This Is Your Brain on Clickbait
Click here to continue to article.
It was about 20 years ago that we found out tobacco companies were adding ammonia to their tobacco to increase the prospect of addiction. When it’s smoked, nicotine is an acid bound molecule. Ammonia converts the molecules to a base (free). Every time I smoke a cigarette (and I don’t recommend it) I’m actually freebasing tobacco. Ammonia is also part of the process in freebasing cocaine. It increases the amount and effect of the drug, making it more addictive. To a lesser extent, Industrial food conglomerates do the same with processed foods. Each one, be it Twinkies or Fritos, has been developed with various additives to enhance the combination of sugar, salt, and fat, to produce the right “mouth feel.” They want you coming back for more. Now imagine doing this to your brain, digitally.
On the internet, when you go to any website [SUBSCRIBE NOW! No thanks] the idea is to get you to keep clicking. They offer all sorts of eye candy, or clickbait, to entice you. Google, YouTube, and the rest all do this, but nobody does it like social media. Tristan Harris worked for Google until 2016 as a design ethicist, There’s a job title for you. The Atlantic called him the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience. He studied at Stanford’s Persuasive Technologies Lab — how’s that for an Orwellian name? He learned about behavior training, chiefly the art of exploiting psychological vulnerabilities, put together a presentation on the morality of emotional manipulation, and how it might be done a little more ethically. Everyone looked at it, nodded their heads, then went back to work.
The magic behind this enchantment is called “variable rewards.” Behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner found that when pigeons were fed sporadically, rather than regularly, they ate more, not knowing when the next food would appear. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat do the same thing. People like getting a “like” on social media. It reinforces our deep-seated need for social approval. So you have to keep checking in, answering messages and posting photos or ideas. Harris compares it to playing the slot machines. Every time we get a positive response, it triggers the brain’s pleasure/rewards center, which then produces the neurotransmitter dopamine. It’s the same chemical our brain produces when we make love, hear a favorite song, or when our favorite team scores a touchdown.
Since the rewards are variable, we must constantly keep checking in, looking for that next reward. If a friend contacts us, we feel socially obligated to reply. When LinkedIn first launched, it had a hub and wheel icon, by which you could measure the size of your network. Size is everything, you know. It taps into our fear that we might be losers. When we send a “friend request” an alert appears on the recipient’s screen in red. Red is a psychological trigger color. That’s why fire engines or emergency vehicles are often red, and so is the President’s tie. To get you clicking some more, there’s “people you might know.” When I order a book from Amazon, it shows me other books I might like. More clicks, more engagement. All this builds up a habit, when can then become an addictive behavior. I saw a report recently that the average person with a smartphone checks their device about 150 times a day. That’s why Harris calls them WMDs, Wireless Mobile Devices. Continually looking and clicking produces a passive state, not unlike hypnosis.
Facebook’s software tells the user when a recipient begins to read their message. Oh boy — more dopamine! Snapchat increases the ante by alerting the recipient the moment you begin a message to them. Now you can’t not finish it. You’re obligated. Then Snapchat put the ante on steroids, with a feature called Snapstreak. It keeps track of how many days in a row you and someone else connected, encouraging you to maintain the streak. More clicking. It got so bad there were stories of teens about to go on vacation, afraid of breaking the streak, so they’d give a friend their login info so they could maintain it. Just like the advertising for pharmaceuticals, internet companies both create the need and the means of relief, or reward. It’s black magic, I tells ya.
Meanwhile, there are banner ads on the side, or near the bottom of websites, trying to get you to “click here.” They’ll promise you anything, click here to find out more. Every other website I visit scolds me for having my ad blocker on. If they won’t let me stay without removing it, screw them. But the more clicks, the more someone hits an ad, maybe buys something. There’s an inconvenient truth you need to know: we are not the consumers, the advertisers are. We are the product. Our eyeballs and brains are the product. Computers may be here to serve our needs, but it also helps to create them. It’s being called the attention economy, and there’s an arms race going on for our attention. Companies need to increase and maximize attention or they lose customers, and that’s money money money. Nothing else matters. So they all keep coming up with more sophisticated software to capture our attention. 60 years ago, Vance Packard wrote The Hidden Persuaders, about how advertisers manipulate consumers’ emotions. It’s still appropriate and worth reading. Now instead of advertisers, we have algorithms.
We keep hearing stories and reports about the anxiety and stress many teenagers are going through. Their still forming brains are especially vulnerable to psychological manipulation. Harris portrays addicted users as “chickens with their heads cut off, responding to each other and feeling indebted to each other.” It should come as no surprise that digital detox retreats and “Unplug” events for teens and adults alike are increasing, as a remedy for this digital junk food diet. Tristan Harris co-founded Time Well Spent, an advocacy group to try and get a sense of morality back into software design. I wish him all the luck in the world.
We all form many habits unknowingly. I’ve been taking the bus almost exclusively for the past seven months. But every time I get on and take a seat, there’s an instinct to reach for a safety belt. Decades of driving has made that instinct nearly automatic.
That’s only one reason I will never be on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Snapchat. Nor will I ever have a smartphone. I still have a land line. That’s when your phone is physically connected to a line that feeds into a wall jack, oh, never mind. Heck, I still had a rotary phone until 2000. So just as I was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 20th Century, it was already the 21st, and I was still a hundred years behind. I also steadfastly refuse to log in to any website. I’m outta there. I’m not going to have to come up with one more user name and password ever, hear me Lord. The other reason I don’t do social media is that I don’t want to be spending all my time posting and answering posts, many from people I’ll never meet. I have a life, and too much going on already.
I don’t know what the answer is, other than at least being aware that our brains are intentionally being re-programmed to consume, consume, consume. In the 1950s these techniques were known as brain washing. If we become more aware and click less, though, the algorithms will just be pumped up into even more irresistible clickbait. If you’re interested in what computers are doing to us, allow me to recommend the following:
Alone Together: Why We Expect More of Technology and Less From Each Other (2011), by Sherry Turkle, professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology, M.I.T.
The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010), by Nicholas Carr. This book is very good, and was a finalist for the 2011 Nobel Prize in General Nonfiction.
Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products (2013), by Nir Eyal, associate professor of Global Health and Population, Harvard.