Here’s why depicting humans as machines can backfire in a big way

Portraying people as machines in health awareness and marketing campaigns may sound like a logical way to encourage healthier choices, but a new study finds such lofty comparisons can end up backfiring in a big way.

Researchers from the University of Amsterdam and Stanford University say messages and campaigns sculpted in this way often lead to unhealthier choices among certain individuals.

Dating back hundreds of years, humans have always wanted to display an idealized version of themselves. From decadent royal paintings of kings and queens to more recent 20th-century advertising campaigns showing smiling, seemingly perfect people wearing trendy clothes, humanity’s constant pursuit of perfection is nothing new.

Still, it feels like this phenomenon has intensified in recent years due to the ever-advancing rate of technological innovation. On a related note, what’s a more accurate representation of perfection than robots and machines? Such technologies don’t make mistakes; machines don’t oversleep and miss scheduled meetings and robots don’t overeat or decide to skip the gym one day because they’re feeling lazy or tired.

We all want to be perfect. We all want to always make the right choice, always follow a healthy diet, always get in enough weekly or daily exercise, always land a big promotion at work. The list goes on and on. Of course, no human is perfect, and therein lies the unique experience of being a person. We’re all challenged every day to simply do the best we can, and perhaps even more importantly, feel okay about falling short of perfection. 

Circling back to machines, it’s no surprise considering the prominent role robotics and AI have taken in popular culture and society today that many advertising and health awareness campaigns have decided to take a “humans as machines” approach to spreading their message. One such initiative cited by researchers describes people as “human machines,” another likens food choices to fuel for a car’s engine. 

The intentions behind these campaigns are noble. It is a good idea for everyone to eat healthier and exercise more, but study authors say the expectation to act as a literal machine in pursuit of healthier life choices is too much for many people. While a portion of consumers will indeed make healthier choices after being compared to robots, others who were already feeling less-than-confident in their habits will react to such campaigns by making even unhealthier choices.

“So, I have to act and think like a robot to lose weight? Well, that’s never going to happen, might as well stay on the couch today,” is an example of what many would think upon seeing an ad telling them to make cold calculated choices like a machine.

“For this consumer segment, the expectation that one should be rational and machine-like when it comes to food feels impossible. Instead of feeling motivated to be more rational, the feeling of not being able to perform like a machine triggers unhealthier choice making instead. Thus, a strategy used with good intentions to educate consumers and improve their health can have an unintended dark side that hurts the very segment that consumer welfare organizations want to help,” explains study co-author Andrea Weihrauch from the University of Amsterdam.

Interestingly, researchers add that placing an additional message in such campaigns reassuring consumers that robot-like behavior is achievable can make a big difference. When this was done in a cafeteria-setting, it resulted in 22% more healthy food choices among some participants.

Finally, this article would be remiss without mentioning the role of social media in all of this. Just as robotic and AI technology have flourished in recent years, so has the popularity of various social media platforms. This boom has given rise to social media celebrities and influencers who, for the most part, display an image of everyday life that’s almost entirely fictional. Social media has made it easier than ever to display an image of oneself that appears perfect. 

Just like humans-as-robots advertising or awareness campaigns, it isn’t a stretch to theorize that the seemingly perfect lives many choose to display on social media have led to more discouragement and self-doubt than anything resembling motivation among their followers.

If there’s a moral to this story, it’s do your best but don’t get bogged down in pursuit of machine-like perfection. Everyone occasionally falls victim to the thought-trap of “I’ll finally be happy once I accomplish this or stop doing that.” In reality, though, happiness is only ever truly in grasp once one stops pursuing that idyllic version of what they think their life should be.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Marketing.