Piaget and our Intellectual Metabolism

It's not a "click"'s a transaction. What's the underlying value of a "Like" — for you, for a company, and for Facebook?

What's the "Value" of a "Like"?

The basic model for Liking things through Facebook is pretty simple. You see a "Like" button somewhere online, and — more and more — you'll also probably get offered some really strong incentive to click it. If you do click it, you get to make a statement about yourself, and/or show support for an idea or a product...but what's so valuable to the person or group who put the "Like" there in the first place? (And what does Facebook get out of it?)
(Yes, you're supposed to hate them.)
Upcoming Posts»

Facebook insists that you are not giving up any personal information when you click a "Like" button, but even if we take that statement at face value, there are some very important transactions that take place behind the scenes on every click. Those interactions all contribute to the "value" of a click, and the underlying motives to reap that value are going to fuel (and fund) how this whole thing is going to evolve.

"Value" doesn't mean "Money". It means "Getting What You Want".

The real value of a Like is defined by how well it serves a three-way set of competing agendas — you, whoever set up the "Like" button, and Facebook.

Note that those agendas aren't necessarily conflicting with one another, they're competing. There's always room for a healthy give-and-take between the parties in a negotiation, and the best path to some kind of win-win — or at least to protecting your own interests — is by understanding what's at stake.

Defining a collective reality

Let's start with one of the psychological issues. Just how deeply do the signals we get through social channels influence the way we see the world?

While we all like to think that we make up our own minds, the reality is that even our "personal decisions" are made through a highly social process. We don't just "take other people's advice" – we're all continually engaged in a collective effort to define a shared view of the world around us. The collective definitions that we agree on are, quite literally, our "common ground". They are the only reason that we can think about and act within the world together.

That fundamental concept of how we gather and construct our perception of the world has been explored most prominently by the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget (among others, obviously), through a school of thought that's often called "Constructivism".

*whirrr* *click*
Piaget and his theories»

As the name implies, one of its key tenets is that we don't start with a built-in understanding of the world, or else somehow gradually "absorb" facts from an external reality ("objectivism"). Instead, Constructivism maintains that we each slowly build our own internal model of the world, but that we do that by drawing from a shared set of cognitive tools.

The key point is this: The information that we gather through our social relationships influences our thinking below the level of conscious thought. There's a common tendency to think of social influence as a primarily "conscious" or semi-conscious process. ("Oh, look! Mark likes that band. I should go check out their new album on iTunes.") That top-of-mind processing definitely happens, and it plays a role. But we also need to be aware of the fact that when someone we know and trusts makes an emphatic assertion about the world, then it doesn't really matter whether or not we consciously "think" a lot about what they just said. There are deeper cognitive processes that respond to that new piece information on an almost autonomic level, and start deciding how to take it into account. Does it conflict with your existing interpretation of the world? Does it expand it? Does it reinforce your confidence in some aspect of your mental model?

Be Careful What You Wish For

Piaget and other developmental theorists have examined these processes in great detail, including how techniques such as "assimilation" and "accommodation" continually revise and extend our cognitive model of the world. One of their most important findings is that these processes are all extremely sensitive to context. Information that comes in through a reliable context is basically given "the benefit of the doubt", and treated as something that automatically should become part of what Piaget called our "mental schema".

"Social proof", also known as informational social influence, is a psychological phenomenon that occurs in ambiguous social situations [...] Making the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation, [people] will deem the behavior of others as appropriate or better informed. [F]ormal analysis shows that it can cause people to converge too quickly upon a single choice, so that decisions of even large groups of individuals may reflect very little information."
— Wikipedia, describing the logical fallacy of "Social Proof"

Specifically, Piaget postulated that the social contexts that influenced our schema fell into two categories:

  • Asymmetrical: Relationships with an unequal balance of authority and control, such as between a teacher and a student, or parent and child.
  • Cooperative: Relationships where the "balance of power" is more equal.

It's obviously debatable whether there are just two types, or many different flavors, but that's not really a key issue here. What's really important is that we tend to (a) "receive" new information, and then (b) "believe" it differently, depending on the context.

Teaching styles, and the discovery of pepper»

Put simply, our minds don't expect to "debate" new information from an asymmetrical source before going on to assimilate it into our schema. That has nothing to do with whether or not we agree with that new data point, but it can have everything to do with how deeply it influences our perceptions. Think of memorizing a calculus formula, when you don't understand how it really works. You'll do it, but it's not very likely to help you figure something out 20 years later.

On the other hand, the permission to question information that we get within a cooperative context — whether or not we do question it — can have a huge effect on how much we trust it later.

It's no surprise that these theories dramatically influenced our approach to education and parenting. Whether or not we're familiar with the academic theory, almost anyone today can recognize stereotypes of "good" and "bad" teaching styles in these definitions — and anyone who's gone to school in the past 50 years owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Piaget and his colleagues.

You Are What You..."Eat"

How does this apply to marketing? Well, let's just look at how the social context between marketers and consumers has shifted. No matter how personable it is — and no matter what kind of technology it uses — any message that comes directly from a marketer is intrinsically asymmetrical. In "traditional" advertising, there's obviously very little room for the individual consumer to have a debate with a company. Even in newer social channels, though, like a Facebook fan page or a GetSatisfaction forum, the context of any "debate" is highly structured, formalized and moderated. Sure, "kinda-cooperative" is a lot nicer — and more trustworthy — than "totally asymmetrical", but there's no way to completely get around the fact that you're interacting with a commercial enterprise. I'm not saying that's terrible...I'm just saying it's true.

Two points on the way 'Like' works today»

On the other hand, when one of your friends states how they feel about something, you have every opportunity to share your opinion, in a (somewhat) private context. Leaving aside any debate over security/privacy issues, the point is that most people now see Facebook as an intimate, semi-private forum. If you learn that your frat brother from 20 years ago loved Letters to Juliet, you can definitely be the first one to pile on with a comment and mock him, but if one of your other friends backs him up...admit it. You'll be much, much more likely to agree to it on your next date night.

Our intellectual metabolism

It's important to keep in mind that this is continually going on in our minds, on a subconscious level. The most useful analogy may be our digestion and metabolism. When your body is metabolizing food, it doesn't really matter how much you "thought" about the food as you were eating it. Sure, your conscious awareness might affect how much you eat, or your emotional state, but once that steak hits your stomach it kicks off a set of autonomic processes that aren't really affected by your thoughts. The proteins, carbohydrates and fats you ingested are going to be "taken into account", and your body will be different somehow as a result. Not dramatically because of one meal, but over time, those autonomic processes are the ones that most directly define who we are physically.

In the same way, these deep cognitive tools directly define our interpretation of the world…and whether or not we're paying attention to them, they're always paying attention. Every single piece of evidence that we're exposed to about what our friends think, or how they behave, gets factored into our mental schema one way or another, just like every morsel of food that we eat gets metabolized. Along those same lines, just as the volume of food we metabolize over time can add up to a dramatic impact (for better or worse), continual exposure to assertions about what our friends and family "Like" can't help but influence how we understand the world.

So is this another reason I'm supposed to quit Facebook?

We can't afford to close ourselves off from sources of social information, any more than we can afford to just stop eating. What we can do is to make sure we're aware of what's going on.

Not at all. (At least, as far as I see it.) The basic point is that the human mind has evolved to grow and thrive through what we learn from other people — especially the people we know and trust. Facebook — or any other social technology — can represent an enormous, richly detailed source of social interactions.

From a personal perspective, the main thing is just to be as conscious of the influences we're taking in as we should try to be about the food that we eat. It's just important to recognize that the Like button (or any similar mechanism) is like a bowlful of "influence M&Ms". One M&M isn't going to make you fat, and no single "Like" announcement on Facebook is likely to change your mind about something.

NOTE TO SELF: "My mind was designed to be messed with"

Image of tiny doctor leaning headfirst into a huge ear

Most importantly, though, we just need to take the opportunity and remind ourselves that our interpretation of the world is not "fixed", and it's not really under our conscious control. Our understanding of the world is being continually updated and refined by our cognitive processes whether or not we notice, and whether or not we want to admit it. Acknowledging the fact that our "minds" are continually changing — and that they're subject to degree of influence from the outside world that isn't always comfortable to admit — is really the key thing.

Over the course of upcoming posts, I'm planning to look at those stakes on a few different levels, including:

  • The psychological and social implications of asking people to publicly proclaim something about themselves — like how the phenomenon of "choice-supportive bias" encourages us to feel much more strongly about something after we feel that we've "chosen" it.
  • The strategic marketing implications of an almost "frictionless" lead-gathering tool
  • The impact of giving companies access to an entirely new class of highly authoritative, incredibly specific customer data.

For now, though, I just want to get this started by looking more closely at one aspect of the psychological factors involved — how we're continually re-building our mental model of the world, and how that ongoing process can be affected by our social interactions.

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While Piaget remains a towering figure in developmental theory, there's been a lot of work done since his work in the mid-20th century. Piaget defined a very rigid set of developmental phases that he felt everyone goes through, and many psychologists now feel that he over-generalized. He also focused primarily on cognitive development from infancy through adolescence, without looking as closely at how those same mechanisms continue to guide our thinking as "mature" adults.

Other theorists such as Lev Vygotsky have also established"Social Constructivism", focusing on how many (or even most) of those cognitive tools we use are deeply social. Piaget certainly did acknowledge social factors, but he tended to look more at the ways that children interact more directly with the world.

Also, while Constructivism has become a predominant model for cognitive development, as you might assume, it isn't universally accepted. Personally, though, I've always found it to be highly convincing. For one thing, there is a ton of research to support it. (Much of it done by Piaget. He had a brilliant knack for devising simple, convincing experiments to test his theories.) More importantly, it just seems very clearly supported by my own personal experiences, as a student and as a teacher.

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It's important to note that while these developmental theorists aggressively championed a new style of "cooperative" learning, that effort took place within very specific historical circumstances. Overall, most of them understood that the different contexts complement each other, but 19th-century Europe (like Switzerland, where Piaget grew up) had adopted a very "asymmetrical" approach to education.

I'm guessing most parents and teachers would agree with what I've learned through experience — that the most effective approach is to modulate carefully between different contexts. In a sense, discovering a cooperative approach in an asymmetrical culture is like discovering pepper, when all you had before was salt. The new stuff is great, and it may be better for you than the old stuff, but you wouldn't want to just cook with pepper.

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  • I'm definitely aware that, as of 05/21/2010, you can't directly add a comment to a friend's "Like" notification in your stream. As opposed to...when they "Add a new friend", "Join a group", "Check in from Foursquare" or do just about anything else. Give it a bit.
  • You might also ask "Then how is 'liking' a movie any different than a status update saying it's awesoome"? As far as their potential influence on your perceptions, they're very similar. What is different is that a "Like" enters you into a marketing program, but that's covered through other posts.
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  1. StJohn
    Posted May 30, 2010 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    Hey mate, agreed those few years at Agency, helping big brands to “get” interactive while the Internet went commercial were fantastic fun.

    The intriguing thing is that many of the questions that we were grappling with (ubiquity, always-on interactivity, interest/identity “spaces”, online social spheres, the world connected, etc) kinda went dormant for 8 years or so as the industry got to grips with execution & monetization (i.e. the ad agencies took the lead).

    With Web 2.0 arriving and mobile interactivity (3G etc) now happening at long last, many of those questions are becoming seriously pertinent again, not least because there are around 3-4 billion who’s mobile phones will morph into mobile internet devices through this decade. That’s billions of internet newbies over just a few years. The inflexion point we went through in the late 90’s has nothing on the one that’s about to hit! 🙂

    Moving out to a generation ahead, we’re looking at a globally connected human diaspora who will have grown up living connected lives – always on, always interacting.

    Within that context, how digital communities share, collaborate, herd, differentiate and make en-mass decisions will become incredibly important. It provides immense opportunities for both the good and the seriously bad.

    Great blog! 🙂

    • Posted May 30, 2010 at 1:08 am | Permalink

      Indeed. Big changes ahead.

      (And when you’ve got a little more time, definitely check out the newer set of ideas I’m working out collaborative filters — like I said, your earlier comment was definitely food for thought.)

  2. StJohn
    Posted May 24, 2010 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Hi Laurent, great post. For me a great and fun example of the power of subliminal environmental influences is the following Derren Brown clip: – Importantly the influences used are all cold environmental influences – a sign, a symbol etc. “likes” extend this into the warm & interpersonal – adding a powerful emotional context which is also live i.e. it morphs in real-time depending on ongoing interactions between multiple individuals within a community. It’s gonna be fun building a tool to track that! 🙂

    BTW – another interesting point is how this relates to collaborative filtering – which is generally triggered as a reaction to an event – e.g. a purchase or key word search. “likes’ effectively become a kind of pro-active & social collaborative filter. This could have significant impacts on things like the polarization of particular genre choices within communities etc.

    • Posted May 24, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      Thanks so much, StJohn — been a long time! I always enjoyed talking about this kind of stuff with you.

      I agree completely about the collaborative filtering, and I think that’s a really great point about how these tools influence our experience on an almost mechanical level. In a lot of ways, the kind of filters you’re talking about almost act like an “externalized” set of biases — we all walk around already with our own internal preferences and prejudices, but these tools are basically building up an additional set of biases _around_ us, outside of our control. Taken to an extreme, they could almost “make” you…well, saying they could “make you racist” is a bit too much, but those filters could essentially influence your options for what you saw and did online enough to almost force to think and behave in a certain way.

      (I guess you’d have to say that society has obviously always imposed a set of filters on what we can see and do, but I think it’s interesting how much these tools _literalize_ that effect.)

      Definitely food for thought.

  3. J.
    Posted May 21, 2010 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    You have a gift for taming the most bucking of abstract bronchos without breaking them. You’re an intellectual Aragorn.

    This topic reminds me of a typical segment of On the Media, the antidote to the many group-thinks that I’m continually exposed to–and I don’t even have a TV. Developing awareness is the mental equivalent to develop physical health: the process often sucks, especially at the beginning, but it pays off in the long run.

    Keep writing, bro.

  4. Posted May 21, 2010 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Man, I love your posts. This is great stuff.

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