The Principle’s Office: Big tech is exploiting your unconscious biases for votes

By: Julia Leb

There is an unfortunate disconnect between those who admit that cognitive biases exist and those who actively counteract their own biases. In my experience, there are two reasons for this. We are quick to make lofty statements about the momentous influence of bias on other people’s decisions, but somehow we also believe that we are exempt from these cognitive pitfalls. Or, we are vaguely aware of the systemic imperfections in our judgement and simply opt out of improving them. 

Regardless of one’s rationalization of choice, with Election Day around the corner, it might be useful to get specific about a common cognitive bias so that you can let it seep into your brain and become a part of  your decision-making process. 

The cognitive bias of the day is called the availability heuristic. Heuristics are largely unconscious mental shortcuts that your brain takes in order to avoid doing excess work and concentrate on the most necessary parts of cognitive processes. The availability heuristic is something that your brain does to bypass operations involving calculating probabilities and likelihoods. Instead of assessing the actual frequency of an event or considering the factors involved in creating an event, your brain will often predict the likelihood of an occurrence based on how easily the occurrence can be recalled. Thus, if something is hard to remember, you’re less likely to think that it will happen, regardless of how frequently that thing actually occurs. 

A study published in Cognitive Psychology illustrates this effect clearly. Participants were asked whether words that start with “K” were more common than words whose third letter was “K.” Seventy percent of participants believed that words starting with “K” were more frequent. Seventy percent of participants were wrong. This is because it is much easier to summon words starting with ”K” to mind than scan the length of various categories of words to check if their third letter is “K.” In other words, most people used the availability heuristic to determine which outcome was most likely and in this case, it caused an unjustified bias toward words that begin with the letter “K.” 

Within the framework of an election happening under the rule of quasi-technocrats such as Mark Zuckerberg, the importance of being aware of the power that the availability heuristic wields cannot be understated. Not only is your brain sometimes tricking you, but there are also powerful entities out there with a vested interest in tricking you as well. 

The Cambridge Analytica scandal concerned with the 2016 presidential election serves as an example of how big tech seeks to use your own psychology, heuristics and all, against you in the context of the democratic process. Briefly, the company was a political consulting firm that illegally gained access to 50 million Facebook users’ data without permission. Moreover, much of that data was offered to clients in the form of a service known as “psychographic targeting,” a form of targeted advertising that directs traffic based on individual personality traits. You might be asking yourself how accurate this method is. A study published in 2013 by psychologists David Stillwell and Michael Kosinski reported that, through access to a user’s likes alone, one could accurately predict information such as sexual orientation, race, political partisan association and even personality traits. 

Most notably, Cambridge Analytica is the same firm that worked closely with the Trump campaign in 2016. The campaign also significantly relied on ad targeting as one of its main strategies. 

So, we live in a world where campaigns have access to psychometric evaluations of voters and are actively trying to use psychology against them. The availability heuristic stands as a specific vulnerability to be exploited, and there are two ways this can happen. 

First and most generally, if campaigns flood political users with certain targeted information favorable to a political party or candidate, this renders that information easier to recall in the minds of those potential voters. For instance, let’s say a candidate (President Trump) is trying to convince a population that their opponent (Hillary Clinton) is corrupt. Frequently mentioning instances of their known corruption might convince voters that this candidate is frequently engaged in fraudulent behavior by making such an instance easily memorable through repeated exposure, whether or not this crookedness actually is as frequent as presented. This effect is exacerbated by the fact that firms such as Cambridge Analytica can very effectively grab the attention of users on behalf of whichever political candidate happens to be their client. 

Moreover, through the use of psychographic targeting, these firms can also determine which voters are more likely to fall for certain cognitive biases. They then concentrate the direction of ad traffic to those specific users who are most likely to be manipulated by complex marketing schemes. 

In navigating this brave new world, you should not simply “trust your gut” when it comes to information that can easily be researched. Your gut does a bunch of stuff that you do not know about to save you some time and there are people out there trying to exploit that. As far as mitigating the dangers of the availability heuristic is concerned, I would make two recommendations: 1) Try to avoid eyeballing how probable or frequent you think something is and just look it up and 2) do not equate repetition with truth — there is no causal link between a fact being true and a fact being frequently repeated. 

I want to end with a final note on bias. People rarely know that they are acting on bias. This means that you, me and everyone else are seldom aware of when our own cognition fools us. Let the existence of cognitive biases and biases of all kinds serve as a lesson in humility. It is important to do research and base claims on actual facts and not on our own confidence in those claims.  

Special thanks to my reasoning and argument professor, Andrew Stewart, for teaching me about cognitive biases and the availability heuristic! 

Julia Leb is a junior writing about politics, philosophy and social issues. Her column, “The Principle’s Office,” runs every other Friday.