You know the feeling…the tidal pull from the pit of your stomach that urges you to peek at your smartphone every time you hear a notification roll in. The medley of sounds and flashing, colorful notifications are like the Sirens’ song in The Odyssey – irresistible, hypnotic, and ultimately luring us to our peril in the form of disconnected, distracted living.

Why are smartphones so compelling? Because, as Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever explain in Your Happiness Was Hacked: Why Tech is Winning the Battle to Control Your Brain – and How to Fight Back, the phones and their apps were designed by people who knew exactly how to manipulate the human brain for maximum appeal, and maximum addiction.

This concise and powerful book written by two technology professionals exposes that the addictiveness of our smartphones is no accident. Human psychology drives their design. App designers deliberately use our modern understanding of what captures and holds our attention to build products that we literally cannot seem to put down.

All We Need Is Love…

One of the most powerful psychological forces smartphones use against us is our craving for social approval. We are powerfully impacted by being “liked” and responded to, which is why so many apps include a social, interactive component. As Wadhwa and Salkever point out in their book, this is also why your first post on Instagram triggers the app to contact your friends and encourage them to give you some “love.” Once you begin getting social approval from an app – however flimsy and shallow it my be when we stop to think about it – it’s very hard for us to quit it.

…And Intermittent Variable Rewards

This is another psychological principle that’s put to excellent use in smartphone app design. B.F. Skinner pioneered research on intermittent rewards in the late 1950s. He found (and subsequent research has repeatedly confirmed) that if you want to motivate an animal to do a certain behavior often, it’s best to reward the behavior only some of the time, rather than every time.

Rats taught to push levers to get food push the lever only when they are hungry if they get a reward every time. But if they only win the jackpot intermittently, they will press it repeatedly. The same thing happens with pigeons. And people. There’s something about the possibility of not being rewarded that draws us back to try again and again and again.

Sound familiar? Slot machines are built on the same psychological vulnerability. So is the swipe left/right on dating apps like Tinder. So is our compulsion to check email dozens of times per day.

What’s the Solution?

Our attention has been hijacked, and our vulnerabilities exploited by businesses with the keys to how our brains work. We waste years of our lives in meaningless, empty activities that benefit only the commercial interests of advertising, and that create serious problems for our real-life relationships, our mental and physical health, and overall well-being.

But in the modern world, smartphones and technology are not things most of us can just abandon cold turkey. We need to find a healthier way to live with them. Former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris founded a nonprofit called Time Well Spent that’s devoted to tackling this problem on a large scale. In addition to formulating recommendations for ethical design and regulation, it offers a page of tips to help us reclaim control.

Your Happiness Was Hacked also offers some good advice on this journey, encouraging us to question our connection to technology, and how it impacts our lives on an app by app, device by device basis. The book is a quick read, and full of illuminating insights.

Try taking an inventory of the technology you use in your life. Ask yourself: do you really need to use this app or device, or can you do without it in your work and life? Do you feel more or less connected to yourself and others when you’re using it? Is the way you use it harming you – or preventing you from living in alignment with your values? How does it impact the people around you?

Mindful awareness of the problem is essential to finding your way to true, authentic connection.


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