The average person spends a combined total of one entire day per week checking their phone, according to recent research. And that constant connection is not making us feel closer to our loved ones—it’s actually leading to feelings of unhappiness. But if that’s the case, why don’t we all just throw out our phones and delete our social media accounts?
In this video from the PBS science series BrainCraft, creator and host Vanessa Hill explains that our phones—specifically, the apps and the algorithms that guide how we interact with them—tinker with the habit-forming parts of our brain so that we’re triggered to keep coming back to them, and to linger long after a notification has been answered or an interaction has taken place.
Everything from the hypnotic buzzing alerts to the brightly colored notifications are tailored to ensure that we’ll come back to an app or website.
Everything from the hypnotic buzzing alerts to the brightly colored notifications are tailored to ensure that we’ll come back to an app or website, again and again, in order to receive a “mental reward.”
“Facebook and I agree on one thing: we both want me to stay connected with my social circle,” Hill says. “But Facebook arguably has another goal: to keep me online as long as possible, to increase my time on their site, and increase their ad revenue.”
Here are the psychological tricks our phones, apps, and social media channels use to keep our eyes glued to the screen and our minds craving more.
The Three Mind Tricks That Keep Us Scrolling
1. Persuasive design that triggers our reward system
The same principals that compel you to binge-watch the latest Netflix show or anxiously flip through the pages of a gripping book are harnessed by your phone’s apps to keep you scrolling, clicking, and checking in.
These principles were categorized by Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab. The lab’s initial goal was to use technology to foster positive habits, such as exercising more or smoking less, by presenting a trigger, an action, a reward, and finally an investment.
In the case of our phones, that trigger-action-reward system looks like this: receiving a notification (trigger), clicking on the app (action), seeing someone commented on our photo (reward), and then replying to the comment, ensuring we will come back on the site later to see if our friend replied to us (investment).
2. A pavlovian response to chimes and bells
Have you ever noticed what happens in a room full of people with the same ringtone or text notification? When one alert goes off, everyone checks their pockets in a cascade.
How did we get addicted to this loop? That comes down to classical conditioning, and the case of Pavlov’s dog.
For those who didn’t take Psych 101 in college, a Russian psychologist named Ivan Pavlov discovered in 1890 that if he rang a bell every time he fed his dogs, they would begin to salivate every time they heard a bell ring—even without food present.
We have been conditioned to reach for our phones every time were hear a notification chime, even if what we’re receiving is not truly substantial.
Today, Pavlov’s trick is being used on thousands of people with phones across the globe. We have been conditioned to reach for our phones every time were hear a notification chime, even if what we’re receiving is not truly substantial.
3. Operant conditioning, or learning to associate behaviors with consequences
Another trick social media apps use to keep us scrolling is to make our reward unpredictable, and therefore more powerful. This is called “operant conditioning.”
Operant conditioning goes beyond the simple response to a trigger found in classical conditioning, and instead creates a learned pattern of behaviour. This makes it one of the most successful ways of forming a habit, which unfortunately means it also lays the groundwork for addiction.
For example, you receive an in-app alert in the form of a bright-red bubble—but the app won’t tell you what the notification is.
In order to learn whether you’re receiving an invitation to a party, a comment on your latest post, or a like on your new profile picture, you must click on the notification and go to a new page to finally receive your “reward.”
This is a learned process, which ultimately keeps us on the app for longer than we need to be.
“We tolerate being misled through this informational space, because our technology is designed too well for us to notice,” Hill explains.
How to Break Free of Our Phones
So how can we break our phone addiction?
Throwing away your phone and deactivating accounts is too extreme for most people, but there are smaller steps we can take to reduce the amount of time we spend on apps:
- Delete useless apps. For example, if you find you mostly use Facebook to keep in touch, you can download Facebook Messenger app and delete the Facebook app itself. This way you get less notifications about viral videos, without missing a message from your sister.
- Keep your phone out of reach. If you’re trying to get a task done without being distracted, keep your phone in your bag or the other room, so you’re less likely to be lured in by notifications.
- Turn off push notifications. You can still decide to check in on apps when you want to, without a chime or red notification bubble prompting you to look every 10 minutes.
- Track how much time you spend scrolling on your phone. This can help you become more aware of how many minutes a day you spend on social media.
“We can all be more mindful about how we use technology,” Hill says. “Because if we’re just left to our own devices, any of us can become that dog—staring at the screen, because a bell can ring at any second.”