Who among us hasn’t sat down with our phone for a quick scroll on social media and when we look up an hour or two have passed? It seems like we were only scrolling for a few minutes, but our phone ended up consuming a large portion of our day.
The unfortunate truth is that our phones and the apps we use are designed to do just this. Often referred to as “brain hacking,” developers find ways to convince users, often subconsciously, to continually come back to their phones and stay on their screens longer.
If Something Is Free, You Are the Product
Tech companies work very hard to make sure people use their product as much as possible. More users and more screentime, leads to more ad revenue and bigger profit margins. Tech companies are all fighting for one thing: our attention. The more attention we give, the more data the companies can collect on us, and the more advertisements we see.
In terms of finances, this ad-focused business model has been wildly successful. Over 40 billion US dollars are spent every year on social media advertising. This number will only grow, which incentivizes tech companies to optimize “brain hacking” technology.
Several previous tech insiders left their Silicon Valley jobs as “brain hacking” techniques got more and more integrated into the business model. Tristan Harris, co-founder and president of the Center for Humane Technology, is a former Google designer who is now working to combat the negative effects of unethical technology development. He has called out this issue as a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” In other words, tech companies use “brain hacking” techniques to tap into the most primitive emotions like rage, fear, anxiety, and loneliness. In a Netflix documentary called The Social Dilemma, Harris said, “We’ve moved away from a tools-based technology environment to an addiction- and manipulation-based technology environment. Social media isn’t a tool waiting to be used. It has its own goals, and it has its own means of pursuing them by using your psychology against you.”
Justin Rosenstein is another example of a previous tech employee critical of the attention economy. Despite knowing “brain hacking” techniques of social media apps, he found himself addicted. Rosenstein had to resort to parental controls on his phone and laptop to stop himself from social media and other addictive sites. As the Guardian reported, even though he developed the “like” button for Facebook, he is still allured by the “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure.”
Sean Parker, Facebook’s founding president, has also occasionally expressed regret against the concept of “brain hacking” in his work. He has reflected on how tech companies, with his help, drastically altered how people interact with each other. During an event in 2017, Parker said, “All of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are.”
“Brain Hacking” Techniques
There are numerous things tech companies do to demand our attention and hijack our neurology. Many of them have to do with notifications—when to push them, what they notify you of, etc. For instance, some services will wait until your content garners responses and then send you a notification saying your post has a lot of likes and comments, piquing your interest and convincing you to go check who specifically liked your post.
Other “brain hacking” techniques that you’ve probably seen include videos that start playing without having to click play or when a new video plays automatically after the one you’re watching. The example from the beginning of scrolling without a sense of time is possible thanks to the infinite scroll. Other examples like streaks and the gamification of content entice users to come back to the app day after day.
What Does This Mean for Us?
For many of us, “brain hacking” means we are obsessed and addicted with our phones. Dr. Larry Rosen, professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills and international expert in the “Psychology of Technology,” has studied the effects of technology throughout his career. In one study he found that the average person checks his/her phone sixty times a day. He has also found that our phones trigger a physiological response. The molecule responsible for fight-or-flight (called cortisol) is triggered when we put our phones down, causing us to have anxiety which can only be relieved if we check our phone again.
Beyond the biological responses in individuals, we are seeing the negative effects of being addicted to technology on a larger scale: increased rates of suicide, depression, and loneliness; cyberbullying; negative body image; unhealthy sleep patterns; and more. These “brain hacking” techniques make us spend more time on our phones, much to the detriment to our overall well-being.
Ways to Combat Addictiveness
All of this probably sounds very daunting. As Rosenstein showed us, just knowing about “brain hacking” and the addictiveness of our phones doesn’t stop us from being hooked.
So, how can we fight against our own psychology? Luckily, there are some concrete steps we can take to control our screentime and social media behaviors. The Center for Humane Technology has a great page with suggestions, but here are just a couple things you can do right now.
Uninstall destructive apps.
Turn off notifications.
Follow people and topics you disagree with.
Unplug once a week.