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.