Image: optical illusion

Big data continues to be a hot topic and we are increasingly seeing data-driven decisions and processes replace expert opinions in everyday activities. Indeed, one designer quit Google with the following comment:

I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that.

Trouble is, Google was able to prove that using data over instinct when deciding between 41 shades of blue for text-based links led to an annual increase of $200 million in advertising revenue. But whilst some decisions may be purely data-driven, most remain dependent on how the data is interpreted. And interpretation can be heavily influenced or manipulated by the environment, politics and language used.

A recent psychological research study showed that playing a game with a different avatar influenced behaviour afterwards. Those who played with the Superman avatar (context: hero saving the day) were kinder in later decisions than those who played with the Voldermort avatar (context: evil world destroyer).

In 2004, an experiment conducted at Stanford University (recently reported in The Atlantic) showed the influence of language on game play. Using the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma, one group were told they were playing ‘The Community Game’ and one group were told they were playing ‘The Wall Street Game’. Two-thirds of those playing ‘The Community Game’ chose to co-operate and share the rewards. Two-thirds of those playing ‘The Wall Street Game’ chose not to and focused on personal gain.

A simple shift in language can influence decisions and behaviour. Often with participants even realising. The subject of behavioural economics is not new. But combined with big data, its role in deliberately influencing decisions will continue to advance.


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Flickr image: Optical illusion kindly shared by The Lex Talionis. It’s impossible to see both states of an optical illusion simultaneously. You have to make a choice about how you interpret what you think you see…

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