Monday, 10 February 2014

Empathy or manipulation?

Facebook is littered with them. Personality tests that can reveal which character in literature you most resemble, your ideal career or your core personality type on the basis of which coloured door you'd go through. And no women's magazine is complete without  a check on "which perfume bests suits your personality" along with the usual horoscopes, graphology and numerology features. Some of this stuff is even branded - how you eat your Oreo says more about you than you'd ever guess!

I still love this stuff, even though I know the psychology behind it. Take the example above. I was thrilled to be a "sharp-angled, but curved tip" sort as it means I'm creative, enthusiastic, energetic and all those other desirable traits. But would I have been so disappointed with the "flat top concave" description? Probably not.

The way it works is known as the Forer Effect, after psychologist Bertram R. Forer. In 1948, he gave his students a personality test, the result of which was a "unique personality analysis" for each student. What he didn't tell them was that everyone got an identical analysis. They were asked to rate its personal accuracy on a 1-5 scale and the average rating was 4.26. Forer's "unique analysis" was cobbled together from horoscopes and riddled with phrases of the "at times you are ... but at other times you are ..."

As advertisers and marketers, we make use of this effect in our work, consciously or intuitively. Interestingly, if you read about the Forer Effect, it is associated with manipulation, quackery, deception, gullibility.

I take a different view.

I think it's a great confirmation that, despite our differences, there are commonalities that unite us as human beings. There are universal truths in what qualities are desirable, in how people would like to be seen. Yes, people want to be seen as individuals, but there is also a basic need to belong as part of the human race. And people are not stupid. I'm pretty sure that most people that do these tests sense what's behind them, but go ahead for the fun of it anyway. In the same way that people in group discussions will often state that "I'm not taken in by advertising" before describing how the John Lewis advert made them cry.

One man's manipulation is the next man's empathy.

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