The big manipulation

Three behavioural design strategies to solve the refugee problem

In the last weeks, it seems as if we have entered the high season for influencing public opinion. A campaign for solidarity, a campaign for free speech, and endless discussions about the way refugees are perceived. These campaigns, and the way the media portray the refugee crisis provoke many reactions. It’s very tempting to fill this essay with my own opinions, but that’s something I absolutely want to avoid.

We could spend hours discussing whether we liked or disliked a certain campaign. But there are questions beyond the content that, as a behavioural designer, fascinate me even more: what actually works to influence the public? What will lead to behavioural change? What is capable of putting a positive spin on the course of things to come? Can we, advertising professionals, design a better world with our skills and expertise?

I would argue that there are three ways, that we as creatives, can affect large-scale change: behavioural design, emotional shock therapy and manipulating the ruling class.

Strategy 1: Ability


The vast majority of evidence from behavioural economics shows that if you wish to influence behaviour it is much better to make the desired behaviour easier than convince people to change their behaviour. The best donation strategy for charities is to create a situation where it’s easier to say yes than no. Try to say no to the beautiful girl in the doorway. No digital fundraising can beat this. If you don’t want kids to smoke, make the cigarettes so expensive that they simply can’t afford to get hooked. If you want to stop gambling among bankers, make them personally responsible for the losses. If you want the police to stop using excessive force, maybe stop giving them all those military toys to play with in the first place. If you want people to adopt the environmentally friendly behaviour, require them to separate their waste into two transparent bags; so that everyone can actually see what’s in their waste, instead of teaching them to be environmentally conscious.

Behavioural designers know that if you wish to provoke a certain behaviour, you must invest a disproportionate amount of time in tinkering with the choice architecture within which this behaviour happens. People pay 10,000 EUR to human smugglers to risk their lives and the lives of their children to cross the Mediterranean, to seek asylum. They do all of that, whilst low-cost airlines provide flights for less than 100 EUR. This endless stream of harrowing scenes would stop if we could make just one little design change: ensure that airlines don’t have to pay repatriation costs for someone who has flown over with them. This is why no Syrian civilian can get a plane ticket. The fact that airlines are economically punished if they accept refugees on their flights is not a detail. It’s a design flaw that has caused thousands of deaths and provoked the growth of a ruthless smuggling industry.

As a behavioural designer, you should feel strongly about the impact of bad design and its perverse, unwanted consequences.

Strategy 2: Emotional shock therapy

The problem with the science of persuasion and the art of seduction is that those with a desire for power and dominance are more likely to master the principles of influence. While on the other side, lefty folks who want to make the world a better place, are always trying to convince us of our moral duty. They are imbued with the belief that we will do the right thing eventually if we could just see things the way they see them if we could just understand that this is the only correct cause of action.

Without being disrespectful, most people have an opinion, whether they have the right information to base it on or not. Many ideas are driven by irrational fears, frustrations, dreams and desires, all inflated and exploited by populists, corporations and marketeers like us. We have known for centuries that money spent on a moral change campaign is money down the drain.

A good example is a campaign where famous Dutch people called for solidarity. It was undoubtedly well-intended (and you won’t hear me criticising the execution), but is there anyone who thought afterwards: “Yes! Yes, goddamn it, I really need to change my mind!”?


The promotional power of the dead child photographed on the coast of Bodrum did what no public campaign or opinion piece had done until then: it spurred people into action. The photograph that quickly went viral on social media, shocked people out of their daze of indifference. There was no convincing argument or moral appeal inserted into the image. It was just a picture of a child who looked like any Dutch child peacefully sleeping. I don’t know a single person who didn’t cry at the sight of this picture and stopped to realise that refugees are people exactly like us.

Informational campaigns are a cloth brush with which we try to massage rationality into a different direction. Emotional images are the bricks we use to throw through the public’s windows. And that’s what we’re good at as a sector.

Strategy 3: Manipulating the ruling class

In a special essay entitled “Human Rights, Nationality and Sentimentality’ the American Philosopher Richard Rorty writes the following:

We resent the idea that we shall have to wait for the strong to turn their piggy little eyes to the suffering of the weak, slowly open their dried-up little hearts. We desperately hope there is something stronger and more powerful that will hurt the strong if they do not do these things.

Rorty hated utopian thinking. In his eyes, philosophy and morality are nothing more than literary genres. Nice to read and discuss from time to time, but they don’t hold any relation to reality and influencing behaviour.

Rorty argues that, if you want to make the world a better place, the only thing that counts is your ability to convince the powerful “with their dried-up hearts and piggy eyes” that it’s in their own self-interest to do what’s right. His plea is radically pragmatic, stripped of any moral debate on what we should think or like.

If we can, in the words of Rorty, open the piggy eyes of the authorities and let them recognise that it’s in their own electoral interests to do good, we can make a huge impact. Because nothing is as effective as the fear of electoral losses to politicians, the fear of reputational damage to corporations and the fear of losing audiences to media companies.

The reasonably right-wing populist magazine Bild changed their stance when Bayern Munchen hooligans started welcoming refugees. Bild didn’t do this out of altruism, but out of fear of losing readers.

If we really want change, we must convince the politicians that bravery pays off. We must convince our media that they have a great future in mobilising the public. And lastly, we must convince our businesses that they will be richer if they do the right thing.

The fight is on

Louis Paul Boon, the great Flemish writer and self-proclaimed ‘tender anarchist’, considered it his duty as a writer to give society a conscience. We can add to Boon’s plea that we have to manipulate them into having a conscience.

In the fight against the indifference of the masses and manipulation of public opinion by populists in power, we as creatives have the most powerful weapons in our hands. It’s time to use them properly.


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