayesian logic to continuously calculate and update a model of the world. We rely on this model to survive in our environment, whatever and wherever that environment might be.

So that brings us to the study I mentioned at the beginning of this column. If we take the above into consideration, it should come as no surprise that our brain uses similar evolutionary strategies to process things like online reviews. But the way it does it is fascinating.

The amazing thing about the brain is how it seamlessly integrates and subconsciously synthesizes information and activity from different regions. For example, in foraging, the brain integrates information from the regions responsible for wayfinding – knowing our place in the world – with signals from the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex – an area responsible for reward monitoring and executive control. Essentially, the brain is constantly updating an algorithm about whether the effort required to travel to a new “patch” will be balanced by the reward we’ll find when we get there. You don’t consciously marshal the cognitive resources required to do this. The brain does it automatically. What’s more – the brain uses many of the same resources and algorithm whether we’re considering going to McDonald’s for a large order of fries or deciding what online destination would be the best bet for researching our upcoming trip to Portugal.

In evaluating online reviews, we have a different challenge: how reliable are the reviews? The context may be new – our ancestors didn’t have TripAdvisor or AirBNB ratings for choosing the right cave to sleep in tonight – but the problem isn’t. What criteria should we use when we decide to integrate social information into our decision making process? If Thorlak the bear hunter tells me there’s a great cave a half-day’s march to the south, should I trust him? Experience has taught us a few handy rules of thumb when evaluating sources of social information: reliability of the source and the consensus of crowds. Has Thorlak ever lied to us before? Do others in the tribe agree with him? These are hardwired social heuristics. We apply them instantly and instinctively to new sources of information that come from our social network. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years. So it should come as no surprise that we borrow these strategies when dealing with online reviews.

In a neuro-scanning study from the University College of London, researchers found that reliability plays a significant role in how our brains treat social information. Once again, a well-evolved capability of the brain is recruited to help us in a new situation. The dorsomedial prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that keeps track of our social connections. This “social monitoring” ability of the brain worked in concert with ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area that processes value estimates.

The researchers found that this part of our brain works like a Bayesian computer when considering incoming information. First we establish a “prior” that represents a model of what we believe to be true. Then we subject this prior to possible statistical updating based on new information – in this case, online reviews. If our confidence is high in this “prior” and the incoming information is weak, we tend to stick with our initial belief. But if our confidence is low and the incoming information is strong – i.e. a lot of positive reviews – then the brain overrides the prior and establishes a new belief, based primarily on the new information.

While this seems like common sense, the mechanisms at play are interesting. The brain effortlessly pattern matches new types of information and recruits the region that is most likely to have evolved to successfully interpret that information. In this case, the brain had decided that online reviews are most like information that comes from social sources. It combines the interpretation of this data with an algorithmic function that assigns value to the new information and calculates a new model – a new understanding of what we believe to be true. And it does all this “under the hood” – sitting just below the level of conscious thought.