One of the strengths of adopting a mentally tough mindset is that you learn to focus on achieving goals and targets without being diverted from a myriad of interruptions and distractions. You develop routines that help you be more productive and better able to resist, amongst other things, the immediate thrill of new social media posts or emails. You see life clearer when you’re not addicted to technology and the demands it places on everyone.
There has been some excellent coverage recently of the work by Adam Alter, associate professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business and author of the two best sellers ‘Drunk Tank Pink’ and ‘Irresistible’ which look at the modern world’s harmful addiction to technology and social media.
On reading the extract below from one of two reviews about ‘Irresistible’ from the Guardian, it’s clear why many wellbeing practitioners recommend a technology embargo before bed time to improve your chances of a good night’s sleep as well as a productive day ahead tomorrow.
Here Adam Alter takes up the story:
Not long ago, I stepped into a lift on the 18th floor of a tall building in New York City. A young woman inside the lift was looking down at the top of her toddler’s head with embarrassment as he looked at me and grinned. When I turned to push the ground-floor button, I saw that every button had already been pushed. Kids love pushing buttons, but they only push every button when the buttons light up.
From a young age, humans are driven to learn, and learning involves getting as much feedback as possible from the immediate environment. The toddler who shared my elevator was grinning because feedback – in the form of lights or sounds or any change in the state of the world – is pleasurable.
But this quest for feedback doesn’t end with childhood. In 2012, an ad agency in Belgium produced an outdoor campaign for a TV channel that quickly went viral. The campaign’s producers placed a big red button on a pedestal in a quaint square in a sleepy town in Flanders. A big arrow hung above the button with a simple instruction: Push to add drama. You can see the glint in each person’s eye as he or she approaches the button – the same glint that came just before the toddler in my elevator raked his tiny hand across the panel of buttons.
Psychologists have long tried to understand how animals respond to different forms of feedback. In 1971, a psychologist named Michael Zeiler sat in his lab across from three hungry white carneaux pigeons. At this stage, the research programme focused on rats and pigeons, but it had lofty aims. Could the behaviour of lower-order animals teach governments how to encourage charity and discourage crime? Could entrepreneurs inspire overworked shift workers to find new meaning in their jobs? Could parents learn how to shape perfect children?
Before Zeiler could change the world, he had to work out the best way to deliver rewards. One option was to reward every desirable behaviour. Another was to reward those same desirable behaviours on an unpredictable schedule, creating some of the mystery that encourages people to buy lottery tickets. The pigeons had been raised in the lab, so they knew the drill. Each one waddled up to a small button and pecked persistently, hoping that the button would release a tray of Purina pigeon pellets. During some trials, Zeiler would programme the button so it delivered food every time the pigeons pecked; during others, he programmed the button so it delivered food only some of the time. Sometimes the pigeons would peck in vain, the button would turn red, and they would receive nothing.
When I first learned about Zeiler’s work, I expected the consistent schedule to work best. But that’s not what happened at all. The results weren’t even close: the pigeons pecked almost twice as often when the reward wasn’t guaranteed. Their brains, it turned out, were releasing far more dopamine when the reward was unexpected than when it was predictable. Zeiler had documented an important fact about positive feedback: that less is often more. His pigeons were drawn to the mystery of mixed feedback just as humans are attracted to the uncertainty of gambling.
Decades after Zeiler published his results, in 2012, a team of Facebook web developers prepared to unleash a similar feedback experiment on hundreds of millions of humans. The site already had 200 million users at the time – a number that would triple over the next three years. The experiment took the form of a deceptively simple new feature called a “like button”.
It’s hard to exaggerate how much the like button changed the psychology of Facebook use. What had begun as a passive way to track your friends’ lives was now deeply interactive, and with exactly the sort of unpredictable feedback that motivated Zeiler’s pigeons. Users were gambling every time they shared a photo, web link or status update. A post with zero “likes” wasn’t just privately painful, but also a kind of public condemnation: either you didn’t have enough online friends, or, worse still, your online friends weren’t impressed. Like pigeons, we’re more driven to seek feedback when it isn’t guaranteed. Facebook was the first major social networking force to introduce the like button, but others now have similar functions. You can like and repost tweets on Twitter, pictures on Instagram, posts on Google+, columns on LinkedIn, and videos on YouTube.
The act of liking became the subject of etiquette debates. What did it mean to refrain from liking a friend’s post? If you liked every third post, was that an implicit condemnation of the other posts? Liking became a form of basic social support – the online equivalent of laughing at a friend’s joke in public.
Web developer Rameet Chawala developed an app as a marketing exercise, but also a social experiment, to uncover the effect of the like button. When he launched it, Chawla posted this introduction on its homepage: “People are addicted. We experience withdrawals. We are so driven by this drug, getting just one hit elicits truly peculiar reactions. I’m talking about likes. They’ve inconspicuously emerged as the first digital drug to dominate our culture.”
“I knew way before launching it that it would get shut down by Instagram,” Chawla said. “Using drug terminology, you know, Instagram is the dealer and I’m the new guy in the market giving away the drug for free.”
Chawla was surprised, though, that it happened so quickly. He’d hoped for at least a week of use, but Instagram pounced immediately.
If you’re addicted, finish the full article
For more information on Adam Alter and Irrisistible visit this Guardian article
and this really interesting TED talk on “why screens make us less happy”
For more on developing a mentally tough mindset and becoming less addicted to technology contact us.