The death of the mind

Business Week has an important article on how internet companies are using the massive data sets collected from the minutia of users’ behaviour to influence customer choices.

The article is a useful insight into how tech companies are basing their entire profit model on the ability to model and manipulate human behaviour but the implication for psychology is, perhaps, more profound.

Psychological theories and ideas about how the mind work seem to play a small, if not absent role in these models which are almost entirely based on deriving mathematical models from massive data sets.

Sometimes the objective is simply to turn people on. Zynga, the maker of popular Facebook games such as CityVille and FarmVille, collects 60 billion data points per day—how long people play games, when they play them, what they’re buying, and so forth. The Wants (Zynga’s term is “data ninjas”) troll this information to figure out which people like to visit their friends’ farms and cities, the most popular items people buy, and how often people send notes to their friends.

Discovery: People enjoy the games more if they receive gifts from their friends, such as the virtual wood and nails needed to build a digital barn. As for the poor folks without many friends who aren’t having as much fun, the Wants came up with a solution. “We made it easier for those players to find the parts elsewhere in the game, so they relied less on receiving the items as gifts,” says Ken Rudin, Zynga’s vice-president for analytics.

Although the example given might seem trivial, it is a massive generator of profit and can be applied to any sort of online behaviour.

What’s striking is that the relationships between the context, motivations, evaluation and behaviour of the users is not being described in terms of how the mind or brain understand and respond the situation but purely as a statistical relationship.

It is psychology devoid of psychology. Rather than the wisdom of crowds approach, it’s the behaviour of zombies model. Unsurprisingly, none of the entrepreneurs mentioned are cognitive scientists. They’re all mathematicians.

I am reminded of the Wired article ‘The End of Theory’ which warned that big data crunching computers could solve scientific problems in the same way. The generated mathematical model ‘works’ but the model is uninterpretable and does not help us understand anything about what’s being studied.

Similarly, while the experimental psychologist’s dream for more than a century has been to work with large data sets to have confidence in our conclusions about the mind, the reality, currently being realised, may actually make the mind redundant in the majority of the commercial world.

Link to Business Week article (via @ivanoransky).


  1. Posted May 1, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    “People enjoy the games more if they receive gifts from their friends…” Nope. Wrong. People feel obliged to play these retarded games because other people are sending them things constantly.

    Many people find this annoying in the extreme.

    That’s one chink in the armor of data crunching without insight.

    • Posted May 6, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      Doesn’t matter if the actions are by design, smart data mining or simple random choices and the feedback system of evolution.

      The problem is that the environment rewards this behaviour.

      This sort of thing is just a spam problem and the real problem with spam is that it works…

  2. Posted May 1, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    This is a pretty big issue. It only takes a small algorithmic error, compounded thousands of times by big data sets, to make this kind of commercial thinking seriously flawed and potentially very dangerous.

    It’s a development that fails to take in the notion that the most fruitful progress is often made through asynchronous events and that creative opportunity is, by definition, unpredictable.

    I was writing about this in 2008 Doug Rushkoff’s raised it recently and eloquently in his book Program or Be Programmed.

    The question is who has it in their interests to educate and empower large swathes of consumers to develop more collaborative and visceral business models? I wonder if we will see a splitting of brands and businesses into two camps, the ones that want zombie numbers to swell their ranks and the ones that seek out intelligent and aware consumers in it for the longer term and for quality of life relationships over, quite literally, mindless transactions.

  3. George
    Posted May 2, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    I am not so sure about that. First, every data set needs a setup-model, an analyse-model and an interpretation-model, all of these are made by humans. Second, empirical data were always the basis of new theories. In the above case of “death of mind” the new data will lead to new models of the mind and not make it redundant.

  4. Posted May 3, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Behaviourism was many things, but ‘wrong’ was not really one of them. I’ve always thought psychology could do with regaining a little more behaviour and a little less mind in it’s studies. Obviously, data mining has limited utility for explanation, but given how structured and (globally) predictable behaviour actually is, it’s not a bad place to start.

  5. Rhotomago
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    It’s the first step to developing Pscyhohistory. All it needs now is the attention of Hari Seldon.

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] The death of the mind In this post, Bell discusses a Business Week article about corporations using large data sets of human behavior to model and influence outcomes in favor of their business models. Technology to anonymize or combat what I see as an eventual abuse of human behavior might be one solution. I am also envisioning a future course that raises student awareness of how their behavior is used, studied, and exploited by big corporations. It would be a theory course with several modules on application. […]

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