The Question

Your Smartphone Is Designed to Hack Your Brain

The word "hack" gets thrown around a lot these days. "Life hacks" include everything from life-changing study techniques to using a shoe-organizer to organize things besides shoes. And then there are "brain hacks", which supposedly teach us to access powers we didn't know our brains possessed. But there's a more insidious form of brain-hacking — when your brain is the thing being hacked. And smartphone developers are doing it to you all the time.

Appealing to Your Brain Stem

"This thing is a slot machine," says former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris, holding up his phone. "Every time I check my phone, I'm playing the slot machine to see, 'What did I get?'" It's incredibly addictive, especially since you don't have to pay a single cent to pull the lever. And smartphone developers know that, so they've designed their software to tickle your rewards center.

One example? When you get "likes" on Instagram, you don't necessarily find out when they happen. Instead, the 'gram sometimes saves up your notifications and delivers them all in one big burst. That kind of a windfall can feel like a rush, even if what you won is essentially valueless. And it keeps you coming back for more.

It's all about "intermittent variable rewards", which encourage you to keep on checking your smartphone over and over because it might pay off: maybe that guy you're fighting on Twitter has posted an asinine reply, maybe your friends have responded to the picture you uploaded, maybe something hilarious and exciting is going down and you're the last to know about it. Whatever the reward, there's a chance that it's waiting for you on your phone — and there's a chance it's not, as well. The only way to find out is to check it, and check it, and check it, ad infinitum.

Of course, your reward center isn't the only primal heartstring your phone knows how to tug. When you upload a group picture, Facebook tries to guess who's in it and encourages you to tag them. That makes you feel connected to your friends and family, and when you follow through on the suggestion, it draws them back in as well. Snapchat makes a game out of users' habits by tracking how many days in a row they've snapped something — you gotta keep that streak going.

The only question left to answer is "why" — if you're not gambling with money when you hit that slot machine, then what do the companies get out of your addictive use? The answer, ominously, is you. The more they can encourage users to stay logged in, to keep returning to the well, the more they can charge their advertisers. It's like they say: "If you're not paying, you're the product."

Breaking the Habit

Now, we're not saying that you have to give up your social media entirely. But it's worthwhile to take a minute to recognize what you're getting out of the accounts that you've signed up for. And once you realize that, you might figure out a better, healthier way to scratch that itch.

To Harris, the problem starts in tech companies assuming that and behaving as if their technology is neutral. And the only solution comes in a redesign from the technology out. In other words, the attention economy is inherently flawed because it will inevitably lead to more and more powerful hacks meant to hijack your brain and direct it in the most profitable direction.

But there are ways to start dealing with a personal smartphone addiction at home — and they aren't much different from breaking any other addiction. The Week provides a set of five suggestions that would be pretty useful for any narcotic

  • First, say "I don't," not "I can't." That takes some of the pressure off and reminds you that it's not that you can't, it's that it's not who you want to be.
  • Next, try making your phone inaccessible. That could be as simple as leaving it one room to charge while you stay in another. But the longer it's in your pocket, the more it preys on your mind.
  • Try setting a stopping rule. That might be something like, "I don't go past the first page of Reddit." Voila — you're no longer losing hours to the internet.
  • The next tip is to replace your bad habits with habits you want to encourage instead. That's as simple as picking up a book.
  • And finally, be ready for pushback. Your brain doesn't react well to losing its addictions.

And it's important to forgive yourself for relapsing. But stick to all of these methods, and you'll have your smartphone habit well in hand in no time.

Smartphone Addiction Video You Need To Watch

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 18, 2017

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