Manipulations for Good?

3 min readJul 22, 2021


Image by 愚木混株 Cdd20 from Pixabay

Once again, our recent event sparked some great conversation which highlighted both our shared concerns, and varying opinions and approaches for moving forward. Over the next few weeks we’ll talk about some of our favorite talking points that were raised.

First up is psychological manipulations. To use, or not to use?

There seems to be a general consensus in the humane tech world that using psychological tricks, like dopamine inducing techniques that create a slot machine effect, feels unethical. At the very least, we wouldn’t file it under “ethical.” But is it okay to take advantage of similar techniques for ethical purposes? What if we induce dopamine when someone does something we consider to be good for themselves or others?

On the one hand, Facebook’s “like” button was created to spread positivity, but is now a go-to example of an unhealthy social media tool. Instead of likes just making people feel warm and fuzzy as was intended, people become addicted to accumulating likes, and can become depressed when they don’t get as many as they want or as other people are getting. For young people and influencers especially, their sense of self-worth becomes tied to their likes, a measurable look at what other people think of them. It’s a cautionary tale of good intentions gone awry, reminding us that just because we think something is for good, we may very well be off the mark.

But on the other hand, things as simple as colors or the placement of buttons manipulate the way we interact with and feel about an app. Most of us don’t want to move to a gray-scale internet, and apps would be no use without a way to navigate, so decisions that influence a user’s subconscious must eventually be made. It becomes a stretch at some point to say that choosing a nice color or creating features that make people enjoy your product are always unethical.

Although there’s no clear line in the sand dividing the ethical from the unethical, transparency and choice are probably key to finding the right balance. There can be a lot of value in letting people know which manipulations you’ve chosen and why — like apps specifically designed to reinforce and reward certain behaviors or habits — so that people can choose for themselves if they want to be influenced in that way. Choices like allowing a user to switch to gray-scale or see a simplified view are also great tools that allow developers to use positive reinforcement while still empowering the end-user.

What do you think? Which psychological manipulations, if any, are fair game and why?

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