10 Ways Your Brain is Being Hijacked

In twelve-to-fifteen easy minutes (more if you’re a ‘stop-and-think-about-it’ kind of person), you can learn ten ways in which Tristan Harris says online product designers try to exploit your mind’s weaknesses. In his 2016 blog, “How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind,” Harris – a co-founder of Center for Humane Technology, Ex-Google Design Ethicist, and one-time CEO of Apture (a company which was acquired by Google) – shares how the game is played to grab your attention and steal your valuable time.

Courtesy of the site, thriveglobal.com, it’s an easy read that shares a wealth of hard-earned wisdom. In 2016, Tristan left Google to work full-time on “reforming the attention economy with the non-profit initiative, Time Well Spent. Time Well Spent aims to catalyze a rapid, coordinated change among technology companies through public advocacy, the development of ethical design standards, design education and policy recommendations to protect minds from nefarious manipulation.” Some highlights he shares about how our dependence on technology are worth thinking about. He calls them “Hijacks”:

Hijack #1: If You Control the Menu, You Control the Choices. He points out that when presented with a list of choices, people rarely ask why their thought processes have been limited to just those specific items.

“The more choices technology gives us in nearly every domain of our lives (information, events, places to go, friends, dating, jobs) — the more we assume that our phone is always the most empowering and useful menu to pick from,” he says. “Is it?”

He argues that technology is reframing the way we perceive our world and the choices we are able to make each day. “By shaping the menus we pick from, technology hijacks the way we perceive our choices and replaces them with new ones. But the closer we pay attention to the options we are given, the more we’ll notice when they don’t actually align with our true needs.”

Hijack #2: Put a Slot Machine In a Billion Pockets. Just as gambling is addictive when the occasional win hits the addict’s pleasure center, another way to hijack your attention is to throw in some sort of reward now and then. “When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we’re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got,” he suggests. “When we pull to refresh our email, we’re playing a slot machine to see what new email we got. When we swipe down our finger to scroll the Instagram feed, we’re playing a slot machine to see what photo comes next. When we swipe faces left/right on dating apps like Tinder, we’re playing a slot machine to see if we got a match. When we tap the # of red notifications, we’re playing a slot machine to what’s underneath.”

It’s easy to see why Americans typically check their email an average of 150 times a day!

Hijack #3: Fear of Missing Something Important (FOMSI). The chance you’ll miss something important is perhaps only one percent, argues Harris. “If I convince you that I’m a channel for important information, messages, friendships, or potential sexual opportunities — it will be hard for you to turn me off, unsubscribe, or remove your account — because (aha, I win) you might miss something important.”

What an enormous time-waster! Harris says, “Imagine if tech companies recognized that, and helped us proactively tune our relationships with friends and businesses in terms of what we define as ‘time well spent’ for our lives, instead of in terms of what we might miss.

Hijack #4: Social Approval. We’ve been taught all our lives to “speak when spoken to.” We find it impossible to resist providing a response to being tagged, liked, befriended, or sent a comment.

Harris observes, “Everyone innately responds to social approval, but some demographics (teenagers) are more vulnerable to it than others. That’s why it’s so important to recognize how powerful designers are when they exploit this vulnerability.”

Hijack #5: Social Reciprocity (Tit-for-tat). Following closely is our sense of responsibility to reciprocate when we perceive someone (or some entity) has given us a favor of some kind, such as following us on Twitter or liking us on Facebook. “Email, texting and messaging apps are social reciprocity factories. But in other cases, companies exploit this vulnerability on purpose.”

“LinkedIn is the most obvious offender,” he says. “LinkedIn wants as many people creating social obligations for each other as possible, because each time they reciprocate (by accepting a connection, responding to a message, or endorsing someone back for a skill) they have to come back to linkedin.com where they can get people to spend more time….”

“Imagine millions of people getting interrupted like this throughout their day, running around like chickens with their heads cut off, reciprocating each other — all designed by companies who profit from it. Welcome to social media.”

Hijack #6: Bottomless bowls, Infinite Feeds, and Autoplay. We’ve all been there: You go to watch a cute little kitty video and the next thing you know, an hour has passed and you’re watching a Beyoncé video.

“Tech companies exploit the same principle. News feeds are purposely designed to auto-refill with reasons to keep you scrolling, and purposely eliminate any reason for you to pause, reconsider or leave.”

Hijack #7: Instant Interruption vs. “Respectful” Delivery. Companies have learned to float in or pop up messages that demand a response before the user feels free to return to the original content.

“Given the choice, Facebook Messenger (or WhatsApp, WeChat or SnapChat for that matter) would prefer to design their messaging system to interrupt recipients immediately (and show a chat box) instead of helping users respect each other’s attention.”

Harris observes how the increased incidence throughout social media and on websites is becoming more than just a nuisance. “The problem is, maximizing interruptions in the name of business creates a tragedy of the commons, ruining global attention spans and causing billions of unnecessary interruptions each day. This is a huge problem we need to fix with shared design standards (potentially, as part of Time Well Spent).”

Hijack #8: Bundling Your Reasons with Their Reasons. “Another way apps hijack you is by taking your reasons for visiting the app (to perform a task) and make them inseparable from the app’s business reasons (maximizing how much we consume once we’re there).”

“For example, in the physical world of grocery stores, the #1 and #2 most popular reasons to visit are pharmacy refills and buying milk. But grocery stores want to maximize how much people buy, so they put the pharmacy and the milk at the back of the store.

“In other words, they make the thing customers want (milk, pharmacy) inseparable from what the business wants. If stores were truly organized to support people, they would put the most popular items in the front.”

“Tech companies design their websites the same way. For example, when you you want to look up a Facebook event happening tonight (your reason) the Facebook app doesn’t allow you to access it without first landing on the news feed (their reasons), and that’s on purpose. Facebook wants to convert every reason you have for using Facebook, into their reason which is to maximize the time you spend consuming things.”

Harris wants us to imagine a more humane tech world. “Imagine if web browsers empowered you to navigate directly to what you want — especially for sites that intentionally detour you toward their reasons.

Hijack #9: Inconvenient Choices. “Businesses naturally want to make the choices they want you to make easier, and the choices they don’t want you to make harder….

“For example, NYTimes.com lets you “make a free choice” to cancel your digital subscription. But instead of just doing it when you hit ‘Cancel Subscription,’ they send you an email with information on how to cancel your account by calling a phone number that’s only open at certain times.’

Who hasn’t run into this kind of scenario?

Hijack #10: Forecasting Errors, “Foot in the Door” strategies. It’s the age-old bait-and-switch technique and it’s becoming more and more commonplace. “People don’t intuitively forecast the true cost of a click when it’s presented to them,” says Harris. “Sales people use ‘foot in the door’ techniques by asking for a small innocuous request to begin with (‘just one click to see which tweet got retweeted’) and escalate from there (‘why don’t you stay awhile?’). Virtually all engagement websites use this trick.

“Imagine if web browsers and smartphones, the gateways through which people make these choices, were truly watching out for people and helped them forecast the consequences of clicks (based on real data about what benefits and costs it actually had?).”

That’s why Harris added an estimated reading time of twelve minutes to the top of his post. “When you put the “true cost” of a choice in front of people, you’re treating your users or audience with dignity and respect. In a Time Well Spent internet, choices could be framed in terms of projected cost and benefit, so people were empowered to make informed choices by default, not by doing extra work.”

“We need our smartphones, notifications screens and web browsers to be exoskeletons for our minds and interpersonal relationships that put our values, not our impulses, first. People’s time is valuable. And we should protect it with the same rigor as privacy and other digital rights.”

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