How Online Advertising Is Tricking Your Thoughts, Attitudes, and Beliefs | Tristan Harris


How Online Advertising Is Tricking Your Thoughts, Attitudes, and Beliefs | Tristan Harris

The attention economy has always existed—penny papers competed with each other the same way streaming services do now—but today we feel it so much more because our devices are no longer plugged into walls; we can take them with us, to have entertainment and knowledge wherever we go. Tristan Harris, a design thinker and former ethicist at Google, explains how advertising has become increasingly persuasive and tailored in the age of big data. Companies sell users’ attention and personal information to the highest bidder, who uses it to manipulate thoughts and beliefs—be it about products or politics—with very little transparency. “So many of our institutions depend on us having sovereign minds and sovereign ideas,” Harris says. To find out more about Tristan Harris, head to


Follow Big Think here:

So we always had an attention economy, whether it was on radio or television there’s always been a race for our attention and it’s a zero sum game. If one TV station gets more of your attention the other TV station gets less.

But now because we’re spending more and more time on screens and there’s so many things competing for our attention we really feel it. And in the attention economy with social media and with the Internet and our screens, everything needs your attention. So a meditation app, the New York Times, Big Think or Facebook—they’re still all competing for the same currency, which is attention.

And if one guy gets more attention someone else gets less. As an example, the CEO of Netflix recently said that the biggest competitors to Netflix weren’t other video sites, he said the biggest competitors to Netflix were Facebook, YouTube and sleep, because at the end of the day it all comes from this limited supply of attention that we get.

And part of that is because of advertising. Because the business model of advertising says I don’t just want some of your attention, I actually make more money the more attention I get from you. So I have an unbounded appetite for more of your attention.

And the problem is that as each factor in the attention economy, whether it’s a meditation app or it’s Snapchat or it’s Facebook or Netflix, they start ratcheting up more and more persuasive design choices to stick us to the product for longer and to keep us coming back, to addict us even. And the problem is it becomes this race to the bottom, where the lower I go on the brainstem at getting you to click and stay, the lower someone else has to go.

So when YouTube ads auto play the next video Netflix has to auto play the next video too otherwise they lose out on their attention market share. And so in this zero sum game what we really need to talk about is how do we reorganize the attention economy so it actually aligns with what we want?

Imagine that those are different zones, both in app stores and on our phones so that it’s really about helping us, competing to help us live our lives not competing just to get the most attention.

So, why should we be questioning advertising? It’s been the cheapest and easiest way to grow and scale a business because you can always figure out new ways of getting attention, and you can find new ways of getting more money per eyeball that spends time with you.

But the costs of it are really just too big, because in a world where I’ve got your eyeball (and I’m Facebook) and I’ve got actually a billion of these eyeballs, and I’m asking, “Who wants to pay me the most to put a message in front of this eyeball?”, and in a world where I give that person personal information that would tell them exactly how to persuade this person (and they can persuade them with anything that they want because they know exactly, as for example, with companies like Cambridge Analytica which knew exactly how to persuade you politically), I would be enabling whoever wants to pay me the most to manipulate and influence this person’s mind.

And so in a world that’s more and more persuasive, where it’s more about persuasion than it is about advertising, what is the ethically persuasive world that we want to live in? In a world that is on a one way track getting better and better at persuading our minds to believe, feel and have different opinions than we would have had—because it can personalize exactly and tailor exactly messages that would sway us—how do we live in that world when so much of our institutions depend on us having sovereign minds and sovereign ideas and the ability to democratically talk to each other about what the right answer might be?

So we need to question the business model of advertising in the way that it affects that economy.
Video Rating:5


  1. My particular approach is to be extremely sceptical (bordering on hostility) of anyone I perceive as marketing at me. I switch of TV sound and minimise picture in any ad break. I pre-record and skip ads: I cut sound and look at other stuff on youtube when ads come on. I do whatever I can to come up with ways to tune out the advertiser and their message. I regard myself as in a hostile environment (a battlefield if you like) where I am under 24/7/365 bombardment and sniper fire from those attempting to get inside my head. I see a wall of brainwashing techniques coming all individual citizens – attempting to inflence us into self-destructive behaviours to benefit commerical interests.

  2. well if they only help those that pays the most then they are losing out on potential high quality content from talented creators. Sooo end of the day eventually things will get boring like music and fashion show plus tv things is getting boring these days new talents needed everywhere but nobody wants to invest but then when they do become big in their own hustle then they will properly turn their back and create even better and greater things

  3. advertising is a huge tax write off for the greedy rich we are all being controlled by them and money for the sake of their wealth

  4. I haven't been on Facebook since 2011.
    Youtube, however, I visit every day.

    Conclusion: VIdeos, such as this one, are more interesting than my family and friends.

  5. politically, that means there should be no corporate or any other wealthy entity sponsoring any political candidate. This way, someone who runs for office will win based on merit. Not on how much advertising can be bought to brainwash the electorate.

  6. Old news. Study Edward Bernays. FDR did and every president and party has used his ideas since then.

  7. WTF??? How about not making laws to force advertisers to do or not do "X". Instead, how about personal responsibility. We have always had used car salesmen or vacuum salesmen who have been considered shady in nature. Caveat Emptor!

Comments are closed.