Why are you trying to change me?

Sean Young, PhD
Dec 31, 2014 · 2 min read
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I get a lot of questions about whether psychology is studying how to manipulate people. Whether it’s being used as fuel by marketers, politicians, business, and businesses to get people to do things that aren’t good for them to do. It’s a good question. And they’re right.

I was going to use this time to talk about how to change before, but first, this post is devoted to everyone who asks that important question.

Psychology and behavior change science is pretty powerful. I’m sure you can think of examples of how it could be for good as well as evil, or, where it was initially intended to be used for good but ended up causing unintended negative consequences. Take politics. The White House followed Britain’s lead in bringing on a “behavioral insights team” of psychologists to change behavior. With the recent privacy concerns resulting from government security, we can all imagine how this team of experts might end up providing more harm than benefit.

So how do we know if the research being done by behavioral psychologists is causing more harm than good? Psychologists and ethicists use a few different methods to evaluate this. They rely on group consensus (academic-speak for asking other other people), looking for historical examples of what happened in similar situations, and turning to get input from experts and/or people who would be potentially at risk. But none of these are accurate. People are notoriously bad at predicting how they would feel in the future, so asking them whether they’d be pissed if a new site was tracking who they talked to isn’t the best way to know how they would actually feel.

The point is, there isn’t a surefire way to know if changing people is right or wrong. It’s not a science. There’s no test that can be given where everyone will agree with the results. So instead, what needs to happen is that everyone who uses psychological research to change someone or to get something from someone needs to think about their motives first. I’m making an assumption that the people who are reading this are good people and will be able to think about their motives. That they can put a check on themselves to see whether their motives are good or not. I hope I’m right.

There isn’t an easy rule to know what will be good for the world or improve people’s lives, so people have to determine that individually before trying to change others. They have to decide whether what they’re doing is good and ethical. Before trying to change or get something from someone else, take some time thinking about this question. If you’re doing something that will help improve people’s lives then the rest of these posts will be for you.

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