March 1, 2018

Behaviorism and how companies game the human mind

Today, companies are constantly competing for our attention. And as competition increases, they will inevitably game the human mind through techniques rooted in behaviorism to ensure we remain fixated on a given thing. Below are several techniques used.

1. The Virtual Slot Machine (Variable rewards)
In an experiment with rats where they learned to push a lever in exchange for food, B.F. Skinner discovered that they learned to push the lever when they were hungry, but only if they got the same reward. If the reward varied from nothing to a lot, the rats would just push the lever all day long. In the case of modern humans, replace the lever with a swipe, scroll or tap, and the food with new notifications.

2. Framed Will (Choice determination)
Thanks to filters and our innate tendency to choose the path of least resistance, we often don’t take the time to think about alternate options closer to what we actually need. Apps can oversimplify our interactions with the real world by filtering based solely on proximity, popularity or our previous activity.

3. The Love Crave (Social approval)
Because we have an inherent need for social belonging and recognition, algorithms and machine learning can artificially meet that by recognizing and tagging our faces automatically. Platforms like Facebook can “reach out” to us in more personalized ways as if to value us and our actions.

4. Autoplay & infinite scrolls (The Force-Fed treat)
If you don’t proactively click “stop” most online experiences are infinite feeds of content that try to dissuade you from leaving a given platform. Like many similar mechanics, the human effort is shifted from “how to get more” to “how to stop it.”

5. The Power of Defaults (Artificial Friction): 
Similar to #4, our tendency to take as many shortcuts as possible means we sometimes won’t resist decisions made for us such as pre-checked boxes on online forms. Conversely, if they choose to, sites can reduce engagement by forcing users to see the FAQ and book a chat slot in advance, increasing the effort.

6. “Read” receipts, typing & activity indicators (The Social Ambush)
Any sign of activity such as the “seen” message or typing indicators (activated by default, of course) forces us to answer quickly and continue to remain on the platform for a stretched out interaction.

Knowing is half the battle. In the past, we all learned to recognize when our emotions were being played with such as with advertising and the wonders of Photoshop. Just as with reclaiming our attention, the first big step is to catch ourselves in the act and question whether we’re about to make a conscious decisionFurther, it’s equally important to recognize which of our “emotional buttons” are being pushed and how we could get that in healthier ways.

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