Friday, May 10, 2019

"Choice Architecture" Exploiting the Unconscious, Irrational YOU

Digital Platforms and Behavioural Science. Cause we really are just there to be exploited for maximum profit.

"Uber's business model is incredibly simple: It's a platform that facilitates exchanges between people. And Uber's been incredibly successful at it, almost eliminating the transaction costs of doing business in everything from shuttling people around town to delivering food.

This is one of the reasons Uber will soon be among the most valuable companies in the world after its shares began trading on the New York Stock Exchange on May 10.

Yet its expected US$82.4 billion market capitalization may pale in comparison to the wealth of user data it's accumulating. If you use Uber – or perhaps even if you don't – it knows a treasure trove of data about you, including your location, gender, spending history, contacts, phone battery level and even whether you're on the way home from a one-night stand. It may soon know whether you're drunk or not.
Image here

While that's scary enough, combine all that data with Uber's expertise at analyzing it through the lens of behavioral science and you have a dangerous potential to exploit users for profit.

Uber's hardly alone. Our research shows the biggest digital platforms – Airbnb, Facebook, eBay and others – are collecting so much data on how we live, that they already have the capability to manipulate their users on a grand scale. They can predict behavior and influence our decisions on where to click, share and spend."

 "Choice architecture"

A platform can be any space that facilitates transactions between buyers and sellers. Traditional examples include flea markets and trading floors.

A digital platform serves the same purpose but gives the owner the ability to "mediate" its users while they're using it – and often when they're not. By that we mean it can observe and learn an incredible amount of information about user behavior in order to perfect what behavioral scientists call "choice architectures," inconspicuous design elements intended to influence human behavior through how decisions are presented.
 For example, Uber has experimented with its drivers to determine the most effective strategies for keeping them on the road as long as possible. These strategies include playing into cognitive biases such as loss aversion and overestimating low probability events, even if a driver is barely earning enough money to make it worth her while. Drivers end up like gamblers at a casino, urged to play just a little longer despite the odds.

Uber didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Airbnb also experiments with its users. It has used behavioral science to get hosts to lower their rates and accept bookings without screening guests – which creates real risks for hosts, particularly when they are sharing their own apartment.

While these examples seem relatively benign, they demonstrate how digital platforms are able to quietly design systems to direct users' actions in potentially manipulative ways.
And as platforms grow, they only become better choice architects. With its IPO's huge influx of investor money to fund more data and behavioral science, Uber could move into dangerously unethical territory – easy to imagine given its past practices.

For example, if the app recognizes that you are drunk or in a neighborhood you rarely travel to – and one that its data show is high in crime – it could charge you a higher rate, knowing you're unlikely to refuse.

Legal challenges

And it's not all speculation.

In an effort to deceive law enforcement trying to investigate the company, Uber actually found a way to identify government regulators trying to use its app and then prevented them from getting rides.
That's one reason lawmakers and regulators have been discussing the difficult, interrelated roles of behavioral science and tech for years. And some companies, Uber in particular, have been investigated for a host of bad business practices, from discrimination to misusing user data.

 An ethical code

One solution, in our view, is establishing an ethical code for platform companies to follow. And if they don't adopt it willingly, investors, employees and users could demand it.

Since the mid-20th century, written codes of ethical conduct have been a staple of U.S. companies. The legal and medical professions have relied on them for millennia. And research suggests they are effective at encouraging ethical behavior at companies.

We reviewed hundreds of ethical codes, including ones targeted at tech and computing companies. Based on our research, we urge digital platforms to adopt five ethical guidelines:

    *All choice architecture employed on a platform should be fully transparent. Platforms should disclose when they are using the tools of behavioral science to influence user behavior
    *Users should be able to make choices on the platform freely and easily, and choice architects should limit behavioral interventions to reminders or prompts that are the least harmful to user autonomy
   * Platforms should avoid "nudging" users in ways that exploit unconscious and irrational decision making based on impulse and emotion. New research shows that transparent choice architecture can work just as well
    *Platforms should recognize the power they possess and take care not to exploit the markets they've created, including by abusing information asymmetries between themselves and users or opposing reasonable regulations
    *Platforms should avoid using choice architecture that discourages users from acting in their own best interests. As Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Richard Thaler put it, we should only "nudge for good."
Well those preceding points sure read well. They're all warm, fuzzy and ethical sounding.
So nice.  But, will they be adopted? Not a way in hell!
They defeat the very purpose, the very reason, the user is being manipulated. For PROFIT.
Big tech and behavioral science are now integrated in ways that are making companies wildly successful, from buzzing toothbrushes that make cleaning your teeth seem rewarding to using texts to nudge poorer mothers to use health care.
While the results can significantly enhance our lives, it also makes it easier than ever for companies to manipulate users to enhance their bottom lines.
The second image is from this article:  

Big Brother in Your Pocket- How Police use your cellphone to track you

"What bothers far fewer people is the practice of carrying, at all times in their pocket, a cell phone that permits their every move to be monitored. You'd think, given the Constitution's Fourth Amendment protections, that law enforcement would need a warrant to access such information.
But you'd be wrong.
As the New York Times reports, "Law enforcement tracking of cellphones, once the province mainly of federal agents, has become a powerful and widely used surveillance tool for local police officials, with hundreds of departments, large and small, often using it aggressively with little or no court oversight."


  1. Hi Penny: Thanks for the post. It reminded me of how much I love certain advantages of being old and outdated; having no inclination at all to use Uber, Airbnb, a cellphone, social media sites, or a ridiculous buzzing toothbrush! It's bad enough being harassed in all the best shops for my phone number, postal code, and/or becoming a member of a "points" system. But even by avoiding all of this, we'd be kidding ourselves if we thought we weren't on more data lists than one could shake a stick at.

    1. Hey Yaya:

      The best we can do is avoid as much as possible, because, you're right- We have the electricity meter spying on us.

      Then all the banking,health, revenue... information of that sort is all on some data list.

      Reading that article kind of creeped me out- how insidious it all is- and how little thought the vast majority of the population gives to what is actually being done to them