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.