The psychology of influence versus artificial intelligence research

7. The psychology of influence versus artificial intelli...


Code: Programming and psychology

What is code? It is programming instructions for a computer. Code can be programmed socially too, maybe, such as by saying repeatedly:  “It is a very good thing”.  As an illustration, say a person hears this phrase again and again and again. It could be said to be like social code. A phrase, such as this, might be said so as to create an effect on a  listener. This effect might be specific: the listener might think, for example, and be intended to think of, a particular person who first said this phrase to them.  In this sense, maybe it could be argued it is socially programmed code.

Can a person be programmed? Social programming or influence can be done, and there are many studies showing the effect of certain conditioning effects created by society. Brainwashing for example is well known. A person can be influenced, with intent.

So the cerebral cortex could be programmed then? Like a computer?  No, and the reason has to be that this is illogical.  A person is not a computer. They do not need instructions for every action to be programmed into them in order to function. They can generate their own ideas, and learn. They are not just a set of conditioned responses. This argument also leads into an area that the psychology profession, if one wants to call it that, and scientists, study: Artificial intelligence.

How can code be used to program, if a person can’t be programmed? A person is not a robot. But can they be programmed socially? That is: could a society or some people in a society, or some researchers in a laboratory experiment, choose to deliberately target or repeatedly choose to interact with  a person or subject using specific phrases so as to try to create a particular effect on that person’s thinking, to create specific extrapolations or tangents in the thinking of the person, for particular reasons?  I think it could be argued that intent for social programming could occur, but whether or how much this affected a person could be a different argument. It might not affect the person at all: they might regard it as an irritation and ignore it, or maybe they are affected by it.  In this sense, it is maybe not just a choice of language as to what to call it: ‘influence’, or ‘programming’. To continue with the previously mentioned illustration,  what is happening when a person hears the phrase “It is a very good thing’ repeatedly? A shopkeeper says it, a person in the street they talk to says it, and another person says it, occasionally, over some years. Say, the first person who said it to them is what they remember each time they hear this phrase. Is this influence? Is it programming? Is it deliberate? If it was deliberate, it could be considered deliberate social influence.  Or, one could call it deliberate (social) programming: trying to create an association in a person's thinking so that they will think of a particular person every time they hear a particular phrase. Is it done with intent? Well, of course it is (most actions are done with intent: a person does not accidentally say a phrase: they must cognitively think of the phrase first, plan to say it, then say it). But are the people who say it deliberately saying it with intent to socially program or affect another person’s thinking?  Then it might be able to be considered social code, as opposed to social influence.

So, it is evident and obvious that a person cannot be programmed like a computer. They can be influenced, though, and some influence can be very powerful. Regarding social code, and the question: what is code? (and what are its implications and possible applications) the following argument could be considered:  People could use code in a social sense, such as using phrases that are specifically designed to create a specific effect in a particular person.  That is, influence could be specific, or intended to be specific and done using specific social code.


But isn’t this brainwashing? The Patty Hearst kidnapping for example is one example, maybe, of brainwashing. She was kidnapped and brainwashed into doing things for the gang that kidnapped her. Apparently the jury decided, if I read it right, that her claims to being brainwashed were not good enough as an excuse for what she eventually did. Other kidnappings have occurred. It is well known and has many books written about it. The victim often identifies with the kidnappers. This is called the 'Stockholm syndrome'.  So, brainwashing has happened many times. Is this social influence or social programming? It could be argued many ways I suppose, since the specifics are not known, but in the argument I am following, and also thinking about, so comments would be useful, what is being argued or introduced is the idea that humans might be able to be deliberately programmed using social code, so this is slightly different, possibly to the concept of brainwashing.


What is understood, generally, it seems, is that humans have free choice. They are not computers, definitely. Therefore, they cannot be programmed like a computer can be. However, what if a person is subjected to social code programming regularly: will they ignore the associations created by the repetitive phrases they hear? Or will they notice them?  Then there is the concept of associations. What does a person do if they hear one phrase repeatedly? Do they make an association? Are they aware of the association? I argue normal people are not aware of their associations. To think this way would be abnormal I think. It would show a very advanced level of introspection, which could be regarded as excessive. Conversely, if it was done with deliberate intent, and indicated to the person that it was being done deliberately, would they then notice it, and would the noticing of it then, be abnormal? Say someone said a phrase to a person that reminded them of someone, like ‘It is a very good thing’ and then banged a door each time after that phrase was said. Would the person then notice that association? They probably would. Then, would it be abnormal for them to notice their own thinking of the person the phrase reminded them of,  to be aware of the association created? I don't think that would be abnormal in that case. They would be aware of the process.

Artificial intelligence research

With artificial intelligence research, one thing that would need to be done is to make the subject aware of their own thinking process. Because, what the researcher is trying to do is to study the thinking process itself. They need the person to be aware that code is being programmed deliberately, or that the psychology of influence is happening, and happening with intention: otherwise they cannot get the recognition of the association process to register on the person's brain. They are trying, after all, to create artificial intelligence:  which means they need to study the thinking process, which may include the association process, the way associations are made… So they need it to register on the thinker’s awareness so as to be able to study it. They intelligence of a human being is complicated. It needs mapping for study. They must first create a set of maps: so, some might be phrases like: ‘It is a very good thing’ with a variety of people saying this same phrase, and these people may or may not know each other, and may or may not know the person to whom it is said and on whose thinking it is designed to register.


So: can a person be studied with intent, and can code be used for this? Using the previous argument, one answer is: Yes. Social code. This is illegal under human rights laws internationally: only rats or guinea pigs are allowed to be studied for medical research or maybe a few other animals. Each organization or country has its own laws for this. I read in an article last year, for example, that it is illegal, according to a New Zealand cancer research (animal, I think) law, that they are not allowed to deliberately induce the symptom in a subject in order to study it. This was for animals, I am fairly sure. For humans, it is definitely not allowed.

So, this opinion I am presenting regards the application of programming code as applied to humans, and it is not necessarily theoretical. Brainwashing is real, and has been done many times: Patty Hearst kidnapping, other kidnappings, gangs - it is well known. Were they using code to do it? Or was it more the general use of influence? There are two issues here: one: specific  social code programming on humans, such as might be used in artificial intelligence research, and two: the psychology of influence, social conditioning, social influence.  

To continue with the previous illustration of phrases:  Say a person is hearing one phrase ‘It is a very good thing’ and they think of one person, every time they hear it. Are the people making the statements doing it with intent? Or, is it just a phrase that has become common in the language? Another example: ‘No, ma’am’ (or ‘Thankyou ma’am’). This is an American expression but if a person hears this said in another non-American culture it might seem strange. Could it be deliberate programming done for a specific reason? Such as to create an effect of American culture in a customer for example if a shopkeeper says it? That would be social programming, done with intent, to a customer, or customers, specifically with the intention of creating an association of ‘American'.  Why? Who knows? Maybe they want to create a particular effect for the culture of the shop, or maybe they want a particular customer to think of Americans when they go into their shop. So, customers could be socially influenced. Is this programming. Is the phrase code? Is ‘No ma’am’ code? What determines what is code? If an American heard it, in America, they would think nothing of it. It is normal, and would not notice it. This is maybe where the artificial intelligence research has applications to social code programming: if it is said in a non-American country, the customer might notice it, though. It is out of context for the culture. They are aware of it. Is it programming their awareness with intent? If they were the subject of artificial intelligence research, it could be argued that this would be one way it could be done: code, with intent, on a research subject, to create awareness in the subject that it was being programmed, while programming it at the same time. It needs to register. Why? Because this is how the study of artificial intelligence is done, I would suspect.

So there are two examples of code: ‘It is a very good thing’, and ‘No, ma’am'. In both situations they are not code, they are just phrases. It could be argued that it is the way and who by and who to and the specific circumstances, then, that determine if they are programming a person or people in a way that is deliberate social influence, or deliberate social code programming, or not. 


Continuing the above example, and assuming it is the same person who hears both the previously mentioned phrases, can they be, or are they being programmed? If they always think of a particular acquaintance when they hear ‘It is a very good thing’ and if they always think ‘American’ when they hear ‘No, ma’am’, it could be argued that they are making associations, yes, but are they being programmed? Does being programmed happen with intent, with recognition, or without intent, and even without recognition? As I alluded to earlier, a normal person may not notice their associations. If they don't, can they be programmed or influenced? One could suggest it would be more difficult (or again, maybe not: as social influence can be subtle and not recognized necessarily). If they do notice, though, what happens: are they likely to be less or more influenced, and can they be socially programmed…..What is this process?

If it can be accepted that the psychology of influence applies to programming in a social sense, using language, then maybe it can be considered code. What is code? What determines if it is considered code? Intent?  But, also, maybe, recognition, on the part of the person or subject on whom the social influence being done.


It is a bit like the concept of Chinese water torture, done in WW 2 or some other war. The person sits in a room with a tap and it drips on them. Eventually they go mad, or give the information that is requested. It would be a similar process to reinforcing the awareness of code if someone banged a door every time the phrase ‘It is a very good thing’ was used: it would reinforce the awareness of the subject of the association being made: this is how artificial intelligence research could be done. It cannot of course, be done legally: it is illegal. A human being has to consent in writing to be being used for medical research, and this is well known.

Violations of medical and scientific ethics have happened many times of course. One in New Zealand: a cancer researcher experimented on some women and they developed cancer, probably unnecessarily. He did it for the good of humanity no doubt, but for the victims, it was probably their death. He withheld treatment from half and gave the other half treatment for cervical cancer, if my memory is correct: one lot got placebos and the other got cancer drugs. The ones getting placebos developed cancer, or some did. One of the patients wrote about it. Her story was published years ago. Violations of medical or scientific ethics have happened in many countries.

Could such violations of ethics also occur with the use of social code, or in artificial intelligence research if it was done using social code?  A subject being the victim of this, without consent? I think it could.  One way is as described previously: the use of phrases in social interaction in such a way that it is 'programming’ or 'deliberate influence’ rather than just common language phrases. The specific mechanisms? One: the deliberately forced awareness (such as through the equivalent of Chinese water torture: e.g. banging doors) that follows a phrase, so reinforcing the awareness of the subject of an association being created, but also creating awareness in the subject that maybe it is done deliberately.

So: can humans be deliberately programmed? Maybe they can be influenced in specific deliberate ways. This has applications to the study of social psychology, the psychology of influence, and the study of artificial intelligence. Such actions would be illegal. A subject has to consent, and they have to consent in writing, too. These are the rules of experimentation in laboratory research on humans, as far as I have read.

So, what is code? What are implications regarding artificial intelligence research?

The word code, used in the previously mentioned  social sense of socially programmed code,  is what is interesting here. Why is it code? What determines code? Intent? What is the difference between influence and code? Deliberate intent? Can a person be programmed against their will? Obviously they can be influenced against their will. Can they be programmed? They are not a computer. They can ignore the programming surely? To what extent can they ignore it?  Can a person be held down and programmed without their permission like an object?  Can they ignore the programming or code or influence? It would depend how it was done maybe.

Everyone is aware that social influence exists. Programming intentionally, using social influence in a specific, intentional way, might be different, and less known, and it’s specific mechanisms less known, but maybe could also exist.   If it is done without intent, is this code?  If a phrase is repeated that makes a person think of someone, or some situation, but it is not done with intent, is that then influence, or can it still be considered code?  

So to summarize, maybe it depends on the way it is done: with intent or not, and with the forced recognition of the subject being part of it, or not. This is where, I would argue, artificial intelligence research differentiates from the more general area, or study, of the psychology of influence.

Written by Katrina Wood, 2014.

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18.10 | 05:28

Das ist einfach cool

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