Persuasion Technologies and the Challenge of Critical Thinking in the 21st Century

One of the recurring themes of my work on critical thinking is that we’re living in a time that is uniquely hostile to independent critical thought. This is due in part to the emergence of new persuasive technologies that are now routinely used by professional third parties to influence us.

Below are some links that help to explain what I mean by “persuasive technologies”, and the sorts of conversations that we need to start having:

1. On one of Sam Harris’s recent podcasts he had Tristan Harris on as a guest, who is an expert on how tech companies use behavioral science to influence behavior. Here’s a good essay by him:

Here’s the link to the podcast episode:

2. As a student, Tristan worked at the Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab, which studies and develops techniques for how computers can function as persuasive technologies. From the lab website: “This includes the design, research, and analysis of interactive computing products (computers, mobile phones, websites, wireless technologies, mobile applications, video games, etc.) created for the purpose of changing people‚Äôs attitudes or behaviors.”

Here’s a link to that lab:

3. The state of the art today is the intersection of digital media, personality psychology and “big data” collected through our social media and online activities, to allow businesses, governments and political campaigns to construct targeted, personalized persuasion messages delivered to your Facebook feed and other social media sources.

These are not shadowy conspiracies. The companies themselves seem happy to showcase their services and clients, though I’m sure the clients aren’t always happy when this becomes public. What is more secretive are the money sources behind these companies, which can be hard to track down.

The big stories recently involve targeted persuasion campaigns on behalf of the Brexit side and the Trump side, delivered by companies like Cambridge Analytica and SCL.

The writers of the articles below express serious concerns about the impact of this on democratic processes:

And here’s a recently published video essay on YouTube that covers much of this ground as well. You can tell from the ominous background music that the author isn’t happy about all this:

I’m equally fascinated and disturbed by these trends, but they’ve been building for a while. It just reinforces the need for a very new approach to critical thinking education in the 21st century.

This is all part of what I’ve called the “persuasion matrix” the surrounds each of us, the collective effect of all the messaging that is generated by a huge variety of sources that is intentionally or unintentionally designed to influence how each of us thinks and behaves.

As I say in an article on the Argument Ninja website,

“Critical thinking education has yet to acknowledge the challenge posed by the persuasion matrix.

More specifically, it has yet to acknowledge the challenge to critical thinking posed by the conjunction of two realities:

(1) that ordinary human psychology is prone to error in a myriad of ways, and vulnerable to a host of persuasion techniques that bypass conscious, rational deliberation, and

(2) that we live our lives in a persuasion matrix, much of which is engineered by third parties to exploit these very same vulnerabilities in human psychology.

This situation is deeply problematic from a critical thinking perspective. If we care about improving the quality of our thinking, and we care about being able to think for ourselves, then we should care about this.”

You can read that article here:

And you can support my work and my efforts to build tools that can help us resist these efforts to subvert our rational agency over here:


Kevin deLaplante