Mindf*ck: Politics, Psychology and Social Media

In 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal shocked the world. It became clear that Cambridge Analytica had used data from tens of million Facebook users, to influence the elections in the US, and the Brexit referendum

Christopher Wylie, the ‘creative genius’ behind Cambridge Analytica, later became the most important whistleblower. Late 2019, he published a book about his activities for Cambridge Analytica with the brash title ‘Mindf*ck’. 

The book is a fascinating mix of an autobiography, a description of the scandal, a thriller and a portrait of our current society. The most valuable and interesting part of the book consist of Christopher Wylie’s observations about the interlinkages between psychology, sociology, politics, and social media.

Psychological traits and voting behavior

Common wisdom has it that the voting behavior of individuals can be predicted by demographics, e.g. the income, ethnicity, religion, gender and education of voters. The limitations of relying on demographics to predict the outcome of elections can be illustrated by three recent examples:

  • Hillary Clinton taking the Latino vote for granted in the 2016 US presidential elections
  • The collapse of Labour’s red wall in the 2019 elections in the UK
  • The immediate reaction of a number of members of the black community in the US on Joe Biden’s statement: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black” 

What Christopher Wylie discovered, working with the Liberal Democratic Party in the UK (‘LibDem’), was that the psychological ‘type’ of the individual voter is often a much better, and sometimes the only, predictor of voting behavior. 

In order to describe the psychological type of voters, Christopher Wylie’s used the ‘big five’, a grouping of personality traits in five dimensions:

  1. Openness to experience
  2. Conscientiousness
  3. Extroversion
  4. Agreeableness
  5. Neuroticism

These personality traits are present in all human beings, but the degree to which we have them, as well as the combination, defines our psychological type.

Christopher Wylie demonstrated the value of psychological profiles in predicting election results, by predicting, already in 2011, why the Liberal Democratic Party would lose so much in the next general elections.

What he discovered was that, compared to Labor or Conservative voters, LibDem voters scored higher on ‘Openness’ and lower on ‘Agreeableness’. When Wylie further explored the lower score on ‘Agreeableness’ he discovered LibDem voters could be described as ‘ideological’, ‘stubborn’, and having an ‘aversion of compromises’. 

However, given the fact that the Liberal Democrats were in a coalition government with the Conservatives, the Liberal Democratic Party had to agree to a number of compromises. Given what Wylie had discovered about the psychological profile of LibDem voters, it is no wonder that the 2015 elections were catastrophic for the Liberal Democratic Party.

Using psychological traits to frame messages

When Christopher Wylie started working in the US for Cambridge Analytica, he developed techniques to use the psychological traits of voters to frame messages in elections. 

For example, one of the things he found was that, on the big 5, Republican voters generally scored low on openness and high on conscientiousness. This meant that, if they disagreed with an extreme opinion of a Republican candidate on a specific point, a statement like: ‘You may not agree with me regarding this point (= low openness), but at least you know where I stand for’ (= high conscientiousness), worked very well in convincing them to vote for this candidate.

The Dark triad

Later, Cambridge Analytica actively started using a set of personality traits called the ‘dark triad’.  The dark triad consists of:

  • Narcissism (lack of empathy)
  • Machiavellianism (manipulation)
  • Psychopathy (egotistical) 

The difference between ‘the big five’ of personality traits, and traits of the dark triad, is that the big five are present in all people, but the dark triads are ‘maladaptive’. This means that people who exhibit them are generally more inclined to antisocial behavior.

One way to exploit the ‘dark triads’ of individuals, is to appeal to feelings of anger.

Exploiting anger

Appealing to people’s anger is extremely powerful, because people who are angry are not interested in information anymore to steer their behaviour and decision making, and underestimate risks or negative outcomes (i.e. anger is stronger than fear). 

This explains for instance the power of the ‘Take Back Control’ slogan of the UK Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum. This slogan, which appealed to feelings of anger, proved to be much more powerful than the rational self-interest arguments about the expected negative economic impact of the Remain campaign, which played to feelings of fear.

Appealing to feelings of anger in elections is not only useful to ascertain people vote for a specific party or candidate, it is also useful to prevent people from voting altogether. It is extremely difficult in election campaigns to move ‘hard core’ Democates to vote Republican, or vice versa. It is much easier however, to convince ‘hard core’ Democrates or Republicans not to vote at all, by seeding doubts about the candidate representing their party.

Life as a zero-sum game?

A powerful way to stir this anger is by playing to people’s beliefs that life is a zero-sum game. In political messaging, this can be accomplished by stating that, if another group gets more (e.g. refugees and illegal immigrants), the group you belong to will get less. 

To put it in simple terms, making people believe that the size of the cake remains the same, instead of becoming bigger, will fuel people’s concerns about the fairness of the distribution of the cake.

Two important examples of factors that form a welcome basis to trigger feelings of anger around zero-sum games in our current society, are globalization and identity-based polarization.

  • Globalization – It would be fair to say that not everyone in the Western society benefits from globalization. Figures from the Economist (a magazine you can hardly accuse of anti-globalism) clearly show for instance the devastating effect globalization had for instance on factory workers in the US. Globalization is also seen as one of the most important reasons why so many UK voters voted Leave in the Brexit referendum.To quote Larry Elliott in the Guardian (not exactly a right wing newspaper): ‘The EU has failed to protect its population from a global economic model that many believe is not working for them’.
  • Polarization – Given the fact that in our current society everyone is acutely (made) aware of the group(s) he or she belongs to, and the increasing polarization between these groups, it is no wonder that triggering the psychological traits of individuals by appealing to their identity is so powerful. An associated problem Christopher Wylie highlights in his book is ‘Identity Motivated Reasoning’; people accepting or rejecting information based on how it builds or threatens their identity, rather than on the quality of the information itself.

The importance of Facebook

Contrary to LinkedIn and Twitter, personally I find Facebook a boring social media platform. The only reason I started to use it a couple of years ago was because a client of mine was using it for employee branding, and, … because I was fascinated by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Nowadays it mainly serves me as a channel to stay in contact with relatives and friends who live in other parts of the world.

However, looking at the user base (more than 2.6 billion users), and the importance of personality traits, it is not surprising to see why Cambridge Analytica was so interested in obtaining Facebook profiles from voters to target election messages.

The power of Facebook is that it records what users are interested in (by clicking on ‘links’) and what they like (by giving ‘likes’). This data is unbiased and much richer than data collected by an interviewer or researcher. According to Michal Kosinski (a scientist who provided services to Cambridge Analytica), with a knowledge of 150 Facebook likes, his model could predict someone’s personality better than their spouse. With 300, the model could understand it better than the users themselves.

Read this book!

The book contains much more interesting notions about our society than I can share in this post, for instance on the relationship between culture, politics and … fashion. Therefore, if you only are going to read one business book this summer, I can highly recommend this one!

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Happy reading!

© Dirk Verburg 2020

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