There are two tracks before us: one on which these tools are used from the shadows to ruthlessly manipulate and drive division, and another on which they are used transparently and openly to foster greater empathy and bring people together.
Psychographics can be thought of most simply as the psychological counterpart to demographics. The emerging field can include evaluating individuals and populations across a wide array of attributes relating to their values, emotions, beliefs, attitudes and even personalities.
In aspirational terms, psychographics are an effort to more deeply understand the beliefs, values, and attitudes of people in a manner which traditional surveys and polling often fail. The approach is successful to the degree that we are able to understand what we as a community believe in our deepest selves; what we truly wish for when all our competing desires and fears are held at once; what values are closest to our hearts and what intuitive associations shape the architectures of our minds.
At its core, psychographics are nothing more and nothing less than the bleeding edge of our effort to understand the human condition.
As with any powerful tool, this understanding can be used to build a future of greater equity and opportunity, or to tear down the progress of our forebears. This is the choice we currently face.
Cambridge Analytica demonstrates one track. As has been widely reported, the firm unethically obtained personal and psychological data of tens of millions of Americans and attempted to exploit this data to support the Trump campaign and others. While the actual efficacy of their particular approach can and should be widely questioned, the intent was clear: to manipulate millions of voters with false and misleading information tailored to trigger fear, anger, and resentment.
But there is a different track.
Deep insights into the values, beliefs, and attitudes of our communities can be leveraged to bring people together around what we share rather than drive us apart based on our differences. Data can be gathered with transparency and consent. Messages based on truth and hope can be guided by these insights to effectively fight back against lies and fear. Authentically responsive leaders can use these insights to take positions and actions that reflect what their community truly believes and wishes.
Imagine for a moment the ideal of democracy: a small group of citizens, gathered face-to-face in deep debate, each soaking up not only the rational arguments of their peers but also tone, emotion, body language, intuition, and inspiration. Grappling in this sea of shared understanding, they achieve greater wisdom than any one could alone.
We have a word for this osmotic understanding of the minds of others: empathy.
And too often, we forget that it is the cornerstone of democracy and the bedrock of all community. Only by understanding complex problems through the lived experience of our fellow citizens are we able to conceive the most effective and durable solutions. Only by feeling the hopes and fears of others as our own can we consistently act for our collective benefit.
Ethical psychographics offer the opportunity to scale human empathy in proportion to the challenges and complexity of our collective future.
Deeper understanding of our commonalities can enable us to build broad coalitions on shared values despite superficial differences. Insights into the values, attitudes, and beliefs of the public can enable authentically responsive campaigns that meet people where they are and empower leaders to base positions, policies, and actions on what the public genuinely wants.
Deeper insights into the will of the people can enable a stronger, more responsive democracy.
This is the belief that propels our work at Avalanche Strategy. We recognize that achieving this ideal will not be easy or straightforward, and we embrace vigorous, open debate on the implications of such powerful technology. Above all, we hope that through a deeper and broader discussion we can choose the path of ethical psychographics and and with it the ability to more deeply understand our fellow citizens, come together around the core values we share, and collectively solve the greatest challenges we face.