The long-running news program 60 Minutes is taking on the smartphone industry by uncovering the ways mobile app makers keep people hooked. Former Google exec Tristan Harris, interviewed for the episode, argues that we’ve been fooled into believing the “technology is neutral” argument. Instead, he says that software makers have mastered a sort of “addiction code” that keeps people compulsively engaged, such that we can’t stand leaving our phones for even a little while. In other words, the technology has been manipulated to leverage our brains’ habit-forming tendencies. Tech insiders call it “brain hacking,” and Harris argues that it’s destroying our focus and relationships.
This is a big topic that’s close to all of our lives because most of us are married to our gadgets. I covered it from several angles in my book, What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, and I’m refreshing the arguments for a new edition of the book coming out next year. With the 60 Minutes story as backdrop, I want to discuss a few of the angles here. If app makers have mastered a habit-forming “code” that’s working overtime on our phones to keep us hooked, what brain dynamics are they tapping?
The Reward System. The most overarching of the dynamics, and the one that gives the others context, is what’s known as the brain’s reward system–the electro-chemically charged power grid that neurotransmitters surge through when our brains are doing what they’re structured to do: predict and anticipate rewards. The term “rewards” is broad in this definition, because anything from learning to speak French to going on a date to laying money down on a blackjack table can amount to a reward.
We’re driven to seek rewards of all sorts; it’s how learning happens, and it’s also how habits are formed. The pro-con nature of the reward system—with the neurotransmitter dopamine driving much of the action—is so central to our lives it’s hard to overestimate its importance. It’s at the core of how our brains interact with the world, whether tangible or virtual (it’s all the same to your brain). And since it’s the system that enables habit formation, both good and bad, it’s also the system that those interested in getting you hooked on anything spend most of their time studying.
(Sidebar: Often in discussions of the reward system, the role of dopamine is mischaracterized, with unfortunate claims like “dopamine is addictive.” That’s wrong for several reasons, not the least of which is that without dopamine we wouldn’t have a reward system, nor would we learn, thrive, reproduce or live. In combination with other chemicals, dopamine is the high-octane fuel that addictions use, just as it’s the fuel that beneficial habits use; goes both ways.)
Anticipation. The reward system operates via anticipation of rewards, which makes the period between thinking of a reward and receiving it very critical. Manipulating that period is a key to engaging app design. The ongoing series of intermittent, variable rewards that smartphones serve up are tantalizing to the brain because they so effectively leverage this dynamic. We’re forever anticipating the next little reward, and then the next and the next. Our attention is captivated by the anticipation of rewards.
What really charges this up is the meta-anticipation of hidden gems of rewards coming into the mix. For every 50 or so texts, Facebook posts, Instagram pictures or whatever, just a few are going to really deliver the goods. We’re neurochemically trained to drill down and down for these rewards, through however much mediocrity and nonsense is in the way. To elicit more rewards, we contribute to the reward stream by making our own posts and waiting for a response. Every time we post something, we’re starting an anticipation stopwatch that works on the same principle. The jolt might even be more profound because it’s coming from a reward process we initiated, and that’s a brain boost with few equals.
And what’s fueling all of this compulsive reward anticipation?