What are psychographics you may ask? Well, you may not, but if so: the simple definition is that they are a companion to demographics, but they try to figure out what those demographics tell us about the person behind the demographic factors. This article looks at some of the features that could go into psychographics, like figuring out if a person is “concerned with health and appearance” or “wants a healthy lifestyle, but doesn’t have much time” or what ever the factor may be. This article was written in 2013, long before the Cambridge Analytica debacle with Facebook. That entire debacle event should have people asking harder questions of Ed-Tech, such as:
What’s the difference between ed-tech’s promotion of “social emotional learning” products and Cambridge Analytica’s promises of “psychographic testing”?
— Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) March 21, 2018
Audrey Watters will surely be writing about her question and more soon (its a huge topic to write about already), and Autumm Caines has already weighed in on her experiences investigating Cambridge Analytica long before most of us were aware of them. Like many people, I had to dig up some refreshers about what psychographics are after Audrey Watters’ tweet to make sure I was thinking of the right concept. And now I want to question the whole concept of psychographics altogether. Maybe “ban” is too strong of a word, maybe not. You can be the judge.
Even in the fairly “innocent” tone of the 2013 article I linked above, there are still concerning aspects of psychographics shining through: interview your customers with the agenda of profiling them, and maybe consider telling them what you are doing if they are cool enough; you can’t trust what they say all the time, but you can trust their actions; and “people’s true motivations are revealed by the actions they take”
But really, are they? Don’t we all do things that we know we shouldn’t sometimes, just like we sometimes say things we know we don’t believe sometimes? Isn’t the whole idea of self-regulation based on us being able to overcome our true motivations and do things we know we need, even if we aren’t truly motivated?
The whole basis of psychographics in this article is that you can trust the actions more than the words. I’m not so sure that is true, or really even a “problem” per se. We are all human. We are inconsistent. We change our mind. We don’t do what we say should, or do things that we say we shouldn’t at times. It is part of being alive – that makes life interesting and frustrating. It’s not a bug in the system to be fixed by trickery.
(Side note: anyone that really digs into psychographics will tell you that it is more complex than it was in 2013, but I don’t really have a stomach to go any more complex than that.)
So is it really fair and accurate to do this kind of profiling on people? At certain levels, I get that companies need to understand their customers. But they already have focus groups and test cases and even comment cards to gather this data from. If they don’t think they are getting accurate enough information from those sources, why would they think they could get even more accurate information from trickier methods? Either way, all words and actions come from the same human brain.
Look at the example of what to do with psychographics in marketing in the 2013 article. That whole section is all about tricking a person to buy a product, via some pretty emotionally manipulative methods. I mean, the article flat out tells readers to use a customer’s kids to sell things to them: “Did she love the one about the smiley-face veggie platters for an after-school snack? Give her more ways to help keep her kids eating well.”
What about just giving her the options of what you sell and what they are for, and let her decide what she needs?
And what if she starts showing some signs of self-destructive behavior? If the psychographics are run by AI… will it recognize that and back off? Or will it only see those behaviors as signs of what to sell, and start pushing items to that person that they don’t need? Do you think this hasn’t already happened?
Maybe I am way off base comparing psychographics to profiling and emotional manipulation. I don’t think I am. But if there is even a chance that I am not off base, what should our reaction be as a society? I don’t want to go overboard and even go so far as to get rid of customer surveys and feedback forms. If a company gives me a form designed in a way that lets me tell them what kind of ads I want to see, I wouldn’t mind that. Well, in the past I wouldn’t have minded. After Cambridge Analytica, I would want believable assurances that they would stick with what I put in the form and not try to extrapolate between the lines. I would want assurance they aren’t doing… well… anything that Cambridge Analytica did. [Insert long list of ethical violations here]
But would most companies self-regulate and stay within ethical limits with all that data dangling in front of them? Ummmmm…. not so sure. We may need to consider legislating ethical limits on these activities, as well as outright banning others that prove too tempting. And then figure out how to keep the government in-line on these issues as well. Just because Cambridge Analytica and Facebook are in the hot-seat this week, that doesn’t mean some government department or agency won’t be in that same seat tomorrow.
Matt is currently an Instructional Designer II at Orbis Education and a Part-Time Instructor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Previously he worked as a Learning Innovation Researcher with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His work focuses on learning theory, Heutagogy, and learner agency. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.