Do We Truly Own our Own Minds?

On the need to reimagine social systems that protects our mind from conditioning by a handful of powerful entities

“When Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu or the government knows how to pull the strings of your heart and press the buttons of your brain, could you still tell the difference between your (own) self and their marketing experts?” asks Yuval Noah Harari, the popular author of several best-sellers including Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It seems we have dug ourselves deeper into the clutches of invisible forces that have the power to control our habits and opinions. In the last year alone, we have witnessed global alarm over large scale manipulation of people’s thoughts by Facebook and their fellow tech giants; rising levels of organised fake news campaigns on social media; increased control exercised on mainstream media and news outlets by their corporate owners; and of course, by authoritarian governments around the world.  

In this context, it would be interesting to look at the views of Edward Bernays, known as the father of Public Relations, on democracy. It sounded quite outrageous to many in the first half of the 20th century when he said, “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” But almost a century later, we have come to a pass where we can no longer dismiss his opinion on the power of propaganda, as his ideas continue to influence and shape our world long after his death in 1995, at the age of 103. Bernays practically shaped the modern PR industry; popularised Sigmund Freud in America and introduced his ideas to the world of advertising; overthrew a democratically elected government in Guatemala; and most famously, launched the hugely successful early campaigns to popularise smoking amongst women. On his 100th birthday, David Letterman asked him why he is called Doctor Edward Bernays despite having neither a doctorate nor a medical degree. Bernays laughed and explained, “people will believe me more if you call me doctor.” 

The biggest challenge for any attempt to create a fair and just society in the 21st century lies in the proclivity of the masses to come under blind beliefs and illusions. Democracy, the modern harbinger of such a society, itself is fundamentally built on an elusive idea – we are the true owners of our choices and hence the rightful recipients of their consequences. What Bernays understood almost a century before the modern tech giants is the insurmountable dominance of our subconscious over our conscious mind, arguably in a far more powerful way than his cousin, Sigmund Freud.  

Interestingly, the narrow idea of the human mind being defined by conscious thinking emerged only in the first half of 17th century under the influence of René Descartes, who said “I think, therefore I am”. Before that, the power of the unconscious was widely accepted in both eastern and western schools of science and philosophy. In his insightful masterpiece on how the human mind produces original creations, The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler calls this school of thought unleashed by Descartes, “an impoverishment of psychology which it took three centuries to remedy even in part.” Four centuries later, not only are we witnessing the limits of Descartes’ ideas but reaping the dire consequences of having been fooled by them for so long. And, we see why we must take Harari’s warning seriously: “As biotechnology and machine learning improve, it will become easier to manipulate people’s deepest emotions and desires, and it will become more dangerous than ever to just follow your heart.”  

I know what you’re thinking – This sounds all too dystopian and pessimistic. Surely, we are more empowered as individuals than we’ve ever been in the history of humanity, right? Well, I agree with you, but with a caveat. We have more opportunities to empower ourselves than ever before. However, we are also at the receiving end of the strongest ever incursion on the human mind. Everything from news to entertainment is increasingly being shaped not to inform and empower but to sculpt the right set of habits and opinions that make us willing participants in an organised transfer of power and wealth to the invisible forces, who Bernays identified as the true rulers of any society.  What makes this attempt to turn our own minds against us more dangerous than anything we’ve witnessed in the past, is the potent mix of three ingredients that are coming together for the first time in history: 

  1. Global connectivity: We now have over 3 billion smartphone users in the world and a vast majority of them are connected to the Internet. This has made it possible for us to spread a piece of information to billions of people within a matter of hours – a scale previously unimaginable.  
  2. External tools to understand and hack our behaviour in a scalable way: Large scale access to data about our behaviour (from our activity on the internet to our commercial transactions within a digital banking system) and the emergence of sophisticated machine learning algorithms to extract patterns hidden in these data has given rise to powerful tools that allow their owners to model and predict the way in which different types of information influences the way each of us behave. For those of you who are curious, you can get a glimpse into a tiny sliver of insights that go into the development of such tools in Nir Eyal’s short book Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products
  3. An outrageously disproportionate concentration of power and resources in the hands of a few: Today, a handful of companies and individuals control a vast majority of global capital and resources. For instance, a 2017 Oxfam study revealed that the richest 8 men owned more wealth than the 3.7 billion people at the bottom of our economic strata. What this immense inequality in power gives way to is the ability to experiment with the masses without any real threat of losing power. This is extremely important because our ability to understand and control any natural or social system is fuelled by our ability to experiment; to engage in trial and error with the forces governing the system until we discover some new truth about the system – whether it’s a new force like gravity or a new way to influence people’s minds like the infamous ‘dopamine-driven feedback loops’ at the centre of Facebook’s phenomenal growth and addictive power. Historically, people in power have constantly faced the threat of their choices provoking large-scale retaliation from the masses or by a competitor, in a way that threatens their power in a real way. Today, as seen in the recent inquiries against Facebook by several governments around the world including the United States Congress, even when we find the powerful guilty, the penalties we can impose on them hardly seem significant in comparison with the amount of power they have already amassed. 

Never before in the history of our planet have we faced these three circumstances at the same time. You take any one of these three circumstances away and the threat suddenly seems conquerable. The simultaneous existence of all three conditions is what makes it so dangerous. 

Irrespective of whether you think I have exaggerated or barely done justice to the graveness of this threat to our ownership of our own mind, you are likely to be gripped by the same question as I am – How do we defend ourselves against the invisible forces that are competing to understand and hack our minds at a scale never seen before?  

Harari seems to think the answer lies in jumping into the competition ourselves – “To succeed in such a daunting task, you will need to work very hard on getting to know your operating system better. To know what you are, and what you want from life. This is, of course, the oldest advice in the book: know thyself. For thousands of years, philosophers and prophets have urged people to know themselves. But this advice was never more urgent than in the 21st century, because unlike in the days of Laozi or Socrates, now you have serious competition. Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu and the government are all racing to hack you.” 

Unfortunately, not all unconscious influences on our behaviour are disarmed by our awareness of them. Even when they are, it is rarely significant unless we have invested enough effort in rewiring the underlying neural pathways in our brain that drive these influences in the first place. As an example, let me show you an infographic that captures a small number of cognitive biases that hijack our conscious thinking – a vast majority of these cognitive biases are known to retain their ability to influence us even after we become aware of them.

Licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

How then, can we escape the forces that are rapidly taking over our choices – who to vote for, what to buy, who we find sexy and even what is moral? The honest answer is, I don’t know. But a hopeful exploration takes me back to a mathematical simulation I had designed during my undergraduate years. The simulation used mathematical models from evolutionary biology to simulate how a colony of honey bees will evolve with time1.  

It consisted a diverse population of bees genetically programmed to employ different behavioural strategies that they were known to exhibit in real life. The population included worker bees, queen bees, male bees, cheater bees and policing bees.  

It was the cheater bees that caught my fancy because they generally fared better than their counterpart worker bees, except when there were too many policing bees around who were programmed to kill or banish a bee if it was caught cheating. In most colonies, the ratio of policing bees to cheater bees would eventually settle at an equilibrium after a few generations.  

At one point, I introduced an artificial strategy that is never found in honey bees, but is very common among humans. I called the strategy deception. A deceiving bee would have the ability to tell when a policing bee is around and use that information to actively switch between behaving like a cheater bee and behaving like a regular worker bee. The moment I introduced such a bee into a colony, the simulation showed that deceiving bees took over a majority of the colony within a few generations. The regular worker bees, who otherwise formed the majority of the colony, were simply helpless against deception as a strategy. Interestingly enough, the act of cheating itself did not increase dramatically because the maximum amount of cheating that was possible in a colony was determined by the percentage of policing bees rather than the percentage of cheating bees.  

In the next round, I modified the deceiving bees by giving them the ability to actively police the colony against any behaviour that was harmful for their own personal survival and propagation – let’s call it aggressive deception. Now, when it noticed that another bee was engaged in policing, it tried to police the policing bee. This new breed eventually replaced all worker bees and police bees within the colony. However, the amount of cheating came down to almost zero, because now, the colony was filled with deceiving bees that also doubled up as policers against another bee’s deception. As paradoxical as it seems, an outbreak of aggressive deception had restored fairness and justice (or at least, the honey bee versions of these ideas) within the colony! 

Of course, it would be unreasonable to expect the outcomes of a mathematical simulation to comprehensively explain what happens in a real colony of honey bees, let alone in a civilisation of human beings. However, the popularity of such simulations in the realm of research can be attributed to their ability to offer powerful insights about the general direction in which real-world behaviours are likely to evolve. Let us look at 3 insights that are particularly relevant to our agenda of building social systems that are immune to large-scale manipulation: 

1. The original policing bees had the ability to become aware of an unfair act in their presence. They even had the ability to police such an act. However, their awareness and willingness to act on that awareness did not give them any special advantage over their peers when it comes to survival and propagation. Therefore, they failed to spread their good traits to rest of the colony. This is where I feel Harari’s suggestion falls short of what’s required to truly make our society immune to manipulative forces that undermine our sense of agency and freedom. 

2. The surviving bees in the simulation had all the abilities that were previously distributed among different types of bees – worker bees, policing bees and cheating bees. This symmetry in abilities seems more important than a symmetry in information or awareness. This is in sharp contrast with the direction in which our society has evolved in the last century. With every new technological advancement, we have championed the cause of universal access without ensuring that our social systems are taking up the responsibility of developing a universal ability to make use of these advancements. Let’s take the example of universal Internet access, which was once perceived to be the great equaliser of inequalities. Several studies in recent years have shown how educated people on high incomes derive far greater benefits from using the internet than low-income people from socially deprived backgrounds, even when they have the same levels of access and internet skills2. One might argue that we can extend the same argument to include any movements that champion access and rights over abilities and knowledge. 

3. Even though the final colony largely consisted of bees that had similar abilities, the transition towards the new bee-society was driven primarily by the unequal, unfair advantage that the new traits gave certain bees within the colony. This makes me wonder if our own transition to a better society might involve adopting the same strategies that our invisible overlords employ to influence our minds.  

From democracy to education, all our modern social systems were designed in an era where none of the three levers existed. I believe it is not only imperative but also urgent for us to reimagine all our major social systems for this new reality. Here is where I must confess that I believe Harari’s suggestion of knowing oneself is not enough. As blasphemous as it may seem, we may need to reimagine our social systems in a way that understands and exploits the three levers in very much the same way the current tech giants and superpowers are attempting to do. While a long-term solution would involve educating and empowering all human beings with such knowledge and tools, our early defence might look very similar to the strategies that helped a handful of companies become powerful enough to shape billions of minds in such a short time. Extending the analogy, maybe all we’ll need to kickstart such a revolution will be a few dozen groups of influential people committed to transform most of our social systems in an equally swift and powerful way. Ironically, this transformation too might come about without the conscious participation of the masses, at least during the initial stages of transition. In the end, Bernays might have the last laugh after all –  

“In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.” 

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