How Technology Companies Manipulate our Behaviour

Tech companies intentionally design features to make products addictive, causing psychological harm and reduced autonomy, according to former Google staffer Tristan Harris. Techniques harnessing the compulsive nature of variable rewards, used in gambling, are exploited. Tech pundits say the tech industry represents the ‘largest and most centralised form of attentional control in human history.’

Last Updated on October 4, 2023 by Karl Thompson

Design features such as likes, swipes, notifications and autoplays make being on-line more addictive, less autonomous, and cause psychological and social harm. This is according to Paul Lewis: Our minds can be hijacked: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia‘.

Are we all digital technology zombies?

Below I summarize this article and add in a few comments.

Technology companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google have incorporated a range of design features into their mobile devices, operating systems and social media applications that make them addictive. This results in us spending longer online than we really want to, clicking on links we never intended to. This makes us more distracted, less rational and more impulsive than ever.

Former Google employee Tristan Harris says that all of our minds are “jacked into the system” and “all our minds can be hijacked. We are not as free as we think we are”. Harris believes that tech companies deliberately set out to make their products addictive. They are oriented to respond to the incentives of an advertising economy and thus experiment with techniques which are most likely to grab people’s attention.

As an example, Harris points out that the Facebook icon which notifies users of new activity and ‘likes’ was originally blue, but no one used it. Facebook then switched it to red, and everyone used it. This is because red is a trigger colour, which is why it is used as an alarm signal.

Now the red icon is everywhere, and every time smartphone users glance at their phones, dozens or hundreds of times a day, they are confronted with small red dots, pleading to be tapped.

red notification icon
The Red Notification Icon – Inducing the anxiety of variable rewards?

The most seductive design, according to Harris, exploits the psychological susceptibility that makes gambling so compulsive – variable rewards. Each time you swipe down you don’t know what’s coming next, either an avalanche of likes, or nothing.

The action of swiping mirrors a slot machine: ‘pull down’, and a pause before a variable result. The pull-down to refresh was originally designed in 2009, and has since become one of the most widely emulated features in apps. Even though refreshing can now be done automatically, the pull-down function remains, because if users aren’t involved in the process, then the experience is less addictive.

social media swipe addiction
Swipe to refresh and lock-in your addiction

Justin Rosenstein designed the like feature for Facebook in 2007 – to create a means to send ‘little bits of positivity at the click of a button’, creating what he now calls ‘bright dings of pseudo-pleasure’. ‘Likes’ were wildly successful, and hence they spread to a range of other social media platforms. Likes drive people to touch, swipe or tap their phone more than 2500 times a day on average.

Facebook Like
Facebook like – dings of pseudo-pleasure?

Tech companies can exploit such information to keep people hooked. They programme likes to arrive when an individual is most likely to feel vulnerable, in need of approval, or just bored. This information such can then be sold to the highest bidder.

James Williams, is former Google employee who built the metrics system for the company’s global search advertising business. But he has now turned critic of the industry. Williams describes the tech industry as the ‘largest and most centralised form of attentional control in human history’. He had an epiphany moment one day while looking at one of Google’s attention dashboards. He realised Google had persuaded ‘a million people… to do this thing that they weren’t going to do otherwise.’

Some of the Negatives Effects of Being Online

Technology may be contributing to so-called ‘continuous partial attention’. In the attention economy (driven by the needs of advertisers) – everyone is distracted most of the time. This prevents us from getting things done, the complete opposite of what technology was intended to do!

The attention economy thrives on a ‘sensationalise, bate and entertain’ logic. As a result the media is now is now more biased in favour of that which is sensationalist and entertaining. People like Donald Trump do well in this environment because they are good at grabbing attention with their simplistic,  emotional and extremist views. Calm rational views receive less attention than those which are impulsive.

Our views on politics may be changing. We see politics in increasingly polarised terms. The only thing which grabs our attention at a similar level of Donald Trump is a similarly extreme reaction, in the form of Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn for example.

What are the solutions to avoid getting addicted in the attention economy?

Some of the big names who created the technologies of the attention economy are actually ducking out of it themselves. They have turned off their social media updates, or even uninstalled most of the apps from their hardware.

Find out More

If you’re interested in Tristan Harris’ initiative to make digital technologies less addictive – you might like to check out his Time Well Spent Website, and his TED talk below…

Related A-Level Sociology Debates

As I see it this material fits in to at least two places on the A-level sociology syllabus:

  • This material seems to be coming from the structuralist side of sociology – that society shapes (or at least frames) social action. See this post: ‘Sociological perspectives: the basics‘ for an overview of structure versus action approaches in sociology.
  • There’s also some clear relevance to the increasing power of Transnational Corporations: this material certainly suggests that transnational technology companies wield enormous power to shape people’s actions.
  • If you study the media option for A level paper 2, no doubt it’s even more relevant!

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