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?