Why is technology so addictive?
Modern technology profilerates our lives like nothing we have ever experienced before. It goes to bed with us, it tracks our movement, it knows who we are and what we like. It’s also really addictive, whether that be your phone, social-media or netflix, we can’t seem to put it down. In many cases, technology provides us with endless benefits, but in certain cases it has been allowed to run riot on humans, and it’s time we started debating these issues to find a healthy balance for society.
The aim of this article is to explain some of the key psychological patterns that some companies employ to keep us hooked to devices which in turn, perpetuates the addiction. For context, I’ve spent the last 13 years as a Product Manager, a role that’s key to orchestrating how these applications work. I’ve worked for Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook and been in senior positions within early stage start-ups, having practical experience of growing businesses in the modern consumer technology ecosystem.
THE KEY REASON WE ARE ADDICTED
"We form habits without realising"
Habits can either be learned deliberately or unintentionally. For example, a deliberate habit could be meditation. Choosing to spend a certain amount of time formally practicing meditation daily until the process becomes automatic and integrated into your life. This often takes willpower, especially at the beginning before we enter a state of automatic application and the habit has been formed.
An unitentional habit is excessively picking up your phone and checking it without even needing or wanting to. This habit is here whether you like it or not but we didn’t conciously choose to pick our phones up 100+ times a day. How many of us experienced the magnetic pull a device has on us?
HOW HAS THIS UNINTENTIONAL HABIT FORMED
"Habit forming loops"
Tech companies employ a psychological pattern called a ‘habit forming loop’ which when succesfully applied, guarantees growth and usage of their products through the process of it’s users developing unconcious habits. This is the holy-grail for tech companies because it makes their products ‘sticky’, aka addictive. Lots of companies have achieved this, but let’s run through a few examples of how they work.
Example: Facebook or Instagram
Scenario: Let’s imagine you are at a friends house and they mention something interesting that happened on one of the apps listed above. You have no idea what they are but are very interested so go home and download it. Once you have downloaded and signed up, you will be asked for some personal information which you fill in and then without you being aware of it, the following will occur.
1. TRIGGER - You receive a notification on your phone
2. SPARKS INTEREST - You are excited/aroused as to what it might be
3. POTENTIAL REWARD DELIVERED - Something arrives, but it may or may not be what you want, eg it could be a friend request from someone you like, or a notification that someone in your network has joined FB who you are not really interested in.
4. ONE MORE SHOT - You want to roll the dice again, you want to receive one more notification, because it COULD be something interesting.
WHY DOES THIS BECOME ADDICTIVE?
The key part is stage 3, the potential reward. The reward is variable, the notification may or not be something you want, therefore it’s the excitement of receiving it that encourages our minds to have another go, in other words, check your phone again. This is similar to gambling, in which the anticipation of the reward is greater than the reward itself.
Scientists have seen that Dopamine levels increase dramatically when we experience a potential reward, ie, it may occur or it may not. This may have something to do with our primary needs (food, shelter, partners), in which we have evolved in scarcity, and therefore every bit of excitement from a notification is mimicking the potential that one of these needs can be solved. In essence, this pattern is hacking our evolutionary processes.
THE DANGER WITH INTERMITTENT REWARDS
The problem with repeated exposure to this is that we then crave more and more hits , or more dramatic hits. So we check our phones again, and again and again. This is something known as tolerance or memory as the brain adapts to make the feel good feeling, feel less good, over time. Again, most likely because of evolution, to keep us on our toes and stop us becoming complacent and a tiger attacking us.
One thing I believe is also adding to the danger is the speed of hit. People can now check their phones 150+ times a day, thus reinforcing the habit like no other method we have seen before. I also believe that this loop has the ability to exacerbate existing mental health imbalances. If you are feeling anxious or insecure, then a phone can cause havoc with your mind as you seek to try and soothe your mind by receiving more and more variable rewards. Hence, why it’s important we have a conversation about technology and mental health. More to follow in an article soon.
WHY DO COMPANIES BUILD THESE LOOPS?
Put simply, for growth.
Technology companies can grow faster than any other industry due to the proliferation of mobile devices across society and the low barrier-to-entry. You can code something today, that will be released today, which is quite alien to most physical businesses. This means that you can test lots of things and understand what works through analysing usable data.
Therefore, when companies hit something interesting, they then scale their efforts to ensure that they can grow as fast and wide as possible. This is beneficial for companies, but sometimes it’s at the expense of users without the orchestrators really understanding the implications of what they have designed.
For example, a common growth tactic is to sign up with your email address to certain social platforms. Whilst this may seem convenient because you don’t have to type your password in, it also allows a company to be able to scan your inbox and see who you know (should you grant them access).
Viral growth is the holy-grail for most companies, weirdly enough you can think of COVID 19 as an example. Where if one person has an app, and tells another, then that person tells a couple more, and that couple more, tell a couple more, before you know it, thousands are using the application overnight. Habit-forming-loops are a key component to achieving this, but very few companies achieve it, they are usually known as unicorns. It’s hard for regulatory bodies and governments to monitor what is happening, because they often don’t understand the very nature of fast-moving startups.
SHOULD WE DO ANYTHING ABOUT THIS?
Ultimately, we live in a capitalist society, and this is a free market which creates the conditions for tactics like habit-forming-loops to be employed. I think that stopping creativity shouldn’t be encouraged through excess regulation, but I do think there is space for balance, space for a group of people to post analyse if certain tactics are causing more harm than good. This debate needs to begin now, especially but not exclusively amongst the tech diaspora given that the average person in society doesn’t really understand how the industry works. I’d like to see ethical advocates in major tech companies, that create healthy challenge to the creators of new tactics.
What do you think?