Your mind’s been hacked: Now what?

Happy New Year to everyone. Apologies for the radio silence over the Xmas break. I took a well needed  rest – fortnightly blogs will continue from today onwards.

I’ve written a fair bit in the past about the idea that humans are hackable based on their cognitive vulnerabilities, mostly the result of evolutionary adaptations that are no longer adaptive (read here, here and here). Today I want to look at how it happens, the consequences, and what we can do about it (if anything).


First, let’s start with an uncomfortable truth. You (and I) believe that we are in control. We believe that we control our thoughts, our actions, our preferences, and our desires. We honestly think that the decisions we make are our own, based on our own analysis of the world. Sadly, this isn’t the case. Two main things get in the way of us being in the driving seat. First, we’re crap at paying attention. We simply don’t notice the majority of the stuff that’s going on, either externally, or internally. Worse, when we try to get a handle on what’s going on internally, we simply don’t have access to the underlying processes. Our attempts to explain our feelings and actions are a little like soothsaying or astrology; we make up stories about what’s going on, and then believe that those stories are accurate, when they’re almost guaranteed to be bogus. They do make us feel better though.

The second thing that interferes with our ability to run our own system is the fact that the system is so easily co-opted from the outside. This vulnerability is highly related to the previous point: we can’t actually observe what’s going on, so we make up stories to make ourselves feel like we’re in charge. As a result, it’s almost impossible for us to determine whether a thought, desire, behaviour or preference is actually ours, or whether it’s the result of some external influence or manipulation. Scarily, even when we’ve been compromised, we’ll still convince ourselves that it was our choice. This is a little bit like having virus checking software that only pretends to scan, creates made-up scanning logs, and then tells us everything’s OK when our computer is, in fact, riddled with viruses.

That’s right – you, me, everyone has been hacked. It’s not a question of if or even when – you’ve been and are being hacked all the time. And there’s very little you can do about it.

OK, I’ll elaborate a bit. When I say we’re vulnerable to being hacked, I mean that we’re easily compromised. That our internal cognitive world can be manipulated by people, situations, or the environment, simply and without our knowledge or consent. Let’s start with the basics.

You probably think that you’re resistant to marketing and advertising. You’ve probably told yourself and others that ads don’t work on you, that you make your own mind up about the the things you buy. But you’re wrong, and that’s why marketing and advertising companies still exist (and make very large amounts of money). The people who market things at you know how to hack you (and they’re getting better at it), because they’ve made it their business to learn how to influence people into buying stuff that they don’t need. Marketing borrows generously from social psychology, but unlike psychology, it’s not a science per se, and it’s a closed system. Most of the proprietary stuff doesn’t get disseminated, let alone published in peer review journals. I’m making it sound a lot more sinister than it actually is, but the marketing world has been learning to identify and co-opt human vulnerabilities for a long time. One of their tools is a system called psychographics, a method for categorising people into various segments based on their preferences, habits, and purchase history. Once a person has been segmented, it becomes easier to market specific products to him or her, and the more information about that person you can get your hands on, the more successful you can be in getting him or her to buy stuff. There’s nothing magical about this technique. As I’ve said, humans simply aren’t aware of the reasons why they behave in certain ways, or why they have particular preferences, especially when those preferences vary depending on mood. We are, however, relatively consistent and predictable. Each of have reliable tastes: we watch the same types of movies, read the same types of books, go to the same restaurant and order the same meal. We pick the same holiday destinations, listen to the same types of music, and drive the same brand of car. If you track this behaviour for long enough, it’s relatively easy to predict a person’s behaviour better than he or she can. Remember that, for nearly all of us, even though we’re thoroughly predictable, we still believe that we’re special, unique and, most importantly, spontaneous. This is what makes us so easy to manipulate: we don’t see the patterns in our own behaviour, and believe that our decisions are highly variable. But track our behaviours for a while, in particular taking into account our reduced ability to deviate from patterns when we’re emotional, and we’re extremely easy to manipulate. Just present the right stimuli at the right time, and we’ll respond, whilst telling ourselves it was our idea all along…

It’s not just marketing though. We’re hacked by other people when they convince us to do something that we didn’t choose to do. We’re also easily hacked by anything that activates our pleasure system (the mesolimbic dopamine system if you’re interested), like gambling, sex, sugary or fatty foods, and psychoactive drugs (e.g., caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, amphetamines, etc.). Quick sidestep: the pleasure centre evolved very early on in our mammalian development (prehuman) to reward behaviours that were likely to increase our chances of survival (like eating, drinking, mating, and child-rearing). It rewards us with a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which feels really good (think orgasm, chocolate, etc. and you’ve got dopaminergic action in the pleasure centre). It also tries to make sure we’ll repeat the behaviour, by tying the pleasant feeling into our emotional and memory centres, making it more likely that we’ll remember it and want to do it again. Annoyingly, this part of the brain is incapable of discriminating – it just acts based on incoming stimuli. As far as it’s concerned, if cocaine releases 100 times as much dopamine as sex, it must be massively good for our survival, so it encourages us to repeat the behaviour. In other words, the system is extremely vulnerable to hacking, and addiction is simply a case of having been hacked to repeat a behaviour. Sickeningly, gambling addiction is the result of having been hacked by another person to give them your money and to think that it’s your idea. It’s really sad, and it annoys the hell out of me that gambling’s still so lauded by governments (who, of course, stand to make lots of money by allowing its citizens to be hacked). OK, rant over.

So next time you get a craving and indulge it, or decide to buy that thing to cheer you up, or respond stereotypically when you’re grumpy, or lash out, or return to default behaviour under pressure, watch out. Not only are you predictable, you’re either easily manipulable, or you’ve already been hacked.

Here’s the worst bit (at least to my mind): we think we’re unhackable, and we overestimate our chances of successfully dealing with a hack if or when it happens. This makes us overconfident, and underprepared, and so much easier to compromise. This is, possibly, our saddest failing – we really believe that we’re the ones in control, and even though we’re constantly manipulated into acting in ways that aren’t us, we delude ourselves into believing that we chose those actions. Which means that it’s really hard to break the cycle. If we don’t recognise that there’s a problem, we simply can’t do anything about it! If we have little or no chance of detecting a hack, most of us will assume that we make our own decisions, even though we’ve been manipulated. Which begs the question: if we’re so easy to manipulate, and we’re so bad at detecting when we’ve been compromised, do we even have ‘free will’?

I’m not going to finish this blog with a trite ‘if you do this you can achieve that’. Instead I’d prefer it if you started looking for signs of influence. Instead of assuming that you want something based on your own internal preferences (which, by the way, you don’t understand, even though you think you do), question it for a minute. Are you behaving predictably? Did you come to this state of mind based on deliberate, mindful assessment, or did it happen because it ‘felt’ right? Will acting in the way you ‘feel’ is right actually help? Are you reacting emotionally, or based on an analysis of your values? Asking these questions won’t ensure you haven’t been hacked (after all, you’ll probably never know), but it will help you to be more deliberate in your actions, and to attempt to align those actions with some sort of meaningful path.

I’ve written a lot about mindfulness in this blog over the last 18 months – it seems to me that one of the best definitions of mindfulness would be determining whether your actions are yours – deliberate, values-oriented, and dispassionate – or whether they’re the result of some sort of co-opting influence. Mindfulness comes when we’re doing the best we can to live our own lives rather than enacting the preferences of others, as aware of our own actions and their motives as we can be.

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