Generating Confusion Is An Effective But Unethical Way To Make People More Susceptible To Influence
When people feel disoriented, they cling more desperately onto anything or anyone that seems to offer clarity. Here's what you need to know about this tendency and how to curtail its effects.
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One of the most effective tactics retailers use to generate higher sales volumes is to intentionally disorient customers. Malls and large department stores are specifically designed to be mazes that shoppers have to traverse in order to move from one area to another. The pathways curve, split off into multiple directions, and guide shoppers through various departments even if their intended destination is just across the way. Staircases, balconies, and escalators further disorient customers, preventing straightforward navigation.
This forces shoppers to be exposed to more merchandise displays, promotions, smells, and other sensory marketing elements for longer periods of time. The more confused and disoriented a shopper feels while navigating the retail environment, the more likely they are to make impulse purchases and buy items they had no intention of purchasing when they first entered the store. The feeling of being lost in the maze of a large shopping center triggers anxiety in many people, and shopping helps alleviate this negative emotion.
Retailers intentionally design the layout of their brick-and-mortar locations to capitalize on this phenomenon. There is careful psychological manipulation happening in the architecture and floor plans of malls, big box stores, outlet shops, and more. Certain departments that sell higher-margin goods are positioned in more prominent locations that shoppers are forced to walk past multiple times, while bargain or clearance items are tucked away in harder-to-find areas of the store.
This intentional disorientation is not just limited to physical retail environments. Many ecommerce websites and apps also utilize dark patterns in their user interface and experience design to confuse online shoppers and encourage more purchases. Some examples include making it very easy to add items to the shopping cart, but hard to remove them; having misleading calls-to-action like "Complete Your Order" on pages other than the actual checkout page; making users hunt for an account logout button; showing "low stock" warnings or "only X left" messages even when neither is true; and more. These tactics all serve to subtly manipulate users into spending more time on the site, adding more items to their cart, and completing checkouts.
So in both brick-and-mortar and online shopping contexts, creating consumer confusion, anxiety, and disorientation leads to increased sales volumes and revenues for retailers. But this tactic is not just utilized in the world of shopping - it is also systematically employed to get people to buy into ideologies, belief systems, political parties, and more. Generating confusion is an effective way to make people more susceptible to propaganda and the "marketing" efforts of politicians, thought leaders, and organizations seeking power and influence.
When people feel disoriented about their place in the world, their purpose, the meaning of life, current events, social issues, and topics that define reality and shape narratives, they cling more desperately onto anything or anyone that seems to offer clarity. Confusion creates vulnerability, and distorted worldviews thrive on that vulnerability.
Politicians and political movements rely heavily on sowing seeds of confusion, presenting complex realities in simplistic black-and-white terms, and making vague promises to "fix" the discomfort that their very rhetoric creates. They present themselves as the antidote to the anxiety their divisive language incites, much like retailers present shopping as the salve for consumer disorientation in malls and department stores.
This tactic works well because the human mind craves coherence and consistency. When we cannot make sense of the world or see clearly how different pieces fit together into a logical whole, it generates psychological distress. We will latch onto anything that promises to resolve that, even if it provides a false sense of understanding and security.
This is how dangerous ideologies that oversimplify complex geopolitical issues spread. People may recognize on some level that things like ethnonationalism lead to harmful exclusion and violence, but amidst confusion and anxiety, they provide an appealing clarity. The same goes for belief systems with rigid traditional gender roles, strict moral prescriptions, and black-and-white thinking.
That is also why politicians can get away with constantly breaking promises and betraying the values they espoused while campaigning. When they are selling their platform, they tap into people's confusion, anxiety, and desire for clarity. Then once they are in office, they govern in ways that often contradict what they claimed to stand for. But if they have done their job right of keeping constituents disoriented and on edge, they can continue the cycle of vague, empty promises to capture votes again the next time.
After all, admitting we've been duped is painful. When we've invested hope in a politician who has let us down over and over, it feels better to buy into the fresh promises being made during the new campaign cycle. The confusion about where different candidates really stand on issues makes it easier to disregard track records and go along for the ride again. It is a form of denial and escapism.
This tactic works so well in both retail and politics because humans are meaning-making creatures. We need to make sense of the world around us and our place within it. We also have a strong herding instinct - when we are confused, we look to others to model beliefs and behavior. This makes us easy targets for manipulation.
True clarity comes from gathering varied perspectives, analyzing evidence, and synthesizing complex information. It feels like hard work. Confusion is uncomfortable, but diving into the cognitive labor required to develop real understanding is also challenging. It takes time, effort, and curiosity.
But the shortcuts provided by retailers and politicians who intentionally confuse, misdirect, and oversimplify are empty promises. They provide temporary relief from the distress of feeling lost, but never give us real working knowledge. Their formulas for generating sales or securing votes rely on keeping people forever disoriented.
So what are some solutions that could counteract these tactics and empower individuals to make truly informed choices at the voting booth, in the marketplace, and beyond?
Foster critical thinking and media literacy from an early age. This builds skills for analyzing all "marketing" through a skeptical lens rather than accepting claims at face value.
Teach philosophy and logic as core subjects. This helps students develop ethical reasoning skills and understand logical fallacies. Critical thinking and logic should be taught first, before directly tackling politically charged topics.
Encourage intellectual humility. The more we acknowledge that no one has all the answers, the more we can recognize that seeming clarity is often just oversimplification of complex issues. Teach kids it is wise and strong to say "I don't know" when that is the truth.
Prioritize science, data analysis, and research literacy. Numbers don't lie as easily as persuasive rhetoric does. Understanding research methodologies, margins of error, and how to read statistics critically helps cut through propaganda.
De-emphasize content knowledge. With the unprecedented availability of information today, memorizing facts and dates is less important than learning research skills and critical thinking. Curricula should shift accordingly.
Teach systemic thinking. Looking at how systems tie into other systems provides useful context and clarity. Studying something like the factors influencing educational outcomes through a systems perspective, for example, reveals more of the true complexity behind issues.
Teach root cause thinking and analysis. Looking beyond surface symptoms to uncover root causes of issues provides clarity. Students can practice applying this systems thinking lens using real-world examples like social problems, organizational issues, and policy dilemmas to get better at identifying applicable solutions. Learning robust root cause analysis methods helps cut through oversimplification.
Promote nuanced public discourse that acknowledges trade-offs and contradictions. The media should offer more thoughtful analysis rather than sound bytes that oversimplify political issues. Providing context helps us to create meaning. Platforms can incentivize nuance over sensationalism with algorithms.
Require more accurate labeling on ideologies and political affiliations. News networks should have clear classifications (like ingredient labels) that prevent blurring of lines between commentary and journalism. Elected officials could be rated on the degree to which they actually vote in alignment with the platforms they ran on.
Support ethical investigative media outlets, consumer watchdog groups, and publications that provide neutral comparative reviews and assessments to counteract propaganda and help people make informed choices in the voting booth and the marketplace. Their in-depth analysis can reveal distortions and inconsistencies.
Regulate propaganda in advertising by banning false claims, lobby funded “science,” pseudoscience, appeals to authority, and other misleading tactics. Require more transparency from advertisers on social media. Extend truth-in-advertising laws to apply to any organization, not just commercial sellers.
Call out hypocrisy and lies from leaders and demand more integrity. The more people do this consistently, the less others will be able to get away with rhetoric ungrounded from reality. Social norms can shift, but it requires that we speak up to call bullshit.
Make voting itself less confusing and more user-friendly. Ballots could be more clear and simple to complete. Mail-in voting and other measures to make voting more accessible help reduce voter suppression, anxiety, and confusion on election day.
Use blockchain to make elections more transparent and auditable. Blockchain technology, which creates immutable decentralized digital records, could also be implemented to make voting more secure and resistant to tampering. The decentralized nature of blockchain provides enhanced security because there is no central point of failure. Distributing data across many nodes in a peer-to-peer network makes it much harder to hack or corrupt the system.
Incentivize retail experiences that educate and empower, not just sell. For example, product tutorials, customer reviews, comparison shopping features, and financial planning resources help turn shopping into a means to gain understanding rather than an exercise in impulse indulgence due to disorientation.
Leverage behavioral economics. Just as marketers currently use psychological tactics to boost sales, psychological insights could also be used ethically to encourage things like responsible consumerism and informed civic engagement.
The common thread is reducing confusion and increasing context. This removes the vulnerability and anxiety being exploited to spread propaganda. Developing a generation of savvy individuals who demand truth, transparency, and depth when navigating both the retail marketplace and the marketplace of ideas is essential.
With improved understanding of how manipulation works in different spheres of influence, we have a responsibility to cultivate psychological resilience and critical thinking skills. Our minds are not blank slates passively accepting whatever narratives we are fed. We can equip people of all ages with the tools needed to make choices aligned with their values and interests, not just reactionary decisions based on confusion and fear.
While clarity takes more effort and courage than blindly accepting simple answers, the payoff is immense. Individuals empowered by wisdom and understanding are not such easy prey for mass manipulation and disinformation. They play an active role in creating their experience and reality.
By making context, not confusion, the norm our society operates on, citizens can make informed choices that help them reach their full potential, leading to a more just and equitable society. This requires that we usher in educational ideals focused on developing critical thinking skills, media literacy, root cause analysis, and systems thinking from an early age. It also requires establishing protections against propaganda and disinformation in advertising, entertainment, news media, and other channels that influence social narratives.
Fact-checking and truth-in-reporting standards for media organizations can counter the status quo of keeping citizens uninformed, but only if the fact-checking processes themselves have integrity. There is a danger that fact-checking could be co-opted by the same forces that spread misinformation if they infiltrate or influence the fact-checking organizations. Safeguards must be established to keep fact-checking impartial and free from partisan agendas. Fact-checkers should be transparent about their funding sources and methodology. There also needs to be oversight and auditing of fact-checkers to ensure they are not suppressing truthful information or amplifying falsehoods to serve hidden interests. Fact-checking is only as strong as the integrity and accuracy of the fact-checkers themselves. Without proper controls, it could end up becoming another means of distorting reality rather than restoring truth. We have to approach fact-checking itself with skepticism and put checks and balances in place.
Rather than laws, we could provide voluntary incentives for retailers and marketers to move away from tactics that deliberately confuse consumers. For example, consumer advocacy groups could give certifications to companies that meet ethical advertising and sales practices standards, based on criteria developed transparently with input from ethicists and consumer focus groups. These certifications could be used in voluntary consumer education campaigns to guide purchasing decisions, without any mandates. Industry associations could offer contests and awards to brands that go above and beyond to create transparent, educational shopping experiences.
Consumer watchdog groups could counter exploitation of confusion by providing comparative reviews and "clarity scores" to help conscientious buyers make informed choices. To ensure oversight groups act ethically, they should have independent audits, publish regular transparency reports, and rotate leadership roles to avoid concentration of power. They should also solicit regular feedback through surveys and focus groups.
In the realm of politics, independent non-partisan groups could offer certifications to politicians who voluntarily meet ethics standards, such as not accepting corporate donations or voting consistently with their campaign platforms. Voting guides and scorecards could help citizens make informed choices at the polls and incentivize politicians to maintain ethical records if they want to be re-elected.
Campaign finance reform groups could advocate for policies that incentivize small individual donations over corporate PAC money, to reduce political corruption. Fact-checking and political watchdog groups need independent audits, diverse funding sources, and feedback mechanisms to ensure they stay nonpartisan, do not fall prey to lobby sway, and earn public trust.
Grassroots educational campaigns can counter political propaganda by equipping the populace with media literacy and critical thinking skills to demand truth and substance from elected leaders. Industry associations and local governments could offer awards programs recognizing political candidates who run campaigns focused on nuanced issue discussions rather than polarizing rhetoric. Social media platforms could reduce spread of disinformation by voluntarily designing algorithms that amplify content from verified, ethical sources instead of sensationalist partisan content.
The goal is to shift political norms to favor substance, nuance, integrity and clarity so citizens can make informed choices. This requires coordinated efforts from educators, ethicists, civil society groups, conscientious politicians, and social media leaders - but avoids coercion. Incentives and public accountability are more likely to transform politics for the better.
These voluntary, incentive-based approaches avoid coercion while encouraging companies and political groups to reform exploitative practices. It will require coordinated efforts from educators, ethicists, consumer advocates, and conscientious business leaders. But the payoff of shifting societal norms to favor empowered consumers and individuals rather than ones kept intentionally confused makes it a goal worth striving toward without coercion. The first step is increasing awareness of how exploitation of confusion causes harm so more people recognize the need for this cultural shift.
Truth and clarity are the antidotes to confusion tactics. Our health as a society depends on whether we collectively invest in cultivating those. It is not easy work; it requires questioning assumptions, sitting with complexity, and sacrificing simplistic notions of absolute certainty. But it is essential work if we are ever to extract ourselves from the dizzying carnival ride of mass manipulation. We each have a role to play in ushering in this cultural shift. It starts with a choice to value context over confusion and depth over distortion.
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