Does advertising erode free will

Ah…now here’s the nub of the argument: advertisements erode free will, they are manipulations designed to subvert conscious judgement (I paraphrase Clay Shirky at Edge.org). Shirky mentions one particular judgement bias, that of super-sizing, but the general form of bias should be familiar to anyone who has been reading Mind Hacks, and/or my recent posts about advertising (like this one). Quoting Shirky


Consider the phenomenon of ‘super-sizing’, where a restaurant patron is offered the chance to increase the portion size of their meal for some small amount of money. This presents a curious problem for the concept of free will ‚Äî the patron has already made a calculation about the amount of money they are willing to pay in return for a particular amount of food. However, when the question is re-asked, ‚Äî not “Would you pay $5.79 for this total amount of food?” but “Would you pay an additional 30 cents for more french fries?” ‚Äî patrons often say yes, despite having answered “No” moments before to an economically identical question. Super-sizing is expressly designed to subvert conscious judgment, and it works.

Shirky believes this is much more serious than just unfair advertising.

Our legal, political, and economic systems, the mechanisms that run modern society, all assume that people are uniformly capable of consciously modulating their behaviors…[These] days are now ending, and everyone from advertisers to political consultants increasingly understands, in voluminous biological detail, how to manipulate consciousness in ways that weaken our notion of free will.

In the coming decades, our concept of free will, based as it is on ignorance of its actual mechanisms, will be destroyed by what we learn about the actual workings of the brain

Previously I argued that creating changes in people’s behaviour didn’t necessarily mean that people were being coerced, or that their will was being taken away from them. The demonstration of influences on behaviour doesn’t knock down any strong version of free will – the kind of free will which is entirely unaffected by anything else doesn’t seem like a variety of free will worth wanting.

People faced a similar dilemma in the nineteenth century when statistics were first compiled of suicides. If we can predict from census records that the number of suicides in a parish in a year will be around seven, where does that leave the free will of those who ‘choose’ to kill themselves that year? Are you taking away the freedom of the seven people who now have to die to fulfil your prediction? (Philip Ball discusses the science and philosophy of this in his book, Critical Mass). Most people, now, would probably be happy to say that just calculating the statistic doesn’t effect anything. But with the case of interventions – either marketing strategies or psychology experiments – which have the explicit purpose of changing behaviour, it isn’t so clear that we can happily say that individual freedom isn’t being unfairly manipulated. Cialdini’s point about suicide contagion makes me worry that there is no clear line between persuasion and coercion, between biasing people’s judgements in small ways, over unimportant decisions, and fundamentally changing the way people make decisions about some of the most important things in life.

I’m happy to throw my hands up at this point and say I’ve no idea what the right way to resolve this is. Free will seems to dissolve as you draw away from it – as an individual I don’t feel manipulated, but when i look at other people – especially groups of other people, it seems like I can see manipulation going on. Has anyone got any useful conceptual structures I can borrow to see me through this?

3 thoughts on “Does advertising erode free will”

  1. I don’t know if the issue can be resolved without answering the question, “to what extent are our freely made daily thoughts and behaviors under conscious control?”. Is conscious decision really an efficaceous process or is it an after-the-fact expression/justification/rationalization of unconscious processes? If it is the latter, then one might hold that there is no meaningful sense in which any free, conscious will exists to be subverted in the first place.
    For instance, take the fellow who doesn’t want to pay $5.79 for his food until the purchase is framed in terms of super-sizing. What formed his decision not to pay $5.79 in the first place? Perhaps the initial decision itself was informed largely by subconscious influences, e.g. appraisals and attitudes about thriftiness and the quality of food at this restaurant and so on that may have been acquired subtly through environmental influences. If this is the case, then the primary difference between the initial thrifty decision and the subsequent super-sizing decision may just be that the latter was caused by a more immediate and intentional influence, while still operating largely by the same general mechanisms that form our everyday, ‘free’ decisions.

  2. I haven’t read Elbow Room, but if you’re looking for a framework for a deterministic defense of free will, Freedom Evolves certainly tries hard to oblige. And the interpretation he lays out there supports a conjecture that I like anyway, which is that it’s not just free will that seems to dissolve as you draw away from it (or, I would argue, toward it), but composition as well. Freedom Evolves is, uh, characteristically verbose, but the quick and dirty is that he uses the emergent behavior of cellular automata to back up his idea that free will and determinism are compatible (at least for Dennett’s notion of free will). I think Ilya Prigogine indirectly offers a pretty good empirical framework too, in Time’s Arrow. I don’t remember whether Dennett mentions him though.
    The line between coercion and persuasion is tough… I’d second what Brian said. I don’t know that you can tackle that with anything but a testable definition of each term, which I guess means that you get to use your free will to decide where the line is anyway 😉

  3. I’m pretty happy with how free will can be compatible with physical determinism – or at least happy enough not to worry about the seeming contradiction! It is at the level of *psychological* determinism that i’m wondering how we can reconcile the demonstrable effect of advertising with our perception that we are in control, and are not forced into any choices that we don’t want (or aren’t we?)

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