Friday, February 20, 2009

Practical Mind Control

Effective mind control (for any purpose) is not about making people do things they don't want to do. It's about changing what they want. Then they think they still have free will over their own decisions.

To accomplish this, simply expose them to your idea/product/meme repeatedly. Here's how it works:
  • The more we experience something, the better we can imagine it.
  • The better we can imagine something, the more we choose to think about it.
  • The more we think about something, the more it influences our actions.

The more we experience something, the better we can imagine it.
Our brains build representations of things as they receive data samples of those things; sensations physically change our mental hardware. The more samples from a particular data source (foods, music styles, visual art styles, places), the more accurate our mental representation of that source.

The better we can imagine something, the more we choose to think about it.
Our minds are attracted to some thoughts over others.  The question of which thoughts are most attractive can be answered by the theory of curiosity rewards: our brains produce internal rewards as long as they can improve at predicting new data. The better our mental representation of something, the more we are able to notice, appreciate, predict, and enjoy its complexities (for example, the complex flavor patterns in coffee, wine, chocolate, olives, and cheese). These situations can be intrinsically rewarding as long as we get better at understanding/predicting them. (When we can no longer improve, boredom ensues.)

Thus, we perform a type of unconscious mental rehearsal of a small subset of possible thoughts. Our attention is most focused on those ideas which provide the most rewarding progress towards better prediction, which tend to be the ones about which we have significant experience (and thus mental representation). As we continually gravitate towards those ideas, they become the easiest to recall.

(In some cases there might even be a positive feedback loop here: the better we can imagine something, the more it evokes curiosity rewards, the more we want to experience it, the more we do experience it, the better our mental representation, the better we can imagine it...  The process is bootstrapped by an outside force which provides the initial exposure, but this feedback loop keeps it going.)

The more we think about something, the more it influences our actions.
The burden of making a decision (e.g., which of several products to buy) is lessened by having a short list of options in mind.

If the cost of making a decision is factored in (which is usually the case), we must find a balance between picking the best option and minimizing the time needed to make the decision itself. The weighting of these two factors depends on the cost of the decision outcome vs. the cost of wasting time making the decision; we can afford to spend more time if the decision outcome is more important.

More exposure to/thinking about one option makes it easier to recall vs. others, which shortens the decision process, possibly to the point where the other options are not even worth recalling...

By the transitive property, we tend to choose things we have experienced most. Thus, to make people like/choose your idea/product/art, simply expose them to it repeatedly.

George Costanza utilizes this mind control technique in the Seinfeld episode The Chicken Roaster. Heather: "Alright George, I'll be honest. The first time we went out, I found you very irritating, but after seeing you for a couple of times, you sorta got stuck in my head... Co-stanza!" (to the tune of "By Mennen").

Note that this only works for emotionally/value neutral things.  If a person already has an aversion to something, simple exposure might not be enough to make it attractive. But repeated exposure to an initially neutral thing/place/idea tends to make it more attractive than other still-neutral options.

This is the essence of advertising in general, the idea that "any press is good press," and the rich-get-richer type of driving force behind all kinds of pop culture phenomena. It is practical on a personal level (self mind control) in terms of discovering new tastes. Our dislike for certain things should not be considered an intrinsic property of ourselves, but rather a set of tastes which we have not yet acquired. Expect not to like things at first; everything is an acquired taste which can be enjoyed with a certain amount of practice (although the investment might not always be worth the effort).


Johnnyburn said...

I used to not like olives. But every year at Thanksgiving I would try one.

Today I just bought some olives to put on a pizza.

Tyler Streeter said...

Good job mind controlling yourself. :)

Greg said...

Great post tyler. I'm always so adamant about getting people to try the things that I've developed a taste for and your post puts all that in context very eloquently.

I think there's an interesting parallel here with learning curves as well. Developing a taste for bleu cheese can be approached in many different ways. If someone jumps right in when they're 7 years old and tries some moldy cheese they might develop an aversion.

It certainly explains a lot of the complaints from Dinowaurs players. Since the multiplayer experience is hard to control, some people get mismatched and fight an unfair fight early on in the learning curve. If that happens, they usually say "this sucks! i hate this game!" just like they'd say "ugh, I hate bleu cheese!" even after they're 30 since they had that bad experience.

Not that Dinowaurs is as good as bleu cheese (is it spelled bleu?). I love blue cheese. Nomnomnom