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Research Ethics: Differentiating Manipulation from Persuasion

How do we know when we are being manipulated rather than persuaded? When asked this question, most people will say that they will instinctively know when someone is using underhanded methods to get what they want. Manipulation in general life can come in many different forms: blackmail, flattery, lying, guilt-tripping, etc. but can we recognise manipulation within a marketing or market research situation? A lot of the time, the answer is no.

Market research is regarded as one of the most ethically challenging industries today, with government laws and codes of conduct created to combat the unsettling prospect of data misuse and human mistreatment. However, even with these rules in place, data is still continuously vulnerable to mistreatment and used for the purposes of public manipulation by recipient organisations.

Cambridge Analytica’s scandal is a real-life example of how research can be used to “[change] people’s minds not through persuasion but through ‘informational dominance’, a set of techniques that includes rumour, disinformation and fake news.” The ethical issues surrounding the harvesting of data, and the psychological profiling of each individual Facebook user through this data, were numerous, but for Cambridge Analytica to then use this profiling for the purposes of electoral manipulation was the worst unethical event.

The most prolific ethical conundrums result from the blurred boundary between persuasion and manipulation. How far can we attempt to persuade and still be able to call it persuasion? The appearance of the blurred boundary occurs due to the rampant subjectivity that encompasses the two terms when faced with real-life situations. It’s all well and good to recognise the manipulation of others in the news; however, what people may perceive as persuasion in-the-moment might actually be very subtle manipulation. The wording of the questions asked within a research task for example, might actually subtly manipulate participants to say what the organisation wants them to say and thus they gather false data to present and justify their next manipulative action. Market researchers have an obligation to conduct research objectively; it is then usually the organisations that use the data who are the ones responsible for the resulting manipulation.

So how do we tell the difference between the two techniques in action, and stop ourselves from falling into the trap of manipulation?

The most prolific ethical conundrums result from the blurred boundary between persuasion and manipulation. How far can we attempt to persuade and still be able to call it persuasion?

First, we need to learn to identify each term within both our own perceived definition and the dictionary definition. This inevitable difference will lead us to correct our view of each term and more easily identify which tactic is being deployed within a given situation.

  • Persuasion, according to the Business Dictionary, is the “process aimed at changing a person’s (or group’s) attitude or behaviour towards some event, idea, object, or other person(s), by using written or spoken works to convey information, feelings, or reasoning, or a combination of them.”
  • Manipulation, according to the Cambridge Dictionary is “controlling someone or something to your own advantage, often unfairly or dishonestly”.

So with these definitions in mind, the next move is linguistic identification. Linguistics is the study of language, how it is formed and perceived through individual subjectivity. Through this study, we can learn to identify basic linguistic manipulation techniques within both marketing and market research through the written or spoken word.

One basic linguistic manipulation technique that everyone will be familiar with is the leading question. Researchers want participants to give as much detail as they can in order to provide accurate insight that informs important decisions within a business, but this information cannot be accurate if the question leads participants towards certain answers. We are all experienced with obviously leading questions; however some questions might not be obviously leading and so researchers must be extra vigilant when creating questionnaires.

For example, if the question starts with “How far do you agree…” then the implication is that all participants should agree with the subsequent statement to some extent. This is a popular question starter that a lot of people will be familiar with from a young age due to the popularity of the question within compulsory education examinations. This isn’t widely recognised as a leading question, only one that should spark debate, however, it is within linguistic parameters. A better question starter that can be used to persuade participants to potentially think outside of their own opinions is: “What have you heard about/is your perception of xyz?” This leaves it open for the participants to write down carefully thought out answers accurately detailing their untampered thoughts.

Another manipulation tactic is based on the notion of inclusivity. Inclusive statements used within advertisements such as “Everyone knows xyz” is a subtle comparison between individual person and the rest of society; this is a subtle psychological manipulation tactic that plays on everyone’s fear of not fitting in with everyone else. The resulting awareness of the difference between the individual and the group sparks fears that they are being left behind and so the effect is that they will do what they can to fit in, even if it goes against their core beliefs. The use of this tactic in market research can usually be found within a short introductory paragraph which provides context before the question is asked so participants are required to keep it in mind when providing their answer. When including these introductory paragraphs, researchers should be mindful of using inclusive phrases if they want to obtain truthful insight from individual participants.

Once suitably familiarised with simple identification techniques such as these, identification of manipulation tactics should be easier.

Once organisations have got their data from market research they can apply it to their marketing strategies. It is important that insight professionals learn to recognise the difference between manipulation and persuasion for the purpose of spotting manipulative tactics and correcting them to avoid coming into conflict with anti-consumer regulation and uphold ethical values.

It is important that insight professionals learn to recognise the difference between manipulation and persuasion to avoid coming into conflict with anti-consumer regulation and uphold ethical values.

As Robin Dreeke states, “the difference between persuasion and manipulation is intent” and one example of intentional manipulation through misused data is the Brexit Leave Campaign. The Leave Party manipulated their audience by providing false facts which they stated were derived from real researched statistics to manipulate people to believe in their cause. The sentiment they then attached to all of their marketing is that the UK was a victim of the EU based on these so-called insights.

There is a secondary manipulative tactic which links the Brexit referendum to the infamous Cambridge Analytica scandal. The Leave Party reportedly paid Cambridge Analytica to implement targeted political propaganda on psychologically profiled UK citizens through Facebook, further adding to the ‘market research-based’ manipulation during Brexit. This blatant misuse of data breaks many of the ethical codes of conduct set out by many market research societies, and even infringes heavily on the Data Protection Act of 1998.

Sugging (selling under the guise of research), is a manipulative process is unfortunately legal, however unethical it may be. It is used primarily by telemarketing companies that state a ‘research purpose’ for their call which eventually devolves into a targeted sales pitch. This marketing technique is being used globally and agencies such as the Market Research Society in the UK have pledged to investigate any incidences that are reported to them. To keep upholding ethical values, researchers and insight professionals should be wary of organisations trying to promote products through research tasks and report any incidences of sugging that occur.

It is important that researchers and insight professionals learn how to identify incidences of manipulation over persuasion in order to avoid or correct them as the case may be. While market research organisations are pledged against the practice of consumer manipulation, their reputations are still being hurt through the continual manipulation of collated data to either produce false insights or produce accurate insights then used for underhanded purposes. Linguistic knowledge and identifying large-scale manipulations such as in political campaigns or commercial calls would be invaluable to minimising the occurrences and restoring the reputation of the insights industry.

The original version of this article appeared on the FlexMR Insight Blog and can be accessed here.

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