Posts Tagged ‘manipulation’

A theory of motivation (as a subset of manipulation): Part 1

July 23, 2014

This is the first part of series of posts describing what I call The Engagement Theory of Motivation and which I have found useful during my working career.

1: Manipulation, motivation and behaviour

In common usage, “manipulation” has a negative connotation but “motivation” is generally regarded as being something positive. A “manipulated” person is considered a dummy, or someone being exploited. A ” manipulator” is considered “bad” even if not always “evil”. A “motivated” person  is usually seen as being diligent and performing to the best of his ability. To be “motivated” is usually considered a “good” thing – but not always. A “motivated” witness or a “motivated” observer is biased and therefore “bad”! To “manipulate” someone has a connotation of being unethical whereas to “motivate” someone is usually seen  as something to be admired.

This usage reflects the mixing up of what elicits human behaviour on the one hand, with value judgements about the objectives or purpose of causing such behaviour on the other. I try to keep these separate. The means of eliciting behaviour is merely a tool.

Manipulating the behaviour of others is central to being human. Most social interaction involves the influencing of the behaviour of others. Requesting, debating, arguing, persuading, coercing, threatening, ordering, begging, praying, rewarding, punishing are all methods we employ to elicit desired behaviour from others. I take all such influencing of behaviour to be “manipulation”. When I “request” a cup of coffee at a cafe in return for a “reward”, I successfully “manipulate” the behaviour of the server. An order in the army is to “manipulate” the actions of others. Politicians “manipulate” their voters – or try to. The cry of a baby “manipulates” the behaviour of its mother. We manipulate our children, our friends, our colleagues and our enemies. All man made laws manipulate. Manipulation is the very essence of social interaction.

Manipulation, as I use it here, is the eliciting of human behaviour. It is a tool of social interaction and is neither good nor bad.  It is only the objectives and purposes of manipulation which can be subject to value judgements about goodness or badness.

I take “motivation” – and particularly “motivation in the work place” – then to be just a particular subset of manipulation to elicit desired human behaviour. By empirical observation, I note that when a person is “motivated” he is not

  • more competent, or
  • more knowledgeable, or
  • more intelligent, or
  • more skillful, or
  • stronger or taller or smarter,

but he is

  • More effective
  • More focused
  • More cooperative
  • More “driven”
  • More dynamic
  • More result-oriented
  • More diligent …….

Thus I take the level of motivation to be a measure of the level of engagement of an individual in the actions he is performing (his behaviour). The more motivated he is the more “effective” his performance is, within the constraints set by his abilities. An unmotivated or demotivated person performs the actions in hand well below the limit of his capabilities. Motivation does not affect capability but it does affect performance.

Human behaviour and what causes it is part of the seemingly infinite universe of psychology in all its myriad forms (social psychology, cognitive psychology………). I can only approach behaviour and its causes in an empirical and pragmatic way.

My basic assumption in developing my “Engagement” theory of motivation invokes an analogy from the physical world. It is entirely qualitative and only very small parts are subject to quantification.

I assume that all human actions (which we call behaviour) are analagous to motion in physics. Further, I take a change to be only in response to a “force of behaviour”. The challenge lies in describing and defining this force. Building on Maslow (Motivation and Personality – 1954) I assume that any human, at any given time, exhibits a “state of human condition” which is a composite of

  1. the levels to which his various needs are satisfied, and
  2. the levels of his various dissatisfactions from deficiencies that are not met

I take “satisfaction of needs” and “dissatisfactions due to deficiencies” as two separate scales, neither of which can be negative and which are not diametrically opposed. Of course there are many needs and many deficiencies and there is a level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with each of them,

state of human condition

state of human condition

It should be noted that there is a scale for each need and for each deficiency and that the scale itself is a composite of “health, wealth and happiness factors”. Nevertheless it should be possible by suitable weighting to combine all the levels of satisfaction of all the various needs into a single “level of satisfaction of needs”, and to combine all the various dissatisfactions due to deficiencies into a single “level of dissatisfaction due to deficiencies”. This then allows the positioning, at any given time, of an individual’s “state of human condition”.

state of human condition -2

state of human condition -2

For every deficiency – again following Maslow – there is a tolerable level of dissatisfaction. If this level is exceeded then rational behaviour is no longer possible and an individual can and will only act to reduce the dissatisfaction to the exclusion of everything else. It is the tolerable level of dissatisfactions which defines the behavioural space where manipulation and motivation can be brought into play to influence behaviour.

Next – 2: The Behavioural Space


Why so much fuss that Facebook “manipulated” emotions?

July 8, 2014

There has been a lot of fuss lately about an internal Facebook study which managed to be published in a scientific journal as I noted in passing about 3 weeks ago.

Emotional contagion by Facebook could be a new disease. A case of the medium creating the new disease! Heightened emotions can apparently be transmitted by Facebook. The researchers find that“emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness”. And emotional contagion is what turns a crowd into a mob. And as this work from MIT shows, “Good people can do bad things. Belonging to a group makes people more likely to harm others outside the group.”

The research consisted of manipulating Facebook feeds and seeing what happened. The paper, the journal, Facebook and Cornell University have been heavily criticised for their “lack of ethics” and many are back-tracking in CYA exercises. Retraction Watch writes:

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) is subjecting a much-criticized study involving Facebook that it published just two weeks ago to an Expression of Concern. …. Critics — and there were many online — said the study violated ethical norms because it did not alert participants that they were taking part.

…… Here’s the Expression of Concern, signed by editor-in-chief Inder Verma:

……. When the authors prepared their paper for publication in PNAS, they stated that: “Because this experiment was conducted by Facebook, Inc. for internal purposes, the Cornell University IRB [Institutional Review Board] determined that the project did not fall under Cornell’s Human Research Protection Program.” This statement has since been confirmed by Cornell University. ……

But I find all the fuss a little hypocritical. Manipulation of the behaviour of others is the norm and the bed-rock for all human social intercourse.

Politicians manipulate – or try to – their voters. Demagogues manipulate individuals to create a mob. Artists and authors try to arouse emotions. Scientists try to influence their grant panels. We manipulate our friends and our family members. A leader manipulates his followers. Followers try to influence their leaders. All human cooperation is built on manipulation of behaviour. We try to manipulate our enemies. When we call it “manipulation” we disapprove but when we call it “motivation” it is to be admired. Obama tries to motivate Netanyahu but Bibi usually manages to manipulate Barack. Manipulation of behaviour by persuasion is fine but manipulation by coercion is frowned upon. Any advertisement – by definition – plays with the emotions of its target audience and tries to manipulate their behaviour.

So what is wrong then when a Facebook or a Google or a Twitter  – whose business model depends on placing advertisements accurately and effectively – tries to employ “emotional contagion” to maximise their revenues? I closed my Facebook and Twitter accounts some time ago partly because I did not like their intrusive nature. But that was because I felt that my personal space was being encroached on – and beyond the level I felt comfortable with. But I certainly did not feel they were doing anything unethical. In this case I find the criticism confused and a little inane. Was it unethical for Facebook to have conducted an “internal” study. I don’t think so. Was it unethical for PNAS to have published the paper? Not really.

If it is unethical for internet sites or social media to target advertisements then it is unethical for any advertisement to be targeted towards anyone.

The onus I think lies with the individual.



%d bloggers like this: