Blog Psychology Pt I: We Don’t Know Why We Do What We Do

Can a blog filled with happy sewing talk stand the occasional bit of science geekery? What do you think?

So there was this neuroscience experiment a few years where they hooked up a bunch of research subjects to electrodes that would make them move their right arm involuntarily. They were not told that the electrodes would have this impact on them, and were just doing computer tasks. Every so often, the researchers would trigger the electrodes and the research subjects would involuntarily move their arms. Then the researchers would ask them why their arms moved.

The correct answer was “I don’t know.” The subjects were not informed of the purpose of the electrodes, and couldn’t feel them when they were activated.

But every single one of them gave a reason for moving their arm.

“I was thirsty; I wanted a drink.”

“My nose was itchy.”

“I needed to backspace.”

Whatever the reason was, it was both plausible and absolutely false. What was going on here?*

It turns out that our conscious minds don’t so much control our behaviour, as explain it to us after the fact. In another favourite experiment, researchers examined the electrical impulse sending a hand out to, for example, grab a cup of tea, vs. the electrical impulse signalling conscious thoughts about thirst. They found that the thought “I’m thirsty” occurred a measurable (and tiny) time lag after the arm was already reaching for the drink.

In other words, your body figures out that you’re thirsty and tells you to drink, and your arms is already moving the drink to your mouth, before your conscious mind latches on to this fact and thinks, “You know, self, I want some water.”

Substantial evidence now demonstrates that our conscious minds are not so much The Driver of our actions, as The Interpreter: coming up with plausible and rational explanations for what we have already done. Whatever lying to ourselves is going on, it’s happening at a subconscious level and we are not aware of it.

That includes the two-year-old who knocked over his playmate’s block tower, the cheating partner, the gossiping friend, and your Favourite Sponsored Blogger, who assures all of his or her readers that the reviews are honest and unbiased.

Even if your Favourite Sponsored Blogger really and truly believes that the sponsorship arrangements have no impact on the reviews, that doesn’t mean it’s true.

“Great. Thanks, Andrea. What do you expect me to do with this information?”

Just keep it in mind.

If you read blogs, you’ve almost certainly seen disclaimers like this around:


How sure can this blogger be, though? Can he or she know that her opinions are unaltered by the sponsorship arrangement? Well … no.

You don’t have to believe that bloggers are selling out by lying in exchange for free stuff; but the receipt of free stuff may have changed their sincere and honest opinion, and it is totally legitimate to wonder what their opinion would have been had they paid for the product or service in question, or if they offered an opinion on something they do not own.  And any blogger worth their salt will be ok with this kind of questioning.

As it turns out, there’s also a substantial body of research into whether or not we can accurately remember what we used to believe, the impact that gifts and purchases have on our opinions, and figuring out who is most suggestible to those kinds of arrangements. There’s even an internet quiz to figure out where on that spectrum you lie. I’ll write up posts on those soon, but in the meantime, how responsive do you think you are, either to the lure of sponsored blogging, or to being influenced by the sponsored posts that result? Do you remember ever having been won over by something you didn’t think you’d like, until you owned it? Do you have a history of jumping on the bandwagon, or are you constantly scratching your head while the latest one drives by?


* I would have loved to dig up the reference for these this week, but haven’t had the time. If anyone is curious, though, let me know in the comments and I’ll put more effort into it over the weekend.

10 thoughts on “Blog Psychology Pt I: We Don’t Know Why We Do What We Do

  1. I love this post. I think that there are so many reasons – rational and emotional – why it’s hard to give an honest opinion when you are being sponsored. There are those neuroscience of free will type experiments you mention, loss aversion theory (once you say yes to something free, you are afraid of losing the privilege and are hard pressed to say anything bad), principal agent conflict (as a review blogger, my readers think I’m an unbiased agent, and yet the principal in me wants free stuff.) Basically, it’s impossible to not be biased favourably lest you bite the hand that feeds you I think. I think it’s more honest to say, I got this for free and I want to be liked and therefore I’m likely going to say better things about it that if I’d paid cold hard cash for it. I just try to foster a reputation of general cantankerousness so I don’t have to worry about being tempted by marketers 🙂

    1. Thanks, Jen. 🙂

      Loss aversion will be coming up in a few posts, but principal agent conflict is a new one for me, and I’ll have to look it up.

      Somehow or other, I’ve never had to worry about being tempted by marketers either. I can’t say that all of my fine principles wouldn’t fly out the window for a free coverstitch machine, but this seems unlikely.

  2. YES to the addition of science geekery! I consider myself a highly skeptical person. I like to credit my education, media literacy and good common sense, but it’s highly possible I’m just a conservative person whose brain likes to say “See what I saved you from?” after my involuntary “No!” reflex has already kicked in. 😉

    More important than a blogger declaring that their opinions are their own is the fact that they received a product for free. I lend more weight to product reviews made by someone who has purchased it. In the book The Gift, Lewis Hyde argues that a gift creates a connection between the giver and receiver, while a purchase creates or maintains a boundary between buyer and seller. I think those lines can blur somewhat, but that concept has stuck with me. It’s hard to criticize something that feels like a gift. (Although cynically, I tend to view free products as a transaction, and one that doesn’t favor the blogger-recipient, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

    1. Excellent! As always, one person agreeing with what I’d like to do anyway is all the justification I need. 😉

      Yes, I agree–gifts create relationships, which alters the nature of the exchange and creates a (very likely) unconscious need to reciprocate. Whereas a purely commercial transaction has no future obligations, unless spelled out explicitly in something like a warranty.

    1. Did you ever read Blindsight, by Peter Watts? It’s a sci fi novel that examines just that. I found it pretty silly, but it’s an interesting question.

      I think at the very least, free will the way we think about it is an illusion. Our conscious minds are just a storytelling organ, and a very small part of our brains. They don’t coordinate or direct so much as put together a plausible story after the fact. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have free will, but if we do, it doesn’t work the way we tend to think it does–conscious mind makes a decision and the rest-of-mind carries it out. Maybe it’s more like, rest-of-mind does something, conscious mind makes a story about this–learning from experience, or why that worked, or whatever–and then later on, rest-of-mind alters its automatic impulses based on the story that conscious mind put together.

  3. Terrific post – I have only just seen it, via kbenco’s blog, but I agree 100%. Every time I read one of those “but the opinions expressed here are my own” disclaimers, my blood pressure rises – of course you’re expressing your own opinion, but you’re biased!! In the last year I’ve tested a couple of patterns for other sewists, and although I’d like to write about the patterns on my blog I just don’t know what to say – I feel like I want to be “nice” because I liked getting a freebie, I don’t want to hurt the feelings of the people who gave me their patterns, and I want others to succeed, BUT I know I should force myself to be as critical as I would with a pattern I’d bought. Mission impossible!

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