Our colleagues, clients, LinkedIn, and Facebook have one thing in common; they all ask for our attention. In these busy times, attention is now a scarce commodity. Some argue it is our main currency and that we are living in an attention economy. Because our attention is worth money, technologies have become highly skilled in persuasion to get us hooked. As a result we may find ourselves sometimes scrolling on Facebook for too long or being distracted from our work too often.
Behavioral experts at software companies have refined their techniques to such a degree that they are amazingly good at getting our attention. For quite some time now we have been the mice in the digital experiments of the behavioral experts. There are many techniques being used, I want to show you two of them:
1) Variable Schedule of Rewards
Mid 20th century behaviorist B.F. Skinner noticed that mice could quickly learn to press a lever in order to get a reward. He further noticed that mice who sometimes got a reward and sometimes no reward pressed more often than the mice that got a reward every time. Skinner learned that is really addicting not to know when to get the reward; a variable schedule of rewards.
An old fashioned example for a variable schedule of reward for humans is the slot machine. And these days we all have an upgraded personal slot machine. We carry it in our pockets: every time we grab our phone and look if we have messages, whether they are from WhatsApp, Facebook, LinkedIn, whatever, we behave the same as the mice pressing the lever again and again. Will we have notifications this time? Will we see that bright red icon? Will we be rewarded?
2) Infinite Amount of Content
When we reach for our phone and start consuming the information, the information stream is endless. We keep on scrolling and scrolling, and when we are watching a video the next video is automatically lined up and starts playing. Researchers did a similar experiment with food: they gave soup to people and automatically and secretly kept filling the bowl of soup while the participant was eating. The participants with a self-filling bowl consumed 73% more soup than the control group. And even more interesting: when the participants got questioned afterward they didn’t believe to have eaten any more than normal and didn’t feel more sated.
This constant checking and consuming of our social media are associated with higher stress levels according to this 2017 survey by the American Psychological Association (APA). Other research is indicating that depression, anxiety, and sleep quality may be associated with smartphone overuse. And it’s not like we don’t know this:
“[…] almost half (48 percent) worry about the negative effects of social media on their physical and mental health.” (APA survey)
It’s just that we find it hard to keep a balance. And maybe that’s not strange: we don’t have a long cultural tradition that tells us how to have a healthy relationship with all these cool technologies. We have the internet since the mid-1990’s, and it keeps on changing at a rapid speed. At the same time the part of our brain that reacts to stress, our flight-fight response, is really old. Dutch psychiatrist Prof. Dr. Witte Hoogendijk calls this part our fish-brain. According to Hoogendijk, we are all imperfect mutants of evolution and this shows in the high-stress levels we experience in our technologized society. Hoogendijk says that a lot of our modern stressors, the things that alarm the fish-brain and cause stress, are abstract, inevitable, and we have no or little influence on them. We are simply not wired to deal with this kind of stressors. So we experience higher levels of stress and every time we are distracted it takes us 23 minutes to go back to our concentration flow.
Solution part A: The GPS should be better
Tristan Harris is a design thinker, philosopher and entrepreneur. James Williams is a doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute. Both worked for Google and quit. In 2014 they started the movement ‘Time Well Spent’.
Harris and Williams have a good metaphor for one part of the problem: when we are using technology to use internet we trust the technology to guide us through the informationlandscape. The technology we use can be seen as our guidance system, our GPS. We often go on the internet with one goal (watch a video, read some news) and find ourselves two hours later browsing through some random pages; our GPS failed us.
The ‘Time Well Spent’ movement is Harris and Williams’ answer to the attention economy and has the goal to to help consumers win back their own attention. Harris and Williams want technology to help us reach our goals. They want to start a discussion: What if we can notify our browser that we want to lose weight, and as a result our Facebook newsfeed shows less cakes and pies and more updates of friends sharing healthy recipes? What if I can notify my browser that I want to get better at writing articles and I get more advertising about writing courses and less advertisement about stuff I already bought? If organizations integrate this vision and help their customers lead the lives they want, this could be their unique selling point over their competitors. ‘Time Well Spent’ thinks this can become a movement as big as the green energy movement.
Solution part B: Getting control of your thoughts and emotions
We can do something to the stressor, the thing that causes stress, but also something about our respons to stress. This can start by realizations like: ‘I feel stressed because my attention is scattered and continuously consumed. Therefore a primitive part in my brain is sounding the alarm’. Become aware of your thoughts and feelings: practice mindfulness and relativize the stress.
The practise of mindfulness may sound spiritual, but it’s actually just common sense. Practising your muscles increases your control over your muscles, practising your mind increases your control of your attention. There has been a lot of research to the benefits of mindfulness and studies have shown that mindfulness can reduce stress and improve well-being. Being able to be an non-judgemental observer of your thoughts and feelings gives you the ability to objectively choose your next action instead of being a slave to your thoughts, emotions, and persuasive technologies.
Decide: to whom do you want to sell your attention?
Finding our way in dealing with the pro’s and con’s of technology has become an important ‘life question’. It’s no longer the kind of question we easily find an answer to by just spending an hour thinking really hard. We need to talk about it with peers, with young pioneers, and with wise old folks. We need to experience the pro’s and con’s, reflect, and experiment with it. And we can only do this if we are conscious about whom or what we sell our attention to. That way we can consciously steer our day-to-day actions, our lives, and our careers.
- Kringelbach, Morten L., The Pleasure Center: Trust Your Animal Instincts, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009)