A product manager at Google warned the company in 2013 that its apps were exploiting human nature and psychological traits to steal users' time and attention against their will. Five years later, here's a look at how these apps are still doing the same thing, and why they're almost impossible to resist.
How often has this happened to you? You pull out your smartphone to check for a message from a family member or important contact. A little while later, you look up and realize that even though the message you were looking for still hadn't arrived, 45 minutes have gone by while you glanced through postings on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter, or watched a series of videos, or played an addictive game.
There's some good news: It isn't entirely your fault. Five years ago, a Google product manager named Tristan Harris called his employer's attention to the ways mobile and web apps can exploit human psychological vulnerabilities to grab users' attention and refuse to let go. Back then, he argued that small, entrepreneurial companies did not have the heft to address this problem and proposed that Google adjust its products to encourage users to make smarter choices, much the same way the company offered sugary foods in its cafeterias, but put them slightly farther back and inside jars, thus subtly encouraging employees to select healthier alternatives. (Harris's entire slide deck is now available online, and I encourage you to take a look. It's fascinating reading.)
At the time, Google--locked in mortal competition with Facebook--did not take up his suggestions, although it did eventually give Harris the title design ethicist. He left in 2016 to found the Center for Humane Technology.
But now it's 2018, and trust in such mobile app giants as Facebook and Google is at an all-time low. And so the company finally announced that it is offering tools to help ordinary users manage their time investments within Android more wisely. It's a great start and--especially in the current climate of social media distrust--may create pressure for Facebook and other social media companies or mobile platforms to offer similar tools.
But the best defense remains for users themselves to control their own urge to disappear down the smartphone rabbit hole for hours at a time. With that in mind, it might be helpful to know exactly how apps take advantage of psychological vulnerabilities to keep you hooked:
1. We're bad at predicting our own behavior.
We often don't know how long it will take us to accomplish a task, something called the "planning fallacy." This is a problem in our work lives, but it might be even worse when it comes to social media. Say you get a Facebook notification telling you that someone tagged you in a photo. Of course, you're curious to see that photo. You figure there's no harm in clicking the button for a quick look. But a more honest button, Harris argues, would say: "Spend 20 minutes on Facebook." Would you really click on that notification if you considered how much of your time it was truly likely to eat up?
2. We're addicted to slot machines.
Slot machines provide what Harris calls "intermittent variable rewards," and it's why they're by far the most popular form of gambling. Once we start, we just can't resist the urge to pull that handle one more time and see what comes up. The urge to swipe down and see what messages have come in since the last time we checked a minute or two ago feeds that same urge and is deeply addicting. Only now, instead of betting money, we're gambling with our time and attention. And instead of just doing it while on vacation, we do it every single day.
3. We're afraid of missing out.
Fear of missing out, or FOMO, keeps even people who want to set aside their smartphones from doing so, Harris said. So when we get a notification of a new message or social media posting from someone we know and like, we feel compelled to take a look. Even though we know full well it's another animal video.
4. We make mindless decisions.
Too many of the decisions we make every day are completely thoughtless and driven by habit. Swiping down to refresh an email or message list is likely to be something you do without really thinking about it. Thus, Harris argued, many of the things we do to interact with our smartphones are too easy, or "frictionless." Google could make the world a better place, he wrote, if instead of continuing to battle for as much attention as possible it subtly encouraged users to make the right decisions, just as the company does by putting sweets inside jars.
5. We make bad decisions because we're stressed.
And why are we stressed? Because our technology made us that way, Harris wrote. Just reading 10 emails can cause you to hold your breath, increase your heart rate, and elicit a fight-or-flight response, he noted.
When we're feeling stressed, we have a greater tendency to give in to urges that we know may not be good for us. This is true for our nutritional choices, but also true for our technological choices. So then we swipe down and refresh that email. Which leads to more stress, and then another bad decision, and on and on and on unless we manage to walk away.
Google may finally be taking some small steps to help us do that, but its new tools don't entirely address all these psychological vulnerabilities. That leaves it up to all of us to understand them and combat them. The next time a notification pops up, what will you do?