Can we hack humans with psychology?

Jessica McLaren, Staff Writer

Have you ever wished that humans came with a cheat code that could guarantee success in all social endeavors? An algorithm capable of analyzing, comparing and predicting the behavior of others could help individuals make informed social and professional decisions, reducing the risk of a negative social outcome that may deter the individual from pursuing future interactions. With access to this secret insider information, you would never have to worry about bombing a job interview or embarrassing yourself in front of your work crush ever again! Now, although a foolproof mind-reading device may not actually exist, the realm of human psychology and various other social sciences can be applied to both verbal and nonverbal language to take a sneak peek into the minds of those with whom you converse. As unique and distinctive as each of us may feel, the reality is far less exciting.

Psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behavior. It aims to understand the human brain and how its anatomy relates to how people behave, think, feel, grow and learn. The scope of human psychology encompasses the mental processes of an individual, such as one’s attention, motivation, memory and intelligence — it observes how these processes change and affect one another both during and after interactions between behavioral groups. However, before one can successfully apply the theories and ideas of psychology to their own life and relationships, one must have an earnest understanding of interpersonal communication. It is crucial to remain observant and astute during conversations with your peers, noting habitual behaviors such as vocabulary, tone of voice, eye contact and body language, which can provide clues to the motivations behind the behavior of others.

Much of human attraction can be explained by the psychological phenomena of reinforcement. A reinforcer is any behavior that rewards an individual for participating in social exchanges. Five general factors play into interpersonal attraction: exposure, overall attractiveness, similarity, proximity and reciprocity. In general, attraction typically follows similar patterns amongst individuals in a population. For example, we tend to instinctually favor those who are similar to us, close in proximity to us or who we consider physically, emotionally or intellectually attractive. Furthermore, we tend to prefer things (and people) more familiar to us, a phenomenon referred to as the mere exposure effect; the closer two individuals live, work, shop or attend classes, the more likely they are to experience repeated exposure, familiarity, and ultimately, an inclination for mutual attraction. As a general rule, we tend to favor conversations with those who provide positive reinforcers and promote the communication feedback loop. If a social encounter leaves a person feeling content about themselves and their social status, they are much more likely to initiate contact again.

Another example of how psychology can be used to improve social outcomes involves obtaining information from someone who may be hesitant to share said knowledge. There are two methods that may help crack a particularly tough cookie: The more ‘human’ approach, per se, involves a display of empathy that encourages the person to relate to and feel comfortable with you — in my experience, the best way to accomplish this is to share an embarrassing detail about yourself. Once mutual trust has been established, the person will likely be more inclined to open up to you and spill the beans. Vulnerability is crucial to social relationships, but it requires hefty amounts of trust. On the contrary, the second method should be reserved for instances where you are not too concerned with your public image. After attempting to coax the information out of the individual, introduce some sort of tension into the conversation. This may look like awkward silence, intense eye contact or a pressuring glare. Ultimately, your foe will succumb to the pressure to escape your uncomfortably stiff confrontation.

The YouTube channel Psych2Go is an organization that focuses on making psychiatry and psychology accessible to all by animating fun and informative videos that discuss mental health, dating and relationships, gender identity, sexuality, emotional trauma and other important social topics. The channel, created in October of 2015, has accumulated over 7.7 million subscribers and over 921 million total views. Psych2Go features several videos whose titles promise to help viewers “appear confident instantly” or “attract others subconsciously to you.” Keep in mind that this channel operates for the sole purpose of entertainment and should not be regarded as professional advice. After all, the brain and mind are considered to be extremely complex, and even some of the most asked questions in the realm of psychology and psychiatry remain unanswered. 

In Psych2Go’s video titled “10 Most Seductive Traits To Make a Good First Impression,” they assert that in a 2012 study conducted by Burnbaum and Reis, participants reported feeling more sexual desire towards a stranger after discussing an upsetting experience if the individual was more emotionally responsive and empathetic. They argue that in an experiment done by researchers for the European Journal of Social Psychology, male participants were more likely to ask women wearing red questions affiliated with sexual desire than those wearing other colors, and even sat closer to these women in proximity during the experiment. This is just one example of how something seemingly trivial, like the color of your shirt, can impact the success of your rendezvous.

Although the channel’s videos are certainly dramatized to an extent, their claims are backed by some truth. They discuss the social psychology concepts that underlie their bold promises, referencing any sources used to generate the argument. Psych2Go showcases the role psychology plays in dating, mental health and personal growth in a way that is easily accessible and easy to understand. It is extremely important, however, that you remain mindful of the fact that although psychology can provide us with insight into what’s going on in someone’s head, we will never truly understand their perspective. The claims made by Psych2Go are based on generalizations that do not apply to every person or situation, and they must be taken with a grain of salt. Abiding by these suggestions without thoroughly reading the room can get you into some serious trouble. Ultimately, relying on this thought process when making decisions can skew your way of thinking and contribute to harmful stereotypes that damage entire populations.

In all, the best way to use your knowledge of psychology to better your communication skills and improve your social relationships is to practice social vigilance. The more aware you are of the verbal and nonverbal signals emitted by those with whom you communicate, the easier it will be to understand the reasons why people say the things they say and do the things they do. This is an important social skill that constitutes much of one’s emotional intelligence. Master the art of empathy and effective communication, and I promise you won’t even need to consider using psychology to “attract others subconsciously to you!”