smartphones and slot machines

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Lifehacker's piece on smartphone addiction paraphrases Tristan Harris on the psychological similarities between smartphones and slot machines:

Most of the time, you check your phone and there's nothing interesting--no notifications, just the same old apps staring back at you. But sometimes checking your phone is rewarding --you get an amusing text, a flurry of likes, an email containing good news. This hit is satisfactory enough to keep you returning, checking your phone compulsively for another dopamine jolt.

Tristan Harris' piece on how technology hijacks people's minds explains the phenomenon in more detail, as part of a major problem based in "what product designers do to your mind:"

They play your psychological vulnerabilities (consciously and unconsciously) against you in the race to grab your attention.

He identifies ten hijacking methods, several of which I've excerpted below:

Hijack #1: If You Control the Menu, You Control the Choices

Western Culture is built around ideals of individual choice and freedom. Millions of us fiercely defend our right to make "free" choices, while we ignore how we're manipulated upstream by limited menus we didn't choose. [...]

By shaping the menus we pick from, technology hijacks the way we perceive our choices and replaces them new ones. But the closer we pay attention to the options we're given, the more we'll notice when they don't actually align with our true needs.

Hijack #2: Put a Slot Machine In a Billion Pockets

If you're an app, how do you keep people hooked? Turn yourself into a slot machine. [...] One major reason why is the #1 psychological ingredient in slot machines: intermittent variable rewards.

If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user's action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.

Does this effect really work on people? Yes. Slot machines make more money in the United States than baseball, movies, and theme parks combined. Relative to other kinds of gambling, people get 'problematically involved' with slot machines 3-4x faster according to NYU professor Natasha Dow Shull, author of Addiction by Design.

But here's the unfortunate truth -- several billion people have a slot machine their pocket:

  • When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we're playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got.
  • When we pull to refresh our email, we're playing a slot machine to see what new email we got.
  • When we swipe down our finger to scroll the Instagram feed, we're playing a slot machine to see what photo comes next.
  • When we swipe faces left/right on dating apps like Tinder, we're playing a slot machine to see if we got a match.
  • When we tap the # of red notifications, we're playing a slot machine to what's underneath.

Hijack #5: Social Reciprocity (Tit-for-tat)

We are vulnerable to needing to reciprocate others' gestures. [...] Email, texting and messaging apps are social reciprocity factories. But in other cases, companies exploit this vulnerability on purpose.

LinkedIn is the most obvious offender. LinkedIn wants as many people creating social obligations for each other as possible, because each time they reciprocate (by accepting a connection, responding to a message, or endorsing someone back for a skill) they have to come back through linkedin.com where they can get people to spend more time.

Like Facebook, LinkedIn exploits an asymmetry in perception. When you receive an invitation from someone to connect, you imagine that person making a conscious choice to invite you, when in reality, they likely unconsciously responded to LinkedIn's list of suggested contacts. In other words, LinkedIn turns your unconscious impulses (to "add" a person) into new social obligations that millions of people feel obligated to repay. All while they profit from the time people spend doing it. [...]

Imagine millions of people getting interrupted like this throughout their day, running around like chickens with their heads cut off, reciprocating each other -- all designed by companies who profit from it.

Welcome to social media.

Hijack #6: Bottomless bowls, Infinite Feeds, and Autoplay

Another way to hijack people is to keep them consuming things, even when they aren't hungry anymore.

How? Easy. Take an experience that was bounded and finite, and turn it into a bottomless flow that keeps going.

Cornell professor Brian Wansink demonstrated this in his study showing you can trick people into keep eating soup by giving them a bottomless bowl that automatically refills as they eat. With bottomless bowls, people eat 73% more calories than those with normal bowls and underestimate how many calories they ate by 140 calories.

Tech companies exploit the same principle. News feeds are purposely designed to auto-refill with reasons to keep you scrolling, and purposely eliminate any reason for you to pause, reconsider or leave.

It's also why video and social media sites like Netflix, YouTube or Facebookautoplay the next video after a countdown instead of waiting for you to make a conscious choice (in case you won't). A huge portion of traffic on these websites is driven by autoplaying the next thing.

Hijack #7: Instant Interruption vs. "Respectful" Delivery

Companies know that messages that interrupt people immediately are more persuasive at getting people to respond than messages delivered asynchronously (like email or any deferred inbox).

Given the choice, Facebook Messenger (or WhatsApp, WeChat or SnapChat for that matter) would prefer to design their messaging system to interrupt recipients immediately (and show a chat box) instead of helping users respect each other's attention.

In other words, interruption is good for business.

[But, like any other addiction, horrible for concentration.]

The problem is, while messaging apps maximize interruptions in the name of business, it creates a tragedy of the commons that ruins global attention spans and causes billions of interruptions every day.

"Facebook promises an easy choice to 'See Photo,' he writes, but "Would we still click if it gave the true price tag?" He illustrates his point with this image:

20170605-spendnext20minutes.png

"That's why I add 'Estimated reading time' to the top of my posts," he explains:

When you put the "true cost" of a choice in front of people, you're treating your users or audience with dignity and respect. [...] The ultimate freedom is a free mind, and we need technology to be on our team to help us live, feel, think and act freely.

We need our smartphones, notifications screens and web browsers to be exoskeletons for our minds and interpersonal relationships that put our values, not our impulses, first. People's time is valuable. And we should protect it with the same rigor as privacy and other digital rights.

In another article, Harris asks, is your web browser a credit card for your time?

Credit cards invite us to avoid feeling the pain of paying, and to forget how much money we actually have.

Cash invites us to consciously feel how much we spend.

He also stresses the scale of the issue, because "software designers affect how a billion people make choices about spending their attention - more than 150 times every day:"

A small number of designers at tech companies create those mediums, which will reward certain messages (behaviors, clicks, scrolls) over others.

And today, web browsers are designed like credit cards. They make it easy to "swipe" the credit card for our time and take out a loan against our future selves.

They make it easy to be swipe our credit card for more time than we intended, by getting lost in an infinitely scrolling feed. They make it easy to click something we wish we hadn't clicked later.

His pieces are all well worth reading--and thinking about--if we value our time.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on June 5, 2017 10:36 PM.

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