Named one of Poets & Quants’s “40 Best Business Professors Under 40” in 2021, Sandra Matz, the David W. Zalaznick Associate Professor of Business at Columbia Business School, is a leader in the field of computational social sciences. She coined the term psychological targeting to describe the way digital traces can reveal human psychology.
In her forthcoming book, Mind Masters: How to Turn Nosy Algorithms into Powerful Allies, Matz shows how data enable external influencers to sway the choices we make individually and collectively. Yet, from her perspective, this can be positive. She suggests ways individuals can unite through common interests to leverage their data ethically, to understand themselves personally, and to find resources they intentionally seek.
In the following essay, Matz explains these concepts:
One Boy’s Day by Barker and Wright (Harper Bros., 1951), two psychologists set out to study actual behavior. They hired eight research assistants to observe a 7-year-old boy for 14 consecutive hours recording his natural “psychological habitat” at one-minute intervals. With the goal of producing an objective report of the boy’s behavior, they noted how he woke in the morning, played with his dog, rode his bike, and interacted with his parents, teachers, children of various ages, and adults in the community.
Fast-forward 70-plus years and now each of us has millions of observers based on all our devices, tracking us by the second, gathering data and recording it. This data-crawling digital equivalent to Barker and Wright’s research assistants reads my Facebook messages, collects my credit card purchases, and records my facial expressions and casual encounters using some 50 million public cameras across the United States.
In addition, not only can we collect more data today than ever before, computers can interpret it. They can translate this seemingly mundane, innocuous information about what we do into highly intimate insights about who we are and ultimately prescriptions of what we should do. I call this process psychological targeting and I’ve been studying it for over a decade now.