You get to choose what you do, but you don’t always get to choose what you want: your brain mostly does that for you, and what it wants is dopamine. Generally, it’s been great for humans to have a reward chemical that gives us an incentive to do good things, like eating food and making social connections, but it also means there’s a big, easy-to-push button built into human behavior that makes us easier to manipulate.
The attention economy, which relies on keeping human eyes staring at the same app or site for as long as possible, basically revolves around using different tools to push our dopamine release buttons and form habits that revolve around products. Habit formation isn’t always a bad thing, but infinitely scrolling through feeds certainly falls toward the negative end of the spectrum.
The Silicon Valley School of Psychology: Behavior Design
According to Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg, there are three conditions you need to satisfy if you want to get someone to do something:
- A motivation: you need to make people want something.
- A means: you need to give people the ability to do that thing. Easier is better.
- A trigger: you need to prompt people to do the thing.
Smartphone notifications follow this formula perfectly:
- Motivation: you want to see who/what is interacting with you (a potential dopamine hit!).
- Means: all you have to do is touch the notification.
- Trigger: your phone buzzes (extrinsic), or maybe you just feel like getting some good brain vibes from a social media interaction (intrinsic).
If you look, you’ll start to see these principles in a lot of the technology you use every day. As intrinsically convenient and/or fun as many of these apps are, in many senses you’re being persuaded not just to do something, but to want to do it. You know you shouldn’t spend hours scrolling, but it takes effort to stop yourself from doing that.
Most behavior change tends to focus on the motivational parts because that’s the cause-and-effect relationship we know best: if you are motivated, you’ll do something. Making things easy and nudging people into doing them is just as important as giving them the motivation, though, and the most successful behavioral pushes combine all three factors.
The endless scroll/the autoplay
Found in: Most social media (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit)/content delivery apps (Netflix, YouTube)
Exploits: Our brain’s novelty reward centers and our need for a clear stopping point
How many times has it happened to you? New content keeps loading on your phone, and it’s reliably interesting, so you just keep scrolling … scrolling … scrolling. Or you’ve just finished an episode of a TV show or a YouTube video, and whether or not it was a cliffhanger it’s going to autoplay anyway; do you really want to turn it off? Pretty much every social media network and the two big streaming services, Netflix and YouTube, follow this model and for very good reason: it really works.
The endless scroll is a smashing success because not only does it eliminate any concept of a stopping point, but there’s constantly a new piece of content peeking out right below your current position. Our brain has a whole section devoted to novelty, and it gives out five-star reviews pretty easily: looking at something new, regardless of how much you enjoy it, earns you a dopaminergic reward, and it turns out that the anticipation of something good coming along often triggers a larger dopamine release than the thing itself does.
Whatever story you tell yourself to justify that hour-long scrolling session, it’s mostly a cover-up for the truth: your brain is an insatiable beast for new content (motivation), you literally just have to move your finger a few centimeters to get it (ability), and there’s always something new coming up over the horizon (trigger).
Infinite autoplay (YouTube/Netflix) works mostly for the same reasons. Your brain enjoys watching things (motivation), it’s literally harder to stop the autoplay than to keep it going (ability), and the trigger is pretty much taking care of itself: since it’s not asking you to take a look at something, it’s telling you that you will definitely be looking at something pretty soon.
Everything is a (mind) game
Found in: Apps that give you measures of progress (Snapchat, Duolingo) and/or variable rewards (Tinder, social media)
Exploits: Our brain’s achievement reward centers, our preference for unpredictable rewards
Apps and websites with ad-based revenue models are pretty much all trying to maximize the time their users spend using their service. The endless scroll helps, but it gets monotonous after a while, which is why gamification is massively important. Giving people points, progress bars, and measurable positive interactions lights up our reward centers, especially if we get rewarded at unpredictable times (variable rate reinforcement). We love building streaks, but loss aversion means we hate losing them, and the promise that there is more progress to be made always keeps us hungry for more.
The obvious examples are apps like HQ Trivia that offer you longshot chances at real money in return for earning points by completing tasks and beating others in a game. Language learning app Duolingo is an example of positive gamification, giving users self-set goals to meet if they want to maintain their streaks and rewarding their efforts with points that they can use to buy upgrades. Snapchat has also gamified itself, giving users “Snapstreaks” if they don’t miss a day of Snapchatting and assigning people scores based on their activity (though they don’t say what those scores are good for besides earning trophies).
Other gamifications are less apparent, though:
- Tinder: uses variable rate reinforcement and the promise of a good match to keep you swiping, kind of like a slot machine where the prizes are love.
- Starbucks: using their app lets you track your points to see how close you are to earning rewards in addition to firing triggers your way in the form of notifications about promotions.
- Pretty much every social media app: you complete tasks (posts) for points (likes/shares/comments), are rewarded with interactions on a variable schedule (often calculated by AI for maximum impact), and, subconsciously or consciously, get to constantly rank yourself against others.
Healthy technology habits
There are things you can do to try and limit your exposure to dopamine manipulation, mostly by addressing the ability and the trigger factors. Human motivation is still kind of a tangled mess, so it’s best to start simple.
It’s pretty easy to lower the ease with which you can do something (ability), but most of the options are a little more extreme:
- Delete/block the offending apps
- Block sites altogether or for certain times of day
- Physically separate yourself from the technology
For a less-drastic measure, try reducing the triggers:
- Disable notifications on every app you can
- Don’t keep notification-generating apps/sites open
Is opting out of the attention economy our only option?
As long as making money online revolves around human eyes being glued to screens (and we haven’t really figured out an alternative yet), we’re going to have to deal with the fact that our brain chemistry is effectively being controlled by someone in San Francisco. Persuasive technology design is a powerful tool, though, and it can absolutely be used for good. Apps that manipulate human mental weaknesses to create bottomless attention pits are clearly an issue, but even the worst offenders do create value, and some (like Duolingo, fitness apps, habit trackers, et cetera) help humans hack their brains to be better.
Deleting all your accounts and opting out of the internet is an extreme solution, but ideally, our growing understanding of our brain’s relationship with technology will result in design that works with us, not against us.