Thursday, July 9, 2015

We Know What You Are Thinking and We Can Change It

An article in the May 29, 2015 issue of Science (the summary is here, the abstract of the article is here) reveals a new way in which people’s attitudes can be manipulated. The authors note that, even when people try to not have racial, gender, or ethnic biases, they still have them subconsciously. Even if people are trained to reduce their biases, the subconscious scaffolding of these biases remains. Is there any way to rub out these subconscious prejudices? Apparently there is.

  • First, you train subjects—for example with computer exercises—to overcome their prejudices. This has been used for a long time. The difference this time is that you can unobtrusively introduce some sensory signal, such as a sound or a scent, during this training. The subject’s mind then associates the anti-prejudice training with the sound or scent.
  • Second, when the subjects are asleep, introduce the sound or scent. The result is that the sleeping brain clears away some of the lingering prejudice.

What you get is a subject, when he or she wakes up, who is much less prejudiced.

This sounds like a great way that people can use to alter the prejudices that they have trouble getting rid of. Maybe therapists could use it on people who seek help. However, I am sure you have already realized that it could also be used to alter a subject’s attitudes in a way that government or corporate leadership finds convenient. It might not be too much harder to induce subjects to love the swastika than to love people of other races. Though the authors did not note it, this process might be even more effective if oxytocin spray, which induces feelings of trust, is used during the training exercises.


Do I think that any government or industry or interest group is going to make use of this process any time soon? No. But I pass this on to you as an example of how science and technology are moving along faster than our ability to think through the ethical uses of the new information and techniques.

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