The Persuasion Matrix and the Challenge of Critical Thinking
Critical thinking skills are obviously important on an individual level. Collectively, they’re important for democratic citizenship, solving social problems and advancing human progress.
However, with respect to critical thinking skills in the general population, and critical thinking education, we have a serious problem.
We’re Much Poorer Critical Thinkers Than We Think We Are
In general, we feel that we’re good critical thinkers (better than average, in fact) and that we’re responsible for our own beliefs, values and choices.
Unfortunately, decades of scientific studies on human rationality show that most of us are much poorer critical thinkers than we believe ourselves to be, and that most of our judgment and decision-making is governed by cognitive processes of which we are not consciously aware.
The good news is that the study of cognitive biases over the last 40 years provides a theoretical framework for improving human reasoning and mitigating their negative effects, leading to so-called “debiasing” strategies.
The bad news is that this same body of natural and social science also provides a powerful set of tools for influencing, manipulating and exploiting people.
The Persuasion Industry
We receive signals from many sources telling us what to think and how to act.
A certain amount of this messaging is embedded in the ordinary institutional norms and social conventions that we learn from our parents, our peers, our schools, our legal institutions, and so on.
But a large portion of this messaging is generated by high-powered, intentionally designed persuasion campaigns orchestrated by a thousands of commercial and non-commercial sources.
There is in fact a large and powerful persuasion industry devoted to the application of persuasion science to influencing the public in the service of “third party” interests: advertisers, marketers, politicians, activists, the media, and so on.
We receive their messages when we consume any commercial media, when we walk the aisles of any store, when we listen to the news and browse the internet … when we go about the daily business of our lives.
The Persuasion Matrix
Imagine all the messaging that is generated by all these various sources, that is intentionally or unintentionally designed to influence how each of us thinks and behaves.
I call this collective field of influence the “persuasion matrix”.
Each of us lives in our own persuasion matrix (when you zoom in on specific sensory input/behavioral output relations attached to an individual), and collectively we inhabit a shared persuasion matrix (when you scale up and look at the aggregate effects of persuasive messaging in a given cultural environment).
The term is intended to evoke the concept popularized in the movie The Matrix, that our ordinary perceptions of the world are to some extent engineered by forces outside of ourselves. It’s a helpful analogy, though of course I’m not saying we all live in a computer simulation (that may or may not be true … I’m just not saying that here :))
The persuasion matrix has a profound influence on our beliefs, our values and our actions.
The Persuasion Matrix and the Challenge of Critical Thinking
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.
Objections and Replies
Some may argue that I’m just describing ordinary processes of human socialization, and that there’s nothing problematic about any of this. We’re all socialized into some worldview, after all.
Others may object that this all sounds too conspiratorial, that I’m claiming that the public is being manipulated by mind-controlling puppeteers in the service of corporate and government elites.
I think the right perspective lies somewhere in the middle.
Yes, there’s something natural and inevitable about this. The cognitive biases that make us prone to error are mostly adaptive, they evolved for a reason. And normal human development requires a process of social learning that is largely outside our control.
But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aspire to avoid or correct errors when we can, or to critique the parochial perspective of our upbringing or the culture in which we find ourselves.
And yes, there’s a sense in which I do believe that corporate and government elites intentionally employ tools for manipulating public perception.
But by itself, this is just a mundane fact of modern life.
There are millions of people working in thousands of different types of jobs that can be described in these terms. Advertiser, marketer, copywriter, lobbyist, public relations advisor, communications strategist, speech writer, publicity agent, social media manager, campaign strategist … these are ordinary jobs, held by ordinary people, whose activities collectively shape the persuasion matrix. You don’t need to add conspiracy theories involving shadowy elites and hidden “new world order” agendas to account for what I’m talking about.
We live in what some have called an “age of propaganda”, where control of information and perception has become a ubiquitous component of modern economic activity and modern governance. The persuasion matrix is simply a manifestation of this collective social and economic activity.
Of course, some social forces have greater impact on the matrix than others, and there’s room to speculate about who the largest players are and what methods they’re using. But my claims about the existence of this persuasion matrix, the extent of its influence on how we think and act, and its impact on our ability to think critically and independently for ourselves, are independent of this kind of speculation.
The main problem I have with most critical thinking education programs is that they either fail to acknowledge any of this, or they acknowledge it in a purely nominal way, with no impact on how they teach critical thinking.
I’m creating the Argument Ninja program because I take this issue seriously. The Argument Ninja curriculum is designed to address it head-on.