Reality Check: The Battle for your Beliefs

Attempts to influence and persuade us are everywhere. Advertisements are essentially attempts to influence: Buy this product! Donate to this cause! Believe these beliefs!

Personalized ads and information are particularly persuasive. For example, if I can make my company’s ad seem to address you and your situation directly and specifically, you may be more open to buying or being influenced by it than if it’s just a general appeal.

Data mining is a technique where useful information is “mined” from sets of data. For example, the grocery retailer examines my data (spending patterns) and based on what it finds, offers me points on certain products.

The technique itself is neither good nor evil; it’s just a technique. The grocery store benefits if the points keep me “loyal” and shopping at their store. I benefit by small savings on products I buy anyway. That’s all good.

On the other hand, those offers might influence me to buy something I didn’t need or to choose a more expensive product than I would normally buy. I might even perceive an offer to be a great deal when, if I fact-checked it, I’d see that it’s not.

It’s not a great tragedy if I fall under the persuasive spell of an offer and end up buying a more expensive can of beans. However, let’s consider how we are influenced in more important aspects of our lives, such as our values and beliefs.

How do you choose what side of an issue you agree with? Who do you vote for? What petitions do you sign? Who do you believe?

Fundraisers often use compelling emotional appeals to gain support for a cause. I don’t fault the persuaders; using emotion is effective and it is their choice. However, their targets also have a choice: to support or not to support.

Many of our decisions can be influenced, and the persuasion we’re exposed to might not be completely ethical. Persuaders might mislead us about their purpose or misrepresent their funding sources. Facebook has gotten some unwanted attention recently because of how their users have been targeted for persuasive ads.

If you don’t trust an ad to be truthful with you about what beans to buy, you’re probably even more skeptical about political claims or current issues. What do you base your decisions on?

We could throw up our hands and consider them all liars. However, here’s a different suggestion: take a proactive approach. Decide your beliefs for yourself, away from the ads and the persuaders. This will require some time and thought and perhaps some discussion with people you trust, but it could provide you with a solid foundation and save you time in the long run.

Start with fundamentals: What behaviours do you believe are right, moral, ethical? What behaviours are not? What do you respect? What do you aspire to?

You can take this further. For example, how involved do you believe government should be in the lives of its citizens? How do you want government to spend your tax dollars? How much support does society owe its vulnerable members? Who, exactly, are vulnerable members? And so on.

Organizations, from non-profits to big businesses, often have a statement of values to guide them when making decisions. As individuals, I think we typically have at least a vague idea of our guiding principles. But if it’s vague, then we are open to being swayed by skillful persuaders.

If you have a solid foundation of understanding your own beliefs, you are less likely to be blown around like a thistle whenever an attractive-sounding idea comes blowing in the wind.

Are you concerned about how companies or organizations attempt to influence you? How do you guard against that?

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