Cambridge Analytica, Mindset Marketing, and Behaviorism

To be clear, the connection I am trying to make here is that personality profiling-the production of psychographic renderings of human characteristics-is not just confined to Cambridge Analytica, or to Facebook, or to the wider data analytics and advertising industries. Instead, the science of personality testing is slowly entering into education as a form of behavioural governance.

Source: Learning from psychographic personality profiling | code acts in education

Look at the consequences that we are now seeing from Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. The platforms that we use in education for learning are not exempt from this issue.

Source: Platform Literacy in a Time of Mass Gaslighting – Or – That Time I Asked Cambridge Analytica for My Data – Is a Liminal Space

”Learning from psychographic personality profiling” connects Cambridge Analytica’s unethical and democracy-subverting psychometrics with the mindset marketing and behaviorism of education, favorite subjects of mine:

The marketing of mindsets is everywhere. Fast psycho-policy & the datafication of social-emotional learning dominate ed-tech. Grit, growth mindset, project-based mindset, entrepreneurial mindset, innovator’s mindset, and a raft of canned social-emotional skills programs are vying for public money. These notions are quickly productized, jumping straight from psychology departments to aphoristic word images shared on social media and marketing festooned on school walls.

Like every marketed mindset going back to the self-esteem movement, these campaigns are veneers on the deficit model that ignore long-standing structural problems like poverty, racism, sexism, ableism, and childism. The practice and implementation of these mindsets are always suborned by deficit ideology, bootstrap ideology, meritocracy myths, and greed.

Source: Mindset Marketing, Behaviorism, and Deficit Ideology

Behaviorism and mindset marketing are no ally to neurodivergent and disabled people.

My experience with special education and ABA demonstrates how the dichotomy of interventions that are designed to optimize the quality of life for individuals on the spectrum can also adversely impact their mental health, and also their self-acceptance of an autistic identity. This is why so many autistic self-advocates are concerned about behavioral modification programs: because of the long-term effects they can have on autistic people’s mental health. This is why we need to preach autism acceptance, and center self advocates in developing appropriate supports for autistic people. That means we need to take autistic people’s insights, feelings, and desires into account, instead of dismissing them.

Source: THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM: Mental Health and Autism: Why Acceptance Matters

The past and present of behaviorism is ugly.

Mainstream ed-tech combines the dismal ethics of tech, Silicon Valley, and market fundamentalism with the dismal ethics of behaviorism and the deficit model and mainlines it all into public ed.‬ A representative exhibit is the now infamous Hero K12 video (which has been taken offline).

The video itself is only two and a half minutes, but the way they efficiently pack in so much of what is wrong in schooling today is remarkable. To put it bluntly, it was a bunch of behaviorist garbage. It makes the argument that students are animals that need to be conditioned to do what is expected of them through punishments and rewards. This is music to many educators’ ears, because they all know from their teacher training that the foremost priority in school is classroom management. And when classroom management is taken care of, then they can focus on what really matters-test scores.

The punishments and rewards continue to compound on themselves. Chris gets to go to the pep rally later in the day where he can let loose and have fun. Chris is a good boy, and gets to do good boy things. Jill, however, is a bad girl, so she must go to detention instead of going to the pep rally. Perhaps making Jill sit in a room by herself while everyone else is having fun will teach her to ‘act right.’

Hero K12 reaffirms everything that is perceived to be right with Chris, and everything that is perceived to be wrong with Jill.

Source: Want to ruin the lives of children? There’s an EdTech company for that. – Abrome

Canned social-emotional skills programs, behaviorism, and the marketing of mindsets have serious side effects. They reinforce the cult of compliance and encourage submission to authoritarian rule. They line the pockets of charlatans and profiteers. They encourage surveillance and avaricious data collection. Deficit model capitalism’s data-based obsession proliferates hucksterism and turns kids into someone’s business model. The behaviorism of PBS is of the mindset of abusers and manipulators. It is ideological, intellectual, and ethical kin with ABA, which autistic people have roundly rejected as abusive, coercive, and manipulative torture. We call it autistic conversion therapy.

Behaviorism and mindset marketing are incompatible with neurodiversity and the social model of disability. We in the neurodiversity and disability communities should reject them from our schools. They are gaslighting. They compromise agency. They break down a person’s ability to self-advocate and say NO. This is the exact wrong thing to be doing.

Noncompliance is a social skill“. “Prioritize teaching noncompliance and autonomy to your kids. Prioritize agency.“”Many behavior therapies are compliance-based. Compliance is not a survival skill. It makes us vulnerable.” “It’s of crucial importance that behavior based compliance training not be central to the way we parent, teach, or offer therapy to autistic children. Because of the way it leaves them vulnerable to harm, not only as children, but for the rest of their lives.” Disabled kids “are driven to comply, and comply, and comply. It strips them of agency. It puts them at risk for abuse.” “The most important thing a developmentally disabled child needs to learn is how to say “no.” If they only learn one thing, let it be that.” “When an autistic teen without a standard means of expressive communication suddenly sits down and refuses to do something he’s done day after day, this is self-advocacy … When an autistic person who has been told both overtly and otherwise that she has no future and no personhood reacts by attempting in any way possible to attack the place in which she’s been imprisoned and the people who keep her there, this is self-advocacy … When people generally said to be incapable of communication find ways of making clear what they do and don’t want through means other than words, this is self-advocacy.” “We don’t believe that conventional communication should be the prerequisite for your loved one having their communication honored.

Source: I’m Autistic. Here’s what I’d like you to know.

Plenty of policies and programs limit our ability to do right by children. But perhaps the most restrictive virtual straitjacket that educators face is behaviorism – a psychological theory that would have us focus exclusively on what can be seen and measured, that ignores or dismisses inner experience and reduces wholes to parts. It also suggests that everything people do can be explained as a quest for reinforcement – and, by implication, that we can control others by rewarding them selectively.

Allow me, then, to propose this rule of thumb: The value of any book, article, or presentation intended for teachers (or parents) is inversely related to the number of times the word “behavior” appears in it. The more our attention is fixed on the surface, the more we slight students’ underlying motives, values, and needs.

Source: It’s Not About Behavior – Alfie Kohn

Tools and methods used to manipulate voters and elections are in our schools amplifying and spreading the misbehavior of behaviorism and enabling mass gaslighting. These forces are harmful to all kids, but particularly neurodivergent and disabled kids.

Fix injustice, not kids. Stop buying into behaviorism and mindset marketing. Listen to autistic and disabled people when we warn against them.

The ways education policy is becoming a kind of behavioural science, supported by intimate data collected about psychological characteristics or even neural information about students, is the central focus of this ongoing work. Expert knowledge about students is increasingly being mediated through an edu-data analytics industry, which is bringing new powers to see into the hidden and submerged depths of students’ cognition, brains and emotions, while also allowing ed-tech companies and policymakers to act ‘smarter’, in real-time and predictively, to intervene in and shape students’ futures.

Having possession of a vast quantified personality database would clearly grant power to any organization wishing to find ways to engage, coerce, trigger or nudge people to think or behave in certain ways-advertisers, say, or propagandists. Whether it worked in Cambridge Analytica’s case remains open to debate-though I think Jamie Bartlett is right to understand this as just one example of a shift to new forms of behavioural government in the wider field of politics. Mark Whitehead and colleagues call it ‘neuroliberalism‘-a style of behavioural governance that applies psychology, neuroscience and behavioural sciences methods and expertise to public policy and government action-and convincingly show how it has been installed in governments and businesses around the world. In education we have already seen how organizations such as the Behavioural Insights Team(‘Nudge Unit’) are being contracted to provide policy-relevant insights based on psychological and behavioural expertise and knowledge.

While the OECD is only measuring student personality, the inevitable outcome for any countries with disappointing results is that they will want to improve students’ personalities and character to ensure their competitiveness in the global race.

While ClassDojo is currently popular as a classroom app for supporting growth mindset and character development, it is certainly conceivable that it could be used to promote and reward the Big Five (its website says it is also compatible with Positive Behavioural Interventions and Support, a US Department of Education program, for example-it’s flexible to market demands). It’s not a huge leap to link ClassDojo to psychographic personality profiling-ClassDojo’s founders have openly described being inspired by economist James Heckman, and Heckman helped shape the OECD’s views on the links between personality and economic productivity.

Given current developments in personality testing, character development and social-emotional skills modification, maybe we can paraphrase Jamie Bartlett to suggest that not only are politics drifting to behavioural government, but education policy and practice too are beginning to embrace a behavioural science of algorithm-based triggers and nudges which are tuned to personality and mood. Education appears to be generating more intimate data from students, mining beneath the surface of their knowledge to capture interior details about their personality, character and emotions. Policymakers, test developers and ed-tech producers may not openly say so, but just like Cambridge Analytica they are seeking to learn from psychographic personality profiling.

Source: Learning from psychographic personality profiling | code acts in education

The part of boyd’s talk (and her response) that I find particularly compelling in terms of overlap with this Cambridge Analytica story is in the construct of gaslighting in media literacy.  boyd is not the first to use the term gaslighting in relation to our current situation with media but, again, often I see this presented from the perspective of adtech, law, or politics and not so much from the perspective of education.

If you don’t know what gaslighting is you can take a moment to look into it but basically it is a form of psychological abuse between people who are in close relationships or friendships. It involves an abuser who twists facts and manipulates another person by drawing on that close proximity and the knowledge that they hold about the victim’s personality and other intimate details. The abuser uses the personal knowledge that they have of the person to manipulate them by playing on their fears, wants, and attractions.

It is exactly this principle of platforms employing this idea of personalization, or intimate knowledge of who a person is, which makes the gaslighting metaphor work. We are taking this thing that is a description of a very personal kind of abuse and using it to describe a problem at mass scale. It is the idea that the platform has data which tells it bits about who you are and that there are customers (most often advertisers) out there who will pay for that knowledge. If we are going to bring gaslighting into the conversation then we have to address the ability of a platform to know what makes you like, love, laugh, wow, sad, and angry and use that knowledge against you.

Look at the consequences that we are now seeing from Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. The platforms that we use in education for learning are not exempt from this issue.

In her rebuttal boyd says that one of the outstanding questions that she has after listening to the critics (and thanking them for their input) is how to teach across gaslighting. So, it is here where I will suggest that we have to bring platforms back into the conversation. I’m not sure how we talk about gaslighting in media without looking at how platforms manipulate the frequency and context with which media are presented to us – especially when that frequency and context is “personalized” and based on intimate knowledge of what makes us like, love, wow, sad, grrrr.

Source: Platform Literacy in a Time of Mass Gaslighting – Or – That Time I Asked Cambridge Analytica for My Data – Is a Liminal Space

Previously,

When Grit Isn’t Enough

15 thoughts on “Cambridge Analytica, Mindset Marketing, and Behaviorism

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