The Psychological Tricks Keeping You Online


In every small action you make throughout
your day, there’s an illusion of choice: that you’re acting however you like. Though if you look through a different lens,
you can see that your world has been designed for you to interact with it in a certain way. Take this cup, for example. I use it so effortlessly. But what about this one? It’s obviously terrible! Good design is one that you don’t even notice. Because designers predict how humans intuitively
interact with objects and design them with a cue that leads to an action. And the same principles are true in the digital
world. A ding is to grab your attention. The colour red is to alert you. A notification is to click. Just like everyday objects, our devices are
designed with our psychology in mind. But they seem to be pushing it too far. Technology plays psychological tricks on you… every single day. Most objects – like a toothbrush – are
designed specifically to help me easily use them to reach my goal. After their job is done, they go away. A door’s goal is to let you through, a cup’s
goal is to let you drink, a phone’s goal is to let you talk, but what is Facebook’s
goal? In this case, the goal of a company may not
be in line with the goal of you, the user. Facebook and I, for example, agree on one
thing: helping me stay connected with my social circle. But Facebook, arguably, has another goal:
keeping me online as long as possible, to increase time on site and increase ad revenue. Imagine if other common tools kept you using
them indefinitely. Yet, I check my phone 100 times a day, according
to an app I recently installed that tracks how often I check emails, Instagram, Twitter
and so on. And I wouldn’t say that spending 25% of
my waking life on my phone is one of my goals! Yet studies suggest most other people also
average at that number. And it’s making them unhappy and distracted. “Well, according to facebook’s own published
research by their own researchers that they’re paying the service makes people sad. It makes people anxious. According to other researchers, it increases
suicide, especially in people going through puberty, uh, teenager’s. According to other research it increases,
uh, ethnic and societal division, tensions and warfare and violence in many parts of
the world…” Then why don’t we throw our phones out the
window and deactivate our social media accounts? Some people like to blame our collective tech
addiction on personal failings, like weak willpower. But others, a growing number of tech designers
are now arguing that it’s the software itself that’s to blame. “The very people who have designed these
systems have often come out years later saying we deliberately used addictive algorithms. Sean Parker, first president of facebook has
said this. So this is not really a matter of paranoid
interpretation. This is simply restating what has been said
on the record by the people who created the systems.” Now this is called persuasive design. It can keep you hooked – but some tech designers
say this is beneficial. “So all sorts of habit forming products
both offline and online, uh, use these persuasive design principles that I’ve encapsulated in
this model called the hooked model, which has these four basic steps of a trigger, an
action, a reward, and finally an investment. And it’s not just our technology that use
this model, all sorts of products. What makes a television show interesting or
a book a memorable read or what makes you want to watch a movie or sports match the
same exact psychology that’s used to make anything engaging is also used in these devices
that we use everyday to keep us scrolling and checking in and reading.” These principles were born out of Stanford’s
Persuasive Technology Lab, founded by BJ Fogg. And they started out quite innocently. The idea was to use technology to drive positive
behaviour, like, to quit smoking or pick up exercise. “What is it that makes a behaviour become
automatic? In other words, become a habit?” I think Fogg, his biggest contribution was
that he was kind of the catalyst for a lot of folks in the industry coming together at
the right time and right place. So the Fogg model basically says b equals
mat: motivation, ability and a trigger are the drivers of behaviour. Notice by the way, that the user has to have
some kind of motivation. This is incredibly important because there’s
a big difference between persuasion, which is helping people do things they want to do,
where they need some amount of motivation and coercion. Coercion is always unethical, right? This is persuasive design, not coercive design. Let’s take a step back and consider how
this persuasion – the motivations and triggers – can play out in your everyday experience
online. Let’s say, in the context of you watching
this video, you might become motivated to share this knowledge with your friends to
look smart. Now I can prompt you to tweet out this video. “Perhaps, you’d like to take a moment
to share this with your friends. Go on” There’s your trigger. And to increase your ability, I can make it
all easier by even providing some suggested text and a link [link appears on screen. A prompt to tweet or open a notification seems
simple enough. But they also serve as a cue that leads to
an action of us falling down a YouTube rabbit hole or spend hours zombie scrolling on Instagram. These triggers change our behaviour patterns. “Well, if you put a rat or a dog or a person
in a cage and you can observe exactly what they do, you can use algorithms to change
their behaviour patterns. You can get them addicted to pressing a button
over and over again for candy. You can get them to change their ways. It’s, it’s a science that’s been studied for
centuries now. It goes back to the 19th century” This is not a newly understood phenomenon. It comes straight out of classical psychology. We develop a special relationship to things
that we associate with pleasure, even if the momentary feel-good pleasure of a notification. Remember Pavlov’s dogs? In the 1890s, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov
discovered that if he rings a bell every time he feeds the dogs in his lab, they would begin
to salivate at the sound of the bell, even without any food in sight. The dogs’ brains had paired a neutral stimulus,
the bell ring, with an involuntary behaviour, salivating. This is classical conditioning and it explains
why when we hear a phone chime we reflexively reach out to our phones. But a notification is not always something
you’re glad to see. This makes the reward unpredictable, making
it all the more alluring to keep looking for it. This phenomenon is called operant conditioning. It is the most effective way of forming and
maintaining a behaviour. It’s also the basis of addiction. Many of us may not need to commit to a rehab
clinic. But still, our digital behaviours can have
large impact on our lives. And this impact isn’t always helpful. In mid 2018, Technologist James Williams asked,
“Who would continue to put up with a GPS that they knew would take them somewhere other
than where they wanted to go? … No one would put up with this sort of
distraction from a technology that directs them through physical space. Yet we do precisely this, on a daily basis,
when it comes to the technologies that direct us through informational space.” We tolerate being mislead through our information
space because, when our technology is designed well, we don’t even notice. Now: Is this just good design and your responsibility
to navigate… Or are we being manipulated? I think the better approach here is to recognise
that nobody fully understood what was happening as we got into this problem. Some people understood a little sometimes
and a little more as time went on. Um, I do think personal responsibility is
the way forward and that’s why people should delete their accounts to learn about themselves. For most of us, unplugging entirely is almost
never an option. But we can recognise the design tricks and
reverse them. Remove the triggers – like turn off push
notifications. Reduce your ability – so delete apps you
don’t really need. Or put your phone out of reach. And think hard about your motivation: direct
your attention to what you really care about. The same methods that make Snapchat addictive,
help you learn new languages on Duolingo. The same thrill of endless swiping of Tinder
also exist in this app, Find Shadow, that’s for finding lost dogs and returning them to
their humans. Which app you open is your choice. We can all be more mindful about how we use
technology. Because, If we’re just left to our own devices,
any of us can become that dog… staring at the screen because a bell can ring at any
second. Now if I still have your attention, this is
the second episode in a six part quest in understanding the psychology of attention,
persuasive design and how we can all have a healthier relationship with technology. I do hope you’ll join us, in your own time,
at your own pace, to consider the impact tech is having on your everyday life.