Book review: You're easier to manipulate than you'd like to think

Computer experiments show how to really make friends, influence people.

There is a special place in design hell for Clippy, the animated paper clip. Brought into the world as part of Microsoft’s Office 97 software suite, he was supposed to present a friendly face to users, popping up frequently onscreen to waggle his eyebrows and offer assistance with life’s little tasks. “It looks like you’re writing a letter,” he’d say after you typed “Dear” at the start of a blank document. “Would you like help?”

The answer was invariably no, often followed by an expletive or two. Though it was early in the era of Internet as a mass medium, websites sprouted uniting people in their hatred of Clippy. A decade before YouTube made sharing videos easy, one of the first viral videos featured Clippy under attack from an outraged Office user screaming, “I hate you, you lousy paper clip!”

In 1998, Microsoft called Clifford Nass, an industry consultant, Stanford communications prof, and director of the school’s Communication between Humans and Interactive Media Lab. Microsoft wanted to know if Clippy could be made more likable — a challenge that proved too great even for Nass. Clippy was finally disposed of in 2007.

Today, Clippy is a reminder of the way our interactions with computers can mirror our interactions with each other. Through problems like the one posed by Clippy, Nass’s study of what makes computers and other technologies “easier, more effective, and more pleasant for people to use” led him to explore how to do the same with human relationships. The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships (Current), a collaboration with journalist Corina Yen, recounts some of his unlikely findings.

“Over the past twenty years,” he writes, “I have discovered that the social world is much less complicated than it appears.” Our interactions with each other, Nass says, are “governed by simple rules and patterns.”

Nass and his students produced most of the research presented in the book because, when looking for studies on, say, the effectiveness of flattery, he discovered that some aspects of human interaction simply hadn’t been explored. Part of the problem was the difficulty in repeating experiments: if you were going to study the effect of flattery, you would need to make sure that every subject was flattered with exactly the same words and facial expressions, and in exactly the same tone of voice. That would be a tall order for any person — but a cinch for a computer. Since humans have been proven to interact with computers as though they were people, and since the lessons of interpersonal relationships mapped perfectly to human-machine interactions, Nass concluded the reverse would also be true. Experiments on flattery, persuasion and the like could be made repeatable by using a computer as the flatterer or persuader. With Yen, he offers “scientifically grounded findings on how to praise and criticize, how to work with different types of people, how to form teams, how to manage emotions, and how to persuade others.”

Whether drawn from folk psychology or management manuals, we’ve all heard plenty of maxims meant to govern our behaviour in these situations. Nass debunks many of them. The “sandwich method” of criticism, for example — where you first offer specific praise, then offer specific criticism, then conclude with more general praise — he dismisses out of hand. For evolutionary reasons, the human brain is “optimized to identify and respond to bad experiences.” The brain goes on high alert when the criticism begins, wiping out the memory of the praise that came before it, and heightening the impact of the negative feedback. With the brain now at DEFCON 2, it’s ready to think even harder about what comes next. “What do they then get? Positive remarks that are too general to be remembered.” Instead, Nass finds it’s most effective to offer your criticism to someone directly off the top, then follow it up with a long list of specific praise.

Persuasion is another subject to which whole books have been devoted. “Almost every conversation and communication in the workplace involves an attempt to persuade others: to select one option over another, to dedicate themselves to a particular goal, or to pay attention to someone or something,” Nass writes. Since the ’50s, a body of research has shown that successful persuasion requires conveying expertise and trustworthiness — proving that you’re worth listening to, and that you should be listened to.

One of Nass’s experiments, however, highlights the power of expertise and specialization in a surprising way: participants were introduced to three televisions, one marked as a “news” TV, one as an “entertainment” TV, and one as a “news and entertainment” TV. Viewers were shown the same programs on each screen — a mix of hard news stories and segments from sitcoms — then asked to rate the quality of the programming. Though every participant rejected the notion that the obviously ridiculous labels on the TVs would affect their perceptions, the news program was nonetheless rated significantly more important and informative when viewed on a specialist set, as were the sitcoms rated funnier and more relaxing. Even the picture quality on the specialist sets was rated higher.

If this says potentially disturbing things about our perceptual vulnerabilities, it’s nonetheless something that can be exploited in the workplace. “In a project group, label each member as an expert on a different part of the project, regardless of whether she or he has special expertise or not,” Nass suggests. Then, all communications outside the team regarding a specific area of the project should come from the relevant specialist. It’s a trick, but an effective one. “Simply by being labelled a specialist,” Nass writes, “you will be perceived as more compelling, even if the label is obviously gratuitous and irrelevant.” A shame, then, that Microsoft didn’t give the world Dr. Clippy, or Clippy, QC. The poor guy might still be with us today.

Executive summaries

Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (Allen Lane)
Nicholas Phillipson

If it’s the fate of all popular thinkers to have their work reduced to aphorisms, Smith has lately suffered more than most. Being known as the father of modern economics used to entitle him to greater respect than he now gets in some quarters, where his ‘invisible hand’ is portrayed as more sinister than comforting, and the self-interest that drives the butcher, brewer and baker to prepare our dinner gives the food a bitter taste.

An expert on Scottish Enlightenment, Phillipson has spent much of the past decade on this biography of the great Scot, drawing a rich portrait of an unusual person and personality whose self-effacement has spoiled many other attempts to pin him down. But this is less a life of Smith and more a life of Smith’s ideas. Phillipson’s emphasis is on restoring Smith’s work to its original context — the intellectual upheaval of the Enlightenment — and to show how his ideas developed, particularly through his friendship with David Hume. The Wealth of Nations was merely a component of Smith’s larger inquiry into the nature of humankind, an ambitious cycle left incomplete upon his death. With his ideas made clearer by Phillipson’s return to first principles, Smith emerges as a much more subtle and interesting figure than the cartoon freemarketeer he’s often thought to have been. -J.T.

Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception (Viking)
Charles Seife

‘If you want to get people to believe something really, really stupid, just stick a number on it,’ says author and NYU journalism prof Charles Seife. We’re inclined to give numbers the benefit of the doubt, if not take them as infallible. So their use and abuse in business and politics, advertising and propaganda, is one that Seife is eager to debunk. ‘Proofiness’ is the mathematical corollary to Stephen Colbert’s ‘truthiness’: the gut knowledge that you’re right regardless of reason or evidence. ‘Potemkin numbers,’ are the sort suggesting a face cream contains 70% more moisture than competing brands. ‘No matter how ridiculous an idea, putting it into numerical form makes it sound respectable, even if the implied measurement is transparently absurd,’ writes Seife. ‘Disestimation’ overlooks uncertainties in a measurement, as when former UN secretary general Kofi Annan posed with a Bosnian baby that had been declared the six billionth person on earth. (Nobody could pinpoint which birth was the six billionth, of course, but the Bosnian kid was close enough.) Politicans, meanwhile, love to compare apples and oranges, weighing numbers of incompatible provenance to prove whatever point they’re advancing. Deluged as we are by meaningless figures, numerical literacy, Seife argues, is an ever more important skill. -J.T.

How to become a scandal: Adventures in Bad Behaviour (Metropolitan)
Laura Kipnis

‘I confess, I love these stories,’ writes Kipnis. ‘The voyeuristic glimpses into the detritus of other people’s lives, the quirky plot twists and emotional carnage.’ But there are woefully few books on the general subject of scandal, and for the age of Clinton and Spitzer — and, of course, Davidar and Hurd — Kipnis attempts to define a theory of scandal and map its psychodynamics. She’s chosen to examine four scandals of recent vintage in hope of understanding where people’s blind spots come from, how they miscalculate and why they ignore their sense of selfpreservation, as well as the degree to which we’re complicit in our downfalls, and why we take so much delight in knocking each other off our pedestals, high or low. The juicy narratives driving Kipnis’s four archetypal cases — lovelorn astronaut Lisa Nowak is featured, as is disgraced judge Sol Wachtler, memoir fabulist James Frey, and the dynamic duo of Tripp and Lewinsky — keep things on the zippy side, but the subject matter is worth taking seriously. However powerful — or ordinary — you are, you’re only one careless text message away from your downfall. And, Kipnis writes, ‘as scandal reveals, the social world is in an eternal search for scapegoats.’ -J.T.