As Cambridge Analytica and related stories have unfolded over the past few weeks, I’ve wrestled with a particularly troubling prospect: that these breaches of privacy are validation of changing beliefs and thought patterns.

Cambridge Analytica admitted to creating ads, blogs and articles to convince users (their test subjects) that some ideal was true, successfully changing these users’ opinions. This is a very powerful concept – one that we as marketers need to take very seriously. We grew up with marketers trying to convince us that Coca-Cola was better than Pepsi and vice versa, but today we’re faced with organizations actually changing our fundamental beliefs.

While this treads into sci-fi territory, a Harvard Medical School research study is showing this is completely plausible and likely. In the study, a group of adult volunteers – none of whom could previously play the piano – were split into three groups and sent into three identical rooms with identical pianos:

1.     The first group was given intensive piano practice for five days

2.     The second group was given nothing to do with the piano at all

3.     The last group was told to simply imagine that they were practicing piano exercises for the next five days

Unsurprisingly, the brains of group #2 showed no structural changes while those in group #1 showed marked structural changes in the area of the brain associated with finger movement.

What was truly astonishing was that group #3 saw changes in brain structure that were almost as pronounced as those who actually had lessons and practice. "The power of imagination" is not a metaphor, it seems – it’s real and has physical evidence thanks to our brains.

This is where Facebook, its programming structure, and its user habits may be a strong culprit for some of the societal trends we are witness to.

Facebook encourages “friends,” and as humans we gravitate to people with similar beliefs, backgrounds, schooling, occupations, and especially values. We are less attracted to a friend with opposing thoughts – especially those who challenge the constitution of our thoughts and beliefs. This is most evident at the extremes (e.g., an individual with white supremacist beliefs is unlikely to immerse themselves in LGBTQ+ communities).

What this tends to encourage is a reinforcement of group beliefs – a digital mob mentality that is aiding in the increased polarization of society.

As one Oxford University researcher describes it, we need to pay attention to how the technological communication paths affect us:

“… one vital fact I have learnt (in my day-to-day research at Oxford University) is that the brain is not the unchanging organ that we might imagine. It not only goes on developing, changing and, in some tragic cases, eventually deteriorating with age, it is also substantially shaped by what we do to it and by the experience of daily life. When I say ‘shaped,’ I'm not talking figuratively or metaphorically; I'm talking literally. At a microcellular level, the infinitely complex network of nerve cells that make up the constituent parts of the brain actually changes in response to certain experiences and stimuli.” - Professor Susan Greenfield

Awareness of these communication paths and how these influences affect the microcellular structure and biochemistry of our brains could encourage further studies on how social influence affects both children and adults and help us prepare for the ongoing effects.

I firmly believe this knowledge can be used to benefit our society. From the large strides being noted in the plant-based/vegan movement, women’s empowerment, and the student anti-gun movement developing in the U.S…. social media is flexing its muscles and showing how solidarity can change a nation’s beliefs and even stretching globally. How much more could Dr. David Suzuki have accomplished to reduce the effects our pollution if he had today’s social media platform – even Netflix – to share his messages from The Nature of Things TV program. He could have rallied an entire movement with ease.

What to do with this information today?

We all need to be conscious of the power and ability to alter thought patterns and affect the microcellular structure of our brains. As marketers, we need to be cautious to not overstep the line between good marketing and biochemical alterations… or good old “brainwashing.” We all need to take a collective stand about the ethical and responsible use of knowledge and data.

About Ursula Green

Halmyre Vice-President Ursula Green, CM is a chief experience officer and is deeply committed to working for our clients' clients. She is an expert in strategic customer-centric service design, analysis and ideation. Ursula is a member of the Canadian Marketing Association (CMA) 2020--22 and is an active member of the CMA - Customer Experience Council. Previously, Ursula has worked for a wide range of brands from household names such as BMW, Mastercard, Home Depot and Canon to service-based organizations such as Women's College Hospital and Confederation College. 

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