The Situationist

The Situation of Homogeneity

Posted by Adam Benforado on July 20, 2009

NudgeThis summer, I have finally gotten around to reading Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge and, unsurprisingly, there is much in the book that parallels situationist work.  Indeed, many (if not most) of the referenced social psychology experiments and dynamics should already be familiar to readers of this website.

One paragraph that I came across this morning particularly struck a chord with me because it took up a topic that I addressed not a month earlier in an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun: the problem with “collaborative filtering,” whereby consumers are given recommendations based on the preferences of others with identical tastes.  As Thaler and Sunstein explain,

[S]urprise and serendipity can be fun for people, and good for them too, and it may not be entirely wonderful if our primary source of information is about what people like us like.  Sometimes it’s good to learn what people unlike us like—and to see whether we might even like that.  If you like the mystery writer Robert B. Parker (and we agree that he’s great), collaborative filtering will probably direct you to other mystery writers (we suggest trying Lee Child, by the way), buy why not try a little Joyce Carol Oates, or maybe even Henry James?  If you’re a Democrat, and you like books that fit your predilections, you might want to see what Republicans think; no part can possibly have a monopoly on wisdom.  Public-spirited choice architects—those who run the daily newspaper, for example—know that it’s good to nudge people in directions that they might not have specifically chosen in advance.

As my op-ed, included below, suggests, Thaler and Sunstein’s faith in daily newspapers may be misplaced . . .

Segregating markets – and people

What do people interested in recent conservative attacks on federal appellate Judge Sonia Sotomayor buy? Portable pet carriers, moisturizing liquid hand soap, and flat screen televisions. The fact that I know this is not something I find comforting.

Let me explain. After I wrote a recent op-ed, a friend drew my attention to something at the bottom of the online version of the article. I have grown used to advertisements with my news and links to “most read articles,” but this seemed to raise the stakes. Alongside the helpful recommendation of other articles the newspaper imagined the reader might like based on her decision to read an op-ed on Supreme Court nominations was a list of “paired” products that other readers of the piece had purportedly purchased.

The list ought to be reassuring, I suppose: I would hate to think that readers were only purchasing catamarans and caviar. Still, I am not sure that this is an encouraging development.

True, the various technologies that make product linkage possible are not particularly mysterious or menacing. In a typicaAlso Readl scenario, when you visit a Web site, a tracking “cookie” may be placed on your computer. These cookies store data about the places you have visited on the Internet. By collecting such information for millions of people, advertisers know what individuals with an identical browsing history subsequently looked at and can direct you to the same page.

I wonder if it is good to assist individuals in this way – and, more specifically, for newspapers to be involved in this process.

Desire can be manufactured. Hummers can be sold to Manhattan housewives. Water that is by all measures inferior to that flowing out of the tap for free can be bottled and priced at $4 a pop.

Maybe readers of my op-ed do not really need or want a new flat screen TV, but what is the problem with a newspaper encouraging them to buy one? The paper makes a little revenue; Sam’s Club sells a TV; and the reader gets a fun status symbol.

The answer is that although “funneling” might be fairly harmless when it comes to being guided to other albums while shopping for a CD, the same may not be true on the broader scale. What does it mean for society when individuals who read the same articles are, as a result, encouraged to go to the same movies, wear the same clothes, drive the same cars, vacation in the same resorts and eat in the same restaurants?

Creating and reinforcing insular communities is likely to hurt us in the long run. Humans may gravitate toward those most like them, but we should resist the impulse to help the process along.

If I am going to be swayed into buying a product or watching a show, I would like to think that, at least, everyone else is being moved in the same way. In a country still deeply divided along racial, religious, economic, and ideological lines, wouldn’t it be nice if the liberal, black teenager in L.A. was encouraged to read the same book as the conservative, white soccer mom in Nashville?

How will we ever close the gaps, if we are constantly steered to opposite sides of the lunch counter?

* * *

To review previous Situationis posts discussing marketing, click here.

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2 Responses to “The Situation of Homogeneity”

  1. Thomas Wood said

    I acknowledge the profound and pervasive effect of the situation on human thought and behavior. We do well to recognize this effect and account for it. Yet there is more to our disagreements than the situation. “How will we ever close the gaps,” if we are consistently steered to opposing moral, ideological, and political intuitions by our different temperaments? We’ve got to keep our individual differences in mind even if they are difficult to tease apart from the situation. The self-segregation of people into distinct groups and markets by moral, ideological, and political interests is only partially an effect of the situation. The other profound influence is a basic and profound difference in individual temperament. Maybe this can be described as the “internal situation.” Nevertheless, the above quote might be read to imply that we do not need to take account of such individual differences. I think that would be a mistake.

  2. Thomas, Thanks for the comment. As you summarize, in general, when we talk about “situation” we are referencing both interior situation (largely unappreciated cognitive proclivities and structures) and exterior situation (external environmental forces). Both matter. And, in fact, the two are often entwined. For example, implicit racial bias (interior situation) may have its origins partially in the history of overt racism in society (exterior situation).

    As you suggest, when we offer policy prescriptions to societal ills, it is important to acknowledge this complexity.

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