In May 2016, Tristan Harris published an influential essay titled ‘How technology is hijacking your mind — from a magician and Google design ethicist’, describing the many ways by which smartphones suck people into their vortex and demand constant attention. Harris traced the lineage of (both inadvertent and intentional) manipulation common in the design of technology products directly to the numerous techniques that slot-machine designers use to entice gamblers to sit for hours losing money.

Inspired by Harris and other advocates of more-mindful technology product design, a small but growing Silicon Valley movement in behavioural design is advocating greater consideration of the ethics and the human outcomes of technology consumption. (After leaving Google, Harris launched a website, Time Well Spent, that focuses on helping people build healthier interactions with technology.)

Harris, New York University marketing professor Adam Alter, and others have criticised the various techniques that product designers are using to encourage us to consume ever more technology, even to our own clear detriment. Tightly controlling menus to direct our attention is one common technique (one that is not as easily available to offline businesses). For his part, Harris suggests that we ask four questions whenever we’re presented with online menus: (1) What’s not on the menu? (2) Why am I being given these options and not others? (3) Do I know the menu provider’s goals? (4) Is this menu empowering for my original need, or are the choices actually a distraction? We assure you, once you start asking these questions, you will never look at the Internet or at software applications in the same light again!

Another technique, alluded to in the title of Harris’ slot-machine article, is the use of intermittent variable rewards: unpredictability in the rewards of an interaction. The first behaviourist, psychologist BF Skinner, introduced this concept with his ‘Skinner box’ research. Skinner put rats into boxes and taught them to push levers to receive a food pellet. The rats learned the connection between behaviour and reward quickly, in only a few tries. With further research, Skinner learned that the best way to keep the rats motivated to press the lever repeatedly was to reward them with a pellet only some of the time — to give intermittent variable rewards. Otherwise, the rats pushed the lever only when they were hungry.

The casinos took the concept of the Skinner box and raised it to a fine art, designing multiple forms of variable rewards into the modern computerised versions of slot machines. Those machines now take in 70 to 80% of casino profits (or, according to an industry official, even 85%). Players not only receive payouts at seemingly random intervals, but also receive partial payouts that feel like a win even if the player in fact loses money overall on a turn…

The brain’s pleasure centres do not distinguish well between actual winning and the techniques that researchers call losses disguised as wins (LDW). The machines are also programmed to highlight near misses (nearly enough of the right numbers), since near misses actually stimulate the same neurons as real wins do.

Machine designers use myriad other clever sensory tricks — both visual and auditory — to stimulate our neurons in ways that encourage more playing… What helps these techniques entice humans to keep playing is that our brains are hard-wired to become easily addicted to variable rewards. This makes sense when you think that finding food in prehistoric, pre-agricultural times was a perfect example of intermittent variable rewards. According to research by Robert Breen, video-based gambling games (of which slots represent the majority) that rely on intermittent variable rewards result in gambling addiction three to four times faster than betting on card games or sporting events.

Smartphones were not explicitly designed to behave like slot machines, but their effect is nearly the same. As Harris writes, “When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we’re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got. When we pull to refresh our email, we’re playing a slot machine to see what new email we got. When we swipe down our finger to scroll the Instagram feed, we’re playing a slot machine to see what photo comes next. When we swipe faces left/right on dating apps like Tinder, we’re playing a slot machine to see if we got a match…”

Through this lens we can see how many actions deeply embedded in the technology we use are acting as variable rewards systems, and when we look at the technology in our lives, we can find intermittent variable rewards in nearly every product, system, or device.

Excerpted from Your Happiness was Hacked: Why Tech is Winning the Battle to Control Your Brain – and How to Fight Back, by Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever (Penguin Random House India)

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