How Technology Uses Our Psychology Against Us

We’ve all been there. You’re sitting at your desk working when a notification pops up on your phone. Maybe Sally liked your Facebook post. Maybe James followed you on Instagram. Maybe it’s an email, a celebrity tweet, or a news alert. You open it mindlessly and before you know it, 20 minutes have disappeared. It will likely happen while you’re reading this article.

You scold yourself for not having enough willpower. You try to set a time limit on scrolling social media. You vow to check your phone less. But the cycle continues. The habit is too hard to break.

Below are 5 questions you’ve probably asked yourself in the last few years. Understanding more about the way technology hacks our neuroscience is critical in taking back control of our lives. The first step to finding a solution is recognizing the problem.

Why is it so hard to not check my phone?

The average person checks their smartphone 150 times every day. It’s not just a notification buzz that sends us tapping or swiping. It’s merely the sight of our phone in our periphery that creates the psychological urge to check for messages or alerts. But why?

This urge is based on behaviorism principles, which posit that human behavior can be predicted by antecedent stimuli (e.g., triggers) or subsequent stimuli (e.g., rewards and punishments). Positive intermittent reinforcement occurs when a subsequent reward is random and unpredictable. Just like a mouse keeps pulling a lever in hopes the next pull will result in food, a gambler keeps playing the slot machines in hopes the next round will result in coins.

Our smartphones are no different. They are designed to exploit a vulnerability in our basic psychology. Every time you subconsciously check your phone, your brain is hoping for a potential reward (e.g., text message, friend request, email, dating app match). This reward results in an immediate dopamine hit to the brain. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for boosting mood, motivation, and feelings of pleasure.

So, it’s not necessarily that we are failing at willpower. It’s that tech companies are succeeding at keeping our attention with enticing designs, addictive apps, and targeted advertisements. When it comes to our devices, we are the product and our attention is the currency.

To quote Edward Tufte, “There are only 2 industries that call their customers users: illegal drugs and software”.

Why is the country so divided?

Just like we create social networks of like-minded people in the real world, we do the same online. Although we want to believe we’re exposed to a range of differing viewpoints from which we use logic and discretion to form our opinions, this is simply not the case.

According to a 2016 study, the information we receive online is largely based on our own search history, personal preferences, geography, and social network. It is generated through complex algorithms that allow users to receive their own version of reality.

In other words, not all Google searches and newsfeeds are created equal. Yet we wonder: why is the other side so ignorant?

Internet activist Eli Pariser coined the term “filter bubble” to describe this virtual echo chamber in which we continue to receive information that confirms our views. The filter bubble enables a cognitive fallacy known as the confirmation bias to occur more frequently.

Confirmation bias is the human tendency to search for, believe, and recall information that supports previously existing opinions. Simply put, our brains don’t want to read stories that contradict or undermine our worldview. Algorithms on search engines make it easy for us to unknowingly hunker down in this bubble until disputing evidence is no longer effective.

Different political opinions have existed throughout all of history. But with the advent of social media, we can now share things anonymously and behind a screen. There is less of a need to back up claims with facts.

President Donald Trump’s Twitter account is an example of those in power encouraging false accusations, name-calling, and fear-inducing tactics from the comfort of their home. Fear is a strong motivator for human behavior and an effective political tool in persuading the public.

It’s not a coincidence that the current political rhetoric encourages the right to view all liberals as violent anarchists burning down cities and the left to view all conservatives as neo-Nazi white supremacists. Politicians know fear and division can work in their favor, and technology is a way to expedite the process.

Therefore, rising partisanship, tribalism, and even violence is unsurprising. When we keep others who think and look differently than us at a distance — through a screen or in the comments section — it’s easier for fear, hate, and blame to flourish.

It’s up to us to break that cycle. Not just whoever we refer to as them.

Why is it so hard to get the facts and the truth?

Experts say, when it comes to regulations of software companies, the law is far behind. With limited regulations, fake news and conspiracy theories spread like wildfire through various platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit.

Have you noticed friends, family members, or acquaintances posting significantly more political news in recent months? Have you questioned their sanity after reading some of the far-fetched conspiracies and blatantly false claims?

It’s not always the result of willful ignorance or malicious intent. In many cases, people are at the mercy of their own psychology being manipulated.

First, there’s a reason fake news is 70% more likely to be shared than true news. Fake stories are more attention-grabbing! They elicit intense reactions like anger, rage, fear, or sadness. With heightened emotions, we are more likely to share an article even if it hasn’t been fact-checked.

Second, there is a psychological phenomenon called the illusory truth effort. A 1977 study found repeated exposure to a statement increases our belief it’s true even when it’s false. Later studies suggest that this effect is maintained even when we know the sources are unreliable or unclear.

The world of social media makes repeated exposure to inaccurate information inevitable. At best, this might lead to some arguments among friends or family. At worst, the illusory truth effort plays out the way it did in 2016 when a conspiracy known as “Pizzagate” led a rifle-toting man into a restaurant to bust a child sex trafficking ring he and others believed was run in the basement by Hillary Clinton and a cabal of powerful Democratic pedophiles.

Conspiracy theories that originate online are dangerous because they don’t require any evidence to be believed. In fact, contradicting evidence can even be used to fuel conspiratorial beliefs.

Why do I feel so anxious and/or depressed?

Even those who don’t consume the news online experience the detrimental impacts of social media usage. We are subject to addictive metrics of attractiveness, popularity, and success via the number of likes, comments, and followers we have. We conflate these metrics with our self-worth and value.

We see others’ carefully curated images, profile pictures, and captions and compare our bad day with another’s highlight reel. Reality is distorted literally with the use of filters that change our faces and editing apps that morph our bodies to match an unattainable beauty standard.

Some research indicates this is especially problematic for younger generations who are learning to communicate online and thus experience more anxiety during face-to-face interactions.

Our nation has seen a 17% increase in anxiety disorders among adolescents between 1998 and 2018. According to the CDC, the suicide rates for males and females have increased by 28% and 55% from 1999 to 2018, respectively.

Additionally, social media usage has been linked to the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). One study found higher levels of FOMO are associated with more depressive symptoms and negative health outcomes.

Smartphones and the apps on them have become a “digital pacifier” used to soothe or numb us whenever we feel uncomfortable, unhappy, or bored. How often do you reach for your phone in line at the grocery store? In the doctor’s waiting room? On public transport? At the dinner table?

We have lost the ability to be uncomfortable or even sit in solitude with our thoughts. In seeking more online connections, we miss the opportunities that are physically in front of us. Yet we wonder why we feel so alone in the digital age.

What are the solutions?

Technology was not designed with malicious intent nor is it an inherently evil tool. But it has the capacity to draw out the worst in society. In many ways, we already see this taking place.

Tribalism triumphs over empathy, rage radicalizes political parties on both sides, and blame beats out open dialogue and honest discourse. We are in a war not only with each other but against ourselves.

But there is still hope. Real solutions for systemic problems can’t occur only at an individual level. However, understanding the psychological impacts of technology is a solid first step.

  1. When reading or watching the news, consider the source. Is this an Instagram live from a self-proclaimed health expert or independent journalist? Does this story include data to support it?
  2. When sharing a post or article, consider your motivations. Am I fueling division or calling for unity? Am I just blaming the other side and inciting fear or presenting important factual evidence?
  3. When it comes to mental health, there are many steps you can take to decrease smartphone usage. Turn off all notifications and silence alerts. This will minimize distractions. Keep your phone in another room while working. This will help break the intermittent reinforcement cycle of addictive phone checking. Delete social media apps off your device. This will help you be more intentional about posting.

Finally, a seemingly underrated yet powerful solution is basic human compassion. We cannot allow society’s addiction to technology rob us from engaging in open-minded discussions with other people in real life.

We all share the same cognitive fallacies, biases, and basic motivations. Instead of blaming the other side for succumbing to theirs, consider your own.

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